Sunday, 30 October 2016

FM - Nottingham Review

Since first seeing the band, coincidentally in Nottingham, over two years ago, I have been fortunate enough to catch FM live a few times. While they do not have the heaviest touring schedule, I always seem to be able to make it when they announce a run of UK shows, and the band continue to deliver live which draws me back. I last saw the band back in July when they were supporting Heart at the Birmingham Symphony Hall. Despite only having 40 or so minutes on stage, they still managed to deliver a winning set, and it acted as a warm-up for this show. This year is the 30th anniversary of the band's debut album Indiscreet, and FM announced that they would play it in full at selected shows. The show at Nottingham's excellent Rescue Rooms venue was one of these shows, and it was the easiest one I could make with it being on a Saturday. Nottingham is somewhere I used to visit regularly, but I had not been for over a year. A trip back to Nottingham is always a good thing, and gigs there are always special. Nottingham is a proper rock town, with big crowds usually turning out for rock shows creating fantastic atmospheres. This show was no different, with the venue being pretty much full by the time FM hit the stage. An extra treat was the addition of former Whitesnake guitarist Bernie Marsden to the bill. Whitesnake are one of my favourite bands, and he was one of the key reasons for their early success. I even got the chance to meet him before the show, and chat to him for a short while while he signed my LP copy of the Heart of the City, which just made the evening that little more special. He was one of the most down to earth musicians I have met too, which is always nice to find out.

His set was entirely acoustic, and played for about 40 minutes and helped to warm up the growing crowd with his songs and stories, many of which involved David Coverdale! Many of the songs played were from his time in Whitesnake, with Till the Day I Die getting things off to a good start, before the old blues standard Linin' Track shows that Marsden has a powerful singing voice of his own. Despite being more known for his guitar playing, this set was more vocally-focused with an acoustic guitar backing. Soloing on an acoustic guitar is always tricky, but he did throw in a few little lead sections. It was the Whitesnake songs that brought the biggest reaction from the crowd, and unfortunately large sections of the crowd decided to chat loudly through the others. I hate this behaviour at shows, as it is extremely disrespectful to the artist on stage. It is obviously more noticeable during acoustic sets, and I really wish people would have the sense to be quiet while the music is playing. Either that, or cut down on the drink! Ain't no Love in the Heart of the City had everyone singing along however, which was great to see, as did the closing Beatles cover With Love From Me to You. Despite the talking, Marsden's set was great. I would live to see one of his full band shows one day, but seeing his acoustic and getting to meet him will do for now! The setlist was:

Till the Day I Die [Whitesnake material]
Linin' Track [Traditional blues standard]
The Time is Right for Love [Whitesnake material]
The World Keep on Turning [Fleetwood Mac cover]
Ain't no Love in the Heart of the City [Bobby 'Blue' Bland cover]
Ain't Gonna Cry No More [Whitesnake material]
Key to the Highway [Traditional blues standard]
With Love From Me to You [The Beatles cover]

FM are one of those bands who should have been much bigger and more successful than they were. Indiscreet hit at the height of the AOR trend in the mid-1980s, and probably suffered for not being American! AOR was certainly an American-lead phenomenon, so FM were on the outside looking in. That being said, they did have moderate success at the time, and have remained pretty popular ever since. The sound that erupted when the lights went down was a testament to that success, and the band started strong with Digging up the Dirt from last year's Heroes and Villains. FM setlists are usually a good mix of old and new, but this evening was definitely a nostalgia fest (for obvious reasons) with most of the songs coming from the band's first two albums. The songs from Indiscreet were spread throughout the set, and not played in one big chunk, which I think worked better and helped to keep the set a surprise. I Belong to the Night, which is easily the best FM song, received one of the biggest cheers of the evening. Jem Davis (keyboards/harmonica/vocals) owns the song, with his synth stabs and keyboard leads dominating, before Steve Overland (vocals/guitar) belts out the anthemic chorus, helped out by the entire crowd. Another early highlight was the early single Let Love be the Leader, before Someday was a surprise inclusion. Five songs from Indiscreet followed, none of which are set regulars these days. The high points of this section were definitely the bouncy Heart of the Matter and the smooth AOR of Hot Wired. The only song in the set that I felt did not really work was American Girls which just did not have the cheesy punch of the original album version. The keyboards were just not high enough in the mix for it, and it came off sounding rather flat. Bad Luck was a great cure for that though, and was another huge sing along moment for the crowd to really get behind. It was one of the many numbers played that featured fantastic guitar playing from Jim Kirkpatrick who played his heart out all evening. He has really given the band some youthful energy, and has been a key asset to FM over the past few years. The hit single That Girl and the heavy blues rock of Burning My Heart Down brought the main set to a close. There was time for more however, and the encore section started in mellow fashion with just Overland and Davis performing Story of My Life from 2013's Rockville. It was a good contrast to the rock that had come before, and was to come after, so this stripped back ballad was nice to hear. The final of the Indiscreet songs, Other Side of Midnight, was then played with Davis strapping on his keytar and rocking at the front of the stage with the rest of the band. I suppose that was real end of the set, but there were two more songs, both Whitesnake covers featuring Bernie Marsden. I have to be a bit critical here, as it all fell rather flat at this point. The band felt under-rehearsed for these songs and Overland clearly did not really know the lyrics, plus he does not really have the voice for these kinds of songs. Marsden's playing was spot on, but this little bonus at the end of the show really did not fly like it should have done. In contrast, FM did a similar thing when they headlined the Cambridge Rock Festival in 2014 where Marsden came on stage and they did Here I Go Again together. That time, Marsden sung it, and it all worked much better. It was a shame that it did not really work this time however, as it robbed the show of a truly stellar ending. The setlist was:

Digging up the Dirt
I Belong to the Night
Life is a Highway
Let Love be the Leader
Frozen Heart
Face to Face
Love Lies Dying
Heart of the Matter
Hot Wired
American Girls
Bad Luck
Tough it Out
That Girl
Burning My Heart Down
Story of My Life
Other Side of Midnight
Walking in the Shadow of the Blues [Whitesnake cover w/ Bernie Marsden]
Here I Go Again [Whitesnake cover w/ Bernie Marsden]

Despite my reservations about the show's ending, FM still put on a fabulous performance celebrating their debut album and it's place in the world of 1980s AOR. The set featured quite a few songs that do not get played live too often, which is always a treat. I am sure it will not be too long before I see the band again, at least I hope not!

Friday, 28 October 2016

Kansas' 'The Prelude Implicit' - Album Review

This my come as a surprise to those who know me and my music preferences, but Kansas are a band I know relatively little about. I have obviously always know about the band's expansive and hugely influential discography, and were familiar with their most well-known songs, but it was not until fairly recently that I actually got any of their albums. I year or so ago, I got a copy of their 1976 classic album Leftoverture and finally gave the band a proper listen. I have to say, I was not impressed. I am not sure why but I did not, and still do not, connect at all with Leftoverture. Of course Carry on Wayward Son is an absolute classic piece of melodic hard rock, but the rest of the album left me cold. Repeated listens have not really changed my views on this album, so I put Kansas to the back of my mind. Earlier this year however I took a punt on a cheap copy of 1977's Point of Know Return at a record stall at a festival. Something about the band fascinated me, and I really wanted to 'get' the hype. In stark contrast to Leftoverture, Point of Know Return was a hit with me from almost the very first note! The album made quite an impression on me, and I have played it quite a few times since. Around the same time there was lots of talk of the band releasing a new studio album, their first since 2000's Somewhere to Elsewhere and I knew I had to check it out. I pre-ordered the album, which is called The Prelude Implicit, and spun it eagerly. At first I was left a little cold, but repeated listens (especially those with headphones) have revealed the album to be very strong indeed! The band seem really energised on this first album in 16 years, and the new-look seven piece band all pull their weight to create a great modern-sounding melodic hard rock album with more than a hint of their classic 1970s sound. Founding members guitarist Rich Williams and drummer Phil Ehart, along with long-time members bassist Billy Greer and violinist David Ragsdale, are joined on The Prelude Implicit by three new recruits. Many wondered how the band would cope without their longtime singer and key songwriter Steve Walsh, who departed the band in 2014, but the band have bounced back and new singer Ronnie Platt does a fantastic job throughout. Walsh, who also played keyboards, has been effectively replaced by two people. Platt handles the vocals (although does contribute some keyboards live and some piano on this album), and David Manion handles the keyboards. The band have also been joined by guitarist Zak Rizvi, who was originally hired to produce the album and ended up joining the band (and contributing greatly to the songwriting of the album) in the process. This has the sense of a real 'band' album too, with songwriting distributed fairly evenly between all of the seven band members and plenty of chances for each individual to shine.

The album starts in fine melodic fashion with With This Heart, which immediately introduces new keyboard player Manion to the world with some fantastic piano melodies that have a really floaty quality. The song has a strong AOR sheen throughout (as does much of the album), with plenty of acoustic guitars during the verses, and a powerful chorus which is the first chance for Platt to show his strong voice. He is quite similar to Walsh, but has enough of his own characteristics not to be a clone. Platt is an inspired choice to front Kansas, as he brings a certain familiarity in style with him, but also proves himself to be a fine songwriter and performer in his own right. This song in general has a very familiar feel, especially when Ragsdale's violin leads kick in part-way through. His playing is all over this album, and this is the first of many folky prog melodies he provides. Visibility Zero is heavier, and kicks off with a grinding guitar/keyboard riff that has shades of classic Deep Purple and Uriah Heep about it. Manion's organ playing is strong here, and Williams and Rizvi form a formidable guitar duo with plenty of stabbing rhythms and laid-back acoustic passages. In fact, Uriah Heep is a good comparison for this whole song, with lots of strong harmony vocals throughout, and a cracking violin solo which does what no guitar could do in it's place! The Unsung Heroes is mellower, and opens with  a soaring violin melody, before dropping off with a piano-led verse that has a slight waltz feel to it. It is a bit of a crooner really, with soulful vocal display from Platt that fits perfectly with the booming piano chords. Despite the basic power ballad structure the song conforms to, there is a great instrumental section near the end which harks back to the band's prog roots with duelling guitar and violin lines. Rhythm in the Spirit is next, and makes the previous three songs feel like warm-ups in comparison. I would say this is the album's best song, and contains everything that has made Kansas the classic band they are over the years.  Another big guitar/keyboard riff drives the song, with a subtle addition of violin, until a slightly funky verse takes over led by a big Greer bassline and some snaking guitars. It actually sounds a little like Toto, something which carries on into the pre-chorus with some high vocals from Platt and some bouncy guitar melodies. The chorus is pure Kansas however, with a jaunty violin lead behind Platt's soaring, and extremely catchy, vocal melodies. It is easily the best chorus on the album, and helps to elevate the song to new heights. Guitars, keyboards, and violin all have chances to shine throughout with prominent solos or melodies, and the mix of instruments keeps the song exciting. After the bombast, Refugee is a much more serene song, dominated by William's delicate acoustic guitar playing. Ragsdale's mournful violin adds a certain moody drama here and there, but this song is mainly about Williams and Platt, who might have laid down his best vocal display yet on this song. This dark, but calm ballad provides a great mid-album break from all the rock that has come so far, and shows a different side to the band's songwriting.

The epic progressive rock of The Voyage of Eight Eighteen is the album's centrepiece and the longest song here. Platt provides some piano work here, giving the album a two-keyboard attack that helps to fill out the sound nicely. The opening lengthy violin spot is perfect, and really sets the song's nautical theme with melodies that could have come from old sea shanties. The verses rein in the bombast for a more laid back vibe, with subtle piano over some rhythmic drumming from Ehart. The song does not have a chorus as such and eschews traditional structure as it moves forward. The song is a real journey, which is perfect given it's title! Some of the most progressive moments on the album are contained in this song with synth melodies, retro organ solos, and soaring violin jigs mix together perfectly to create a wall of different sounds. After Rhythm in the Spirit, this is the album's best song, and is a really excellent display of melodic progressive songwriting. Camouflage gets back to the more concise songwriting that dominates the album. Again, there is a grinding guitar/keyboard riff that drives the early part of the song, and again there is a strong Uriah Heep influence. The organ continues to play throughout the song, encompassing everything in a dark glow. The chorus is another melodic delight however, with plenty of harmony vocals to make the melodies stand out, and bring the best out of Platt's voice. Summer stands out on this album as it is the only song not sung by Platt. Greer takes the lead instead, and proves he has a strong voice too, and provides a slightly rougher take on Kansas' sound than Platt, which is nice to hear. It is an upbeat rocker, with loads of great keyboard sounds and plenty of catchy violin leads - especially during the verses. The chorus is pure AOR, and it is seriously catchy. I guarantee anyone who hears it will be singing it and hearing it in their head for a long time after! Crowded Isolation comes along as a bit of a shock after the previous upbeat song, and hits hard with a groove-based guitar riff and plenty of dark keyboards. It is probably the heaviest moment on the album, with the biggest and most prominent guitar parts and the bass is nice and high in the mix which adds to the darker overall sound. There is a great synth solo here too, which shows off Manion's skills, and adds a real old-school vibe to the song. This song leads nicely into the closing number, the instrumental Section 60. The song is inspired by, and dedicated to, US troops who died in the Iraq and Afghanistan and contains all the band's instrumental hallmarks. It is a great way to end the album, and features little bits of what has come before and what makes The Prelude Implicit a resounding success for Kansas. Overall, this album is great, and brings Kansas back to the forefront of the rock world with a bang. It also shows that a band can survive loosing key songwriters, as neither Walsh nor founding member Kerry Livgren have had anything to do with this album. I hope this is not the last we hear from Kansas, and this album kick starts a whole new chapter in the band's already long history.

The album was released on 23rd September 2016 via InsideOut Music. Below is the band's promotional lyric video for Visibility Zero.

Sunday, 23 October 2016

Marillion's 'Fuck Everyone and Run' - Album Review

Since forming in 1979, English progressive rock veterans Marillion have always been pioneers. In the 1980s, they almost single-handedly spearheaded a progressive rock revival with a punishing world touring schedule and albums (and singles) that took the UK charts by storm. It is not an understatement to suggest that they were one of the biggest bands of the world at one point, which is something that makes their current position as a slightly mysterious cult band even more interesting. If you put a gun to my head and told me I had to pick one over-arching favourite band, I would probably pick Marillion. All of the band's 17 studio albums are good in their own way, and each one has a unique sound and feel that means there is a Marillion album for almost any situation. Despite never truly loosing touch with the mainstream music media, Marillion have essentially been a cult act since the mid 1990s, but the support of their large (and extremely loyal) fanbase has allowed them to remain extremely active and continue to release quality music. 15 or so years after the likes of Kayleigh and Lavender were soaring up the single charts, Marillion were still acting as musical pioneers. 2001's Anoraknophobia was totally funded by fan pre-ordered, which allowed the band to act without record label support, something which they have continued to use ever since. Marillion are credited with being one of the first bands (if not the first band) to use 'crowdfunding' to finance their activities, something which is now extremely common place for bands that are outside the musical and commercial mainstream. In an act of coming full circle, Marillion teamed up with crowdfunding website PledgeMusic to release their 18th album Fuck Everyone and Run which was released last month. Often referred to as simply F E A R, this new album is the band's first for four years, since the release of the excellent Sounds That Can't be Made in 2012. Soundwise, F E A R is quite similar to that album, but also borrows heavily from 1994's dark concept album Brave and 2004's sprawling double album Marbles. As a result, F E A R is a very varied and dark album, and easily the most 'progressive' the band have sounded for a while! Gone are accessible rock songs (mostly) and instead the album is centred around three multi-part epics that are each like mini-albums in themselves. Two more 'traditional' songs and a short outro complete the 68 minute album, which is something that needs multiple listens to fully appreciate. This is an angry and extremely political album, which might put some people off, but it is also extremely heartfelt and emotionally charged. As an aside, this is an album that saw Marillion bother the charts once again, with this album hitting number 4 on the week it was released! This the highest position the band have reached since 1987's Clutching at Straws, and is the highest-charting album of the Steve Hogarth-era!

The opening number, El Dorado, is one of the three long, multi-part epics, but it actually starts in rather understated fashion. Steve Rothery's delicate acoustic guitar melody dominates the short first part Long-Shadowed Sun, before Mark Kelly's dense keyboards take over for The Gold. Hogarth's vocals are fantastic throughout the whole album, with plenty of diversity on show early on. Long-Shadowed Sun has  folky, singer-songwriter feel to it, whereas the opening to The Gold sees his oft-used mumbled falsetto that is reminiscent of modern bands like Radiohead. More traditional 'rock' soon takes over as Pete Trewavas' melodic, growling bassline takes over for a groove-led section with pulsing rock organ and a strident vocal display from Hogarth. The amount of diversity crammed into this opening few minutes is more than you would see in many whole albums, and is a real taster of what is to come. The Gold climaxes in one of Rothery's trademark emotional guitar solos, which is the one thing that links all the various faces and sounds of Marillion. He is one of the world's most underrated guitarists. and this soaring section is proof as to why. Demolished Lives definitely has the marks of Brave all over it, with a complex bassline and layers of keyboards that have an eerie, unsettling sparkle. Echoey vocals herald the arrival of F E A R, another dark piece of music that is focused around one of Rothery's affects-heavy arpeggiated guitar melodies, as Kelly's space-age keyboards scream and fly around above. Hogarth's vocals are at his most caustic here, with serious bite and anger on show as he spits out the visceral lyrics. The Grandchildren of Apes, the fifth and final part of El Dorado, is almost a return to the floaty, folky intro. Delicate piano chords dominate, and Hogarth's vocals are much more relaxed after the poisonous display of the previous part. It ends on a rather anti-climactic note, but it actually works well, with the fading keyboard notes acting as a great contrast to how the rest of the song slowly built up emotionally and musically. Living in F E A R, the first of the two stand-alone songs on the album, is typical modern Marillion. The verses are quite sparse, with a bass-heavy sound and layers of keyboards. The song picks up during the chorus, which is noticeably louder and more 'rock' than the rest of the song, with Hogarth letting rip with the vocals over the top of Ian Mosley's crashing drums. Those who are fans of the sound the band forged on Sounds That Can't be Made, or 2008's Happiness is the Road, will certainly enjoy this, and it acts as a great contrast to the two epics that bookend it.

Opening with some very old school keyboards, The Leavers is the second epic. It is probably the least interesting of the three, but it is still great with plenty going on. The first part, Wake up in Music, is quite a funky, and slightly trippy, song with the aforementioned keyboards dominating, and a later bassline creating quite a dancey vibe throughout, helped by some great offbeat drumming. The Remainers is much more restrained, with dry-sounding keyboards and a sparse vocal display, featuring some more of Hogarth's falsetto. Rothery's guitar here is also pretty hypnotic, which fits in perfectly with Hogarth's voices. Things ramp up again with Vapour Trails in the Sky, which opens with big bass notes and soon morphs into a soaring piece of modern piece of progressive rock with Rothery's effects-heavy guitar taking the lead. There is a lot going on here, with playful piano melodies often cutting through the guitars, and eventually taking over completely for the ambient second half. Piano also dominates The Jumble of Days, with a melody that sounds like something the band would have come up with in the 1980s, but it is not long before Rothery takes over with what could possibly be the best guitar solo on the album. The bass and keyboard backing is perfect, and makes for a dramatic instrumental section as his unique phrasing and sense for melody shines through. There is nothing quite like a Steve Rothery guitar solo, and they are always some of the highlights on any Marillion album. The Leavers comes to an end with the delicate One Tonight, which is, again, piano-led and rounds out the second epic of the album perfectly as it builds towards a crescendo dominated by Hogarth's soaring vocals. White Paper is the second of the two stand-alone songs, and is the better of the two. In my mind, this is what Invisible Ink from Sounds That Can't be Made would sound like if it was more of a rock song, and in any case this definitely seems like a companion piece to that song. Kelly's piano is the most prominent instrument during the song's early stages, as Hogarth's fragile, shaky vocals croon above. The song gradually builds throughout, as drums, bass, and guitar all join in to take the song to new heights. Rothery's stark notes cut through everything to form the song's main melody for the heavier sections, but it is not long before everything drops out again. This is a song that moves through many distinct sections despite it's relatively short length, but it all holds together perfectly. I really like the song, and it manages to hold it's own despite the album's focus being on the three lengthy pieces.

The real highlight of the album however if the final of the three epics The New Kings. Fuck Everyone and Run is the opening piece, with a distinct verse-chorus structure with Hogarth's soaring falsetto singing the profanity-heavy chorus with little of the anger you would expect. It has a mournful feel, which is different from the groove-based rock of the verse sections, and this sets the tone for the rest of The New Kings. A dark-sounding guitar solo bridges the song into the oft-repeated refrain of: 'We're too big to fall, we're too big to fail', something which certainly encompasses the song's, and indeed the album's, theme of the distrust of modern political and economic policies. The New Kings is easily the most cohesive of the three epics, with less diversity, but this works in it's favour to create a masterful piece of work that contains everything that is great about Marillion. Russia's Locked Doors, the second part, is like a darker version of Fuck Everyone and Run, with the music getting slowly more sinister and the lyrics getting more and more angry. It ends with a repeat of that familiar refrain, before Rothery launches into another of this fantastic guitar solos, this one driven by a driving drum beat and haloed with gorgeous warm keyboards. A Scary Sky is a much more atmospheric and ambient piece, with Kelly's keyboards taking over with a myriad of sounds and feelings, not unlike the sound that dominated 1999's This acts as a bridge between the epic guitar solo at the end of Russia's Locked Doors and the anthemic hard rock final chapter Why is Nothing Ever True?. This part of the song actually reminds me of the final couple of minutes of the song Fugazi, which has similar political sentiments and sing-a-long vibe with big piano notes and catchy vocal melodies. I suspect this was deliberate and, despite the fact more than 30 years separate these two songs, it shows that the core of Marillion has never really changed. It is the perfect ending to an epic piece of music that could be the single greatest Marillion moment for quite some time, and shows the band at their musical, and lyrical, best. A short closing number, Tomorrow's New Country, follows, and this has the feeling of music that plays over the credits after a film finishes. It has a reflective feel to it, and ends the album on a calmer and atmospheric note, which is a great contrast to all the previous drama. Overall, Fuck Everyone and Run is a fantastic album that is certainly a gift that keeps on giving. It shows a band who, having been pioneers their whole careers, once again show the world that they can produce something that sounds unique and distinct. This is an album that will probably come to define what Marillion are about in the 21st century, and is a masterwork in modern progressive songwriting.

The album was released on 23rd September 2016 via Intact Records/earMusic. Below is the band's abridged promotional sound clip for The New Kings.

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Steel Panther - Cardiff Review

I had done two gigs on the trot before (sometimes by the same band - Mostly Autumn and Glamour of the Kill jump out in this category), but I do not ever remember doing three before! This Steel Panther show at Cardiff's premier music venue, the Motorpoint Arena, was my third gig in as many days in a trip that had taken in Bristol and London beforehand! Some might think me mad, but I love it and would do this sort of thing more often if time and money were not an issue! This was also the biggest gig of the three, with the sizes increasing over the course of the trip. Arena shows are a relative rarity in my gigging life, as most hard rock and metal acts cannot dream of filling venues of this size, but with the popularity of the genres slowing increasing again, more and more bands are starting to fill arenas. Steel Panther are a band that have grown a lot since I last saw them, which was in 2012 at Nottingham's Rock City on the Balls Out tour. I had seen them once before that too, also in Nottingham, but this time at the large arena supporting Def Leppard and Mötley Crüe. Steel Panther, despite their comedy image and lyrics, are a genuinely great live band too, and their music that both parodies and celebrates the 1980s hair metal scene is perfect to fill big arenas. I had deliberately missed the band on their last few UK appearances, as there just is not the time or money to see every gig I would like to, so when I saw this short arena run announced back in February I jumped at the chance to see them for a third time. The fact that American sleaze rockers Buckcherry were chosen as one of the support bands also helped my decision, as they are a band I have wanted to catch live for a while. On another positive note, the venue was pretty much full for this show, and it was great to see such a large crowd in an arena for a rock act!

The aforementioned Buckcherry opened the show with a seven-song set of their patented sleazy hard rock. This sort of music is made for big crowds, and many present already seemed to be familiar with much of their material. I was actually somewhat disappointed with the band's performance however. Frontman Josh Todd just sounded plain weird throughout the entire set, and was almost unintelligible throughout. It was not that that he was low in the mix, as he was not, I could barely understand a word he said (or sung) all night, which was a shame. The rest of the band were great however, with guitarists Keith Nelson and Stevie D. trading dirty riffs, slide sections, and shredding solos with ease. Despite Todd's performance I still enjoyed the band's set, and the highlights were the speedy melodic hard rock of Gluttony and the closing number Crazy Bitch that had everyone in the growing crowd singing along passionately. The setlist was:

Out of Line
Lit Up
Say Fuck It [Icona Pop cover]
Crazy Bitch

On the other band, main support band Bowling for Soup genuinely impressed and turned in an impressive performance. The American pop punk band are easily a contender for the worst headline band I have ever seen live before, when they played a sloppy and drunk show in Plymouth back in 2007 (I think). Since then I have pretty much ignored anything they have done, but this 50 minute set in Cardiff was packed full of songs I remember hearing on Kerrang! TV back in the day! I am not usually one for nostalgia, but this set made me remember how many catchy songs Bowling for Soup have written, and their performance this time was tight and full of energy. Teen anthems like High School Never Ends and Almost had even the most harden hair metal heads in the crowd singing along, and their rocking cover of Fountains of Wayne's Stacy's Mom (which apparently lots of people think is by Bowling for Soup so they play it live now as a joke) went down well. It was the last two numbers, 1985 and Girl all the Bad Guys Want, that brought the biggest cheers however, and ensured their set ended on a high. I was genuinely impressed with this live this time, and this set has gone some way to cleanse my mind of the previous horror show I had witnessed all those years ago.

It was Steel Panther that everyone was here to see however, and when the lights went down the place went crazy. Satchel's (guitar/vocals) opening riff to Eyes of a Panther set to the tone for the night, and the crowd were loud and energetic from the off. The band's sound mix was perfect too, with everyone sounding nice and loud with just the right amount of sparkle. Two more modern hair metal anthems followed, culminating in Party Like Tomorrow is the End of the World which frontman Michael Starr sung with ease. Steel Panther are part-band and part-comedy act, and one of their ad-libbed spoken sections followed. These are the parts of Steel Panther shows that make me switch off in all honesty. They can be funny for a few minutes, but this section must have gone on for a good 15 minutes of banter between the band members and the audience, and it did get tiresome. They could have easily fitted in another couple of songs instead! I know many people enjoy these sections, but it did get rather too much after a while. When the band are playing music however, they are untouchable. Asian Hooker and Turn Out the Lights came in quick succession, and It Won't Suck Itself  has one of the craziest guitar solos in the band's catalogue. A short acoustic section followed, where a fan was brought on stage and the band sang to her, and attempted to make up a song for her on the spot which was actually pretty funny. This culminated in a crowd sing-a-long of Girl from Oaklahoma which went down well. More girls were brought up on stage from the crowd after this, and the show became one huge party until the end. 17 Girls in a Row and the closing number Death to all but Metal were the highlight of this section of the show, and saw plenty more soloing from Satchel. There was time for one more song as an encore, and Party all Day (Fuck all Day) was chosen. Members from the band The Lounge Kittens got up on stage and joined the band by adding extra backing vocals, and the show ended on a real high with one of the catchiest songs in the band's repertoire. The setlist was:

Eyes of a Panther
Just Like Tiger Woods
Party Like Tomorrow is the End of the World
Asian Hooker
Turn Out the Lights
Let Me Cum In
Guitar solo
It Won't Suck Itself
She's on the Rag
Girl from Oaklahoma
17 Girls in a Row
Community Property
Death to all but Metal
Party all Day (Fuck all Night) [w/ The Lounge Kittens]

Overall, this was a triumphant set from a band that have really helped bring 1980s hair metal to the younger generation while making a string of excellent, and funny, records themselves. I am sure we will be hearing from Steel Panther for quite some time yet, and with a new album due in February, I expect there will be more UK shows next year!

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Sonata Arctica - London Review

After a great show from Stream of Passion in Bristol the night before, it was up to the London for my second gig in a string of three. Finnish power metal veterans Sonata Arctica were the reason for the trip, who are a band I have liked for some years. They were one of the first melodic metal bands I got into when I was discovering this sort of music, so they will always hold a special place in my heart despite the fact I do not listen to them anywhere near as often as I used to. I first saw the band in 2011 in Wolverhampton, which was quite a while after I first got into them, and was impressed by their energetic live show. I also saw the band a couple of years later in Nottingham. That show was marred by bad sound issues, and was subsequently not as impressive as my first outing. I have missed their past couple of UK shows, as heading up to London from the South West us not always easy, so I jumped at the chance to see them again as part of my epic three-gig marathon. London's Shepherd's Bush Empire certainly is not the capital's best venue, with a reputation for dodgy sound. I cannot say I have ever had any issues there previously, and this evening also proved to be issue-free. It could also be seen as an upgrade for the band, who have been playing the smaller O2 Academy in Islington on their past couple of UK tours, and it was great to see a good-sized crowd for a European melodic metal band, with plenty of people on the floor and up in the balcony seats. The weather did conspire to put a dampener on proceedings however, as torrential rain hit about 45 minutes before the venue opened which soaked everyone in the queue! I have never stood in rain like it, and luckily managed to seek shelter under some scaffolding that was erected at the side of the venue! It is safe to say that everyone was relieved when the doors finally opened (about 10 mins late, something which this venue is also known for...) and we were all allowed into the dry!

Before Sonata Arctica came on, we were treated to two good support acts. Up first was Power Quest, a British power metal band who reformed earlier in the year after a three-year break with a revamped line-up and a new EP called Face the Raven. I missed part of their first song due to the slow-moving queue, but what I finally got in I was impressed with their performance from the off. New frontman Ashley Edison has a fantastic voice for this type of music, and his some extremely impressive high notes throughout their half an hour set. Both of the new songs from the EP were played, with the title track easily being the highlight of the set for me, along with some older songs which I was no familiar with. Power Quest are a band I have always been meaning to give more time to, and after this stellar performance I will certainly be exploring their back catalogue. Founding member Steve Williams' (keyboards/vocals) smiles throughout told you how happy he is with this latest incarnation of the band, and the vocal nature of the gathering crowd showed there is still a lot of love for this British band despite their hiatus.

Swedish rising stars Twilight Force are the main tour support for Sonata Arctica's European run, and they impressed from the off and kept the large crowd entertained during their hour-long set. Despite a sightly muddy live sound mix (a bit like their latest album really!) the band really impressed with good stage-craft and a set packed with catchy power metal anthems from both of their albums. The band's second album, Heroes of Mighty Magic, is only a couple of months old but it dominated the set and provided the best cuts during their set, including the overall highlight for me Flight of the Sapphire Dragon. Frontman Chrileon, who had been unwell earlier in the tour, seemed back to pretty much full strength in London and displayed his impressive vocal range throughout the challenging the setlist. Lynd (guitar) easily had the most solos of any guitarist on show this evening and channelled his inner Yngwie Malmsteen throughout the set which brought plenty of cheers from the crowd. This is a band who's star is certainly rising, and plenty in the large crowd already seemed to be fans of theirs. I suspect this is a band we shall hearing plenty about for years to come in the metal world, and this performance was worthy of all the accolades. The setlist was:

Battle of Arcane Might
Forest of Destiny
Enchanted Dragon of Wisdom
Riders of the Dawn
Flight of the Sapphire Dragon
There and Back Again
Gates of Glory
The Power of the Ancient Force
Knights of Twilight's Might

With their new album, The Ninth Hour, just over a week old, Sonata Arctica are currently out promoting this release and featured five songs from the new album in their 90 minute set in London. I had not had chance to listen to the album many times before the show, and not much of the material had really jumped out at me, so I was looking forward to hearing some of the songs live. They opened the show with the opening two numbers from the new album: Closer to an Animal and Life, both of which are good songs. The former is a strange album opener, and even stranger concert opener, but then Sonata Arctica have always been a strange band. If anyone is going to make it work then they are, and they pulled it off. Frontman Tony Kakko has one of the smoothest voices in the genre, and he crooned the mid-paced tune, before the band launched into Life which has similarities to their older sound with big keyboard leads from Henrik Klingenberg and some big double bass patterns from Tommy Portimo (drums). Old and new material sat well alongside each other throughout, and an early highlight was The Wolves Die Young from the band's previous album. This is such a melodic anthem, and saw plenty of singing from the large crowd. The old power ballad Tallulah was greeted like the old friend that it is, before another new number, Fairytale, went down pretty well. Of course, one of the biggest reactions of the evening was for FullMoon, one of the band's best known songs, and there was plenty of shredding from Elias Viljanen (guitar/vocals). The second half of the show included some more new material and some lesser-played songs. The ballad We Are What We Are, from the new album, was really well received; while the speedy Abandoned, Pleased, Brainwashed, Exploited saw a rare live outing. The main set ended with another rare outing for the 10 minute-plus The Power of One, from the fan favourite album Silence. This piece of epic progressive metal was the perfect set-closer, and the band left the stage on a high. There was of course time for a little more however, and I Have a Right was the first song in the encore section. Having seen Stream of Passion play a storming version of this the previous night in Bristol, it only made me realise how insipid the original version of this song is. It has to be one of the band's worst songs, and I really wish they would drop it from their live sets. It was the only low point in what was overall a strong set however, and they redeemed it with a closing performance of the fabulous Don't Say a Word, which saw a lot more singing from the crowd and a fantastic guitar/keyboard duel from Viljanen and Klingenberg. It does annoy me a little that the band still insist on performing the rather puerile Vodka outro, which they have been doing for years now, as the novelty of it has really worn off! The setlist was:

Closer to an Animal
The Wolves Die Young
In Black and White
Among the Shooting Stars
Abandoned, Pleased, Brainwashed, Exploited
We Are What We Are
The Power of One
I Have a Right
Don't Say a Word

Overall, this was another good gig from the Finnish power metal veterans, who prove why they are such respected names in the genre. After seeing such a poor turnout in Bristol the night before for a band with a similar fanbase, it was reassuring to see a healthy crowd at this show. The atmosphere was great throughout, and all three bands played great sets that impressed.

Monday, 17 October 2016

Stream of Passion - Bristol Review

I have been into Stream of Passion for quite some time now, having been turned onto the band by hearing frontwoman Marcela Bovio's wonderful voice in Ayreon's 2004 progressive rock opera The Human Equation. Bovio, and Ayreon mastermind Arjen Anthony Lucassen, then formed Stream of Passion the following year with a debut album and a live DVD following in quick succession. It was this DVD, Live in the Real World, that was my first exposure to Stream of Passion. At the time I was a subscriber to Lovefilm and the disc came in the post and I played it through a few times before returning it as I loved it so much. I then got the band's debut album Embrace the Storm, and bought the second album, 2009's The Flame Within, on release. By this point the band had changed drastically, with Lacassen abandoning the project as he seems to like to do, and a more stable line-up formed around Bovio, which has remained largely intact until this day. I somehow lost touch with the band sometime after The Flame Within's release and it was not until 2012 when I saw them supporting Epica in Nottingham that I really gave Stream of Passion much thought. There was no real reason why I stopped following the band, I think they just got lost in my never-ending quest for new and exciting music - unfortunately there just is not time for everything! Their set with Epica was great, but then the band once again slipped from my radar. It was not until earlier this year when they announced a short run of UK shows, which then later on became the band's last ever UK shows after they announced they would be breaking up at the end of the year, that I finally caught up on the band's catalogue. I bought a ticket for the show in Bristol (which would become gig number one of a three gig marathon!) and gave all of their albums a good listening to in preparation. It is a real shame that the band are calling it a day, but I suppose they have always been in the shadow of so many other bands in the symphonic/gothic metal worlds. Their dense, yet ethereal sound is not always easy to listen to, and they are less catchy and instantly memorable than many of their peers. The band will be missed though that is for certain, and Stream of Passion have a sound that is quite unlike any other band I know. I had not been to the Bierkeller in Bristol before, and was surprised by how big the venue was. The sound was fantastic throughout the evening too, with a huge amount of clarity and separation of instruments. It was one of the best-sounding shows I have been to in a while! The only disappointing thing about the night was the very low turnout. There cannot have been more than 100 people in the venue at any one time, which is a shame for a respected band's farewell tour. It is little wonder that bands of this type usually opt to only play London shows in the UK when turnouts can be this low, which just shows how relatively unpopular melodic, European metal bands are over here.

Bristol's own Triaxis opened the evening with their powerful brand of melodic metal. I saw the band at Bloodstock Open Air last year, and was impressed with them, but never really followed up this interest. I was looking forward to catching them again here to reacquaint myself with them. They made their half an our on stage count, with a few uplifting and heavy numbers that got the small gathering crowd going. While they were good, they did not seem as inspired or as good as their set at Bloodstock last year, which was a shame. The songs did not seem as catchy this time either, so maybe a different selection was chosen this time around? While I have enjoyed Triaxis both times I have seen them, I cannot help but feel they are one of the many bands out there who have plenty of potential and all the right ingredients to be a great band, but lack the certain indescribable spark that makes good bands into great bands.

Awake by Design, who were the main tour support for Stream of Passion's four UK shows, are a band I seem to be destined to run into every so often. I first saw the band back in 2008 in Ilfracombe of all places supporting Touchstone, and then again a few years later supporting Sonata Arctica in Wolverhampton. Each time I have seen the band they look vastly different (record numbers of line-up changes it seems!), with the exception of founding frontman Adrian Powell (bassist Dave Favill was definitely in the band for the Wolverhampton show, but I could not say either way for the Ilfracombe gig!). Part soaring melodic metal, part gothic melodrama, Awake by Design have always impressed me. Powell's voice is wonderful, much deeper than many of his peers but the emotion he can carry with his delivery is almost second to none. I have had the band's second album Carve the Sun since release, but I have yet to actually play it! Awake by Design are also victims of the sheer amount of music problem it seems! After this performance though, I shall be rectifying that immediately. Keyboards play a bigger part in the band's sound than before, with Janson Sissons' melodic lead lines and swirling atmospherics making the band sound bigger than ever. Luke Hatton is a great guitarist too, with lots of shredding solos and simple, but powerful, riffs. Powell stole the show however, and shows that he is one of the most underrated singers in the country.

Despite playing a venue with a small stage, and with a pretty small crowd, Stream of Passion really owned the night from the minute their set started. The small crowd made up for their size in volume, and the atmosphere was pretty good throughout despite the poor turnout. For a band with four albums under their belt who are coming to the end of their run, the band decided to give us the best of all their four albums - a 'greatest hits' set if you will. Bovio was in fine voice throughout, with her angelic voice having an edge to it that many other frontwomen in the symphonic/gothic world possess, and she led her band through 75 minutes or so of dynamic music. Monster and A War of Our Own, both from the band's latest album, provided a great start to set. Jeffrey Revet's (keyboards) piano and synth playing certainly drives the band's sound, with guitars providing crunching rhythms. Stephan Schultz (guitar) does get plenty of chances to shine too however with some excellent guitar solos, and he spent the entire set constantly switching between 6, 7, and 8 string guitars! In the End was an early highlight, which has one of the band's best choruses, and a short violin intro from Bovio. I have always thought it was a shame that Bovio never played more live violin, but I suppose this would restrict her movement on stage and might end up hampering her vocal performance. There were many highlights throughout the band's set, but the ultimate high point has to be the striking performance of Out of the Real World, from the band's debut album, that is easily the band's most memorable and catchy song. The chorus is wonderful, and shows the band could write a catchy 'hit single' if they tried. That is not really the band's way however, opting more for heavier brooding gothic anthems: 'We like drama' as Bovio quipped during the show. Their cover of Radiohead's Street Spirit is vastly better than the insipid original, and the band have turned it into a heavy power ballad that sounds like one of their own songs - the recipe for the perfect cover! The main set came to an end with The Endless Night, another soaring song that sums up what Stream of Passion are about perfectly. A three-song encore followed which included another cover, this time of Sonata Arctica's I Have a Right. That has to be one of Sonata Arctica's worst songs, but Stream of Passion's version is great and gives it the bite the original sorely lacks. The evening came to and end with the dynamic Haunted which perfectly mixes piano-led sections with all-out metal workouts. The setlist was:

A War of Our Own
In the End
When You Hurt Me the Most
Don't Let Go
Out in the Real World
Street Spirit [Radiohead cover]
This Endless Night
I Have a Right [Sonata Arctica cover]
The Curse

Overall, this was a bittersweet evening of live music. Stream of Passion's performance was fantastic, but it was tinged with sadness as this will probably be the last time I ever get to see them live. I am glad that I managed to catch one of their headline shows before the call it a day however, and they have a DVD coming out at the end of the year from a show they filmed recently in their home country of the Netherlands. I shall look forward to adding that to my collection!

Thursday, 13 October 2016

Evergrey's 'The Storm Within' - Album Review

2014's Hymns for the Broken that really put Swedish progressive metal band Evergrey back on the map after three hard years. 2011's Glorious Collision was met with a fairly lukewarm reception, and the departure of two band members not too long after almost led the band to breaking up. Sole original member and bandleader Tom S. Englund was fairly open about these trials and tribulations during the run-up to Hymns for the Broken's release, and his hard work and determination paid off when that album turned out to be one of the band's best. I am no expert on Evergrey's back catalogue, but out of the few albums of theirs I have heard it is my favourite (I also reviewed the album here). The return of both guitarist Henrik Danhage and drummer Jonas Ekdahl, both members with long-standing association with the band and held in high regard by the fans, certainly helped Hymns for the Broken become the success that is was, and all five band members turned in stellar performances to create a real 'team effort' of an album. Evergrey are known for their dense and emotionally-charged music, that eschews traditional progressive metal tropes for a darker, more concise sound. Evergrey have never been a band to write lots of lengthy epic pieces of music containing extended instrumental sections with flashy guitar/keyboard solos, and nor are their songs particularly complex. There are no bands out there that really sound like Evergrey however, and that makes them unique. Englund's vocal performances are what drives the band's sound, with the rest of the band playing for the song and to create the dark atmosphere that sits perfectly alongside Englund's deep, heart-wrenching vocals and lyrics. Rikard Zander's keyboards never really take the lead as would often be the case in progressive metal, but instead employ a great wall-of-sound approach of dry piano lines and dense synth layers to create the band's claustrophobic sound. Englund and Danhage's guitar riffs and melodies are usually much simpler too. The riffs are usually on the heavier side, which is a great contrast to the keyboard work, and the solos are shorter and more concise than other bands. All of these things are employed on the band's new album, The Storm Within, which is their tenth release. This is, unsurprisingly, quite a similar sounding album to Hymns for the Broken, but it employs a heavier approach throughout that makes it darker and more foreboding than it's predecessor which was extremely melodic for the band's standards. While I do not this The Storm Within is as good as the band's previous release, there is still a lot to like here and the dark atmosphere created is perfectly executed.

The album opens in a sombre manner, something which characterises the rest of the material here, with the stark piano lines of the first song Distance. A heavy, 'djenty' riff soon kicks in, and Englund croons his way through the lyrics in his own inimitable style. Zander's piano lines remain, and add depth to the song by cutting through the crunching guitar rhythms of the verse. The chorus is pretty memorable too, with a subtly melodic synth lead that is backed up by more keyboards and simple guitar chords. There is a short guitar solo section too, with Danhage taking the first half and Englund the second. This instrumental section soon morphs into an almost-industrial part with grinding guitars and cold synths. Passing Through picks up the pace, with prominent electronics in the song's intro that have a rather uncharacteristic upbeat vibe to them, but the song is as dark and moody as ever. Despite this, the song creates a good amount of energy with a modern-sounding, almost Gothenburg scene-type, guitar riff behind the verses; and the melodic choruses which again make liberal use of the electronics and synths. Their chiming sounds are a great contrast to the heavier guitars, and the soaring vocal melodies are very reminiscent of the band's previous album. Someday has quite a hectic opening, with Ekdahl's drums playing a strange, frenetic pattern as the two guitars riff over the top. This strange intro soon gives way to a more traditional song with an instantly memorable chorus and excellent lead guitar playing throughout. The verses have real crunch as the two guitars double up with some heavy power chords, before the piano dominates the choruses with ringing notes that are a great foil for Englund's voice. There is a instrumental section part-way through too that is one of the few places where Johan Niemann's bass playing stands out. He is usually quite buried in the mix, so it is good to hear him here. Astray starts with one of the album's best riffs, and it lays down a solid groove from the off and never really lets this up throughout. The big, chunky riff of the intro gives way to a subtler lead line, but it carries the same groove and ensures the energy is present throughout the song. Short ambient instrumental sections break up the riffing, but the groove always re-establishes itself right away when the guitars and drums kick back in. Danhage's solo in the song drips with emotion too, and ends up sounding like a metal version of David Gilmour, which is certainly no bad thing! After four heavier songs, The Impossible comes along at the right time to provide a brief change of pace. It is a beautiful piano ballad, that definitely has something of modern Anathema about it, and it shows another side to Englund's voice. Zander is the star of this song though, with some excellent classically-trained playing that has a really deep rumble to it.

In contrast, My Allied Ocean is heavy! It is probably the heaviest I have ever heard the band play. and the opening riff hits you like a steamroller and sounds like something that should be on an At the Gates album! It works well however, and the song is one of my favourites on the album. There are plenty of great shredding lead guitar sections, and Ekdahl gets to cut loose a little with his drumming, something which does not happen too often. The chorus is great too, with strong vocal melodies from Englund and some subtle female wordless backing vocals that give it a slight ethereal vibe. In Orbit sees the first of two guest vocal spots on the album, as Floor Jansen (After Forever; ReVamp; Nightwish) duets with Englund on the song to good effect. She does not unleash her full operative power, but uses the grittier end of her vocals to create a great contrast to Englund's mournful croon. Niemann stands out again here, with a great bassline in the verse which is the dominant instrument. In general though, this song has quite a different feel to the rest of the album and reminds me a little of Symphony X's latest album Underworld (and particularly the song Without You). It is still a great song though, and hearing Englund and Jansen sing together is pretty special. She has to be one of the most diverse vocalists in metal at the moment, and she makes this song what it is. The Lonely Monarch has an extremely catchy intro with big piano melodies that meld perfectly with the heavy guitars. The song's main riff is also memorable and really drives the verses with a slight bounce. The song makes lots of changes as it moves along, with sudden blasts of double bass drumming taking over to good effect, and a slower chorus that is heavy on the keyboard layers. The Paradox of the Flame is another piano-led ballad, and features the second guest vocalist on the album. Carina Englund, wife of Tom, who is a regular contributor to the band's albums returns here after lacking a real staring role on Hymns for the Broken. It is another great ballad, with a fantastic string arrangement throughout that really adds to the emotional impact of the song. Slide guitar sections are also included which are the icing on the cake. Disconnect is heavier, and also features Jansen's vocals but in a more background role this time. Her operatic skills are put to the test during the choruses, with her wordless efforts providing a great backing for Englund. Intense riffing sections are paired up with delicate piano breaks to give the song great feelings of light and shade, and contains little bits of everything that makes Evergrey sound the way they do. The album comes to an end with the slower title track, which certainly has a heavier, doomy feel to most of what has come before. Keyboards also play a big part in the song's sound, with subtle lead lines throughout and plenty of atmosphere. It is another good song, and ensures the album ends on a high with a song that twists and turns and has a true progressive feel. Overall, The Storm Within is another strong release from the veteran Swedish metal band, and one that shows their semi-rebirth with Hymns for the Broken was not a fluke. Anyone who likes moody metal music with hints of prog and goth should check this out.

The album was released of 9th September 2016 via AFM Records. Below is the band's promotional video for Distance.

Monday, 10 October 2016

Mostly Autumn - Leamington Spa Review

After a fantastic Christmas extravaganza last December (which I reviewed here), Mostly Autumn returned to The Assembly in the beautiful Midlands town of Leamington Spa for another mini festival of their own making. Last year's equivalent featured the last full performance to date of the fantastic Dressed in Voices album, along with an acoustic set, a set of Pink Floyd covers, and an extended encore that included some Christmas festivities. While it was a little early in the year for Christmas songs this time, the formula for this second Leamington 'evening with' Mostly Autumn was very similar. The band started the evening with an hour or so of acoustic music, followed by a support act, which in turn was followed by Mostly Autumn's main two-act headline performance. Last year's show was one of the best Mostly Autumn shows I have ever seen, which is no mean feat considering this one I am currently writing about is my 35th Mostly Autumn show, and this one promised to be up there with it. While I do not think this particular show eclipsed last year's wonderful evening, this was another excellent evening of live music full of new memories of one of my favourite live acts. The Assembly is one of the best mid-sized venues in the country, with an excellent central location and a wonderful sound system. It is no secret that bands have chosen it for conventions and all-day events in the past, with Mostly Autumn being the latest band to take full advantage of this facilities. The only real downside of the evening though was the turnout, which was considerably lower than last year. Last year's event saw the venue almost full, with fans travelling from far and wide to see the band. That was unfortunately not the case this year, but there were still enough people in the venue to make for a great atmosphere. Mostly Autumn fans tend to be very vocal and loyal anyway, and those that came again this year were treated to a fantastic set in the band's inimitable style. Despite the lower turnout, I have a feeling these 'evenings with' in Leamington will become annual events. I certainly hope so anyway!

The venue opened at 3pm, and Mostly Autumn hit the stage about half an hour later for a laid back hour of acoustic music before the show really started. The term 'acoustic' is used lightly here, as towards the end the band were firing on all of their rock cylinders, but things started off much more sedately than usual. They opened with two stripped back oldies, Never the Rainbow and Nowhere to Hide (Close my Eyes), which set the tone for most of the set. Olivia Sparnenn-Josh (vocals/glockenspiel/percussion) sung the first wonderfully, as the song took on a more lounge/jazz style than the 1970s hard rock of the original, and harmonised with Bryan Josh (vocals/guitar) beautifully on the second - which was the first real sing-along moment of the evening. Angela Gordon (vocals/flute/keyboards/whistle) took centre stage for a cover of Christy Moore's Ride On where she showcased her Celtic-infused playing and powerful voice. It has been good to have her back in the band these past couple of years, and I hope she sticks around! There were also a few solo spots in the set. Chris Johnson (vocals/guitar) sung the beautifully sparse Gaze, Alex Cromarty (vocals/guitar/drums) came out from behind his kit to sing a song, and Gordon had further chance to shine with a stunning version of her Odin Dragonfly song Given Time, with Johnson standing in for Heather Findlay with harmony vocals and acoustic guitar. This was easily the highlight of this first set, and the slightly revamped version (Josh added some electric guitar lines occasionally) was probably better than the original! Sparnenn-Josh then sung her ballad The Rain Song, which has morphed from an acoustic number, to a full band arrangement with Breathing Space, and back to an acoustic song again with piano and flute accompaniment. There were two songs left, and they were anything but acoustic! The Last Climb was dusted off again for a welcome outing. The song was a set regular for a few years, but has been used more sporadically recently and this was the first time I had seen the band play it for a couple of years at least. From the bluesy intro, through Gordon's lengthy flute solo, to Josh's long guitar solo, the song was fantastic, and it was good to hear it live again. The set came to an end with a storming version of the once ever-present Evergreen. It is a song that has not been featured much at all live year, but it was brought out again for this special occasion and Sparnenn-Josh owned it as she always has done since taking over the frontwoman spot in 2010. It was a great end to the set, and it gave us a taster of what was to come later. The setlist was:

Never the Rainbow
Nowhere to Hide (Close my Eyes)
Ride On [Christy Moore cover]
{Unknown} [Alex Cromarty solo material]
Given Time [Odin Dragonfly cover]
The Rain Song [Breathing Space cover]
The Last Climb

After a quick change-over, it was time for the evening's 'proper' support act. As it was last year, violinist Anna Phoebe (who seems to be the latest addition to the large Mostly Autumn extended family) provided early evening entertainment for the gathered crowd, with some new material composed with guitarist Nicholas Rizzi. I saw the duo with Anathema in Exeter last year, but this time they are going under the name Papillon and seem to be looking to make this project into a full-time venture. At last year's Leamington show, Phoebe was accompanied by a classically-trained pianist, which I felt was better suited to her violin playing than the guitar was, but the two pairings show two very different styles. The set was the pianist was much more traditionally classical, whereas with Rizzi the music is quirkier and more upbeat. Rizzi is a good guitarist in his own right, and the two play off each other well. This sort of music will never be my favourite, but Phoebe is an extremely talented musician and it is always good to see something out of your comfort zone.

After an hour or so's break where the members of Mostly Autumn came out into the crowd to sign autographs and chat with the fans, the band started their marathon three hour plus set with a set of covers of songs that had inspired them. Considering most of the band's previous covers have been prog-related (mostly Pink Floyd), the set was full of quite a few surprises and it made for a diverse hour of music. Floyd's Us and Them got the show off to a good start, and the band were once again joined by saxophonist Chris Backhouse for the number as they were last year. Sparnenn-Josh then tackled Led Zeppelin's Rock and Roll with ease. Her and Josh had performed this at the Josh & Co. Limited shows back in 2009, so it was great to see her really cut loose on this blues rock classic again. Phoebe joined the band onstage for Fairport Convention's Who Knows Where the Time Goes? which Gordon sung beautifully, before Johnson sung Neil Young's Like a Hurricane (which was the highlight of this set) and Radiohead's Fake Plastic Trees. Another highlight was Sparnenn-Josh's showpiece ballad All by Myself, originally by Eric Carmen but covered by Celine Dion among others. This hour-long set ended with a storming cover of Floyd's Comfortably Numb, which turned into a real guitar showcase for Josh. The song contains two iconic guitar solos, and he nailed both with ease. You can tell from watching Mostly Autumn play this song just how much the sound and songwriting style of Pink Floyd has influenced Josh and the band. Many old press releases used to refer to the band as the new Pink Floyd (which probably was not the greatest advertisement campaign) and it is easy to see their influence in the band's songs.

A twenty minute break followed, and the band came back onstage for the rest of their headline set, which was two hours of their own fantastic material. The set was largely the same as the one they have been playing on the road this year, but with a couple of choice changes to shake things up. The folky instrumental Out of the Inn, leading into the gothic rock of In for the Bite, have established themselves as another great concert-opening duo, and make for a dramatic entrance for Sparnenn-Josh on the latter. Josh's solo song has fit seamlessly into the set, and feels at home despite being darker and heavier than most of the band's material. The current set is a good balance of old a new, with the best of the Sparnenn-Josh-era of the band mixed in with classics from the past. Drops of the Sun, Skin on Skin, and Deep in Borrowdale (all from the Sparnenn-Josh-era) all rock hard and dominate the early part of the set. Skin on Skin particularly is a live highlight these days, with Cromarty's customary drum solo in the middle which leads into a folk rock workout at the end. The soaring symphonic rock of Wild Eyed Skies is another early highlight, with a soaring vocal performance and wall of keyboards from Iain Jennings and Gordon. Johnson's Silver Glass is a still a real showstopper live. His songwriting style is very different to that of Josh or Jennings, but that is what made his contributions to 2007's Heart Full of Sky so special. His songs sit well in the Mostly Autumn canon however, and hearing this one live again over the past couple of years has been a real treat. Mother Nature, brought out of retirement again this year, as easily the best song of the evening however. It is one of the best songs the band have ever done, from the melodic first half with the soaring chorus, to the prog rock instrumental ending which sees Josh and Jennings both have chances to solo as the energy builds up to a climactic finish with Andy Smith's bass solo. Phoebe rejoined the band on stage again for The House on the Hill which was lovely, as was the ballad Passengers which is always such a powerful live number. The main set came to an end with Sparnenn-Josh's signature number Questioning Eyes which is always an emotional moment, with Jennings' delicate piano melodies and Josh's ending slide solo. There was still time for a couple more however, and Phoebe took to the stage for the final time for the oldie (written in 1989 according to Josh!) The Night Sky which is rarely played live these days. It harks back to the time Mostly Autumn had a violinist in the band, and Phoebe and Josh both played their hearts out trading licks and melodies throughout. As always, Heroes Never Die brought the evening to a close, and the band took their bows to rapturous applause from the appreciative crowd. The setlist was:

Us and Them [Pink Floyd cover w/ Chris Backhouse]
Rock and Roll [Led Zeppelin cover]
Who Knows Where the Time Goes? [Fairport Convention cover w/ Anna Phoebe]
Like a Hurricane [Neil Young cover]
Fake Plastic Trees [Radiohead cover]
Take the Long Way Home [Supertramp cover w/ Chris Backhouse]
All by Myself [Eric Carmen cover]
The Great Gig in the Sky [Pink Floyd cover]
Comfortably Numb [Pink Floyd cover]
Out of the Inn
In for the Bite [Bryan Josh solo material]
Answer the Question
Drops of the Sun
Skin on Skin
Deep in Borrowdale
Wild Eyed Skies
Silhouettes of Stolen Ghosts
Silver Glass
Mother Nature
The House on the Hill [w/ Anna Phoebe]
Dressed in Voices
The Spirit of Autumn Past - Part 2
Questioning Eyes [Breathing Space cover]
The Night Sky [w/ Anna Phoebe]
Heroes Never Die

Mostly Autumn shows are always powerful experiences, and this extended show was no different. It is great that the band puts on evenings like this for the fans, and they seemed to be having fun up there on stage throughout. The diverse covers set gave us an insight into the band's influences, and the powerful main set showed me yet again why they are one of my favourite bands. This is probably the last time I see the band play some of these songs for a while, as I have no more Mostly Autumn gigs planned for the rest of this year. February next year sees the release of their upcoming album Sight of Day, so I look forward to seeing the band again next year with a new album and a new set!

Saturday, 8 October 2016

The Quireboys' 'Twisted Love' - Album Review

It could be argued that The Quireboys are one of the hardest working rock bands on the touring circuit at the moment. There seems to be very little time where the band are not on tour somewhere in the world, and their large fanbase is a testament to this commitment. Since 2013 and their new partnership with Off Yer Rocka Recordings, the band have poured some of their relentless road energy into new studio ventures and released three albums in that time - one each year. In a world were bands now often leave large gaps between studio albums, this streak from The Quireboys was pretty remarkable. Both 2013's Beautiful Curse (which I reviewed here) and 2014's Black Eyed Sons (which I also reviewed here) were good enough to get into my Top 10 Albums of the Year lists for their respective years, and brought fresh energy to a band that had not released an album since 2008. Last year's St Cecilia and the Gypsy Soul (which, yet again, I reviewed here) was a different beast. While the previous two were albums in the classic Quireboys vein, and every bit as good as their classic 1990 chart-climbing debut album A Bit of What You Fancy and the rest of their raucous catalogue, St Cecilia and the Gypsy Soul was a rawer, acoustic-driven work that showed a different side of the band. That album missed out on a place in my end of year list. but it is still a enjoyable piece of work and seemed to be the final album in the band's new trilogy. I certainly was not expecting a fourth new album in as many years, so when Twisted Love's announced came out of the view I was surprised. Surely no band can be this prolific without invoking the law of diminishing returns, but any fears of that were quashed as soon as I heard this album for the first time. This is certainly up there with the quality of Black Eyed Sons at least, and it set to become another Quireboys classic! Returning to the studio in Klippan, Sweden, with producer Martin Ekelund (Bonafide) were St Cecilia and the Gypsy Soul was recorded was clearly a good move, as this is possibly the best sounding Quireboys album of the recent haul. The now-established line-up of frontman Spike, guitarists Guy Griffin and Paul Guerin, keyboardist Keith Weir, bassist Nick Mailing. and drummer Dave McCluskey are firing on all cylinders here with everyone doing their bit to make this album a success. This is The Quireboys' 'blues' album, with a strong dose of that music genre in each of the ten songs here. Many songs feature the gospel-esque backing vocals of Lynne Jackaman (Saint Jude) and Jenny Palm which really helps to broaden the band's sound and aid that bluesy feel. This is a technique the band have not used much since their first couple of albums, and it is a welcome addition to Twisted Love. It is also the 'heaviest' album of the recent horde too, with only one recognised ballad and plenty of raw rock 'n' roll riffs from Griffin and Guerin.

The blues elements of the album are on display right away with the rollicking opening number Torn and Frayed. McCluskey's rolling drum beat provides the rhythm of the piece. while the guitars dance above with a slight country twang that gives this song a unique sound. Pär Jansson toots harmonica throughout, further adding to the bluesy feel of the song. Spike sounds reborn on this song, with his gravelly delivery fitting perfectly with the overall vibe. After the slightly left-field opening, the album returns to familiar Quireboys territory with the keyboard-driven rocker Ghost Train. Weir's electric piano leads and heavy organ stabs characterise the song and give it weight, with more than a little hint of early Whitesnake. Spike rules the song however with a commanding vocal performance. He has not sounded this good on record for a while, and has some of his early power back. The female backing vocalists help though, giving the chorus a big sound, and it is one of the catchiest moments on the album. Everyone delivers on this song, with the classic Quireboys sound coming to the fore with huge slide guitar lines. Killing Time is a guitar-driven rocker with a riff that sounds like a bastardisation of the Faces and AC/DC. In many respects, this song is probably the closest on the album to the sound that originally found them fame. Spike spits the vocals out with real venom, and Griffin and Guerin lock in together with a perfect looseness that only they can manage. Mailing shines here too, with a fluid bassline throughout that is more complex than the brash guitar chords and helps to provide a slightly funky subtle under-rhythm that gives the song real depth. I imagine this song will become a future live favourite, helped by the foot-stomping chorus and lengthy guitar solo. The album's title track is a song in the vein of those written for Beautiful Curse and Black Eyed Sons. Weir's keyboards provide the perfect atmosphere while Spike croons the lyrics in his distinctive style. This is not as heavy as the previous three songs, but still has a great rock feel with the rhythm section locking in perfectly to create a tight beat for the surprisingly spiky guitars to sit on top of. Jackaman's vocals are quite prominent here, harmonising well with Spike and providing a smooth equal to his rough delivery. Breaking Rocks is one of those songs that took me a few listens to appreciate. Most Quireboys songs are pretty instant, but this one took it's time to bed in. It is a very deliberate, mid-paced rocker which makes it's mark with a strong groove that all starts with Mailing's bassline. The rest of the instruments have a slightly claustrophobic feel, with harsh keyboard sounds mixing in with the classic Quireboys guitar sound. There is a strange guitar solo part-way through too which has a tortured tone which sounds strange at first, but over time begins to sound right.

Gracie B (Part 2) is not so much a sequel, but more of a re-working of the song that opened St Cecilia and the Gypsy Soul. The raw acoustic rock of the original version is replaced here by a raw hard rock version, with lashings of retro keyboard sounds and growling guitar lines. I am not sure this remake was strictly necessary, but it works well in the context of the album with this heavier sound. This version is closer to the live version the band have been playing for a while now, and it is good to have this version to compare to the sparser original from last year. Lifes a Bitch is classic Quireboys, and one of the standout tracks on the album. The perfect strut of the main guitar riffs is matched by an inspired vocal display from Spike who really owns this song. The chorus is a real winner too, with southern rock-style piano chords, and a catchy vocal melody which sees Spike ably assisted by the ladies. There is even a great piano solo towards the end, that shows Weir to be a formidable player with real skill. Stroll On is a great contrast to the raucous previous song, and adopts a much more laid-back rock vibe with shimmering organ sounds and a prominent bassline. This is another song that totally encompasses the sound the band have been pursuing since Beautiful Curse, with a storytelling vibe with Spike's signature style stamped all over it. There is a real class about this song, with a great old-school feel and a mix of sounds that works well. There is even a prominent harmonic section at the end, which brings the blues vibe back to the fore. Shotgun Way picks up the pace again, with a great bar room boogie feel, with a hint of Status Quo. Weir's keyboards once again dominate, with driving piano lines backing up the guitar riffs perfectly. This song is very similar to Torn and Frayed actually, with a similar drum pattern and melodies, but slowed down for greater purpose. It also features one of the best guitar solos on the album which is packed full of bluesy melodies and a great sense of character. The album closes with the only true ballad featured here, Midnight Collective. The Quireboys have always written beautiful ballads, and this is no exception. Spike's vocal style is perfectly suited for this sort of song, and his lyrics are perfect. Subtle piano chords and bigger keyboard sounds dominate, while the guitars sink to the background to provide the rhythmic elements. The guest female singers add their magic here too, for the last time, with some excellent wordless vocals to help Spike and create catchy little interludes. A slow guitar solo, which actually is the best one on the album, drips with emotion and is the icing on the cake. This is one of the band's best ballads yet. and works really well to close what is a relatively heavy album on a calm and sombre note. Overall, Twisted Love is another strong album from one of the hardest working bands around. Few could release four albums in four years with very little drop in quality, but The Quireboys have managed it, even throwing in a few new ideas to help keep things fresh.

The album was released on 2nd September 2016 via Off Yer Rocka Recordings. Below is the band's promotional video for Twisted Love.

Tuesday, 4 October 2016

Twilight Force's 'Heroes of Mighty Magic' - Album Review

As I mentioned in my review of Sabaton's recent album, power metal seems to be slowly on the decline. This is quite a sad thing for me to come to terms with, as power metal was probably the first subgenre of metal that I got into in a big way, but it is hardly surprising given the limited scope of the genre in the first place. It has had it's own mini life cycle too: starting with Helloween and Stratovarius in the late 1980s/early 1990s; taken to quirkier territory with Sonata Arctica; and taken as far as it could possibly go (and back again) by Rhapsody of Fire. Rhapsody of Fire are probably the epitome of power metal in it's purest form, with soaring melodies, neo-classical lead guitar and keyboard runs, fantasy-inspired lyrics, and an epic symphonic backing. They pushed the genre as far as it could go, and probably ended up killing it in the process as no-one else could be more epic! These days, it seems power metal rests in the hands of Gloryhammer (and Sabaton, but they have transcended power metal now). While I do enjoy Gloryhammer's tongue-in-cheek power metal, and both their albums are extremely enjoyable, Gloryhammer are to power metal what Steel Panther are to hair metal. Power metal has been crying out for a new 'pure' act to carry the torch, and that act might have been found in Sweden's Twilight Force. They formed in 2011, and released their debut album Tales of Ancient Prophecies in 2014, but it was not until they signed to Nuclear Blast Records more recently that they started to get more attention. The results of this new partnership is the band's second album, the awfully titled Heroes of Mighty Magic (the music contained is far better than the title suggests, honestly..). Everything that was great about Tales of Ancient Prophecies has been included here and turned up to 11. Heroes of Mighty Magic is almost double the length of it's predecessor, and has much more going on. Sometimes there is almost too much going on, and the mix gets cluttered and it is hard to hear what is going on (the way early DragonForce albums do), but the melodies and songwriting here is always very strong. Guitarist Lynd and keyboardist Blackwald (yes, they all have awful stage names too..) have formed a solid songwriting partnership now and are set to be the future of epic power metal. They are aided by frontman Chrileon who has an extremely strong voice and a powerful range. With Heroes of Mighty Magic, Twilight Force are staking their claim to be the successors to Rhapsody of Fire, and may give power metal the kiss of life it needs!

Eschewing the usual cinematic intro so typical of power metal albums, Twilight Force steam straight into Battle of Arcane Might with a jaunty keyboard melody atop a crunchy rhythm guitar base. The song is your typical power metal fare, with a galloping verse that allowed Chrileon's strong vocals to dominate, before a soaring chorus takes over with plenty of keyboard layers and choral backing vocals. The lead guitar is very much in the Yngwie Malmsteen-esque neo-classical mould throughout and Lynd unleashes his first of many six-string attacks on this song, before a galloping, symphonic instrumental mid-section successfully takes over. Powerwind is the album's lead single, and opens out with something that sounds like it would sit nicely on a fantasy video game's soundtrack. This song is a microcosm of everything that makes Twilight Force a successful power metal act, but also showcases the cluttered production described earlier. Blackwald's synth leads throughout are extremely catchy, and the song's chorus could be the best on the album. Chrileon's high notes are something to behold, and he carries the song's melodies effortlessly as this simple bombastic number progresses. Rhapsody of Fire have not sounded this joyous for many a year now, and - despite the sound issues -  this is a fine example of epic power metal at it's very best. Opening with a dramatic renaissance string melody, Guardian of the Seas soon becomes a shredding lead guitar workout for Lynd, although the production blunts the impact somewhat. This song has more bite than the previous two however, with gothic, Gregorian-esque choral vocals throughout and some excellent fast-paced drumming from new drummer De'Azsh. This is a powerful song, but the chorus is really let down by the production as Chrileon's vocals are almost totally lost at times. That leaves Lynd to be the star of the show, with plenty of explosive lead guitar breaks that are some of the most memorable heard in the genre for some time. Flight of the Sapphire Dragon starts off fairly placidly, but soon picks up the pace with some more soaring keyboard melodies and an anthemic gang vocal chant. This is one of the album's best songs, with a smooth verse that sounds a little like early Sonata Arctica crossed with Rhapsody of Fire's The Village of Dwarves (in fact, some of the keyboard melodies and sounds used here are similar to that song). The chorus is very upbeat, with plenty of strong vocal melodies to draw you in. It ends on what is probably the most ridiculous, yet amazing, bit of vocal gymnastics on the album, and ensures the song sticks in the mind. There and Back Again is a ten minute epic that ticks all the boxes, but never really amounts to being the epic is tries to be. In one piece of wish-fulfilment however, Fabio Lione (Labyrinth; Rhapsody of Fire; Vision Divine; Angra) duets with Chrileon throughout the song to add a bit of class. Their voices are so similar however, that is often difficult to tell who is singing when (the muddy production does not help). There are lots of stand out moments throughout the song, but it does not really hold together as a proper 'epic' that well. There is a song later in the album that does this much better!

Riders of the Dawn gets back to the shorter songs found on the early part of the album. I know I have been using Rhapsody of Fire for comparisons throughout this review so far, but this song really sounds like the Italian metal giants. If someone played me this song blind, I would have actually thought it was them! That is no bad thing however, and it rock with a storming chorus that actually sounds great and shows Twilight Force can produce music that sounds great from a production point of view. I imagine this song will become a live favourite for this chorus alone, but the lengthy guitar workout is also impressive. Lynd is the genre's new guitar hero, and this song showcases why. In comparison Keepers of Fate falls flat and fails to live up to the excellence of the previous number. The melodies here just are not that memorable compared to other songs on the album. It just never seems to get going, despite steaming along at a decent pace throughout and containing more good guitar playing. Rise of a Hero opens with a strong orchestral melody, before the playful verse kicks in with some child-like vocals in places, that work well in comparison to the full-bloodied delivery throughout, and this sits well with the very upbeat orchestral sounds the song uses. The instrumental mid-section is the highlight of the song however, with some fantastic keyboard and guitar interplay that really bring to mind those early Rising Force albums that made Yngwie Malmsteen a household name in the 1980s. To the Stars is another extremely catchy number that is sure to become a live favourite, with big gang vocal sections that will very fun to sing along to live. It is songs like this that prove that the simpler approach to songwriting brings more success to Twilight Force. The songs where the melodies are more in-your-face are the strongest, and shows that good power metal plays on these facts rather than bury them beneath a host of other musical layers. The final 'proper' song on the album is the epic title track, which is much more of a success than There and Back Again. Joakim Brodén (Sabaton) provides some guest vocals here. and his gruff voice provides a good contrast to Chrileon's soaring delivery. This is a song that is made up of quite a few bits, but they all fit together seamlessly and the song races by in what seems like far less than it's actual length. It provides a good end to the album, and shows that the band probably have a strong future in the genre. Two more tracks follow however, and they really knock the momentum of the album on the head and give the album a strange ending. The first is an entirely spoken word piece called Epilogue that goes on for over six minutes. I assume this is trying to tell the album's story, but since no clear story presents itself while listening, this mini audiobook feels totally unnecessary and cheesy (although not as terrible as the spoken word sections on the debut album). The second is an orchestral outro called Knights of Twilight's Might that just feels pointless after the weird spoken word track. The album should have ended with the title track, and these final two 'songs' only serve to damage the overall impact of the album. Overall, Heroes of Mighty Magic is a strong album of power metal anthems by a band that is sure to be the new torchbearers for the genre. My issues with the production and the album's ending aside, this is a great piece of work and I am sure this band will have a great and epic future.

The album was released on 26th August 2016 via Nuclear Blast Records. Below is the band's official video for Powerwind.