LIVE: Employed to Serve / Palm Reader / Cruelty @ Camden Underworld, London

By Ash Bebbington

The last few minutes of Employed to Serve’s set are pure chaos. Their bass player has somehow lost his instrument, so instead of playing, he’s grabbing fans by the hand to pull them up on stage. The pit empties as more and more bodies pile onstage to join the band. Guitarist and backing vocalist Sammy Urwin miraculously manages to keep his mic stand upright as fans scream and headbang around him. Vocalist Justine Jones is screaming the lyrics to ‘Platform 89’ while being held aloft by the fans who’ve climbed onstage. The venue security can only look on in bewilderment. Literally and figuratively, this feels like a high point for a band who’ve deservedly earned a lot of hype over the last few years.

Employed to Serve arrive at the iconic Camden Underworld with three critically lauded albums in their locker. Last year’s ‘Eternal Forward Motion’ earned rave reviews from critics; this is their second UK headline tour in support of that record, and they’ve assembled a stellar lineup of bands to hit the road with.

First on is Cruelty, whose set starts an hour after doors, leaving plenty of time for the venue to start filling up. Their brand of metallic hardcore leans more towards the metal end of the spectrum, with guitarists laying down pacy, metallic riffs, while their vocalist delivers a performance that wouldn’t sound out of place at an extreme metal show. He is a frantic, restless performer, and it’s not long before the crowd follows his lead and opens up the pit. The Midlands-based quintet have two EPs out already, and it’ll be exciting to see how they refine their sound as they release more material.

Ask any Palm Reader fan to describe the band in one word. Chances are, they’ll come up with ‘underrated’. However, that seems to be slowly changing. Their last album ‘Braille’ was a triumph, and on the back of its release in 2018, they played a headline show at London’s Boston Music Room in December of that year. It was a real landmark moment in the band’s career, when people finally started to sit up and take notice of just how good they are after nearly a decade of touring the UK’s pub circuit. At times during their set at the Underworld, it’s hard to shake the feeling that this is another such moment. A sizeable chunk of the crowd are here to see Palm Reader, fists held high, screaming every word back at them. When vocalist Josh McKeown announces the band’s name to the crowd, there’s a noticeably raucous cheer – for a couple of moments, specifically during ‘Swarm’ and ‘I Watch the Fire Chase My Tongue,’ it starts to feel like a headline set. The band lived up to the audience reaction too; their stage presence, usually on show in more intimate rooms than this, translates perfectly, and they look completely at home on the Underworld’s stage. Tonight’s setlist contains a new song from their as-yet untitled fourth record, called ‘Stay Down,’ a heavy, frenetic track that gives a promising glimpse of what’s to come. Hopefully, off the back of the upcoming record, they’ll soon be headlining venues of this size in their own right.

When Employed to Serve stride onstage, clad in their now-trademark black windbreakers, they make it clear right away that they’re not messing around, tearing straight into a clutch of songs from ‘Eternal Forward Motion’. After opening with the eponymous title track, they play ‘Dull Ache Behind My Eyes’, a fast-paced, crushingly heavy track that prompts the first – but certainly not last – circle pit of the night. Right from the start, the crowd is feral. A pit opens up immediately and stays open for the duration of the set, while a constant stream of stage divers fling themselves at the crowd.

Playing a headline show at the Underworld is a milestone for any British metal band. Indeed, at one point Jones tells the crowd that every member of the band has been going to shows there since the age of 14. They don’t let the sense of occasion overwhelm them, however, and take it completely in their stride. The band radiate confidence throughout the set, and their stage presence is electric. In the middle of the set, they drop in a run of songs from 2017’s ‘The Warmth of a Dying Sun’, with the storming ‘Void Ambition’ and fan favourite ‘I Spend My Days (Wishing Them Away)’, before launching into the newer song ‘Beneath It All’. It’s noticeable that for some songs, the hues of lighting they use for each song correlates with the colour of the album the song appeared on. It’s a minor touch, but one that adds to the overall visual effect – it’s exciting to see Employed to Serve experimenting with stagecraft in this way, and long may it continue.

Up next is ‘Force Fed,’ the lead single from the last album and already a fan favourite. Even though it’s late in the evening, the crowd still find some more air in their lungs to muster up the biggest singalong of the night, and this song will surely be a permanent fixture in Employed to Serve’s set for many years to come.

Musically, they are perhaps the tightest they’ve ever been, with every band member in sync as they deliver chunky slabs of metallic hardcore. Jones and Urwin act as the ringleaders for the mad circus they’ve created, barking out instructions to the crowd throughout. At one point, Urwin refuses to start playing the next song until the crowd starts a circle pit. They immediately and enthusiastically comply.

The encore consists of two standout tracks from ‘The Warmth of a Dying Sun’, ‘Good for Nothing’ and ‘Platform 89’. During the latter, there’s a stage invasion. Chaos ensues, rounding off the night in a fitting way.

Anyone who was at the Underworld for this show can tell you with confidence that heavy music in the UK is in rude health. The exciting part is that all three of the bands that played are just getting started. We can’t wait to see what each of them do next.