Café Totem (Sheffield) with Strange Bones, Witch Fever, and FloodHounds

By Miles Stevenson

Images are at ThinkTank the following night by local photographer BLINDFACE based in Newcastle

Standing in the queue to collect my McDonald’s order, an older gentleman notes that I “look ready for the night in those Dr. Martens.” He’s right: I’m wearing my Jadon boots, and God help anyone whose feet get too close at the sold-out gig.

I’d travelled from Newcastle to Sheffield for a night of punk revelry at Café Totem. The venue’s a city staple for any alt-leaning folk, regularly hosting a variety of local bands in a downstairs performance area that can only be described as… intimate. Arriving before doors opened, I purchased a half-pint of lager at the bar and checked my phone for any Instagram updates from the bands, before noticing that my battery was on a mere 30% – and rapidly decreasing. I realised with horror that I would have to stay sober enough to find my way back to the hotel without the aid of Google Maps. The lager went down slower now.

When doors opened at 8pm, the first band was setting up. Two of the members were straining to fix a banner to the back wall with duct tape, DIY white text on black reading “FloodHounds”. I was grateful for this, as I had no idea who they were or that a third band was even playing that night. The three-piece got the night started at 8:15, and churned out some good sound. With big shoes to fill, their performance was powerful yet steady, and sustained a bop-able pace for those of us unfamiliar with the set list. When mixed with the work of rhythm guitarist Jack Flynn and bass player Joel Hughes, the result was enjoyably familiar sounding, something you could get into, akin to the ‘we’ve-got-our-shit-together’ sound of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. The melodies felt well-informed, identifiably built on the back-catalogue of rock and its off-shoots through the decades. I did, however, have an issue with the lyrics. At first, they seemed inoffensive, inconsequential, being spoken-sung by Flynn. But halfway through the set I began to feel bored and almost insulted by the juvenile and formulaic words. With far too many choruses, and unstimulating concepts, the lyrics really dragged down the otherwise solid sound. The final product is the kind of alternative music that often makes its way onto pop radio, and you enjoy it without really listening to it because if you did, it would fall apart. Still, they took the first support slot, prepared to earn their way to a headline act like so many bands before them.

Next on was Witch Fever, a band described in their every social media bio as “doom punk”. Despite not normally being a pushy person, I use every inch of my 5’1”-self to get to the front. They kick off with a song I don’t recognise, but the set list reads “Adjust”. It’s distinctly them, and I’m immediately at home with the noise. Drummer Annabelle Joyce seems in a trance, and the sonic chemistry between bassist Alex Thompson and guitarist Alisha Yarwood is tangible as they face each other. Then comes a flood of pieces I do know, with my favourites ‘The Hallow’ and ‘Carpet Asphyxiation’ among them. At one interval, lead singer Amy Walpole chastises a photographer; he is preventing her from mixing with the audience, and taking wildly inappropriate crotch-shots of her. This vocalisation of displeasure is gratifying and on-form: Witch Fever is a band that practice what they preach. Finally, we get ‘Bully Boy’, an unreleased song with iconic chorus “off with his head!”. It’s a perfect end to the set.
Irreverent and frenzied, Witch Fever’s relatively small discography is a well-curated collection churned out by women who have been wronged and are fucking angry about it. Think today’s X-Ray Spex, with honest images of servitude and sexual degradation that are twisted to liberate. It’s scene-changing sound with raw soul.

Headliners Strange Bones took the stage after. I’d listened to a few songs on the way down, and was looking forward to hearing them live. As soon as lead singer Bobby Bentham appears, the crowd surges forward and it’s obvious that most of the attendees have finally switched on. The stage is decked out with screens featuring atmospheric video which the other Bentham brothers, Jack and Will, weave around. The new addition to the band was drummer, Nathan Sanderson, who was already shirtless in anticipation of a workout. I make my way to the side of the room so as not to take a fan’s space near the front. Strange Bones starts with ‘Napalm über Alles’, a song with a lot going on – including a beautifully melodic chorus that juxtaposes with the rest of it. People are shaking and jumping and the venue suddenly becomes sweaty. ‘Here Come the Wolves’ gets an equally good response as a mosh pit starts to take shape. Even though I’m on the outskirts, I’m knocked back and into the bassist from FloodHounds (sorry, man!), and I decide that if I’m going to get pushed about, I may as well push back. Making my way to the centre, ‘Snakepit’ starts. It’s an assault of air-raid sirens and raspy vocals, seemingly designed for the very purpose of inciting mania in confined spaces. An enthusiastic fan does what I can only describe as a punk death-drop in the pit. Throughout, Bobby climbs the amps at the side of the stage and launches himself into the crowd. To avoid concussion via his Red Stripe-soaked combat boots I weave back to the outskirts. As the gig comes to an end there are shouts of “encore!”, but the band walks off without a backwards glance.
Elated by the performances, I can see why Strange Bones elicits such a strong response. Their sound features jarring switches between harmonic vox and stomach-deep moan-screams. It’s accompanied by uses of sampling to evoke war-like conditions, thematically punk with genre-blending elements. With such a complex and diverse soundscape Strange Bones are hard to define – but it’s exciting and makes room for comfortable maneuver and evolution.

I’m basically sober, having only consumed the one half-pint, and make my way back to the hotel with my ears ringing, my body bruising, and my forehead dripping (with someone else’s beer). My phone battery survives the night!

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