Is it “black metal” or “death metal”? I am never quite sure of the difference, but the air thrums with blast-beat drumming as we descend into Heaven. Tonight we’re here for the metal, but as we pass the security staff, I am briefly transported back to my 1990s, when optimism and alcoholic lemonade fuelled countless nights of terrible dancing and occasionally-effective eye-catching under the arches of Charing Cross.
Heaven is now a venerable London institution. The club, buried in the vaults under the station concourse, was a gay clubbing trailblazer when it opened in 1979. It was established by Jeremy Norman – entrepreneur, wine merchant and chairman of Burke’s Peerage – drawing on his experiences at New York’s The Saint and Studio 54. Through the Eighties and Nineties, Heaven hosted iconic gay nights such as Fruit Machine, alongside pioneering techno clubs like Paul Oakenfold’s Rage and gigs by everyone from New Order to Throbbing Gristle to Stereolab.
Owned today by Jeremy Joseph, promoter of G-A-Y, Heaven continues to mix it up. The cavernous vaults, which hold 1,000 people, have rainbow flags fluttering in the strobe lights as Flemish trio Wiegedood blast the crowd. The thing about death metal (or black metal) is you need to lean into it, like a stage diver trusting in the mosh pit.
Immerse yourself in the propulsive sound and let the melodies emerge – chiming chord progressions like Keith Levene’s on early Public Image Limited, or angular shreds of Sonic Youth noise. The lyrics are screamed in classic black metal (or death metal) style. Are they even in English or are they Flemish? It’s hard to tell, but given the band’s pledge, on their website, that their new album “focuses on the filthiest and most disgusting parts of human nature”, this may be a blessing.
As I buy a couple of cans of Red Stripe in between acts (a very fair £5.45 each, but decanted into disposable plastic glasses – boo!), Wiegedood bassist Levy Synaeve chats amiably with fans. For all the decibels and corpse-paint, metal audiences are some of the friendliest you could meet. The fashion may be divergent, the headbanging heavier and the flirting dialled down, but metal gigs can create the same euphoric sense of community and celebration as gay clubs.
Chicago’s Russian Circles are the headline act. They are “post-metal”, which seems to mean no vocals – probably a good thing, for reasons already stated – and their music builds from languid harmonies, to motorik krautrock rhythms, to thundering slabs of guitar. It’s loud for sure, and Heaven’s sound system lets the bass re-arrange your internal organs without losing clarity and force higher in the register. But there is a lightness of touch to Russian Circles that eludes bellowing leviathans like Metallica. Their performance is captivating and enthralling.
Let’s be honest: I doubt anything I write will convert you to black (or death) metal, or post-metal, if you are not already a fan. But Heaven is place that bears (re)visiting, whether you prefer your repetitive beats from a DJ’s decks or a hairy Belgian’s drum-kit. It has the atmosphere and heritage absent from most purpose-built venues, but clean toilets, friendly staff and reasonably-priced drinks too.
After a fierce hour, Russian Circles leave the stage and the house lights come up. Heaven has to freshen up, apply lippy and re-open for its Monday stalwart, Popcorn. As we leave, I am almost tempted to turn round and join the queue to go back in. But I have a train to catch, and I’m not 25 any more.
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