Wednesday, 31 August 2016

Dare's 'Sacred Ground' - Album Review

Dare are a band that probably came to be too late to really make a dent in the melodic rock scene. In a world that was dominated by American bands, England's Dare never really stood a chance when it came to AOR and never really realised their potential. Formed in 1985 by singer, songwriter, and keyboardist Darren Wharton in the wake of the end of Thin Lizzy, the band had moderate success before splitting up in 1992. The two albums that were released during their original run, 1988's Out of the Silence and 1991's Blood from Stone, are these days considered minor classics of the genre, but they are always unfortunately forgotten when compared to the greats in the genre. That is not to belittle either of those albums however, as both are great and full of excellent melodic rock songs with Wharton's soft voice and Vinny Burns' soaring guitar leads. Wharton re-formed Dare in 1998 without any of the other original members, and continued to put out albums fairly regularly. They were mostly quite low-key affairs, and I have not heard anything they have released since reforming. That is, until now, when the band's seventh album of original material was released last month. For some reason, this album came on my radar, and I am glad it did as it is really very strong indeed. If this is typical of the band's more recent output, then I have some serious catching up to do! Not as upbeat or as overtly AOR as the first two albums, Sacred Ground is still a seriously melodic album. This is strictly a soft rock album however, and the songs never really pick up any energy or rock out. Vinny Burns, who is playing on his first album of new material since rejoining the band in 2010, uses his guitar in a much more subtle role here than traditional riffing. His playing is atmospheric throughout, to compliment Wharton's keyboards, but there are plenty of excellent lead sections where he really cuts loose with his precise playing. The tone on his guitars throughout is perfect too, and really adds to the mood of the piece. Bassist Nigel Clutterbuck, who played on Blood from Stone, also returns to the band for his first album since the early 1990s, and the band is rounded out by long-time drummer Kevin Whitehead. This is Wharton's band however, and on this album he sings, plays all the keyboards, writes all the songs single-handedly, and also acts as producer. Dare has always been his project though, as he was the 'name' that formed the band having already made his reputation as a member of the latter period of Thin Lizzy's legendary career. While I cannot compare it to any of the band's other more recent work, Sacred Ground has impressed me, and wants to make me go back and catch up on what I have missed.

The opening track Home really sets the tone for the rest of the album, with a delicate acoustic guitar melody and Wharton's husky voice starting things off, before the rest of the band come in with stabs of slightly distorted rhythm guitar and a driving drum beat. Despite the laid back feel of the whole album, there is a still a real rock pedigree here, and this song has a bit of a strut about it, especially during the chorus. There are shades of the band's early work here, and Wharton's voice shines despite Burns' efforts to upstage him with some excellent guitar leads. I really like the way Burns weaves leads amoung the vocals effortlessly without ever overpowering them. I'll Hear You Pray is less overtly rock, and showcases Wharton's songwriting perfectly. His emotional vocal delivery is brought to the fore here, especially on the chorus which is one of the album's best moments. The song does rock a bit more as it goes on, with dramatic guitar power chords coming in like claps of thunder. Burns has a chance to shine here too with a fantastic fluid guitar solo, There is little shredding on this album, and his lyrical playing is the perfect foil to Wharton's vocals. While the keyboards have mostly been used as atmospheric tool so far, Strength sees this change with a great opening piano run that forms the basis of the whole song. This is a real piece of classic AOR, with a more upbeat tone that has been heard so far on the album, but still fitting in nicely with everything else. It is easily one of the album's best songs, and could have been a big hit if released 30 years ago! After three memorable songs, Every Time We Say Goodbye fails to hit the mark. As far as power ballads go, this is rather weak and lacks the hooks of the greats in that genre. That being said, Burns still turns in a great performance on the guitar, with plenty of subtle leads throughout that add little moments of magic in an otherwise fairly bland song. From one extreme to the other, Days of Summer is easily my favourite song on the album, and could be a contender for my favourite Dare song that I have heard so far. This really has more than a few hints of the band's early work, with big soaring melodies right out of the 1980s. The are subtle orchestrations too, which add a sense of drama, and the best chorus on the album by far. The first time I heard this song I was blown away, and I still get that feeling still. Wharton has written an AOR classic here, and Burns adds his piece with a fantastic cutting guitar solo. On my Own is another good song, that opens out sounding a bit like Bon Jovi's Who Says You Can't Go Home with some big guitar chords and some slightly country rock elements. There is even a wordless vocal section that reminds of that other song, so you could accuse this song of being somewhat of a rip off! It still good though, and fits in with the rest of the album and adds a bit of upbeat rock to the proceedings.

Until has a real Celtic feel, with a bagpipe-type sound used to form the song's main melody, and probably borrows something from Wharton's time in Thin Lizzy! The song is very relaxed however, with lovely acoustic guitar arpeggios throughout, and walls of keyboards to create a warm sound. It is another very good song an album that keeps on giving and reveals more the more you hear it. At first the album seems very one-paced, but after many plays the true diversity of the songs start to show through their subtleties and that is what makes this an enjoyable album to revisit. All Our Brass Was Gold is another song with a real 1980s vibe and an uplifting feel. Built around another strong chorus, the song spends it's time during the verses building up to it, and the pay off is great with another good vocal display from Wharton. The ringing guitar notes are very catchy too, and give the song some sparkle that makes it stand out from the rest of the album. After a few genuinely excellent songs, You Carried Me is a nice piece of pop rock that does not do anything complicated but contains some strong melodies and a decent chorus. While not as layered or as interesting as many of the other songs here, there is something to be said for the song's ability to create a joyful melody with ease. It will never be seen as one of the album's best, it injects some pop into the more atmospheric mood of the rest of the album and it provides a nice change of pace. Like the First Time has a really folky vibe, at least in Wharton's vocal melodies. It sounds like he is singing one of those old traditional songs that have been sung by singers for hundreds of years, and incorporating these melodies into this song works well. Like many other songs on this album, the chorus is really rather strong, with plenty of guitar leads to boost the mood. The shredding outro is probably the most high-energy guitar moment of the album, and it comes out of the blue but it works well. The album comes to a close with the beautiful soft rock of Along the Heather that features Wharton's son Paris on guitar. This is another stand out song, with another great upbeat chorus that features some big ringing piano notes that cut through the mix to create a great contrast with Wharton's voice. Paris Wharton proves himself to a be a great guitarist too, with some soulful leads, and a great solo, which are in keeping with Burns' style on the rest of the album. It is one the album's best solos too, so I would not be surprised if we hear more from him in the future. It ensures the album ends on a high, and is one of the more memorable songs here. Overall, Sacred Ground is a great album from a band that never really got the press or critical acclaim that they deserve. It makes me realise that I need to go back and catch up on their more recent discography as, if they are all as good as this, there will be lots to enjoy!

The album was released on 15th July 2016 via Legend Records. Below is the band's promotional trailer for the album which features music from many of the songs mentioned above.

Monday, 29 August 2016

Queensrÿche - London Review

It does not seem that long ago that I last saw Queensrÿche live. Since regrouping with current frontman Todd La Torre in 2012, Queensrÿche have been touring a lot. There have been three UK tours in that time too, and I have been at every one. Last year the band, along with Armored Saint and Death Angel, rocked the Electric Ballroom in Camden on the eve of Bloodstock Open Air, which was a great start to the weekend of music for me, but this year the band return to the slightly smaller O2 Academy in Islington for a show at the back end of August this time. It seems a shame the band have gone for a smaller venue this time, as there was a big crowd in the Electric Ballroom last year, but I suppose the overall bill was a greater draw than just Queensrÿche on their own. That being said, the Islington Academy seems to the be the go-to venue for metal bands that are not massive these days, and the atmosphere and sound there is always pretty good. Being a Sunday, the door time was quite early (6pm) so it took a while for the crowd to grow. The first support band were playing to a pretty small crowd, which was a shame, but by the time Queensrÿche hit the stage the place was full.

Before that however the crowd were treated to two genuinely great support slots, with the first coming from Italian progressive rock band Methodica. They were definitely more a rock band than a metal band, despite a few heavier sections throughout, and their music was more atmospheric than riff-based, with Marco Baschera's keyboards playing a big role. In placed they reminded me a bit of Circus Maximus, but there are really no other bands I can compare them to. They certainly have their own sound, and write successful prog songs without ever really descending into showboating. Frontman Massimo Piubelli has a great voice too, slightly lower than average, but his emotional delivery is a little reminiscent to Steve Hogarth's early work with Marillion. They only played for a round half an hour, but they made a really strong impression on me throughout the whole of their set. They seemed to go down well with the crowd, and their merch table was pretty busy after their set. I bought a copy of their latest album The Wisdom of Silence, which the band all signed, and I look forward to giving this a proper listen at some point over the next few days.

Up next was Archer Nation (although sometimes they seem to just be called Archer, so that's confusing!) from California. Where Methodica were laid back and atmospheric, Archer Nation were in your face and heavy. While they were fast, I would not call them a thrash band (despite an excellent cover of Megadeth's Tornado of Souls turning up half way through their set) as they had too many traits of classic heavy metal for that. For a three-piece they made a racket, and Dylan Rose (vocals/guitar) churned out so many great riffs and solos it was like his life depended on it. He was a pretty strong singer too, with plenty of grit but still with the knack for a strong melody. Their entire set was like a whirlwind, with each song being played at breakneck speed. The aforementioned cover of Tornado of Souls of course stood out simply as it was the only song I knew, and Rose nailed Marty Friedman's complex solo, but it did not overshadow their own excellent songs. Unfortunately, after buying Methodica's album, I had no more cash on me so I could not buy a copy of Archer Nation's album. I have already ordered one online however, so look forward to giving it a play when it turns up!

After seeing two such great an varied support slots, which is a testament to Queensrÿche's own diversity that two such different acts do not feel a mismatch on the same bill, it was almost easy to forget that I was really here to see one of my very favourite bands. As soon as the band stepped onto the stage however, this was no longer a worry and the band performed a passionate set with songs from throughout their career. They ripped straight into Guardian from their latest album, and the anthemic chorus saw lots of fist pumping and singing from those around me. The vast majority of the set from their glory days however, with quite a few different songs from those played on their last couple of UK tours. Operation: Mindcrime was a great follow-up to Guardian, with a similar anthemic vibe, before those instantly recognisable keyboards heralded the start of Best I Can which saw the most audience participation yet. La Torre, now four years into his role as Queensrÿche frontman, sounds even more comfortable and confident in the role now. He injects a little more of his own vocal styles into the songs, sounding rawer and rougher than Geoff Tate in places, but it works and helps to give the band a heavier sound. Parker Lundgren (guitar/vocals) seems to take on more of the guitar solos too now, especially on those songs I had not heard the band do before. It is good that him and founding member Michael Wilton (guitar) are splitting lead duties a little more evenly now, as Lundgren is a great player and deserves to show off sometimes! The set took a bit of a darker turn then with the groovy Damaged, which saw Scott Rockenfield (drums) lay down one of the best drum grooves this side of Jeff Porcaro, and the synthy The Killing Words which has another great chorus for the fans to sink their teeth into.

The ballad Silent Lucidity came about half way through as a nice change of pace, before Empire hit hard. One of the best songs from the band's latest album was also played. Eddie Jackson's (bass guitar/vocals) Eye9 is so typically Queensrÿche it could have sat happily on 1986's Rage for Order and deserves it's place in this set. I did find it strange that only two songs from last year's excellent Condition Hüman were played however. I shall digress a little here to make a slight complaint about the set. I know that Queensrÿche have never featured much new material in their sets since hiring La Torre, but this is the Condition Hüman tour after all! A couple more songs from that would have been great, and would have taken the set to around the 90 minute mark. 75 minutes is short for a headline act these days, and throwing in a couple more new songs would have made it that bit longer. I know both Arrow of Time and Bulletproof have been played live in the past, so they would not even have to really rehearse anything else! Anyway, that complaint aside, the show was fantastic so I shall get back to it! Queen of the Reich sounds as good as ever live, and La Torre really nails that opening scream that defines the song. I imagine this song will now be played at every Queensrÿche show until they split up! Jet City Woman and Take Hold of the Flame brought the main set to an end, and the crowd were baying for more. They got two more, starting with the industrial-tinged Screaming in Digital with those abrasive 1980s synth sounds and Jackson proved himself to be a great singer duetting with La Torre in the chorus. The show ended with the bona fide classic Eyes of a Stranger and brought a huge cheer as it came to a close. The setlist was:

Operation: Mindcrime
Best I Can
The Killing Words
The Mission
Silent Lucidity
Queen of the Reich
Jet City Woman
Take Hold of the Flame
Screaming in Digital
Eyes of a Stranger

My complaint about the length and inclusion of new songs aside, this was a truly masterful live display from one of the best progressive metal bands ever. It seems silly to even complain at all when the set and performance was as good as it was, but I generally wish bands would play more new material and have confidence in what they are doing now as well as their legacy! I am sure Queensrÿche will be back to the UK again soon, and I will be first in line for tickets as always! It was also great to see two fantastic unknown support acts too, that really is a rarity!

Saturday, 27 August 2016

Bloodstock Open Air 2016

I had only been back home from my weekend at the Cambridge Rock Festival for a few days before I was off again to Bloodstock Open Air for another great weekend of music. Due to the Cambridge Rock Festival taking a break, I made my first trip to Catton Park for what is probably the UK's best metal festival last year and had a good time. It was my first big open air camping festival, and the line-up was pretty solid across the three days I was there (I missed the Thursday there last year). This time however I was there for the whole festival, as there was not another gig that was tempting me away this year! The journey up from Plymouth that involved two trains and a bus was not too bad, but it meant I was setting up my tent while the music had just started. The Thursday night at Bloodstock is more of a warm up, with music only happening on the Sophie Lancaster Stage (called the Second Stage from now on), with the main programme of music starting on Friday. I make a rookie mistake last year with my decision to pitch my tent right on the path in the Midgard campsite, which turned out to be the one where most of the late night partying happens. As a result I barely slept all weekend so vowed to find somewhere else to camp next time! This time I tried the Asgard campsite right by the main festival entrance which I thought would be far enough away from the festival site and Midgard to reduce noise as much as possible. My plan worked too, and where I chose to pitch my tent was pretty quiet throughout the whole weekend. I slept really well for the vast majority of the weekend (with the exception of the final night before going home, bu that was due to the cold rather than the noise!) so I will definitely camp in Asgard again if I return to Bloodstock in future. While I was sorting myself out, music had started playing but from what I could hear it was some fairly generic death metal so I was not upset about missing out. I had been told that the prog band Sümer were worth going to see so I had planned to make it down to the main festival site in time to see them. I was ready slightly before that however, so I decided to take a walk around the site before Sümer's set. The layout was exactly the same as last year, with enough room between the stages to reduce noise bleed as much as possible but close enough to walk between them all very easily. There were plenty of food outlets too, with lots of variety to choose from, but lots of it was really very expensive for what it was. I know festival crowds are captive audiences and prices are always above average at these things, but some of the stalls really did push the limit of what was acceptable. By now it was time for Sümer's set, so I headed over to the Second Stage to watch them...

On an evening filled with heavier bands, Sümer's brand of alternative/progressive metal was a breath of fresh air. The band are clearly influenced by modern prog bands like Riverside, but also by the post-rock movement with their discordant and sometimes droning instrumental sections. There were also sections of their music that reminded me somewhat of Halo Blind! Sümer impressed me though, and were one of the most interesting discoveries of my weekend. I shall do some research on them in the future, and keep an eye out for their tour dates.

I had a look in the second hand CD and vinyl stall afterwards. I made a couple of purchases here throughout the weekend, but a decent-looking vinyl copy of Foreigner's Double Vision for £3 that was hidden in amoungst a selection of heavier LPs was the pick of the bunch. I doubt Foreigner were on the forefront of many Bloodstock goer's minds but I was happy for the bargain! I took it back to my tent and decided to have a little rest. Due to spending two weekends in a row in tents, it did not take it long for me to start flagging. I was quiet tired throughout the weekend, so I took as many little rests as I could to try and stay as fresh as possible to enjoy the music. I headed back to the festival site in time to catch the day's headliners headliners...

Phil Campbell and the Bastard Sons:
Recently re-branded, Phil Campbell and the Bastard Sons are now the sole musical outlet for Phil Campbell (guitars/vocals) since the dissolution of Motörhead since the sad death of Lemmy last year. Campbell, joined by some competent musicians (some of which are his sons), now tours playing hits from his days in Motörhead as well some of his favourite classic rock covers. They opened with a song called Big Mouth however, which was the only song in the set that was not a cover. I know Campbell is currently working on his first solo album, so maybe this song will appear on there. It was quite a good song, and I would like to hear a recorded version of it sometime in the future. Other highlights included a great version of Black Sabbath's Sweet Leaf and ZZ Top's Sharp Dressed Man. The real highlight of the set however was a stunning version of the late Motörhead classic Born to Raise Hell which saw Twisted Sister's Dee Snider take to the stage to sing the song in tribute to Lemmy. It was one of the those great, unexpected concert moments, and the packed tent erupted and sung along with Snider in unison. Ace of Spades and Killed by Death both went down a storm too, and the set ended with a great version of Hawkwind's Silver Machine. Despite basically being a covers band (although the best covers band you will ever see), Phil Campbell and the Bastard Sons really got the party at Bloodstock going and were a perfect closing act for the opening night. The setlist was:

Big Mouth
Deaf Forever [Motörhead cover]
Nothing Up my Sleeve [Motörhead cover]
Sweet Leaf [Black Sabbath cover]
R.A.M.O.N.E.S. [Motörhead cover]
Orgasmatron [Motörhead cover]
Sharp Dressed Man [ZZ Top cover]
Born to Raise Hell [Motörhead cover w/ Dee Snider]
"Heroes" [David Bowie cover]
Ace of Spades [Motörhead cover]
Killed by Death [Motörhead cover]
Silver Machine [Hawkwind cover]

After that triumphant set from Campbell and his band, it was time for bed. As I said earlier, sleep came very easily to me throughout the festival and I even managed to have something of a lie in the following morning! I was not cooking any breakfasts for myself this time either, so that extra time in bed was most welcome and stopped the mornings from becoming too boring. Friday promised to be a rather full on day of music, so I headed into the area early enough to catch the opening band on the Second Stage...

Fury are an English traditional/power metal band from Worcester and they had the unenviable task of opening the music on the Second Stage. That being said, their set turned out to be a triumph, as metalheads had turned out in quite considerable numbers for the time of day to catch one of the few out-and-out melodic metal acts of the weekend. While I felt the vocals were a little weak compared to many other bands in the genre, the twin lead guitar playing was fantastic and the songwriting was generally very strong. They only had about half an hour on stage, but they made it count with a punchy set of well-crafted melodic metal. There seemed to be quite a few Fury fans in the crowd, as was evidenced by the cheer, and the crowd sing-a-long, for the power ballad Britannia which came towards the end of the set. The band impressed me, and I shall definitely be checking them out in the future.

As soon as Fury had finished it was time to head over to the Ronnie James Dio Stage (called the Main Stage from now on) to catch my first band of the weekend on the 'big' stage...

Gloryhammer have become incredibly popular in a short space of time, and their Rhapsody of Fire-esque epic power metal both celebrates and lampoons the genre in equal measure. Despite suffering from poor sound throughout their set (the Main Stage was plagued with iffy sound throughout the weekend, not helped by some surprisingly high winds at times) the English band made the most of their time on stage with a set of well-crafted and melodic power metal. I saw the band supporting Blind Guardian in May, and the set seemed to be pretty much (if not exactly) the same as then, but this was no issue as the songs they have picked to play live are the most anthemic and enjoyable in the band's catalogue. The between song banter, which again was almost identical to the show in May, really does wear thin after a while however, and it just makes you wish they had played an extra song instead! That being said, songs like Legend of the Astral Hammer and The Unicorn Invasion of Dundee are guaranteed to get a metal party started, and the large crowd that was gathered to see them lapped it up. I am sure Gloryhammer will be back at the festival in the future.

After Gloryhammer's good set, I headed back over to the Second Stage to catch:

There was a distinct lack of progressive music at Bloodstock this year, so while Brutai are not the best example of the genre, I went to check them out anyway to hear something different. I have heard some of their songs online and thought they sounded quite good, but I did not think their performance at Bloodstock was that strong. For a start, there was a pitifully small crowd in the tent to watch them (they clashed with Evil Scarecrow, who are a Bloodstock favourite although I really do not get the hype surrounding them) which really killed any atmosphere the band were trying to create, and the subtitles of the band's music that is present in their studio recordings are just lost live. I like the mix of clean and harsh vocals, and some of the riffs are great, but for some reason their performance just came over as flat. I also felt that their keyboard player was hugely underused, and often was relegated to banging on a floor tom for extra percussion, and this meant the band missed out on the layers of sound and melody that keyboards can give when they are used at their best. While I have enjoyed the band on record in the past, I am not convinced by them as live act and came away from their set disappointed.

I had a bit of a break for food and a chill out after Brutai's set, but it was not long before I was back at the Second Stage for...

I cannot say that I went to see Meta-Stasis with any expectation to genuinely enjoy them (and I did not really) but I went to be entertained and I was! This band seem to have filled the void left by The Defiled's break-up, with their heavy, industrial-laced sound, and grimy look. They are much heavier than The Defiled ever were however, and bring to mind early Slipknot at times with their groovy riffing and barked vocals. Their stage antics and crowd interaction was top-notch, and there was quite a good-sized crowd in the tent for their set, which was a stark contrast to Brutai's set earlier in the day. I cannot say that I will ever be a fan of this band, as there is next to no real melody in their music, but they were tight and heavy and created a great atmosphere during their short set. Entertaining if nothing else!

There was a bit of lull for me after their set, so it was back to the tent for a short nap to catch up on energy for long evening ahead. Feeling more refreshed, it was back to the Main Stage for the first act announced for this year's Bloodstock...

I have never been a massive Venom fan, but I was not going to pass up on a chance to see the British extreme metal pioneers playing a rare UK show. It had been 10 years since Cronos (vocals/bass guitar) and his band had played a gig in the UK, so they were one of the biggest draws of the festival for a lot of metal fans. Rather unsurprisingly there was a large crowd gathered for their hour long set which seemed to be pretty well received. I am pretty unfamiliar with the band's work, but the thrashy, heavier take on the NWOBHM that they play came across well live, despite a fairly rough live sound. I did find guitarist La Rage's (what is up with these awful stage names?) tone pretty harsh on the ears however, especially during his fairly tuneless solos. When the band were rocking however, they stirred up some real energy which was great, backed up by drummer Dante who has some serious chops. Cronos' between-song banter and crowd interaction was extremely annoying however. He moaning about playing in the day, he moaned about not being able to get enough UK shows (if bands no-one has heard of can play to 10 people in a bar, I am sure Venom can get booked somewhere - probably just in smaller venues than Cronos thinks they deserve), and he moaning about not playing at Download. He just came across as bitter the whole way through, despite his dry Northern sense of humour, and it rather put a cloud over what was a largely decent set. I cannot say that I have come away a Venom fan, but I am glad that I have has the chance to see them.

Up next on the Main Stage were Behemoth. While the Polish black metal band will never be a favourite of mine, I own a few of their albums and do enjoy listening to them from time to time. Like Venom, their performance was announced at last year's festival to build some hype for this one. It was also announced at the time that they were going to be performing their latest album The Satanist in full. The album is one of their best-received pieces of work, and an album I genuinely enjoy quite a lot so I was looking forward to this set. Unfortunately, the sound throughout Behemoth's whole set was really poor, and that hampered my enjoyment of it. Music like this needs to be extremely tight with powerful, clear live sound to work. You could tell the band were tight and were putting on a good show, but the sound was so muddy that it lost all of it's power. This was a shame, as Behemoth have an excellent reputation as a live band and it seemed that this performance will not go down as one of their best. That being said, the show was great. Nergal (vocals/guitars) prowled the stage with his various capes, masks, and props as he brought the visceral album to life, and he proved himself to be one of the best frontmen in the genre. I enjoyed the set, despite the poor sound, but it just makes me wish to see them again in a proper venue where the sound will no doubt do the band justice.

Twisted Sister:
Headling the Main Stage on the Friday night were American metal legends Twisted Sister. The band are currently on their farewell tour, and this performance at Bloodstock was their last ever live show in the UK, which make this an event rather than just a normal rock show! I had never seen the band before, so this was one of the reasons I bought my ticket for the festival this year in the first place. I have been a big fan of the band for a few years, and I was not about to pass up the opportunity to see them live for the first (and only) time. Rather unsurprisingly, a huge crowd was gathered throughout the set, and the noise created from the fans was easily the loudest of the whole weekend. The set was packed full of classic songs, and the opening double salvo of What You Don't Know (Sure Can Hurt You) and The Kids are Back really got the party started as frontman Dee Snider strutted his stuff screaming the lyrics at the huge crowd and Eddie Ojeda (guitar/vocals) peeled off the energetic guitar solos with ease. Despite coming of age in the time of hair metal, Twisted Sister were always heavier and rawer than that, but still manage to create a feel-good party atmosphere with their snarling, anarchic music. Early highlights were the theatrical Like a Knife in the Back and, after a heartfelt thank you speed from founding member Jay Jay French (guitar/vocals), the anthemic The Fire Still Burns which saw a massive roar from the crowd. Snider then explained that I Am (I'm Me) was their first hit single over here in the UK, and even got them on Top of the Pops, so they proceeded to play it and the whole place was jumping. I do not think it can be understated how good Snider is as a frontman, and he has to be one of the best (if not the best) that I have ever seen live. He really knows what to say (being rude about Download as they would not book Twisted Sister saw huge cheers) and always has the crowd eating out of his hands. I Wanna Rock unsurprisingly was one of the best-received songs of the night, but it was the power ballad The Price that was my personal highlight. It was lovingly dedicated to those legends of rock who have died recently, including Lemmy and the band's own A.J. Pero, and Ojeda's soaring leads and the heartfelt chorus really summed that tribute up. The set came to an end with the epic We're not Gonna Take It, which was extended with lots of crowd interaction, and a punky take on The Rolling Stones' It's Only Rock 'n' Roll (But I Like It) which they used to play a lot in their early club days. There was of course to be an encore, and the band were given permission to play for longer than they were originally allotted. That meant three more songs an some extended thank you speeches came next, including a great version of Shoot 'em Down from their first album, and their ode to the fans S.M.F. which closed out one of the best festival headline sets I have ever seen. The setlist was:

What You Don't Know (Sure Can Hurt You)
The Kids are Back
Burn in Hell
Like a Knife in the Back
You Can't Stop Rock 'n' Roll
The Fire Still Burns
I Am (I'm Me)
I Wanna Rock
The Price
I Believe in Rock 'n' Roll
Under the Blade
We're Not Gonna Take It
It's Only Rock 'n' Roll (But I Like It) [The Rolling Stones cover]
Come Out and Play
Shoot 'em Down

Due to the fact that Twisted Sister started late and went over their allotted time, I decided to give Diamond Head a miss on the Second Stage. I had wanted to see them, but they were already a good way through their set by the time I was walking past. I was feeling very tired by this point, and was in the mindset that nothing I could see could beat the set I had just seen. I headed off to bed, and managed an excellent night's sleep with a pretty long lie-in - I must have needed it. Saturday was easily the weakest full day of a festival, with few must-see acts for me. Due to my lie-in, I was getting ready while Cambion were playing on the Main Stage (I could hear them from the campsite), and by the time I headed down to the festival site, Kill II This were playing. Their 1990s style nu-metal did nothing for me whatsoever, and judging by the fairly small crowd gathered I cannot have been alone in this. I had some paella for lunch, which was really delicious, and hung around until...

Despite not being a huge fan of death metal I do own both of Vallenfyre's albums. The band were formed in 2010 by Paradise Lost guitarist Gregor Mackintosh to play heavier music than his day job. Instead of playing guitar in Vallenfyre however, Mackintosh sings and it turns out he possesses some serious harsh vocal power. Vallenfyre are extremely heavy, with a very raw, dirty sound that suits Mackintosh's rough voice. There was a decent-sized crowd gathered for their set, and there was probably the slowest circle pit of the weekend during one of their songs. Mackintosh instigated this as part of his dry Northern sense of humour, but it worked as their music has a big doom influence in it. This was easily the heaviest set that I saw all weekend, and it was a stand-out set in a day that did not hold much in store for me personally.

I headed back to the tent afterwards as I was not interested in Akercocke's set, but ventured back in time to catch the last few songs of Rotting Christ's set. I did not see enough of them to really judge properly, but what I heard I liked. Their symphonic death metal was really interesting, and I shall definitely have to give them a proper listen at some point! Despite not really being a Fear Factory fan, I wanted to check them out as they are one of the most legendary metal bands from the 1990s, but a couple of numbers into their Main Stage set I was reminded as to why I have never got on with them. There is little melody in their music, and Burton C. Bell's live vocals border on terrible. As you can imagine, I did not stick around for long. After them on the Main Stage however were...

Paradise Lost:
The English doom/goth band were easily my most anticipated band of the day having seen them put on good shows twice before. Despite this showing not being as strong as the other time seeing them, they seemed to be going through the motions somewhat, you cannot doubt the quality of the material on show. Playing a good mix from their melodic middle career albums, and their heavier bookend works, the set was varied and had something to please everyone. Three from their heavy latest album The Plague Within were featured, including the crushingly slow Beneath Broken Earth and the gothic opener No Hope in Sight. Greg Mackintosh (guitar), appearing on the Main Stage for his second show of the day, has always been a very underrated guitarist and showed why with tortured lead after tortured lead that really adds plenty of emotion to the band's sound. Frontman Nick Holmes was in fine voice, and humour, but for some reason their set lacked a certain spark. That being said, older single The Enemy is still a great live song, and the synthy closing number Say Just Words is always a fun song to sing along to. Paradise Lost can, and will, do better; but this was still an enjoyable set from a veteran band who are well liked in the scene. The setlist was:

No Hope in Sight
Pity the Sadness
Hallowed Land
Flesh from Bone
Beneath Broken Earth
The Enemy
The Last Time
Embers Fire
Say Just Words

I saw bits of both Gojira and Mastodon, but neither really did much for me. I saw Gojira supporting Trivium nearly ten years ago (and will see them later this year with Alter Bridge), but their techy metal does nothing for me despite them being technically excellent. Mastodon are a band I have never been able to get into either, despite numerous attempts to and liking the odd song. I spend most of their set with a friend which seemed like a much better use of my time. As I have said before, I was quite disappointed with Saturday's line-up, and it did not help that it was sandwiched in between two pretty full days of music. Still, I went to bed that night fairly happy as I knew there was a lot for me to see on the festival's final day. Sunday was pretty full on, so another good night's sleep was extremely welcome. The day got off to a pretty bad start however with the dreary black metal of Ghost Bath who, despite a genuinely excellent piano number to end the set, managed to sound utterly horrible throughout with wordless vocal screams thrown in at random during every song and very few actual lyrics to speak of. I cannot think of much else to say about them, apart from they are one of the worst bands I have ever seen live. Luckily after them things picked up with...

Heart of a Coward:
This metalcore quintet from Milton Keynes managed to blow away the cobwebs from Ghost Bath's horror show, and produced the first good set in a line of many seen from Bloodstock's Sunday bill. I had seen the band as a support a couple of times in the past, and have enjoyed them, but I feel this performance was the best I have seen from them. I was quite surprised at the size of the crowd gathered to watch them, as I would have thought their sound was a bit too polished and mainstream (for want for a better word) for many of those at Bloodstock, but it seemed that quite a lot of the large crowd enjoyed their set. There were plenty of circle pits opening up as their played and their techy, downtuned riffs went down a storm. Jamie Graham (vocals) is a great frontman too, and really managed to work the crowd up into a frenzy at times, which was impressive for a band on so early in the day. I expect they went home with a few new fans, and it reminded me that I really need to give their albums a proper listen!

There was a bit of drifting about for a couple of hours until the real full-on home run of bands at the end of the day. I saw bits of Unearth, Metal Allegiance, and Satyricon on the Main Stage during this time, and Divine Chaos on the Second Stage. Neither of these bands really stood out for me, but none of them were awful, and I was entertained flitting between different things. The last four bands on the Main Stage were the ones I was looking forward to the most however, and it was easily the best run of bands of the whole weekend for me. This golden patched started strongly with...

In a line-up that was fairly devoid of good quality power metal (with the exception of Gloryhammer) DragonForce stood out as one of the best representations the genre has to offer. While derided in the past for poor live performances, the band have upped their game over the past few years with a tighter live show and some genuinely excellent albums. Despite illness that had effected him before the show (and, sadly, since) frontman Marc Hudson performed and did not display any signs of weakness. Technical difficulties at the start of their set reduced the time they were on stage, but they made their five songs count with a powerful and tight performance. Five DragonForce songs still take up quite a bit of time however, so there was no feeling of being short changed, despite being left wanting more at the end. Holding On was a fantastic opening number, and the newer epic Symphony of the Night, which contains one of Hudson's best vocal performances, was really well received and driven by Vadim Pruzhanov (keyboards) horror-influenced harpsichord. Cry Thunder was one of the anthems of the weekend, and saw the large crowd fist-pumping along with the band and singing the chorus with all their might. It is good to see that more metal fans are embracing DragonForce now, as they are a great fun live band. The set came to an end, unsurprisingly, with Through the Fire and Flames that saw plenty of air guitaring mimicking the on-stage antics of guitarists Herman Li and Sam Totman. Overall, despite the technical issues and dodgy sound for the first number or so, this was a fantastic set. The setlist was:

Holding On
My Spirit Will Go On
Symphony of the Night
Cry Thunder
Through the Fire and Flames

Symphony X:
Following on from DragonForce's high-energy set were American progressive metal giants Symphony X. I finally saw the band for the first time back in February at the Islington Assembly Hall, and it stands out as one of the best performances I have seen this year so far. The sheer energy the band manage to create on stage despite playing technically challenging and complex material is astounding, and as a result this was one of my most anticipated sets of the weekend. The band did not disappoint, and this was easily my second favourite set of the weekend after Twisted Sister. Despite a smaller crowd than is average for a slot this late in the day, Symphony X were a triumph at their first Bloodstock, and I am sure they won many sceptical metalheads over with their performance. Their set was a condensed version of what they played earlier in the year, with material from their latest album Underworld dominating the show. The first six songs played (seven if you include the intro) were from this album, with the thrashy Kiss of Fire being an early highlight and showed why Russell Allen (vocals) is probably the best out and out metal singer in the world right now. His diversity is incredible, and he has the stage presence to match. Michael Romeo (guitar/vocals) was probably the best technical player on display all weekend, and his stunning riffs and neo-classical soloing was on point throughout the set. The Underworld portion of the set came to a close with the epic To Hell and Back with Allen wearing various masks throughout the performance of the song for theatrical affect. The only negative aspect of the set was that Michael Pinnella's keyboards were often buried in the mix, meaning the atmospheric and symphonic elements of the band's sound were often drowned out. Three older songs followed, including the Malmsteen-esque Sea of Lies, the groovy Serpent's Kiss which was the only song played that did not feature in their London set, and the triumphant set closer Set the World on Fire (The Lie of Lies). This final song had even the most casual fans singing along loudly, and brought their majestic set to a powerful end. Bloodstock needs more bands like this in the future, and they are a good change from all the thrash and extreme metal. The setlist was:

Kiss of Fire
Without You
Run with the Devil
To Hell and Back
Sea of Lies
Serpent's Kiss
Set the World on Fire (The Lie of Lies)

Anthrax are one of the best live thrash bands around, so a special guest slot from them as the penultimate band of the weekend was always going to be something special. Since I last saw the band, supporting Slayer in Plymouth last November, they have released the album For all Kings which was heavily featured in their hour-long set at the festival. Despite having seen the band twice previously, this was the first time I saw them play with Charlie Benante (drums), who seems to sit out more live dates than the plays these days. This set was a total whirl of energy, and the new number You Gotta Believe really set the tone for the rest of the show and worked well as an set opener. As expected, there was a very large crowd gathered for Anthrax's set, and there was plenty of movement and circle pit action going on throughout. Caught in a Mosh and Madhouse really got the old-school fans rocking as these bona fide thrash classics filled the festival site with noise backed up by Scott Ian's (guitar/vocals) powerful riffs. Frontman Joey Belladonna was in fine voice throughout, although he shone the most during the newer numbers. Fight 'em 'til You Can't has become a true live classic now, and was greeted by almost as bigger a cheer as the older numbers. One of the real highlights of the set for me was Breathing Lightning from the new album, as it features a killer chorus that really came across well live. The set ended with an extended version of Indians, and one of the biggest circle pits opened during the wardance section and ensured the set ended on a high. Anthrax always deliver live, and this was no exception, and was one of the best sets of the weekend. The setlist was:

You Gotta Believe
Caught in a Mosh
Got the Time [Joe Jackson cover]
Fight 'em 'til You Can't
Evil Twin
 [Trust cover]
Breathing Lightning

While Slayer will never be one of my favourite bands, they are indisputable legends and have a reputation and legacy perfect for headlining Bloodstock. I saw the band for the first time in Plymouth last November and enjoyed the show, so was looking forward to seeing them again. Slayer are definitely past their prime when it comes to playing live, and are surprisingly static for a band who has created some of the fasted and most vicious thrash metal music ever. There is sometimes a feel of a band going through the motions when watching Slayer live these days, but the songs are still there, and a surprisingly decent live sound mix at Bloodstock made their set enjoyable and a perfect closing to a good weekend. Songs from throughout their career were played, with the title track of their latest album Repentless opening things up. There were plenty of oldies for the long-time fans, including The Antichrist from their debut album and Hell Awaits late on from their second. It took the crowd a while to get going, but by War Ensemble they were really into it with plenty of moshing and movement happening. Tom Araya (vocals/bass guitar) was in fine voice, but his strange between-song chats made it seem like he was not all that interested in being there at times, which was a shame. That being said, guitarists Kerry King and Gary Holt were rocking out, churning out those caustic riffs and peeling of shredded solos in every song. The last portion of the set was easily the best, with the doomy Seasons in the Abyss really standing out, as did the mid-paced chug of South of Heaven. Raining Blood and Angel of Death are two of the best thrash songs ever written, so it was fitting that they ended the set (and by extension, the festival) with these pit anthems. There had been better sets at the festival, but Slayer's set was still enjoyable and they had the stage show to go with it (inverted crosses shooting fire are always going to go down well at a metal festival!). The setlist was:

Delusions of Savior
The Antichrist
Hate Worldwide
War Ensemble
When the Stillness Comes
You Against You
Mandatory Suicide
Fight Till Death
Die by the Sword
Born of Fire
Seasons of the Abyss
Dead Skin Mask
Hell Awaits
South of Heaven
Raining Blood
Angel of Death

Overall, this was another great weekend of live music, my second is as many weeks. Despite a fairly poor line-up on the Saturday, and a lack of really good melodic metal at times, I had a great time and saw lots of fantastic bands. Twisted Sister were easily the main highlight, followed closely by Symphony X and Anthrax. There are a few bands I could not see due to clashes, and I am gutted that I could not see Whispered, Pythia, and One Machine due to this. Myrath pulling out for unknown (and seemingly covered up - there was not an official announcement for days and the band never seemed to acknowledge it) reasons was a huge disappointment. Whether I return to Bloodstock next year will depend on the band's playing, but this year was pretty good, and I hope to see the festival return again stronger next year.

Saturday, 20 August 2016

Cambridge Rock Festival 2016

After a break last year one of the UK's best small rock festivals, the Cambridge Rock Festival, was back this year for it's twelfth edition. I have been going since 2008, and camped since 2009, and the weekend is always a good opportunity to relax with some good music and discover new bands. The festival is much smaller than others of it's ilk, which is part of the attraction for the festival regulars, and it means the food and drink prices are cheaper than at some of the more corporate affairs. The drive up to the festival site, which is polo club just outside Cambridge, from Cornwall is always a bit of a drag, but stopping off for an all-you-can-eat fry up at Taunton helps and we made good time and got to the site around 1:30pm. Unlike other years however, the festival was already in full swing by the time we got there. The Thursday night is usually a truncated day filled with tribute bands, but this year the festival had extended itself by a day into the Wednesday to stage a charity gig for Addenbrooke's Charitable Trust. This was announced fairly late, so we could not make this day too, which unfortunately meant missing Deep Purple keyboardist Don Airey and his band who no doubt were fantastic. The Thursday was still seen as the start of the festival however, but this time featuring a full day of music, despite still being dominated by tribute bands. The weather was fantastic throughout the weekend, which made a pleasant change from two years ago, which helped to create an excellent atmosphere throughout. The site was somewhat different this year, with the Main Stage and the Second Stage swapped around. The selection of food was also greater than the last couple of years at least, with a good mix of different things to eat which meant that you did not have to repeat yourself if you did not want to. One gripe I do have this year however is the sheer amount of blues acts booked. While the Second Stage has always been a Blues Stage for at least two days of previous years, this year the Second Stage was a Blues Stage for the whole festival. While I am aware that blues music is popular, most of the bands on that stage are no better than what you can find playing at your average pub on a Saturday night. This, coupled with some blues acts being booked on the Main Stage too, meant there was rather an over-saturation of blues which left some rather large gaps between decent bands a lot of the time. I hope this balance gets re-addressed next year with a greater diversity in genres represented. Another observation I made throughout the weekend was that the attendance seemed to be less than previous years. Things picked up on Sunday with the obvious addition of day-ticket holders, but overall crowds seemed smaller than in previous years which is a real shame. If festivals like this are to survive, they need people to support them and I hope this will not have affected finances too much!

Enough of the general observations however, and down to specifics. After getting the tent up, I wandered down to the main festival site and a female-fronted Led Zeppelin tribute band called Miss-Led were just finishing. I saw the majority of the Santana tribute band Oye Santana. I am not a big fan of Santana's music, but the set was quite good and had a good chilled out vibe to get things off to a good start. The roots rock of Creedence Clearwater Revival does nothing for me so I skipped their tribute band in favour of some dinner. I also saw a few songs by The Clan on the Blues Stage who seemed to be ok but nothing really stood out about their performance. The set on Thursday night however that I was looking forward to catching was...

Atomic Rooster:
Of all the 1970s classic rock bands out there, Atomic Rooster are the ones I know the least about. When I saw that classic-era members Pete French (vocals) and Steve Bolton (guitar) had put the band back together and were going to play the CRF, I thought this was a good chance to check them out. and their hour long set was an enjoyable and rocking affair. I had always thought of the band as more of a prog band, but this set showed them to be a high-energy rock band with some memorable songs. While the first portion of the set contained the better songs, they held my attention throughout and I have already decided to invest in some of their albums. The single Tomorrow Night was an early highlight, and the instrumental that came about half of the way through the set which I do not know the name of was fantastic too. It featured Bolton and Christian Madden (keyboards) trading solos and just generally rocking out throughout. This was a strong set from a newly-reformed band, and it really got the festival going for me. It is just a shame that they were sandwiched between all the tribute bands, they would have been better off playing on one of the other days.

The CRF regulars The Pure Floyd Show, who I find to be one of the weaker Pink Floyd tribute bands out there, headlined the Thursday night so I took the opportunity to try and get a good night's sleep. Sleep came easier than at many of the previous festivals which was a blessing, and I felt quite refreshed by the morning ready for a full day of music. Breakfast was cooked on our little gas stove, before I headed down to the arena ready for music. Friday always sees one of the stages become the Classic Rock Society Stage (this year it was Stage 3) and they usually put on some good acts throughout the day. This year was no different, and first up on the Friday there were...

4th Labyrinth:
Opening one of the smaller stages at the CRF can often be a bit of a thankless task, but there was a quite a decent-sized crowd gathered to see Cambridge's own rockers 4th Labyrinth as they rocked through 45 minutes or so of diverse material. Led by songwriter Marcel Kunkel (vocals/keyboards), who's voice often sounded eerily like Opeth's Mikael Åkerfeldt, the band played a set compromised largely of their own material with a couple of choice covers thrown in. The band have released one album so far, Quattro Stagioni which was duly purchased after their set, and lots of the songs played came from this release. One song from the album in particular, the dense ballad Shining Star, stood out the most with solos from both of the band's guitarists. A rocking cover of Jethro Tull's Locomotive Breath went down a storm, with Kunkel's organ solo mid-way through being one of the best parts of the set. The best moment though was their heavier prog number Darkness Rising, which I assume will be featured on a future release, which really stole the show. 4th Labyrinth were one of the finds of the weekend for me, and I shall be keeping an eye on them in the future.

With nothing else tempting me for a little while, I headed back to the tent for a bit of sit down before heading back to the festival site an hour or so later to catch the end of Stone Wire's set on the CRS Stage. They were a spirited and gritty rock band with a female singer who were enjoyable but nothing more. I also took in some of Malcolm Bruce's set on the Main Stage not long after this, but found his material to be dreary and totally unmemorable. It was not long now until my most anticipated set of the day however, so I headed back to the CRS Stage while Halo Blind were setting up their gear...

Halo Blind:
Halo Blind are a band formed by Chris Johnson (vocals/guitar/keyboards), a veteran of the UK rock and prog scenes, to showcase his unique songwriting skills. Originally formed as Parade back in 2009, only Johnson remains from those early line-ups. The band is now more than a project however, as Andy Knights (vocals/guitar/keyboards/percussion) joined the band for their second album and now writes all of the band's material along with Johnson. The band's hour-long set was mostly drawn from their second album Occupying Forces, but a few new songs were debuted along with The Dogs from the band's first album. Halo Blind can best be described as alternative/progressive rock, and they have their own unique sound that sounded like nothing else on display at the festival. The Mostly Autumn connection ensured that the tent was pretty full for their set, and the band put on a fantastic display to the delight of those gathered. The aforementioned The Dogs was one of the best songs of the set, which Johnson sung beautifully from behind the keyboards. The real highlight of the set however was the final number, a new song that might be called Avalanche but I might have that wrong, that showcased yet more new sounds for the band. It had quite a funky feel, with Stuart Fletcher's bassline dominating and some electronica elements were thrown in for good measure. I look forward to the band's third album when it comes to be.

A quick trip over to the Main Stage after Halo Blind's set was in order to see Remus Down Boulevard. I was interested to see them as Dennis Stratton, formerly of Iron Maiden and Praying Mantis, is a member. You would never have thought this however, as the band's extremely generic and uninteresting blues rock just did nothing for me whatsoever, so I headed back to the CRS Stage to see the end of Jump's set. While there was a lot of Fish-era Marillion worship going on here, the songs were quite good, and I shall endeavour to check them out in future as I did not see much of their set here. The last full set that saw on the Friday was...

Voodoo Vegas:
One of the few proper hard rock acts of the weekend, Voodoo Vegas' hour-long set was easily the heaviest of the weekend, and featured lots of good old-fashioned choruses and guitar solos. Despite having only released one album so far, the band are masters of playing live and owned the stage while they were up there. Despite a decent-sized crowd being present throughout their set, I would have thought a few more people would have checked them out. I cannot say I am surprised, anything remotely heavy never seems to go down that well at the CRF (not bluesy or proggy enough obviously!). Despite this, those that were present had a great time and rocked out with the band as they played songs from their debut album and from their upcoming album that will see the light of day later this year. The highlight of the set was the hard rocking Bullet, which had one of the best choruses of the weekend, and plenty of great riffing from Meryl Hamilton (guitar) and Jon Dawson (guitar/vocals). The two make a formidable guitar attack, sharing riffs and solos throughout, and were easily the best twin-lead guitar partnership of the weekend. Frontman Lawrence Case was very engaging too, and managed to get a good response from the crowd in the end. He also played plenty of harmonica throughout, adding little touches of the blues to certain songs. I purchased their debut album The Rise of Jimmy Silver after the set, and will definitely look into getting their second one when it comes out.

Cregan & Co.'s headlining set on the Main Stage did very little for me, I am not a great lover of Rod Stewart, so I decided to head back to the tent for an early(ish) night after a couple of numbers. Again, I slept reasonably well and, after another bacon roll, headed down to the arena for another day of music. For me personally, Saturday was the weakest day of the festival with less bands than usual catching my attention. Derecho got things underway on the Main Stage and, despite having a fantastic singer, failed to impress. The songs just were not there, and the singer could do with finding herself a better band as she has some real talent. 4th Labyrinth played another set, on the Main Stage this time, and as it was much the same as the one on Friday I will not review them again, apart from to say that they were just as good the second time around. I headed back to the tent after their set for a bit of rest before heading back later to see the Bare Knuckle Blues Band on the Second Stage, as Tim Mills is a fantastic guitar player, but there seemed to have been a change and someone else was playing in their place. I never did find out what happened to Mills and his band! I wandered over to the Main Stage instead and caught a last few numbers of Walkway's set. I had seen this band at the CRF in the past and thought their set was filled with too many covers, but this time it seemed to be all original material (at least all I saw was) so that was a big improvement. The little I heard sounded quite good however, so I shall endeavour to give them a proper listen sometime in the future. Up next was one of the bands I had been looking forward to...

I saw this young progressive metal band at the CRF a few years ago, so was looking forward to seeing them again. As I said before, metal is not always something that goes down well at the festival, but these guys always seem to be popular and there was a decent-sized crowd watching them throughout. Their music is pretty melodic however without being overly heavy however, so that is probably why. Most of their songs are quite long, as you would expect, with the band's two guitarists working well together with intricate riffs and leads. I have heard their second album Caerus a couple of times but I am no expert on their music. Most of the set came from this album however, with Progress & Failure getting the set off to a good start, and the lengthy, epic The Black Hand rounding things off nicely. There was even a good cover of Thin Lizzy's Hollywood (Down on Your Luck) thrown in which was good, and saw a bit of singing from the crowd too. Overall, the band put on a good set packed with well-written songs that went down well with the crowd.

Colour of Noise:
Straight after HeKz' set on the Main Stage was Colour of Noise, a band who were added to the bill late to replace the Pink Fairies who had to pull out due to illness. I had not heard of the band before, but when I found out they featured Furyon singer Matt Mitchell and Little Angels' Bruce John Dickinson (guitar) I immediately ordered a copy of their debut album. I was impressed with the album so was really looking forward to their set and they did not disappoint. Unfortunately there were not that many people watching them, which I thought was a real shame for a band with some real rockers in the ranks, but they still played a fabulous set with nearly all of their debut album featured along with a newer song. You Only Call Me and Medicine Man got things off to a great start, but it was the melodic Head On, with Mitchell really nailing the chorus, that was the real highlight of the early part of the set. The faster, 1980s-style rock of Drive it Like You Stole It was another standout number, which strays somewhat from the band's Bad Company vibe to something more raucous. The new number Lucky Number Seven, which I assume will be featured on the band's next album, sounded strong before the set came to an end with the swampy groove rock of Heavy. Despite a disappointing turn out, Colour of Noise really gave it their all and rocked the Main Stage. The setlist was:

You Only Call Me
Medicine Man
Can You Hear Me?
Head On
Can't Take it With You
Rock Bottom
Drive it Like You Stole It
Lucky Number Seven
A Great Day for Rock and Roll

After Colour of Noise's great display of old-fashioned hard rock, I headed back to the tent for a bit of a break before heading back for something rather different on Stage 3...

Anne-Marie Helder:
Despite having seen Anne-Marie Helder live countless times as a member of Panic Room, Mostly Autumn, and Parade (an early version of Halo Blind), I had never seen one of her acoustic solo sets until now. Armed only with an acoustic guitar, Helder played for about 40 minutes and filled the packed tent with delicate but powerful acoustic music that was vastly different from the majority of things I had seen at the festival so far. I was unfamiliar with most of the material she played (the Luna Rossa song Secrets & Lies was the only song I had heard previously), but the songwriting was in her familiar and warm style. Despite some bleed from some of the other stages, her set went down well and was a  nice break from all the rock of the rest of the weekend.

After Helder's set it was across to the Main Stage to watch the start of Carl Palmer's ELP Legacy's headline set. I saw the first few numbers before retiring to bed. There was no doubting the musical talent on stage (Palmer is one of the defining rock drummers of the 1970s and the other two musicians with him were phenomenal players), but the exclusive instrumental nature of the music just was not my thing. Impressive, certainly, but not my cup of tea! After another reasonable night of sleep, I was up and refreshed ready for the final day of the weekend. The Sunday is always the best day of the Festival, with many of the best acts being saved until last. This year was no exception and it was a pretty full-on day of live music from start to finish. Opening the Main Stage were...

T Clemente Band:
Coming all the way from San Jose, California, at their own expense, the T Clemente Band were making a huge gamble. The 11am slot is never that well attended at the CRF, but word must have got around about the distance the band travelled for this slot and there was a healthy-sized crowd present for what turned out to a decent set of melodic rock. Led by Teddy Clemente (guitar/vocals) the band played a slightly proggy brand of melodic rock which went down well with the crowd and got the day off to a good start. The powerful vocals of Amanda Dieck really cut through the powerful music created by the band, and Clemente's simple but fluid guitar solos were the icing on the cake.

Space Elevator:
Following immediately on from the T Clemente Band was the over-the-top AOR of Space Elevator. While this should have been something that I would have loved on paper, I was actually a bit disappointed with their performance. Their singer The Dutchess is the perfect frontwoman and has an extremely powerful voice, but many of the songs lacked the spark, huge choruses, and soaring melodies that make great AOR unbeatable. That being said, there were some decent songs throughout their set, but sometimes it just fell flat. I think the lack of prominent keyboards hindered the band's sound. Pre-recorded keyboards were used on some songs, but a live keyboard player playing constantly would have definitely added to the band's sound. All the best AOR bands have keyboard players, and I think Space Elevator should consider it! Despite being somewhat disappointed in their set, I think there is definitely some potential there to be worked on.

After Space Elevator's set, Norway's progressive rockers The Windmill (who played at the festival two years ago) played. I really enjoyed them last time, but after a couple of numbers of this year's set I had had enough. I am not sure what I did not like about them this time, but to my ears they seemed fairly tuneless this time, which was a shame I was looking forward to seeing them again. So back to the tent it was for a break, before heading back for the home straight, and the best run of bands of the weekend! Next up on the Main Stage was...

Heather Findlay:
With a great new album and a successful UK tour under her belt, a triumphant set on the Main Stage at the Cambridge Rock Festival seemed like the next step for Heather Findlay and her band this year. The set was basically a condensed version of the set performed at her headline shows earlier in the year, featuring the best of her new album The Illusion's Reckoning and choice cuts from her times with Mostly Autumn and Odin Dragonfly. Angela Gordon (keyboards/flute/percussion/vocals), Stuart Fletcher (bass guitar), and the multi-talented Sarah Dean (harp/keyboards/recorder/dulcimer/percussion/vocals) all remain from the year's spring shows; and Martin Ledger (vocals/guitar) and Henry Rogers (drums/vocals) have been added to the line-up. As with the shows earlier in the year, the arrangements of the songs played were much closer to the originals, rather than the more stripped-back rawer feels of previous years. The Fleetwood Mac-y Island was a great opening number, but it was the darker gothic rock of Veil of Ghosts that was an early highlight. Ledger proved to be an inspired choice as a lead guitarists, capturing the spacey feel of the original solo perfectly. The folky Lake Sunday was another excellent early number, and the set then took a trip into the past for the Mostly Autumn oldie Caught in a Fold, with Dean playing the organ parts and Gordon playing those iconic flute leads. Another highlight was another Mostly Autumn song, Unoriginal Sin, the only song in the set not played on the tour earlier in the year. Findlay played the piano parts, as she did on the original Glass Shadows album, and it was great to hear the song live again. The dark nature of it fitted the mood of the set well and it was great to see that Findlay is an accomplished pianist. Two epics brought the set to an end. Carpe Diem, one of her signature songs, brought the house down with Ledger's lengthy guitar solo at the end standing out, before her future classic The Illusion's Reckoning brought the show to a close. The setlist was:

Island [Mantra Vega material]
Veil of Ghosts [Mantra Vega material]
Mountain Spring [Mantra Vega material]
Lake Sunday [Mantra Vega material]
Caught in a Fold [Mostly Autumn material]
Magnolia Half-Moon [Odin Dragonfly material]
Unoriginal Sin [Mostly Autumn material]
Magpie [Odin Dragonfly material]
Carpe Diem [Mostly Autumn material]
The Illusion's Reckoning [Mantra Vega material]

Straight after Heather Findlay's set, the psychedelic rock of Purson was next and this was another highly anticipated set of the festival for me. I saw the band in Plymouth back in March, so was excited to see them again, especially now their second album Desire's Magic Theatre has been released. The set was basically a slightly truncated version of what they played that night in Plymouth, and featured great songs from both of their albums and their EP. The set opened with some real rockers, including the Hendrix-influenced Electric Landlady and the organ-driven Spiderwood Farm, a personal favourite from their debut album. The set was generally focused on their harder rock songs, forgoing many of the ballads. The slower, spookier Rocking Horse was brought about a change of pace, and the excellent Danse Macabre was another mid-set highlight. Rosalie Cunningham's (vocals/guitar/kazoo) slightly witchy feel is what makes the band so unique, and her charisma and guitar playing are what really drive the band live. She handles the vast majority of the guitar solos and her slightly deeper voice (than is usual for a woman) makes the band stand out. A couple of acoustic-led numbers, The Sky Parade and another personal favourite in Tragic Catastrophe, featured towards the end of the set, before an extended version of the rocky Wanted Man brought everything to a close. The setlist was:

Desire's Magic Theatre
Electric Landlady
Spiderwood Farm
Leaning on a Bear
Dead Dodo Down
Rocking Horse
Well Spoiled Machine
Danse Macabre
The Sky Parade
Tragic Catastrophe
Wanted Man

As much as I wanted to check Curved Air out, it was over to Stage 3 after Purson's rocking set to catch a rare live performance from...

Odin Dragonfly:
Odin Dragonfly are an acoustic duo created by Heather Findlay (vocals/guitar/whistles) and Angela Gordon (vocals/keyboards/flute) while they were both members of Mostly Autumn to showcase another side of their songwriting. They released one album, Offerings, in 2007 but have been almost exclusively dormant since that year. The two reformed for a few shows, as a support to the Heather Findlay Band, in 2012 but this set was one of the few full-length shows the duo have performed since 2007. The pair played for around an hour, and featured songs from Offerings, reworkings of Mostly Autumn songs, a couple of covers, and one new (although as Gordon pointed out, not so new) song that could feature on a new Odin Dragonfly album that the pair have been slowly working on. The Mostly Autumn oldie The Eyes of the Forest worked well as an opening number and segued perfectly into the uplifting How I Feel Today with plenty of soaring flute lines from Gordon. Four and Twenty Moons, the new number sung by Gordon, was an early highlight, as was the moody Web, the only song co-written by the two ladies. Despite quite significant sound bleed from the other stages that made the delicate music hard to hear sometimes, the pair performed a great set. The under-rehearsed feel actually added to the charm and gave the set an intimate feel. A version of the Mostly Autumn classic Evergreen went down well with the large crowd that was packed into the tent, and their excellent version of Jethro Tull's Witch's Promise received a huge cheer. The set ended with Gordon's Given Time and the pair received a big round of applause. I look forward to the next Odin Dragonfly album when it is finally released! The setlist was:

The Eyes of the Forest [Mostly Autumn cover]
How I Feel Today
Four and Twenty Moons
This Game
Waiting for the Snow
Bitterness Burnt [Mostly Autumn cover]
Yellow Time [Mostly Autumn cover]
Sirens of the Sea [Above & Beyond cover]
Evergreen [Mostly Autumn cover]
Witch's Promise [Jethro Tull cover]
Given Time

Mostly Autumn:
Angela Gordon (flute/keyboards/vocals) did not have long after Odin Dragonfly's set had finished to go and get set up and ready for her third gig of the day - Mostly Autumn's set on the Main Stage. The band are festival regulars, and regularly attract some of the biggest crowds of the weekends. This year was no different, and their set was easily the best by anyone at this year's festival. Playing a condensed version of the set they have been playing most of the year, the band's current set simultaneously showcases the current sound of the band, while showcasing some older classics to display the band's legacy. Gordon and Chris Johnson (guitar/vocals) were the first musicians on the stage as they rushed into a spirited version of the old instrumental Out of the Inn which has established itself as a fantastic opening number as it showcases Gordon's contributions to the band, before morphing into a real rocker for founding member Bryan Josh (vocals/guitar) to solo over. Olivia Sparnenn-Josh (vocals/percussion) makes her entrance on the heavier rock of In for the Bite from Josh's recent solo album. This song has fitted seamlessly into the band's set, and adds a heavier edge to the early part of the show. Three newer songs followed, culminating in the epic folk rock of Skin on Skin which has become even longer and rockier now it is freed from the strict Dressed in Voices concept part of the shows of the past couple of years. Alex Cromarty (drums) showcases why is the band's best ever drummer in the solo part-way through, and the jam feel of the final instrumental section gets more powerful every time. Sparnenn-Josh then had her chance to shine on the following couple of ballads, and it is on the second one, Silhouettes of Stolen Ghosts, that she really impresses. Backed only by Iain Jennings' (keyboards) piano, she sings the heartfelt lyrics with ease, and demonstrates her vocal warmth. This song has become a real regular over the past couple of years, and it provides a perfect change of pace from the harder rock that is dominating the band's sets at the moment. The set came to an end with two of the band's best epics. Mother Nature was easily the song of the weekend, and ended in a crescendo of noise that was extremely powerful even by the band's usual live standards. I am so glad the band have been playing this song again this year, as it is one of their best, and brings the best out of everyone on stage. The closing instrumental duel between Jennings and Josh is perfect, and brought a huge reaction from the crowd. Heroes Never Die, the band's customary closing number, brought the set to and end, and one of the biggest cheers heard at the whole festival erupted from the crowd at the end. The setlist was:

Out of the Inn
In for the Bite [Bryan Josh solo material]
Drops of the Sun
Deep in Borrowdale
Skin on Skin
Silhouettes of Stolen Ghosts
Mother Nature
Heroes Never Die

Following Mostly Autumn was always going to be a hard act, and Dutch progressive rock legends had that unenviable task. As with Carl Palmer the night before, the instrumental nature of Focus' music does not do it for me, but I stuck around for a couple of numbers to see the festival. The band are extremely popular, as the tent was pretty much full, but they just do not do anything for me! So closes another Cambridge Rock Festival. Despite other years having better line-ups, I still had a great time at the Haggis Farm Polo Club this year. Hopefully the festival will be back again next year!

Tuesday, 2 August 2016

Fates Warning's 'Theories of Flight' - Album Review

Despite being one of the real movers and shakers of the progressive metal genre, Fates Warning never found as much success or critical acclaim as their contemporaries; Dream Theater and Queensrÿche in particular. Since 1982 however, the American band have been churning out fairly consistent albums that cover a range of moods and styles. While early Dream Theater and Queensrÿche albums were always fairly accessible and overtly melodic, Fates Warning's murky and heavier take on the genre made them stand out, but could have also been a factor in making their success much more modest than these other bands. That being said however, Fates Warning still have a hugely loyal fanbase and are extremely important in the development of the progressive metal genre. Lead guitarist Jim Matheos is the band's sole founding member to remain in the current line-up, is one of the best players in the genre. His playing is definitely more about mood and feel than flashy techniques, and his riffing style is instantly recognisable. Frontman Ray Alder, who joined the band in 1987 for their fourth album No Exit, has changed his style and delivery over the years. Originally adopting the banshee vocal style of his predecessor (and of many other progressive metal singers), Alder slowly moved towards a deeper and more soulful delivery. His voice now has a richness that is not often found in the genre, and he has become one of the band's biggest assets after turning in a few unremarkable performances on some of the band's previous albums. The rhythm section of bassist Joey Vera (who celebrates twenty years of being in Fates Warning this year) and drummer Bobby Jarzombek are a rock solid unit who focus more on the groove of the music than always playing fast and complex passages. These four men, who first played together on a Fates Warning album on 2013's Darkness in a Different Light, have brought the band into the twenty first century, and are now one of the band's definitive line-ups. Darkness in a Different Light was the first Fates Warning album I bought when it was new, and I have to say I was disappointed. I have listened to the album quite a few times since and have never really been able to get into it. The rather flat production and Alder's rather weak vocal display are the main reasons it never caught on with me, so I approached their latest work Theories of Flight with some trepidation. When I heard this album however, I was blown away. Everything that I disliked about Darkness in a Different Light has been put right here. The production is heavy and in-your-face, and Alder seems to finally have found his mature singing voice. He sounds fantastic throughout, and the catchy vocal melodies in the songs definitely help to bring out the best in his voice.

Opening with a calm, rhythmic feel, opening song From the Rooftops draws the listener in with a smooth vocal performance and clean chiming guitars before the song explodes into a true metallic beast a couple of minutes in. This initially seems like a strange way to open a metal album, but the slow build up towards the first proper riff works really well, and helps to highlight how well produced and powerful this album is when the full band finally kick in. Jarzombek, who co-wrote the song, really impresses throughout this song. His progressive round-the-kit playing really drives the opening mellow section, and his double-kick assault and almost thrash-like tendencies really amps up the power later on. Alder is on top form from the outset, but really shines once the heavy part of the song kicks in. The grit he displays here is unlike anything he has done before, but he still finds a melodic delivery for the song's strong chorus. Long time second guitarist Frank Aresti (who no longer plays with the band due to family commitments) guests here contributing a fantastic solo which is a real neo-classical shred-fest that follows on from a slow atmospheric solo from Matheos. The infectious Seven Stars definitely sounds like a bit of a throwback to the band's more overtly melodic sound they pursued in the early 1990s and perfected on on 1991's Parallels. The song is so tightly written, from the soaring guitar lead in the intro, to the bass-led verse that sees Alder dominate with a simple and direct vocal melody. The chorus is the album's best, with plenty of big vocal harmonies that enhance the sound without taking anything away from Alder's new-found vocal power. Matheos, not to be outdone by a guest musician on this song, lays down another fantastic guitar solo here that is oozing with melody. SOS opens with some some guitar stabs, before it becomes another heavier piece with a real groove which comes from Vera and Jarzombek's interplay underneath Matheos' simpler guitar riffs. The song makes great use of light and shade however, with a murky drumless section that seems to be built on synth lines and effects-heavy guitars that Alder sings over with ease. The song does not make as much of an impact as the first two, but there is still plenty to enjoy. The Light and Shade of Things, the first of two songs here that are over ten minutes long, is another strong song. It opens with some gorgeous clean guitar playing from Matheos, and the whole takes on the slow burning feel of this opening section. Some of the guitar work here is stunning, with lots of layering and subtle leads throughout to really enhance the song without getting in your face. About a third of the way through however the rest of the band kick in with a very 1980s-style riff and the song becomes a mid-paced rocker. That slow burning feel still remains however, and helps the song to stand out and grow more with each listen. The song's chorus is another strong one, with some excellent vocals from Alder. The song continues to chop and change throughout, and makes it a true prog epic with some very memorable moments.

White Flag is more compact, and really comes racing out of the block with a menacing riff that actually sounds like something Nevermore would have come up with! The pace never really lets up throughout and is driven by a powerful verse build on a technical guitar riff, with the only changes of pace being for the choruses. This song is also a bit of a guitar feast, as it features guitar solos by not only Aresti, but also by current touring guitarist Mike Abdow (Frozen) who all let rip around the three minute mark. Abdow comes first, with a very unique style that makes you wonder why he is not better known, before Aresti shreds his fingers off. Having three guitar guitarists playing on this song make it one of the best on the album, and the energy it creates is second to none here. Anyone wanting to catch their breath will not be able to do this with the mid-paced crunchy rock of Like Stars Our Eyes Have Seen which opens out with a driving double bass drum rhythm and accompanying chugging riff. It is not as fast as White Flag, but it is still pretty heavy with rhythms that drive hard. Again, the choruses are slower, and actually have quite an anthemic quality here as the band drops back somewhat and gives Alder's voice more time to shine and belt out the strong melodies. The song's industrial rock ending is great too, and has a robotic quality that makes it stand out and provides something new for the band to try. The penultimate song The Ghosts of Home is the other long song, and opens with snippets of news broadcasts set to an atmospheric backing. It soon opens out however with some simple chiming guitar lines and Alder's crooning vocals before the whole band comes in and things start to sound like 1990s Dream Theater with fun, technical druming and a massive keyboard riff (well, it might be a heavily-effected guitar, but it sounds like a keyboard - although no-one in the album's sleeve notes are credited with playing keyboards) that injects plenty of melody into the song. This part is the closest the band come to sounding like 'generic' progressive metal on this album, but it works well and the bursts of melody are welcome. Despite some strong competition, this could be the album's best song, simply because of the amount of melody there is here. The song never feels like it is over 10 minutes long, as it keeps changing things up to remain interesting. It is a powerful and varied song, and is modern Fates Warning at their best. The closing song, the instrumental title track, is the shortest song here and fuses strange spoken word sections with alternative-sounding guitar parts. It is quite a spacey song, and helps to capture the feeling of the album well, working well as a closing piece of music after the epic previous song. Overall, Theories of Flight is the best Fates Warning album for sometime, and shows that the band have found their modern style.

The album was released on 1st July 2016 via InsideOut Music. Below is the band's promotional lyric video for From the Rooftops.