Based in Bristol, UK, SCALPING are a four-piece band: Isaac Jones on drums, James Rushforth on bass guitar, Nick Berthoud on guitar and Alex Hill on electronics. For the last five years, SCALPING have been writing, recording and performing music together, trying to answer the question that guides their work; “How can a band bridge the gap between live guitar music and live electronic music?”
Starting in 2017, the band played live for two years, almost exclusively in Bristol, before releasing any music. Through their time in other bands, they hooked up with promoters they trusted and focused on doing fewer shows with better results. After a couple of years, Nick Berthoud was brought in, on guitar; a “fan first, member second” who was impressed by the developing live show and attuned to their conceptual frustration.
“As a live band, your entire output is dependent on your equipment, but guitar music is historically always so far behind electronic music, and how that technology and the language around it can change the music itself”, says Rushforth. “The ideas that people try to push with guitar band technology are naturally limited. We’re taking elements of guitar culture, like distortion and smearing, and inserting them into the technology and language of electronic music. We’d seen bands try to do this before, but it always felt too ‘arty’, happy, or unstructured. We wanted to do it but make it heavy, and create focused, structured songs.”
By sourcing band-centred equipment that pushes boundaries, they incorporate bass-amplifying techno elements into their repertoire. Rushforth’s bass guitar set-up comes with two octave pedals, subharmonic generators and two amps – “effectively bringing a soundsystem around with us” – to play basslines “one or two octaves lower” than a bass guitar traditionally can. Berthoud’s guitar is sidechained from Jones’s kick drum; “which everyone’s done in the studio for decades, but we found it difficult to find a single guitar pedal that would allow us to do it at gigs”, Berthoud says.
Their curiosity and resourcefulness has paid off. Since forming, SCALPING have performed across the UK and Europe, at festivals such as Glastonbury, Visions, Green Man, Simple Things, Pitchfork Festival and End of the Road, and as support for Black Midi and Squarepusher. Live, the effect is immense. SCALPING play continuously for the duration of their sets, generating a storm of metal-and-techno through a rising beats-per-minute count; starting between 80-90bpm, ticking gradually up to 140bpm – and then, for maximum dynamic impact, dropping to 70bpm and playing in half-time.
In the heat and darkness, it’s a swarm of low-end frequencies and ripping guitars, somewhere between Black Sabbath-esque psychedelica and The Bug’s sub-bass headfuckery. “Within each section of each song, we can push and pull it,” says Hill. “We have a setlist, and once we start playing we don’t stop…. we move through the various songs and tempos fairly seamlessly, and try to emulate the feel of watching a DJ.”
As the coronavirus pandemic stopped SCALPING from playing together for over two years, their songwriting was transformed into a series of retro-fitting techniques that would leave most bands lost in an organisational fog. Their debut album, “Void”, out on Houndstooth this April, necessarily became a mammoth undertaking. “We wrote this whole album without playing a single note of it together,” says Hill.
“We produced all of the songs using the computer – as a blend of recordings and samples of our live drums, guitars and drum machines into production software – and then translated it all back into a live performance. And although there are structured songs on the record, there’s no explicit focus on exactly recreating those songs live, either,” he continues. “Everything is adapted to work into a set that flows well. A lot of album parts are rewritten during rehearsals for the good of the live set as a whole.”
On “Void”, SCALPING are heavy metal in 4D; the sound is moody, distorted and rhythmic, but the use of electronic techniques gives the finer details room to breathe. Their early lust for “all loudness, no nuance” has cooled, too, making more space for experimentation. Tracks such as “Tether”, featuring Oakland rapper DÆMON, puts a modern, metal twist on Bristolian trip-hop, whereas album closer “Remain in Statis” features fast-rising artist Grove, a Bristol-based rapper and self-professed metalhead whose commanding presence sets the track alight. These songs also mark an additional new chapter for the band with the addition of vocals for the first time.