Many bands came out of the late ‘70s UK punk scene that were deemed to be “ahead of their time,” but few were as influential and groundbreaking as This Heat. “There’s a suffocating bleakness to their music,” says Michael Groome of USC Thornton School of Music. “But it’s also extremely forward-thinking.” Guitarist Charles Bullen, bassist/vocalist Gareth Williams, and drummer Charles Hayward always managed to tie together the dark, angular sound of post-punk contemporaries like Wire and Joy Division with the experimental prog-rock sensibility of bands like King Crimson and Magma. To get an idea, this is the group that Damon McMahon (known as Amen Dunes) once called “the Beatles of modern experimental music.” Listening to them now, it’s just as easy to hear their influence on noise-rock bands like Sonic Youth and Swans as it is to hear them setting the tone for Radiohead’s OK Computer.
Born in the era of Cold War paranoia in 1976, This Heat released two full-length studio albums, This Heat (1979) and Deceit (1981), that carry strong anti-war messages. In between those two pillars, they dropped the renowned Health and Efficiency EP (1980), which took a moment to sing praise to the sun and its healing powers—and even that was a radical statement, coming from them at the time. Hayward writes of Health and Efficiency in a 2006 box set release that “it seemed to be a quite radical idea, to be happy, healthy, acknowledging the sun.” The band’s sophomore LP Deceit, regarded by some as their masterpiece, serves as a politcally-charged dystopian concept album about the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust. The fact that most of their music was recorded in an abandoned meat locker named Cold Storage lends to the amplified claustrophobic vibe of the record.
The band broke up in 1982 to pursue other projects, such as Hayward’s avant-prog outfit Camberwell Now and Bullen’s dub reggae project Lifetones. Hayward and Bullen reunited as This is Not This Heat in 2016 (founding member Williams passed away in 2001) for a three-year run with a rotating ensemble of touring musicians, culminating in a final U.S. tour. I was lucky enough to catch their show at The Earl in East Atlanta on July 29, 2019, two days before their last show ever in Brooklyn.
Atlanta native Bradford Cox stepped out of his more recognizable role as frontman of Deerhunter and opened the show with an improvisational noise set. Building a steady beat with hand percussion and analog synthesizers, Cox and his two bandmates created an impressive wall of sound that took the audience on an introspective journey. I got goosebumps watching Cox ambiently pluck a bass guitar and sing in a high-pitched lullaby voice, “I can’t be clean anymore… I could never be clean,” while his bandmates banged on tiny xylophones and made ominous cranking noises with a small wooden armadillo. Near the end of the set, Cox broke out in a huge manic grin while turning a knob on his synthesizer to full blast, and I couldn’t help but grin back at him. This sort of music is all about creating beauty from chaos, and the sheer glee when it all clicked together was infectious. Cox ended his set by quipping, “Hey everybody, we’re This Heat! Up next is This Is Not This Heat,” inspiring laughs from the audience and building up hype for the legends to take the stage.
This Is Not This Heat kicked off their set with the first couple songs off their self-titled debut album, starting with the quiet tape loop sample of “Test Card” before blasting everyone’s eardrums with the heavy industrial grind of “Horizontal Hold.” This didn’t sound like music that had been written 40 years ago; the band was tight and intense, with two drummers playing off one another, propelling the music forward. Biggest takeaways included the ominous droning recitation of the Declaration of Independence during “Independence,” the blistering sarcasm of “A New Kind Of Water,” and a great transition near the end from the dreamy “Sleep” into the jungle synth stomp of “24 Track Loop.” The band closed with the rocking “Health and Efficiency,” ending on an optimistic note that was the perfect antidote to the dark themes of their music and of our times in general.
Hayward was clearly the ringleader of the group, singing in a shamanic wail and orchestrating the band from behind his drum kit. He sported a white t-shirt with “5/4” drawn in Sharpie, a great in-joke for the musicians in the crowd—the vast majority of popular music is in 4/4 time signature, but a song in 5/4 adds an extra beat to the standard groove. This subtle reference perfectly encapsulated the band’s experimental approach, with Hayward showing that he’s not afraid to push the boundaries of what’s possible. When I spoke to Hayward after the show, he sounded bittersweet about finishing this phase of his career but was already looking forward to the next step.
“This has been great, going back to all of this, but I’m trying to keep moving forward,” he said, “There’s always been lots of other projects.” Indeed, Hayward has always kept himself busy with dozens of musical projects, from Camberwell Now to collaborations with Bill Laswell and Thurston Moore among many others.
Bullen, who was casually drinking a beer in front of the Earl when I walked up, was also optimistic about the future. When a fan walked up and told Bullen he could play all the bass parts from Bullen’s other project, the dub band Lifetones, Bullen excitedly began singing basslines back and forth with the guy and asked him if he wanted to jam sometime.
“People always ask me if Lifetones is going to tour in the U.S.,” he told me, motioning to the bassist. “So if this guy is serious, you know, maybe we can get something together.” Later, Bullen gave me his Instagram handle (@charlesbullenmusic) and showed me a video of him playing a prepared guitar in hammered dulcimer style. “I just got into Instagram, never really got into Facebook,” he mused while scrolling through his page on my phone. “I used to have a Myspace back when that was the thing.”
This Heat continues to inspire bands today, with artists from Animal Collective to Preoccupations (formerly known as Viet Cong) citing them as a huge influence. Amid growing political unrest and the threat of climate change, their strong anti-authoritarian message and apocalyptic themes feel more relevant than ever. By performing their early music in this setting, This Is Not This Heat delivered a rare treat for both diehard fans and newcomers.
Above all, Bullen and Hayward seemed happy that even 40 years after their first album, they were still getting to do what they love. To quote from “Health and Efficiency”: “Mind over matter/Love over gold/Momentum over stasis.”