Band To Watch: High Vis

Simon Wellington

Band To Watch: High Vis

Simon Wellington

On YouTube, there’s a video of High Vis playing an outdoor show at southeast London DIY skate and music project the Grove last summer, just a few weeks after the UK dropped all COVID restrictions. At the start of the band’s set, frontman Graham Sayle thanked the organizers and partners of the show and addressed the crowd, saying: “Start a band, go skateboarding, write your nickname on stuff. Do what you want as long as it’s kind.” Visibly emotional, he then asked the crowd to come forward to the front of the stage, promising that “no one will jump on your head” because “this is your shit.” With his eyes welling up with tears, he promised, “I will cry,” before the band launched into their first song.

Because of this and plenty else, High Vis are an atypical UK hardcore band. They share bills and are friends with Higher Power, the Chisel, and Chubby And The Gang, but, at certain points on their new album, they sound closer to the Charlatans. They have the muscle memory of hardcore musicians, cut from years of touring in aggressive and robust outfits, but their musical direction these days is distinctly more Gallagher-shaped.

“I think it’s just a way of getting out years of residual shit,” Sayle offers of his emotional openness today, sitting upstairs at a Soho members club nine months later with drummer Edward “Ski” Harper for company. He’s aware of how this makes him somewhat of an anomaly in a UK hardcore scene that can sometimes preach vulnerability but still practice toxic male aggression. “We all feel like that a bit,” Ski says. “To be honest, even the thought of performing these songs that we’ve put so much into gives me butterflies.”

Sayle – a Merseyside-born, London-based stalwart of the UK hardcore scene, and former member of a host of influential bands including Tremors and Dirty Money – can track the emotional peaks and troughs of his life by the type of music he was making at the time. “When I was in Tremors, we were just young and fucking angry all the time and didn’t process anything that was going on at the time,” he reflects. “It was just a vehicle for being pissed off.”

“Listening back to [those early records] now, we’re kind of unrecognizable as people,” Sayle reflects. The seeds for High Vis were sown when he and Ski took a trip on tour with an old band to Germany, and Ski was influenced by “all these mad types of music” surrounding him. This led him to make “this goth-y, post-punk EP” that he asked Sayle to sing – not scream – over, seeing something in his friend that Sayle didn’t yet see in himself. “It was the most nervous I’d ever been,” the frontman remembers, shaking while waiting to sing songs about his brother, who suffers from autism and cerebral palsy, and his place in society. “I thought in my head that all I could do was shout at people,” he reflects, “and [Ski] made me realize that I could actually sing.”

From there, Sayle, Ski, guitarists Martin MacNamara and Rob Hammeren and bassist Rob Moss formed High Vis in 2016, fostering a place in the UK hardcore scene alongside their more traditional contemporaries but sitting on the woozier, softer end of the melodic spectrum. A debut album, No Sense No Feeling, followed in 2019. Sayle says he’s proud of it but calls it a “difficult” record in retrospect. “It sounds like we were as people: angry, lost and erratic.”

It’s not, Sayle says, until upcoming sophomore album Blending — announced today and out 9/9 via Dais Records — that he feels High Vis have truly found their voice, both musically and in his lyrics. In the intervening years, Sayle went to therapy while Ski began training to become a therapist himself. “Ski told me I should do this to try and process past traumas,” the frontman says, sounding utterly decisive when he says it’s the best thing he’s ever done for himself. “For me, it was about forgiving myself,” he reflects. “Because I’m a man, I used to feel a lot of shame for stuff that wasn’t my fault. People dying young, I never really dealt with that stuff. How you react to that comes out in the ways you end up coping with it.”

Across Blending, Sayle is still angry, and his swaggering singing voice still sometimes slips into the shouting of old, but it’s all channeled carefully and precisely. “I used to be angry and just directed it anywhere, whereas now I can understand and make sense of things, and realize when anger can be put to good use,” he says. “Before, I thought: ‘This is all I’ll ever feel. This is me.'”

The album’s first single, “Talk For Hours,” is emblematic of this shift, with Sayle singing about “temporary chemical optimism and subsequent hopeless introspection” on a simply huge chorus fit for any Britpop tune from ‘95, complete with swirling, anthemic guitars. Follow-up single “Fever Dream,” out today alongside the album announcement, feels even more Madchester, with Sayle singing melodically of long chemically-enhanced summers avoiding your problems with the confidence and strut of a prime Ian Brown.

While the first two singles focus on drowning out problems, Blending also tackles them head on. Most striking is “Trauma Bonds,” which features the warmest jangly riff from the Johnny Marr playbook, atop which Sayle discusses with brilliant open-heartedness how we are forever tied by the tragedies we share. “Over lockdown and just before, I had about three mates kill themselves or die in other ways,” he says of the song’s inspiration. “When you’ve been through so much shit together, you’re essentially tied by the trauma that bonds you, by burying your mates.” With or without this context, the song’s chorus bursts out in a moment of beautiful, devastating catharsis.

These vital, tough messages are all over Blending, and often they are Trojan-horse’d in by a gorgeously melodic guitar line or delivered by Sayle’s sugary voice. When genre-crossover music can often end up sounding like a blend carried through for the sake of it, High Vis create their new sonic world with true intentionality and execute it with pinpoint accuracy. For hardcore fans wanting something a little sweeter or indie fans after some crunch or grit, Blending hits a deeply satisfying middleground. “I’ve been thinking recently about whether hardcore serves you, and whether it’s good to be shouting all the time,” the frontman ponders. “It didn’t help me process my problems, but when I’m singing this stuff it’s almost a reminder of those things and gives me the space to process the change.

“High Vis is a culmination of everything: my youth, my upbringing, trying to make sense of everything,” he adds, though – as is often the case with music that touches and helps others – this largely selfish search for self-englightenment of Sayle’s could end up being a revolutionary one for UK hardcore.

TRACKLIST:
01 “Talk For Hours”
02 “0151”
03 “Out Cold”
04 “Blending”
05 “Trauma Bonds”
06 “Fever Dream”
07 “Morality Test”
08 “Join Hands”
09 “Shame”

Blending is out 9/9 on Dais Records. Pre-order it here.

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