Everyone remembers their last show pre-pandemic, clawing at the memory of a sticky dancefloor, beer-soaked tops and the communal presence of human beings. For Bristol’s SCALPING, their gig at Bristol’s Island in late February encapsulated everything they’re about. Crashing a usually dance-oriented venue with a wave of metal guitars, it was a distillation of the band’s disruptive manifesto.
At the start of 2019, the four-piece arrived with debut single ‘Chamber’, a fully-formed mission statement from a band that clearly knew exactly what they were about from the first beat; bubbling techno rubbed up against gruff, blackened guitars in a cocktail that felt deliciously fresh. It was a mix incisive and brilliant enough that it was hard to imagine why this pairing of sounds hadn’t quite been pulled off in this way before. As the band’s visual artist Jason Baker said in a past interview: “Everything that’s brilliant about this seems obvious in hindsight.”
Disillusioned by a past in more melodic, pop-focused bands and invigorated by their city’s soundsystem culture and creative freedom, the genesis of SCALPING came from “wanting to make the music that we think we like, and that we haven’t heard before,” electronics player Alex Hill says. “We said, ‘Let’s make this kind of band’, not, ‘Let’s just see what happens!'”
“We spent so much time soaking in Bristol, and just saw the thing that didn’t exist,” bassist James Rushforth adds. “There were always these variations of things we like, so it seemed pretty obvious to us what was missing… and any band should be making the music that they want to hear.”
While it doesn’t play into the romantic and somewhat unreasonable trope of bands creating genius from impromptu jam sessions, this early concrete idea of what SCALPING as a project was about is shown in the stunning sonic identity put forward on ‘Chamber’ and its follow-up singles, the gloopy ‘Ruptured’ and frenetic new single ‘Deadlock’; rarely do bands arrive with debut material as fully-formed as this.
“We over analyse everything, are super organised and admin-heavy, nothing’s an accident, everything’s massively considered and thought through,” Hill says. “We write songs on spreadsheets,” Rushforth confirms while half laughing, half wincing.
If the idea of SCALPING had to be distilled down to a single word, it would be ‘intensity’. From the toe-curling, capitalised band name to darkly evocative single titles like ‘Ruptured’ and ‘Deadlock’ and a live show punctuated by other-worldly blasts of visual weirdness, intensity bursts out from every facet of the band, and that’s before you even get to the music itself.
Holding hands with both the dark underworld of the techno scene and the grit of metal gigs, SCALPING’s music rises and falls at sharp tangents, bringing together seemingly disparate worlds in a cohesive whole, while impressively not losing the singular brilliance of either side. “First pinch harmonic in a Boiler Room set?” the band joked after Bristol-based DJ Bruce dropped ‘Chamber’ into his set for the streaming stalwart at dance music mecca Dekmantel.
“It’s not like it’s never been done before,” Hill clarifies of the band’s hybrid sound. “People play dance music with live instruments. But I think often when it’s done, it’s not dark or heavy – it’s fun and colourful and bouncy. We wanted to do it and make it dark.”
“Before SCALPING,” he adds, “when I thought of dance music played by a live band, I thought of some guy in his bedroom playing ‘Live Techno Drum Looping’ with loads of colourful buttons, and it’s really naff, and not scary or aggressive or abrasive. Not a world that you want to be part of.”
And while this make-up might rile up some dance music purists – “One Instagram comment said, ‘Oh that’s just what acid needed… guitars’, and we were like… ‘Yeah!’,” Hill laughs – the band’s straddling of worlds hits a deeply satisfying sweet spot that many probably didn’t realise could exist; crowds at SCALPING shows get stuck between raving and moshing, and end up inventing a deeply embarrassing mix of the two. Close your eyes and you hear a thunderous, blackened DJ set; open them and in front of you stands a rock band stretching their instruments to the absolute limit.
The band’s live show is at the forefront of their existence, and the music they release comes to serve that live experience. “We want to treat our songs the same way you have when you go and see DJs,” Rushforth says. “As well as the set being mixed together, we want to be saving songs to play live that you’ll never hear recorded, so you have to come and see us. I find it mad that bands don’t do that…” he adds. “Why would you not?” As with everything that sets SCALPING apart, its brilliance only seems obvious when it’s done.
“We kind of want to say fuck you to both sides of the coin,” Rushforth says of those in the dance and rock worlds who prefer bands to stay in their lanes. “None of this is ‘right’, and we don’t have a clue what we’re doing, but it bangs, so…'”. And that it certainly does.
SCALPING’s latest single ‘Deadlock’ is out now