Sunday, 5 February 2017

Epica/Powerwolf - London Review

In the world of symphonic metal, Epica are one of the biggest and most popular bands. They are also one of the heaviest and most dynamic, with a sound that is as epic and orchestral as it is brutal and heavy. Since 2014, and the release of sixth album The Quantum Enigma which really pushed the band's sound and production style forward, Epica have been playing bigger venues when touring the UK. The past two London shows (in 2014 and 2015) were at the O2 Forum in Kentish Town which seems to be the venue of choice for the bigger European metal bands at the moment. Crowds at both shows were great, and bringing strong special guests with them each time (DragonForce in 2014 and Eluveitie in 2015) would have certainly helped the turnout. Unfortunately I could not make the 2014 show, which eventually sold out anyway, but the 2015 show was excellent and showed the benefit of building a bill to fit the audience. The show with Eluveitie was almost a co-headline one, with Eluveitie getting a good length set of their own and many of their fans were present too. Since then, Epica have released The Holographic Principle album which carries on the great work started on The Quantum Enigma. As part of a wider European tour, a one-off stop in London was scheduled in promote the new material. The slightly smaller O2 Shepherd's Bush Empire was chosen as the venue this time, which is not quite as good a place to watch music as the O2 Forum, but the capacity is pretty similar. It was not a sold out show, but it was certainly as good as with a good vocal crowd in the venue all evening. Carrying on the tradition of bringing strong guests with them, Epica this time teamed up with German power metal band Powerwolf who are a band who's stock is certainly rising. In fact, this was more of a co-headline tour, with the two bands swapping who would close the show depending on who was the bigger draw in each city. London is clearly Epica's territory, so they headlined this show and had a longer overall set, but Powerwolf still had a good length set and treated the show as if it was their own!

Before either of those bands played however, the crowd were treated to half an hour or so from German up-and-coming symphonic metal band Beyond the Black who I was previously familiar with in name only. Led by frontwoman Jennifer Haben, the six piece band are not as grandiose or experimental as bands like Epica but instead focus on writing tight and memorable songs. I would compare them to Delain in this respect, as the songs are very melody driven and focus on strong vocals and more basic arrangements than an over-the-top production. Despite their short time on stage, they made a big impression on me. Haben herself proved to be an excellent singer and frontwoman who interacted well with the crowd and led her musicians through the highly-polished set with ease. I was impressed with the band's songs, so I will definitely be getting one of their albums soon and having a proper listen.

Despite not headlining, Powerwolf still had over an hour on stage and made it count with a high energy set of fun power metal anthems with plenty of opportunities for crowd interaction. Frontman Attila Dorn really is a master of his craft, and his booming voice is perfect for the over-the-top music the band create. Nothing about Powerwolf's music is tricky, but the driving guitar rhythms, the horror-themed organ backing, and the fantasy-based lyrics make for a sound that fits the band's spooky but fun image perfectly. Blessed & Possessed and Army of the Night got things off to a great start, and both songs were well received by the crowd who helped Dorn sing the lyrics with plenty of enthusiasm. The Greywolf brothers both play guitar live which means there is no flesh and blood bass player live on stage which is always an odd thing to see. This, coupled with the fact that Falk Maria Schlegel (keyboards) seemed to spend as much time running around the stage getting the crowd going as he did actually playing his keyboards, did make me wonder how much of the band's live sound relied on backing tapes, but the atmosphere was so good that this did not seem to matter. Powerwolf are a band that does one thing, but they do it very well. It is safe to say that they have a distinct sound, and this gave the set a complete and unifying sound. Highlights for me were the upbeat Sacred & Wild and the doomy and slower-paced anthem Let there be Night which could have been on the soundtrack to a classic Hammer film. The set came to an end with two really memorable anthems in the form of Sanctified by Dynamite and We Drink Your Blood, both of which really got the crowd going. While Powerwolf will never be a favourite band of mine, they certainly put on an entertaining live show and are extremely good at what they do. I am sure there were many in the crowd who thought that they were the band of the night, and I can totally understand this view while not agreeing with it. I shall have to get some more Powerwolf albums at some point, and I would like to catch them live again one day. The setlist was:

Lupus Daemonis
Blessed & Possessed
Army of the Night
Amen & Attack
Coleus Sanctus
In the Name of God (Deus Vult)
Sacred & Wild
Armata Strigoi
Dead Boys Don't Cry
Let there be Night

Resurrection by Erection
Werewolves of Armenia
Sanctified by Dynamite
We Drink Your Blood
Wolves Against the World

Powerwolf and Epica could not be more different in terms of presentation. The former relies more on a high-energy show and lots of interaction to make their live show have more impact, whereas Epica rely more on the power of their music to wash over the audience. Both of these approaches are equally valid, it was just interesting to see the two methods employed one after another. While Powerwolf were very good, it was Epica I was here to see and thankfully they did not disappoint. With the new album receiving good reviews around the world, it was good to see the new material dominating the set and a few ever-present set choices getting a rest. Two new songs, Edge of the Blade and A Phantasmic Parade, made for the perfect opening duo. Frontwoman Simone Simons was in fine voice throughout, and powered her way through both as the band, as tight as ever, backed her up perfectly. The second of the two in particular impressed with Coen Janssen's (keyboards) synth melodies really cutting through the staccato guitar rhythms. The piano-led rocker Sensorium, a song which would probably benefit from a break from being played live, brought some energy to proceedings, but it was Universal Death Squad, another new number, that really got everyone going. This is probably one of the most complete Epica songs yet and manages to pack everything that is great about the band into it's heavy but melodic walls. The groovy chorus is one of the catchiest, and the riffing from Isaac Delahaye (guitar/vocals) is so progressive but still very memorable. There is a lengthy death metal section too for Mark Jansen's (vocals/guitar) harsh vocals to shine. It was great to hear The Essence of Silence from the last album live again as it is such a powerful addition to any setlist. The rest of the set was mostly new material again though which was great. One of the latter highlights was the Indian-themed Dancing in a Hurricane which has such a progressive opening that builds towards and anthemic and extremely memorable chorus. They keyboards and guitars work so well together in this song, and the Arabic melodies are strong and work well within the symphonic scope of the band's traditional sound. A small amount of crowd participation was encouraged at the start of Unchain Utopia, but it was the end of this song that impressed the most with a lengthy drum outro from AriĆ«n van Weesenbeek that acted as a mini solo and brought the song to a dramatic end. In a slightly strange move, the set ended with a power ballad, Once Upon a Nightmare from the new album, that really showcased Simons' soaring and powerful vocals. Being the headline act, Epica had time for an encore. Sancta Terra, another song that could do with a rest, got this three-song segment going, but it was the new number Beyond the Matrix that really got the crowd going. The slightly funky, danceable song is something different for Epica and it works really well live driven by Rob van der Loo's (bass guitar) snaking bassline. The epic closing number Consign to Oblivion, which often ends the band's shows, is still as powerful now after hearing it live four times as it was the first. The heavy riffing and Jansen's soaring growls ensured the evening came to a strong close and the wall of death at the beginning was the first such thing I had seen at an Epica show. The setlist was:

Edge of the Blade
A Phantasmic Parade
Universal Death Squad
Storm the Sorrow
The Essence of Silence
The Obsessive Devotion
Ascension - Dream State Armageddon
Dancing in a Hurricane
Unchain Utopia
Once Upon a Nightmare
Sancta Terra
Beyond the Matrix
Consign to Oblivion (A New Age Dawns - Part III)

Overall, this was an excellent evening of live metal in London, with all three bands playing strong sets that impressed the near-sellout crowd. While Epica were the band of the night for me, the other two bands impressed too and it is bills like this that make getting out and travelling to gigs worth doing.

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