LIVE: Alien Ant Farm / hed(p.e.) / Sumo Cyco @ Sub 89, Reading

By Rob Barbour

It’s a freezing cold Thursday night, and we’re stood in a dingy club in Reading town centre watching a 52-year-old man sing a version of ‘Oops Upside Your Head’, its lyrics ‘hilariously’ altered to refer to fellatio. Although to describe the man in question, Jahred – the indefatigable frontman of nu-metal also-rans Hed(p.e.) – as ‘singing’ is to do a grave disservice to his uniquely gravelly, aggressive vocal style. Heavily influenced by punk rock and ragga, the end result is evocative of Scooby Doo covering Skindred. And yet somehow, it’s actually kind of great.

Nostalgia is a hell of a drug. 

Actually, let’s take a step back. It would be churlish to criticise a bill headlined by Alien Ant Farm performing their 2001 breakout album, ‘ANThology’, in full for being backward-looking or overtly nostalgic. Sub 89 (capacity: 600) is almost sold out tonight, and it’s the promise of a blast of 00s rock club retrospective that’s drawn the crowd. So let’s assess the evening on its own terms.

First up: Sumo Cyco. The Canadian quartet are a remarkably suitable choice for this bill, and not just because the three members of the band who aren’t sapphire-haired vocalist Skye Sweetnam all look like they were recruited from the crowd at a gig during the very specific 18-month period between 2000 and 2001 when Alien Ant Farm and Hed(p.e) were last relevant. Their brand of punky, downtuned nu-metal riffage would have been right at home during that same period. Sweetnam has real star power, though, and a commanding stage presence. Her energy, combined with the band’s obvious enthusiasm, makes for an entertaining set even if the songs themselves are largely forgettable. It’s not big, it’s not clever, but it is a lot of fun.

Back to Hed(p.e.), then. Despite the MTV2 success of their single, ‘Bartender’, they never quite took off in the UK in the same way as man of their nu-metal peers. And unlike Alien Ant Farm, who got unfairly lumped in with that scene thanks to their close ties to Papa Roach, Hed(p.e.) were a nu-metal band. They had a DJ until just a few years ago, and Jahred’s always been more of a rapper than a singer. And, look: we’re not about to defend the concept of Hed(p.e.)- in their early days, Jahred wrote some of the dumbest lyrics to emerge from an already dumb genre. Their back catalogue is littered with mindless aggression and misogyny and the ‘political’ leanings of their more recent material carry the intellectual weight of a malnourished feather, adding up to little more than “9/11 WAS AN INSIDE JOB. P.S. LEGALISE WEED”.

But in terms of pure performance, they make tonight their own. The band are incredibly tight, Jahred is a consummate showman and has the crowd – many of whom had never even heard of Hed(p.e.) before tonight – are won over by the energy and razor-sharp riffs emanating from the stage. Obnoxious? Absolutely. But undeniably impressive. 

All of which leaves Alien Ant Farm with a surprisingly hard act to follow. And if they’d been playing a regular set, including material from ANThology’s underrated follow-up, ‘TruANT’ and perhaps even a couple of songs from last year’s passable comeback, ’Always and Forever’, they might have fared better.

But choosing to perform ‘ANThology’ in full presents the band with three problems, none of which they convincingly overcome: firstly, its best song, the band’s best song, and one of the best rock songs of the last twenty years, is ‘Movies’. And that’s Track 2. Secondly, there’s a real drop-off in quality after that second track, because ‘ANThology is not by any stretch a classic album. And thirdly, the band’s most famous song, a novelty cover of Michael Jackson’s ‘Smooth Criminal’, sits ostentatiously as the record’s penultimate track.

So the energising opening blast of ‘Courage’ and ‘Movies’ gives way to a creeping sense of boredom, as the room realises they don’t know this album as well as they perhaps thought. And while the band’s performance is fine – bassist Tim Peugh, who didn’t actually appear on ‘ANThology’, is a ball of energy and a particular delight to behold – something feels a little flat. ‘Attitude’ still sounds fantastic, and when the band finally drop ‘Smooth Criminal – smartly switched with the album’s final track, ‘Universe’, to avoid a surge of people leaving before the end – the room goes as bonkers as you might expect.

It’s not Alien Ant Farm’s fault. It’s the fundamental problem with album shows – they remove all sense of surprise from a live set and unless the album in question is genuinely flawless, they serve to remind us why some tracks never see the light of day. At the bar after the gig, the talk is almost exclusively about Hed(p.e.)’s set. They’re not for us, but it would be disingenuous to pretend a band weren’t great just because we think their ‘message’ is conspiracy-addled nonsense. It definitely is, though.