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Live Review – Saetia, London Camden Underworld, 15/08/2023

Reformed hardcore heroes make a glorious return

In the late 90s, a small subset of the underground hardcore community began to experiment with more frenetic compositions and cathartic vulnerability, conjuring an uglier almost grindcore inspired version of emo. The resulting works would be labelled “screamo” while in later years the retroactive term of “skramz” would be fitted to the highly influential scene which would eventually go on to inspire an entirely new wave of post-hardcore acts such as Thursday, Touché Amoré and La Dispute to name but a few.

While some experimented with lengthy post-rock motifs like City Of Caterpillar, and others went full breakneck emoviolence such as scene pioneers Orchid, there was one group that channelled all differing aspects of this new approach into one sprawling, overwhelming deluge of an entity known as Saetia.

Only active between 1997 and 1999, the band would craft one demo, LP and EP during their shortlived tenure while playing several DIY shows in basements, houses and wherever else they could. Ironically, it wouldn’t be until the advent of broadband internet that an entirely new era of fandom would be bestowed upon this mysterious group with many working backwards from multiple modern popular punk bands to find one constant shared influence.

Now over two decades since their initial hiatus, the group have reformed to finally absorb the fruits of their labour; performing their material to packed rooms full of adoring fans of vastly differing ages, and finally witnessing firsthand the seminal inspiration they’ve had on multiple generations and supporters of the scene, as opposed to originally only catering to a small handfuls of friends and genre spectators. 

Beginning last year with a small run of shows in their hometown of New York City, before making their way to Philadelphia and eventually the West Coast for a string of California dates, anticipation had been rife for news of any European or British appearances, which leads to tonight’s special sold out takeover of the Camden Underworld, serving as the first ever Saetia performance outside of the US and one of only two London shows booked for what is their exclusive overseas jaunt. 

All now well into their mid-to-late forties, the genuine power and energy the tight knit collective resonate is more palpable and crushing in a live setting than any of their admittedly lo-fi primitive recordings crafted while making their way through adolescence. From the moment they tear into the chaotic grinding mathematics of album opener ‘Notres Langues Nous Trompes’, a frenzy of bodies begin to hurl in a mass wave towards the stage before crashing back with euphoric buoyancy, while it’s immediately evident that time has done little to rust their playing ability with their seasoned age and skilled chops adding even more compositional dexterity to the already impressive song structures.

Continuing the album course with tracks two and three from their self-titled LP, The Sweetness & The Light invokes a howling singalong of a tortured chorus before ‘An Open Letter’ inspires mass mayhem to ensue. It’s then that the most eager in attendance get their first taste from the band’s untitled demo, largely considered by many to be one of the singularly most vital contributions to the screamo and post-hardcore communities.

The refrain of ‘Closed Hands’ is belted back at the band with such angst and vigour that even bassist Colin Bartoldus admits to losing his place in the song due to the overwhelming audience response, while the brief noisecore bedlam of ‘From The Firmament’ invokes the first proper bout of crowdsurfing and stagediving which continues for the duration of the set. Vocalist Billy Werner is clearly touched by the rapturous reception and offers genuine insight into many of the lyrics he penned as a much younger, more vulnerable man with his detailing of the message behind fan favourite ‘Corporeal’ touching on feelings of body dysmorphia and trans rights which were an infrequent lyrical topic to many punk and screamo songs two decades prior.

He also makes a point to comment on the group’s self-awareness as older white men performing legacy shows while many minorities continue to be sidelined within the scene, and earnestly thanks the crowd for allowing some older veterans a chance to relive their glory days but urges for fans to continue to support the DIY scene and the marginalised artists within. Werner also takes a few vocal respites to give his older larynx a break; first with the much-adored instrumental cut ‘Woodwell’, providing a shoegazing interval while each date of their reunion tour has featured a cover specific to location, with Bartoldus switching to vocals and guitar for a technical and venomous reimagining of ‘Protest & Survive’ by D-beat Stoke-on-Trent heroes Discharge.

Werner asks if many here tonight shall be attending tomorrow’s sold out show in the Camden Assembly before telling those who aren’t that the band shall be unveiling their brand new recently completed record, leading to an ecstatic exclaim before he quickly bursts the bubble and admits to his cruel joke, leading to a jovial bellow at odds with the emotive devastation that has been par for the course all evening.

Following the final two cuts from their album; the slow building dread of ‘Postlapsaria’ and the fractured pain of ‘Endymion’, they close out with the penultimate track and closer from the aforementioned demo, which still continue to serve as the gateway entry point to not just the Saetia discography but the screamo genre as a whole. ‘Venus & Bacchus’ is so well known that many take to singing along to the guitar-led melody even before the vocals kick in, while the cathartic momentum of ‘One Dying Wish’ almost entirely drowns out the band with a choir of shredded vocal cords shrieking Werner’s deeply poetic lyrics in unison as testament to the artistry and staying power of his penmanship.

As the lights come on and the stage vacates, there’s a certain glimmer of tranquillity plastered on the faces of the sweaty bodies making their slow shuffling ascent up out of the venue. For many, the prospect of seeing Saetia live was always a mere pipedream, with even their original run of last year’s US shows not enough to tempt the fandom’s hope. With many travelling from several parts of Europe for this once in a lifetime performance, it’s simply impossible to ignore the communally shared sense of experiencing such a truly unique and rewarding moment in not just the punk, hardcore, or DIY scenes, but live music in general. A celebration of the deeply underappreciated and overlooked late nineties screamo movement and the men responsible for much of its praise. To quote the band themselves: “This canon is complete. We needed this.”

Zach Buggy