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Cage Fight – ‘CAGE FIGHT’

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You sit on the side-lines wanting to get stuck in. Two opposing fighters, locked together in combat, exchanging blows. It’s vicious, brutal, almost anything goes. There’s nowhere to run, no escape. It’s intense, visceral, blood splashes across the canvas – and you’re only listening to Cage Fight, the new metallic hardcore project founded by Tesseract guitarist James Monteith.

Provoked by the events in 2020, not only does the band’s name describe their sound, it’s also the perfect name for a lockdown project, and while everyone else was making artisan bread, Monteith was experimenting with something meatier. This is metallic hardcore in the vein of Unearth or Hatebreed, although the addition of Rachel Aspe, ex-vocalist of Eths, makes for a sound closer to Dying Wish or Sharptooth, and their debut album sets out their stall; it’s aggressive, muscular and if you aren’t convinced, the album artwork depicts the band’s logo literally tattooed across the palm of a hand; someone is very invested in this band, but should you be?

Yes – but this isn’t a scrappy streetfighter you might be expecting. It’s a welterweight contender. After all, just because Monteith plays with one of the country’s most renowned progressive metal bands, there’s no guarantee he can write the kind of riffs that make you want to punch people’s teeth out. Yet, he succeeds. Listen close and you can still pick up on his unusual guitar tone and distinctive playing style, particularly on ‘Respect Ends’, although this has a different feel. It’s more barbed, more forceful, varying between the fast, flighty riffs of ‘Killer’ and the chunky groove found on ‘Make A Decision’. Neither outstrips the other, and though the guitars saw or pummel they never really smash, so don’t expect to be lifted off your feet, this isn’t that type of record. Where his main band flexes their muscles using angular riffs, in this context his style comes over as restrained, so when the guitars cut across ‘Shine Don’t Fade’ it feels very precise and at times almost stilted, which isn’t a bad thing, but takes a bit of getting used to. It’s more of a steamroller rather than a bludgeon and not as immediate as some of their class, but there is a persistence you can’t ignore, especially as Aspe and Monteith make the perfect tag-team, sharing the load so there’s always something going on.

Aspe’s performance has a rough edge, mixing an in-the-pit intensity with a guttural majesty so that she’s never less than enthralling. Notably on ‘Killer’ the repeating guitar melody allows her to shift to a deeper sound that really shows off her talents, as does ‘Guillotine’ which even brings in – for want of a better phrase – an extreme pig squeal which is both impressive and a little frightening. For variety, ‘Eating Me Alive’ features Trevor Strnad of the Black Dahlia Murder whose vocal attack is appreciatively different, adding a welcome extra dimension to the song. In many ways it feels kinda like cheating as the music here mirrors his own band’s but it really stands out. Amusingly, what you might describe as Aspe’s ‘audition tape’ was basically her covering a Black Dahlia Murder song and this gives her chance to flex, while preserving the sly in-joke.

Lyrically it’s a furious mix, not short of striking imagery, and the phrases serve Aspe’s articulation well. So when she yells the chorus on the awesomely named ‘Hope Castrated’, the first word is growled, the second screamed, flowing in a way that easily catches your attention. It’s also a trick she uses to great effect during verses where the pitch rises or falls to create a hook, which is simple but really effective.

With Monteith’s progressive metal roots it’s no surprise that this is quite a calculated record – not boring calculated – but carefully thought out so that it flows like the rapids in an Indiana Jones movie; rough and powerful with something exciting always looming on the horizon. It ensures the songs are never ‘samey’ and creates an engaging and progressive record within the confines of a specific sound.

No matter what the guitars are doing, the rhythm section anchors the sound to hardcore with Nick Plews’ double bass pedal attack and Jon Reid’s bass keeping the intensity dialled high. You can hear it clearly as they absolutely churn through ‘Guillotine’ but even the wider-ranging ’My Dreams’ leaves you feeling like you’ve been strapped to a galloping horse. There is hardly space for a breather and the only respite comes in the form of the interlude ‘Cage Fight’. There’s something wonderfully brazen about a self-titled song on a self-titled record that sounds nothing like the others with Reid rapping over drum loops, but it’s short, interesting and sits surprisingly well within the fury around it. Similarly, the solo across ‘Make A Decision’ seems slightly out of place but is exactly what the album needs.

As you delve deeper into the record, you’ll discover more ideas, different approaches and some inspired choices. ‘Killer’ knows it’s a straightforward song and putting it early in the running order capitalises in its easy attack. As the record progresses, more ideas are revealed with the care of a magician turning cards so when ‘Tell Me What Real Is’ gives way to discordance, it’s obvious but inspired. This means the record’s second half is stronger, purely because it offers more interesting ideas. You do find yourself wishing it opened with slightly more wallop as the combination of an off-kilter intro and ‘Mirror Shattered’ isn’t a bad way to start but it is more a wild swing than a gut punch.

Like its namesake, ‘Cage Fight’ is an intimate brawl. Thirteen tracks of well-matched combatants trading jabs in a way that feels fast, fluid and exciting. It might not be worth getting your palm tattooed for but even locked within the confines of a genre it’s rich, powerful and elegantly executed. More than a solid debut, it’s a knockout blow.

IAN KENWORTHY
 
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