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19th October 2023

Hannibal Rex live at YES: The enigmatic dubstep artist struggles to hold the room

The experimental dubstep artist Hannibal Rex, returns to Manchester, but falls short of the mark at YES
Hannibal Rex live at YES: The enigmatic dubstep artist struggles to hold the room
Cover of Hannibal Rex’s EP “Weird Recognizes weird.”

Hannibal Rex is one of those artists who is more of an idea than a person. For starters, no one knows who he is or where he came from, apart from his accent being decidedly Northern – maybe hailing from Manchester. His masked presence captured the intrigue from a few of us in the crowd as we ambled into the basement of YES on Friday 6th October. Rex was crouching behind a huge stack of synths and equipment on stage, fiddling with his guitar pedal deck. Quite obviously, this wasn’t going to be a sell-out show for the experimental/heavy-metal/dubstep artist, but it was quickly apparent that Rex would struggle to even hold the attention of the few of us present.

Rex and his record label have developed an ever-changing legend around him: he’s either from the Australian outback, a successful sessions musician from the 1960s, or he lives in a castle in the middle of the Scottish Highlands. He enjoys playing with his fans and has put effort into his enigmatic personality. Always wearing a mask, you never can truly hear his voice because of the effects he overlays it with. Whoever he is, his onstage presence doesn’t quite meet up with the troubled effort he has gone through to craft his image.

The set began with Rex creating an ambient soundscape, with his heavily affected guitar slowly rising in the mix. After a while, the rising waves of sound collapsed into archetypical dubstep beats, descending straight from mid-2000s Manchester. He mumbled somewhat incoherently into his microphone: the handset from a Bakelite telephone – a gimmick that worked at first but truly failed halfway through when he had a 10-minute intermission to overcome some difficulties. Whether these difficulties were technical gremlins or maybe skill issues, we’d never know as we could not hear his angry explanation.

It was safe to say that the crowd had been lost at this point. Conversations on the state of Chelsea this season failed to cease when Rex wrestled back control of his sampler and began playing again. He played possibly his most famous song ‘Needs Must’ which went someway to re-kindling some sort of atmosphere, but it seemed the damage was done.

The closest Rex has come over the years to anything like publicity was an interview with Bandcamp Daily in 2020. Rex said he discovered his uniquely experimental sound when “[He] stopped giving a sh*t and started making music that [he] actually should’ve been making since [his] own personal dawn of time.” Indeed, Rex’s music is unlike anything else that’s out there at the moment and his philosophy of making what he wants to make should be applauded. If we didn’t have experimentation and re-invention in music, the world would be a very boring place. However, Rex’s ideology of “not giving a sh*t” seemed to extend to his stage presence and crowd interaction. Several times, his heavy basslines and air-shaking drum patterns would pull the crowd back into the room and really engage us, but he failed to do anything with this power. Brutally, he seemed bored, like he didn’t want to be there.

His latest EP, Don’t Think Too Hard, was released in September to positive reviews. The record is Hannibal Rex distilled to his very essence: dark, mysterious, boundary-pushing, and engaging. Yet his performance at YES was Rex heavily diluted; everything that makes him interesting to listen to was absent.

It’s important to say that it is okay for artists to not be great performers, and be much greater on record than in person. Maybe he doesn’t like performing. However, I think he should change to be less focused on the image and lore he has created around himself, as it seemed to me that he’d backed himself into a corner. He stood still on stage the entire time, hardly visible through the mountains of equipment on stage, behind the ever-present mask. To be lively and engaging on stage would be to clash with his image, but if he doesn’t change how he performs, I don’t see him developing hugely as a musician and a performer.

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