I knew it would be tight considering my travel schedule, but I had to try: Monolithic Italian doom rockers Ufomammut were paired with NYC’s White Hills for a Monday evening musical acid trip at Fishtown haunt Johnny Brenda’s. But I landed back in Philadelphia 40 minutes late, after a passenger’s medical emergency pushed back my flight. Like any good samaritan, I rolled my eyes and sighed like it’s an art form for the delay’s entirety. By the time I frantically reached Johnny Brenda’s in my wrinkled Slomatics tee, I was just in time to see the closing tie-dyed freakout of local heavies Gondola. I was crushed to inadvertently break my own rule: Always support the local opener. Check out their The Floating East EP here to make up for my grave error:
Between sets I had time to grab a brew from the carefully curated beer list. My pick for New York psych/fuzz rule-breakers White Hills was Weyerbacher’s Merry Monks, a complex 9.3% Belgian-style Tripel. I remember drinking this chewy brew at Decibel’s Metal & Beer Fest and lunged at the chance to taste it again. Like White Hills themselves, the beer pairs well with craft peyote, star-gazing, and long drives through dilapidated cities. It’s no wonder Jim Jarmusch—indie cinema’s embodiment of cool—recruited the dystopian duo to shred onstage in his Detroit-set vampire tragicomedy Only Lovers Left Alive. The Motor City blood runs wild throughout the eclectic expanse of White Hills’ discography. Like The Stooges and MC5 uglied up rock ‘n’ roll, White Hills break rock down into jagged abstractions. With angular noise and a rebel spirit, guitarist/vocalist Dave White and Ego Sensation—on drums/vocals for this show—lead rock to its outer limits and nudge the fuck out of those boundaries.
After strategically placing three vertically-positioned industrial flashlights and spraying the stage with fog from a hand-held ecto-blaster, White started bashing abrasive anti-riffs out of his six-string. Whether it was the harsh lurch of “Attack Mode” or the sprawling space voyage of “Let the Right One In,” White droned into the mic while his guitar did the screaming for him. Playing cuts from last years’ Stop Mute Defeat, White Hills deconstructed no-wave punk, death rock, and glam goth. With Ego Sensation’s pre-recorded bass prowling across her intoxicated tempos, it felt like The Birthday Party’s “Nick the Stripper” was being crushed into angel dust and blasted into deep space. At her new place behind the kit, Ego Sensation snarled and smiled through her blonde bangs, singing along into her headset mic. After the show I realized the last time I saw White Hills they played before Sleep and Winter—two other slow ‘n’ low doom outfits suited for patient cinemaphiles. Almost 7 years later to the day, seeing the band manipulate their instruments to otherwordly soundscapes felt more like bell-bottom punk than space rock in the intimate confines of Johnny Brenda’s.
For Ufomammut I grabbed myself a Storm King, the pitch-black 9.1% ABV Imperial stout from Victory Brewing Company. Bitter, but sweet going down, it matches the enticingly dark low-end of vocalist/bassist Urlo’s rumbling riffs. I last saw the seismic doom trio at Maryland Deathfest in 2015. Like White Hills, I wanted to see how their gargantuan sound would translate to a venue smaller than Baltimore’s cavernous Ram’s Head Live. After Urlo and guitarist Poia set their pedal maps on the stage floor, opened curtains revealed video screens behind drummer Vita—who played shirtless after peeling off his “vinyl killed the mp3 industry” shirt. After last year’s crushing 8 LP was touted as one of Decibel‘s top 40 heavy records, dB scribe Liz Ciavarella-Brenner wrote of them, “Ufomammut continue rupturing planets with the sheer density of their cosmic riff rituals.” As soon as they plugged in, it felt like Ufomammut were rudely testing the structural integrity of Johnny Brenda’s.
While they brought their signature heaviness, Ufomammut’s groove and rock roots bled through tracks like “Warsheep” and the middle-meat of “Psycircle.” I always thought the perfect Ufomammut listening conditions would be spinning their tunes on a record player while reclining on the living room floor wearing heart-shaped shades. Maybe with the lights off and a cold beer nearby. Live, their sound fills every space to the deepest cracks in the rafters. Positioned frontstage, I was flanked by spirited attendees propelled to nod more and more emphatically as the set stretched past an hour. Behind them, the projector shared a stream of psychedelic images: Mist crawling through moonlit woodlands. Dying sunlight illuminating golden mountains and burial mounds. Bats flapping into a volcano mouth spitting lava. Shrouded figures pointing the viewer towards insane asylums in ruins. But the projected visuals became less hypnotic as the magnetism of the performances ripped attention away. Soon I was mesmerized by not only the thunderous power chords themselves, but the fleeting reprieve between notes: Urlo adjusting the cheetah-print strap on his glittery green Rickenbacker bass. Vita double-fisting water and a dark brew between songs. Guitarist Poia beating his chest with a fist, mouthing thank you to the audience enthralled in the balcony.
With an encore stretching into three songs, Ufomammut closed with Snailking‘s “God.” By this point I was a couple high-gravity beers into the evening, was moved into headbanging along with a few comrades surrounding me, and time passed as it wished. When Vita pounded out his final cymbal crash, I blew a kiss of approval to the stage. Unfazed, he returned the kiss as an offering to the entire crowd. That’s the power of Ufomammut and transcendent doom live, and explains why a band like Yob owns the website address yobislove. While the audience is under siege from monstrous riffs, the music transforms into a deeply positive force. Sweat and smiles abound, that message was loud and clear at Johnny Brenda’s. Emphasis, of course, on loud.