The Exhilarating Enchantments of Bad Hardcore

A disastrous evening with the U.K.'s Gallows and a feeble Brooklyn crowd they came to despise

I want to watch enraged, hyperactive young men smash wantonly into each other for my own amusement. This is an occasional impulse of mine. A robust mosh pit, like a dentist, should be visited every six months or so, for spiritual cleansing and rejuvenation. To safeguard against complacency. To remind oneself what an actually engaged and impassioned concert audience looks like. To regard something truly primal, feral, and—yes—often very, very funny.

This impulse brings us to Friday night's Gallows show at the Music Hall of Williamsburg, where the mosh pit, alas, is a crushing disappointment, wan and feeble. Oh, it's there, all right—in fact, it's enormous, pushing revelers to the extreme margins and providing roughly 20 feet of running-start room front to back and side to side. Problem is, there's no one in it. It's not a presence but an absence, a void, a vacuum. Furthermore, what few gentleman breach it tend to be Karate Pit Guys: particularly hyperactive young men who flail their arms and legs wildly in a whirling dervish of roundhouse kicks and spastic punches, like how Bart and Lisa Simpson used to fight. ("I'm going to swing my arms like this, and if you run into me, that's your problem.") No one wants any part of Karate Pit Guys, lest you take a crane kick to the face. So tonight's pit mostly consists of dudes in this vein, five or six at a time, giving each other as wide a berth as possible. Contact between them is rare and incidental. This is less a mosh pit than a martial-arts demonstration, or a dog show.

Ah, yes: Gallows. Gallows are a screamy hardcore punk band "from in and around London Town," as frontman Frank Carter chirps to us during the (very brief) period when he feels some affection for the crowd. Their relentlessly brutal debut, Orchestra of Wolves, was reissued by Epitaph last year and touted as carrying on the proud lineage of visceral poli-sci ranters like Refused, Converge, At the Drive-In. Occasionally they indulge in ominous piano chords or cheeky proto-emo song titles ("Just Because You Sleep Next to Me Doesn't Mean You're Safe"). One of those bands desirous of a reputation for insane, injury-ridden live shows. The NME loves 'em. They're OK. This show, however, turns out to be terrible. A woeful, antagonistic debacle. But this, too, has its charms. Great hardcore shows are dangerous, exhilarating, life-affirming. Bad hardcore shows, inexplicably, can be even more so. At least by the climax of this one, the mosh-pit vacuum will be filled. By guys apparently trying to beat Frank up, yes. But still.

I show up at 10 p.m. and learn that I've missed a band called Cancer Bats, which is too bad. Instead, onstage we've got This Is Hell (from Long Island, naturally), who unleash their first guitar solo before the throat-shredding vocals even begin, of which, over a half hour, I understand exactly one word. ("Expectation.") These are muscular gentlemen, often with their backs to the crowd so as to better commune with their poor overdriven amps; the shortest and most muscular (not a coincidence) of the guitarists can work himself up to the challenging repeated-jump-kick-in-place move so coveted by Warped Tour types. Everyone spits a lot. I like these guys. They have a record out next week called Misfortunes, which is nicely understated; they sneer a bit at their Williamsburg locale, which is frankly understandable. "Remember when Brooklyn wasn't full of hipsters—it was full of Biohazard?" asks the jump-kick-in-place guy. "I do." For most of the set, all we get are Karate Pit Guys, though there is more robust activity near set's end, including a few stage dives wherein the diver literally doesn't touch another person before hitting the ground.

The crowd is thus pretty amped up between sets—there is a spirited discussion in the men's bathroom about the masturbatory qualities of Pee-wee's Playhouse. "You know who I've wanted to bang my whole life?" asks a thickly accented local, rhetorically. "You know the King of Cartoons? The chick who used to announce him. All mad ska'd out, playing the trombone and shit." (Trumpet, actually.)

So. Gallows takes the stage, and Frank, our diminutive but fiery leader, looks awfully tired. He starts us off by remarking that he's feeling a bit peaked, as he's gotten too many tattoos recently. This is a new one on me, but indeed, his right bicep and hand appear to heavily swaddled, quite possibly in Saran Wrap. The band, another quintet, is punishingly loud, shrill, and aggressive, a sharp and viscous riff occasionally rising above the fray. But the music is clearly incidental here: Best to focus on Frank, who at the moment appears to be angrily spitting on one specific person in the front row.

For the next hour it's Frank vs. Us, or Frank vs. the World. I'm on Frank's side. The pit is still atrociously flaccid: At one point, Frank slams his mic into the ground, takes a large swig of water, stares at the empty hole where the enthusiastic crowd should be, and shakes his head in disgust. His lyrics have a nice, blunt, desperate quality—"I am the captain of your ship/I'm sorry," he shrieks—but it's clear he's more valuable to us at the moment as a target of abuse. Soon he is hacky-sacking half-full cups of beer lobbed in from the balcony. For a while, he throws up the façade of showmanship: "This is a song about me!" he bellows. "It's about how much of a fuckin' arsehole I am! I dedicate it to myself!" But all he gets back is apathy and random jeers, so soon he is assailing our integrity directly. "This is the worst show we've ever played," he moans. "Thank you, Brooklyn, for being the worst crowd ever. Jacksonville was better." More boos and jeers. He leaps out into the crowd and jumps up on a side railing to deliver Black Flag's "Nervous Breakdown" ("I'm so sick of everything/I just want to die," etc.). Soon thereafter, inevitably, comes The Fight: Someone in the front row apparently clocks him, and he jumps down and triggers one of these 25-dude masses of stumbling, near-fighting humanity. ("Kick his ass, Sea Bass!" shouts someone in the soundbooth.) The offending party is corralled by security and dragged out of the building; Frank jumps back onstage and shouts, sans mic: "If you ever give me a cheap shot like that again, I'll fuckin' kill you!"

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