No Rest Fest 4: an Englishman in Detroit

This started out as me just trying to write a music review.

No Rest Fest 4

In January 2015, members of Detroit-based math-punk band The Armed gathered together the various bands that released music under their No Rest Until Ruin label to play a blowout show together. This was how the first No Rest Fest came about.

The Armed describe themselves simply as “a punk rock band from Detroit, MI”, but this is a purposefully obtuse self-description. The Armed coalesced out of the remains of several other Detroit-based bands, becoming a mostly-anonymous collective. They’ve releasing some of the most ferocious, considered, and downright intellectually complex heavy music the USA has produced in the last decade, and they give it all away for free. I think their last record was the best thing to come out in 2015. No Rest Until Ruin is the label they formed to act as an ideological banner for themselves and their friends to release music under.

The venue for this year’s No Rest Fest was El Club, a relatively new all-ages venue on the edge of Mexicantown, southwest Detroit. It served cheap beer, has a outdoor space bigger than my entire East London flat, and could comfortably fit four hundred people into the main room. It advertises its shows on an old-style movie-theater awning out front. There was some sparse taxidermy nailed above the bar. It has a audio setup that shames venues of equivalent size here in the UK.

It also served pizza. I don’t really understand venues that serve food. Perhaps it’s because I’m British and in the UK, even the newest venues (a pitifully short list, given the UK’s seemingly ongoing mission to close down as many grassroots venues as possible) consistently seem to accumulate a smudgey black film of dirt, dust and grime on, around and under every corner, chair, bar, stairwell and surface going.

Most importantly however, on the evening of Friday 04 November 2016, it contained 500 of Detroit’s DIY scene, and a failed music journalist from the UK.

A brief aside: I gave up contributing what could loosely be called “music journalism” in May 2015, upon the closing of Thrash Hits — a UK-based music website I’d been co-editing for the best part of 7 years. During that time I’d also been a sub-standard contributor to the likes of Kerrang!, Metal Hammer and Terrorizer for half a decade, and prior to Thrash Hits I’d written for a slew of other, less notable online outlets.

I cover most of the reasons why I chose to stop writing about music in the site’s final post. I was burned out. I had grown to resent both music and writing, the two things that had reliably always given me joy. The “career” that I had ended up building most of my personal identity around for the last decade turned bitter. When we closed the door on Thrash Hits, I barely listened to any music anymore, let alone any new music. You don’t have to be a writer to know that new music is the commodity that modern day music journalism unhinges its jaws to gorge upon. Whereas I simply didn’t give a shit anymore.

(The struggle to really understand who I am without having that “music journalist” peg to hang a lack of discernible character traits beyond that is a topic for another day. This essay has flopped over the line into personal onanism too far already.)

So our revised context: 18 months after kicking music journalism and music in general on the head, I got on a plane and flew to the USA for the first time In my life. Primarily, I flew 6,000 kilometres from my home in London to go see The Armed play what I knew would just be a 15 minute set in in their hometown of Detroit.

Walking to El Club through Corktown after dark: not recommended

Detroit is not like any other town you know. Detroit is not a city one really goes just to visit. The struggles of the US automotive industry, decades of municipal corruption, and the 2008 banking crisis turned the city into what some thought would be a terminal decline; in 2013, the entire city was declared bankrupt.

It got so bad that at one point, 40% of the city’s streetlights didn’t work. In the first decade of the 21st century, the population dropped by a full quarter. There are whole neighbourhoods that effectively were credit-crunched out of existence. There were whole plots of land with nothing but dead, empty buildings showing outward signs of decay.

Today, with nearly $2billion having been injected into the city to help spur redevelopment, Detroit has an uneasy tension between the areas that received money, and downtrodden districts that didn’t. Downtown Detroit in November 2016 is at least 50% building site as road after road is dug up and resurfaced.

Further out, people are working on regenerating the city in their own ways. You can walk through entire neighbourhoods that stand silent at night, only to stumble across a basement brewery-bar lit up alone in the darkness. The outward signs of neglect and abandonment are still there, but so is the sense that this is a city bringing itself back from the brink. The confrontational, experimental, and downright bloody-minded DIY art scenes that allowed The Armed and No Rest Fest to spawn and develop and thrive probably could only have happened in a city that shed and then regrew it’s cultural identity the way Detroit did. Elements of Detroit’s past were abandoned as people literally abandoned the physical city; The Armed and the rest of the No Rest Until Ruin collective had no choice but to react to that and build something new.Taking Back DetroitHear from the die-hard natives and upbeat newcomers who are reimagining Detroit, playing out their dreams, or reveling…

But now the shadow of the forthcoming election hung over the entire city — while everyone I talked to in the city felt optimistic at how Detroit was coming back after the 2013 bankruptcy, even the staunchest optimists admitted the uncertainty of America’s future meant they had no clue whether or not this would continue.

Rewind your mind back to when we were discussing No Rest Fest: yes, set times are just 15 minutes. In part because there are so damn many bands on the bill (that first show featured 11 acts; 2016’s closer had 12), and partially because many of the bands operating under the No Rest Until Ruin umbrella share members, sets at No Rest Fest needed to be scorched down to the bare essentials. Everyone played for 15 minutes, no matter where they fell on the bill. Changeovers were quick, and encores non-existent. Even at subsequent No Rest Fests, where the range of acts comprising the line-up has expanded well outside the abrasive punk/hardcore sounds of the label itself to include hip hop, post-rock and even a smidgen of djent acts, that core rule still remains intact — everyone gets just 15 minutes. The pace of the event is relentless — popping outside for a cigarette or to shoot the shit with a native about what the impending election means to the rest of the world almost certainly will result in you missing out on half of the next act’s set. No Rest Fest is as unforgiving and as immediate as The Armed’s music.

To that end, it’d be embarrassing for both our sakes for me to comment too much on the hip-hop acts at No Rest Fest 4. There are already far too many chancers lurking under the quilt of music journalism, hiding their factual ignorance of the music they write about thanks to being able to copy-paste off Wikipedia and crib plastic facts from press releases. Hell, even if I was shady enough to try to fake knowledge about Mic Phelps, CAPTWOLF and L.A.Z, I’m in no way ingratiated into hip-hop to comment on whether they were empirically good or not. But that No Rest Fest is able to intertwine them with the likes of Child Bite (think metallic hardcore in the same tonal strain as Cancer Bats, only without the friendliness and with more of a mind to punch your mother square in her mouth) and Reverend (who when live take on an added, deeper, almost djent-ier tone than their frenetic and nervy recorded music would lead you to believe) without an eyebrow being raised by anyone in El Club shows a level of genre-tolerance that similar shows in the UK can barely sniff in the direction of.

Then there was Old Gods, led by No Rest co-collaborator Jeff Tuttle, former member of The Dillinger Escape Plan. While on record Old Gods have a sharper, more noise-band sound, live they are a slick, hyper-charged punk rock outfit. Tuttle is a sold slab of vibrating muscle, standing in and staring down the mosh-pit like a lion-tamer squaring up to a hungry pride, one moment on his knees blasting a lung-bursting scream, the next sliding up to his feet like Patrick Swayzee in Dirty Dancing crossed with Patrick Swayzee in Roadhouse. If that fictional Patrick Swayzee hybrid also happened to be a Krav Maga prizefighter.

Apologies for the bad, 2016-era phone picture in my attempt to convey how scary Jeff Tuttle is.

And so to our main event: The Armed asked me to to refer to their individual members by name when writing about No Rest Fest. Indeed, for the entire promotion and release of their last album, an untitled record that came out mid-2015, the band went out of their way to obfuscate membership of the band, with promo photos featuring guest musicians and collaborators rather than the older creative core of the band. For the purposes of the review, I’ll indicate the position in the band where relevant — [The Singer] for example, but otherwise I will respect their wishes.

While it feels unwise to speculate on the reasons The Armed adopt this approach — they have been somewhat reluctant to dissect their full motives in public — that’s precisely what I’m going to do. Given that they have admitted that their untitled record’s themes are closely tied to the value of art vs the value of artists, with a heavy emphasis on the presence of art as a mostly-anonymised footnote within people’s lives, The Armed choosing to maintain that anonymity in the face of their irresistible output is well in line with their chosen aesthetic.

It’s also all good band-schtick, and even if you’re going down the no-fucks-given DIY underground heroes route, a good band schtick is always a good investment.

When performing live however, The Armed do not allow themselves to be a anonymised footnote to anything. Within seconds of their set kicking off, [The Frontman] dived off the stage like a Viking berserker going to war, inadvertently flattening an entire gaggle of young women who had congregated at the foot of the stage for one of the preceding hip-hop acts, but hadn’t had the wherewithal to withdraw before The Armed tore into Party at Pablo’s.

It was a wrong thing to laugh at but I did. I don’t think I stopped laughing for the entire of The Armed’s 15 minutes; it was a laughter born of the rapturous realisation that I had flown 6000km for this and it was going to be glorious.

This pace, this mania, did not relent. Not for a second in the entire set. Later, [The Frontman] clambered off stage, hoisted a member of the public onto his shoulders, and then proceeded to crowdkill the entire mosh-pit with the poor blighter still straddled across his shoulders. It is exactly the kind of spontaneous, deranged, only-do-it-when-you-know-you-only-have-to-put-in-15-minutes behaviour I had hoped for.

I may only have experienced a quarter of an hour of The Armed, but they do more in 15 minutes to me than most of the last half-decade of half-realised half-arsed half-baked bullshit I had to cover as a music journalist ever did. Forgive me for sounding like a wide-eyed rookie but that’s what seeing The Armed play live did for me: it stripped aways years of jaded, angry, disappointed fandom and filled it with an energy I’d almost forgotten even existed.

The Armed don’t just challenge their audience by sending a linebacker-sized frontman out to flatten them. Partway through their set, a man dressed in what could only be described as a home-made Swamp Thing costume climbed on stage. None of the band reacted. He started to clamber around and on top and all over them. He dived into the pit and back on to the stage, nearly knocking over instruments and bear-hugging band members.

To be honest it was more of a ghillie suit

What was clear was that this agent provocateur was — pun intended — a plant. I couldn’t go home not knowing what in the everloving fuck that was about, so I cornered [The Drummer] after the show to find out why the band had a man in a shaggy green Hallowe’en costume cavort about onstage and in the crowd during their headline performance.

“The [swamp monster]? Mass confusion. People know what to do at a punk show. Introducing new elements forces people to have new experiences and decide on the fly whether or not they are enjoying the experience as opposed to being influenced by past experience, media consumption, etcetera.

“I find surprise to be one of the most interesting aspects of art. Music scenes are just that — scenes. And because of that, people who are engrained in the scene know of and follow a certain social code. What to wear, how to act, how to dance, and so on. The problem is that this makes things predictable. And even in so-called ‘crazy’ settings, it destroys surprise.

“The idea of a music scene also allows for a social hierarchy to emerge between people who ‘get it’ and people who don’t. The enlightened hip, and the lame poser new kids. I really, really hate that. So what we try to do is just create new experiences that level everyone to the same platform.

“And no-one knows how the fuck to react to a swamp monster.”

72 hours after No Rest 4 ended, the United States of America voted Donald Trump to become their president-elect. Right now, ain’t nobody got any idea on how to deal with that particular kind of swamp monster either.

No Rest Fest 4 ended with The Armed segueing Liar into the chanted ending of another song, You Have Died. It’s the closing track from their Young & Beautiful EP, ending with a repeated and increasingly frenzied chant of “USA! USA! USA!”. Rather than a rallying cry of blind patriotism, it’s instead seeped with a deep sense of riding malice, a mocking parroting of the grosser excesses of American patriotism. As the apex of both The Armed’s set, and No Rest Fest 4 as a whole, it bordered on the mania of religious euphoria. This was us, this was us right now.

“ We haven’t [played You Have Died] in a long time but was good to do it [at No Rest Fest 4] because I’m not sure when the USA chant will feel exactly right again,” [The Drummer] reflected a few days later, after Donald Trump had won and much of America felt like it was staggering about in post-electoral shellshock. I’d messaged him to clarify a few things about the show — at the time I wasn’t sure what (or in truth if I was going to write about No Rest Fest — I’m still an ex-music writer, after all).

“One things for sure: I’m glad the new [The] Armed record is just super fucking happy sounding [accompanied by a sarcastic, bitter laugh], because I’ve had it about up to fucking here with white people complaining about shit and acting mad. That shit just got the world in a whole lot of trouble.”

I don’t know about you, but the few weeks since that conversation I can’t stop thinking that we could really do with that new record from The Armed before that whole heap of trouble ends every last one of us.

For more information on any of the acts who took part in No Rest Fest 4:

The Armed —
Bars of Gold —
Zoos of Berlin —
Child Bite —
L.A.Z. (Clear Soul Forces) —
Reverend —
Golden Torso —
Mic Phelps —
Snakewing —
Old Gods

No Rest Until Ruin is currently (seemingly) on hiatus. (Almost) the entire back catalogue of The Armed is available to download for free from their official Bandcamp page.