Tuesday, 30 May 2017

Kiss - Birmingham Review

As with Iron Maiden the previous week, a Kiss concert is something I have been waiting for for some time! If my memory serves me well, a Kiss compilation was the first CD that I bought with my own money back in the day, and the American party rock band became a very important band for me in my musical development. Similarities can also be drawn with Iron Maiden when it comes to UK tours. I believe the last full UK arena tour was way back in 2010, a full seven years ago. A few festival appearances aside, this run of European shows as part of their Kissworld 2017 tour was long overdue! As soon as the shows were announced I knew I had to go and secured a ticket on the day they went on sale. Crossing off both Iron Maiden and Kiss in the space of a week was a very exciting prospect. I believe it is possible for gig fatigue sometimes, where you see so many bands in a short space of time that the novelty begins to wear off, but that would certainly not be the case here! As was the case with the Iron Maiden show, Kiss played at the city centre-based Barclaycard Arena which I now much prefer over the lightly bigger Genting Arena as you do not have to contend with over-crowded trains after the show! With all that had unfolded in Manchester earlier in the week, it was amazing to see how much the security had increased. I practically just walked straight into the venue before Iron Maiden, but the Kiss show saw lengthy queuing with thorough back and body searches. While it was excellent to see the venue so vigilant after all that happened, I do question why do many doors were not opened as this would have definitely reduced the time needed for queuing! I tend to choose seated tickets for arena shows these days, as views from the floor can often be poor if you are anywhere but the front, and although I was seated quite near to the back of the hall I had a great view of the stage and the sound throughout was excellent.

Before Kiss the growing crowd was treated to around half an hour of music from young American power pop band The Dives who really impressed me during their set. When I read the announcement that The Dives were to be Kiss' support band, and also that The Dives' frontman Evan Stanley was the son of Kiss' Paul Stanley, I was a little disappointed as I was hoping for a bigger name and was worried that the band were only there due to the obvious family connections. While the latter is almost certainly true, they were clearly there on their own merits too as their catchy, poppy rock music really seemed to go down a storm with a crowd and the soaring melodies filled the room perfectly. The Dives are certainly nothing original, but their confidence and songwriting skills made them instantly stand out. Upbeat rockers like Anticipation mixed well with more emotionally-charged songs like Man, Oh Mandy, and the set came to and end with the best song of the bunch Make it Like the Movies. Many in the crowd seemed to warm to The Dives and I immediately went to the merch stand after their set to pick up a copy of their debut EP Everybody's Talkin' - although sadly the queue at their signing session barely moved during the interval due to a few selfish fans taking too many selfies so I was unfortunately not able to get my copy signed.

After half an hour or so's change over, the lights went down the famous 'You wanted the best!' introduction heralded Kiss' introduction, as the band were lowered to the stage on a big platform as they played the opening bars to Deuce. What followed was just shy of two hours of pure rock and roll theatre with pyrotechnics, fire breathing, blood spitting, and even flying; all while the band steamed through a career-spanning set packed with classic rock anthems and a few lesser known deeper cuts for the hardcore fans. Led by Paul Stanley (vocals/guitar) and Gene Simmons (vocals/bass guitar), the seasoned four piece impressed throughout with each member getting a chance to shine as the evening moved on. Despite his voice being noticeably weaker these days, Stanley was still often the star of the show - throwing himself around the stage in his platform boots and pulling poses that would put many younger men out of action for weeks! He is the mouthpiece of the band and continually interacted with the audience throughout the show and helped to keep the energy levels high. After Shout it Out Loud, a moment of silence was held for the victims of the Manchester attack, before Stanley turn up the sleaze for a run through of the 1980s classic Lick it Up. A rousing version of the golden oldie Firehouse showed that his voice still sometimes resembles past glories, and saw Simmons rolling out his old fire breathing routine at the end to huge cheers. Tommy Thayer (vocals/guitar) who has been involved in Kiss camp since the late 1980s in various capacities sung the oldie Shock Me, which was probably the only strange setlist choice of the night. It was not a bad performance by any means, but I would have preferred to hear him sing one of his own songs (When Lightning Strikes in particular is a cracker) rather than sing a song made famous by previous guitarist Ace Frehley. His explosive guitar solo (literally) that followed was great however, and showed how invaluable he is to the current incarnation of this legendary band. The lesser-played Flaming Youth was a surprise, but welcome inclusion to the set, before Simmons' bass solo (that included his blood spitting trick) led to him singing God of Thunder from a raised platform as demonic red lighting filled the arena. From then on, the classics really started to flow again and the party atmosphere was turned up to 11 with Crazy Crazy Nights and the groovy War Machine. While the announcement of Say Yeah, the only song in the set from either of the band's latest couple of albums, was met with a rather muted cheer, by the end of the song everyone was into it and helped Stanley to sing the chorus when asked to do so. Stanley then rode his zip wire out to a mini stage by the sound desk and started off a barnstorming version of Psycho Circus which was definitely one of the songs of the evening for me. The slightly heavier feel, combined with a soaring chorus, makes the song a real classic in my eyes and it predictably went down well with the crowd. Black Diamond followed and this allowed Eric Singer (vocals/drums) a chance to shine with a strong, raw vocal performance that shows him to probably be Kiss' best singer now! That guy works so hard all night, and has picked up much of the backing vocal slack now that Stanley's voice is not what it was. Rock and Roll all Nite brought the main set to an end, with Stanley smashing his guitar at the end as Simmons and Thayer flew out over the crowd on moving platforms. There was of course to be more, and a couple more all-time classic tracks followed. The pseudo-disco track I Was Made for Lovin' You took on a heavier feel live with more guitar than synthesiser, before a hard rocking version of Detroit Rock City, sung with passion by Stanley, brought a wonderful evening of music to an end. The setlist was:

Shout it Out Loud
Lick it Up
I Love it Loud
Shock Me
Guitar solo
Flaming Youth
Bass solo
God of Thunder
Crazy Crazy Nights
War Machine
Say Yeah
Psycho Circus
Black Diamond
Rock and Roll all Nite
I Was Made for Lovin' You
Detroit Rock City

It was a dream come true to finally see Kiss live and the legendary band did not disappoint. The setlist was well-chosen and the stage set-up and theatrical antics made the evening more of a 'show' a times than a rock concert. This is what you expect with Kiss however, and I would not have had it any other way!

Monday, 29 May 2017

Trinity Live 2017

Back in 2014 there was an event held at The Assembly in Leamington Spa called Trinity which a day of progressive rock music to raise money for various cancer charities. The event came from a proposed mini tour between Touchstone, The Reasoning, and Magenta of the same name which had to be cancelled when Magenta's frontwoman Christina Booth was diagnosed with cancer. This tour became a day of music for a good cause and over £9000 was raised, which was an excellent achievement for all involved. There were always plans to follow up the event with another, but for various reasons not made public the proposed Trinity II that was to take place in 2015 never happened. As time passed I assumed the event was to be a one-off, but then last year it was announced that the long-awaited follow-up to that 2014 day would take place in 2017, again at The Assembly. The main three bands, Lonely Robot, Touchstone, and Ghost Community were announced right away, and this was enough to get me to commit to going. I had not yet had an opportunity to see the new Touchstone line-up live, and I had wanted to catch both Lonely Robot and Ghost Community live. A further three bands: A Formal Horse, the Dec Burke Band, and the debut solo performance from former Touchstone frontwoman Kim Seviour were announced later on to complete the line-up. As with the previous event, there was a raffle and a charity auction held throughout the day, with goodies to be won/bought that had been donated by Marillion, Steven Wilson, Steve Hackett and many others. The music all kicked off at 1:30pm, so a fairly early start was needed from the South West. Still, I got up to Leamington in time for some lunch at the local Wetherspoons, have a quick wander around the town itself, and head down to The Assembly in time for the first band. The turnout, while certainly not awful, was certainly not great. It was a shame that not more people made the effort to attend this day of music in aid of a good cause, but sadly this seems to be the case for the underground prog scene at the moment with audience numbers dropping off somewhat. Still, there were enough people in attendance to make create a good atmosphere, and numbers did swell somewhat throughout the day.

Up first were the Southampton-based band A Formal Horse who's abrasive complex songs seemed to interest large portions of the crowd, but sadly left me totally cold. As much as I am a fan of progressive rock music, there still has to be a strong melody to keep me interested. A Formal Horse's music was anything but melodic, and rather had a schizophrenic quality with discordant guitar lines and ethereal vocals. In fairness, guitarist Benjamin Short is a very skillful player. His only guitar was a double-neck Gibson SG and much of the heavy riffing used the twelve-string neck to create a beefy sound. There was certainly a lot of Yes' Steve Howe in his jazzy lead playing too, and there was some genuinely impressive passages in the band's songs. Overall though, I found the music too abrasive and without any real coherence or melody.

After a quick changeover, the Dec Burke Band took to the stage for what turned out to be a set of much more traditional progressive rock. Dec Burke seems to be quite well known in the prog scene, having been a member of both Darwin's Radio and Frost*, but this was my first exposure to this music. The first three bands only got half an hour or so on stage which meant the first part of the evening raced by. Sadly, Dec Burke's set was one of those sets I am sure we have all seen before in the way that you really struggle to remember anything about it afterwards. The songs themselves were decent enough but nothing about them, or the performance, really stood out. Dec Burke sang and played the guitar, and it was his solos that stood out the most during the set. He is a good guitar player, but his set left little of an impression on me when it was done.

The highlight of the first half of the day was the debut solo performance from Kim Seviour, in her first high-profile gig since leaving Touchstone for health reasons in 2015. With her solo album Recovery is Learning, which was co-written and produced by John Mitchell, due for release at the end of July this set at Trinity II allowed her to premier some of the new songs live for the first time. While there are some similarities to Touchstone's sound in her new songs, the music was understandably simpler to allow for her vocals to really lead the songs. It is hard to judge a whole set of new songs from a new band on one live appearance, but I certainly liked what I heard. There was a good mix of upbeat rockier songs and slower, more downbeat numbers which should give the album some variety. With a strong reaction from the crowd, it is fair to say that Kim Seviour's first solo outing was a success, and I am certainly looking forward to hearing her new album when it drops in a couple of months time.

After Kim Seviour's set, there was a two-hour break which allowed the punters to go and get some food etc. and allowed me to go and check into the local Travelodge and get a little bit of rest before the main event to come. There seemed to be a few more in attendance after the break, which is probably unsurprising considering the 'bigger name' bands filled the three evening slots, as well as the raffle and charity auction also taking place.

Ghost Community were the first band of the evening session, and they are a band I have been wanting to see live since getting their debut album album Cycle of Life last year. Formed by former members of The Reasoning, Also Eden, and Crimson Sky in 2014, Ghost Community formally burst onto the scene last June with their debut album and have a few shows under their belts already. The set kicked off with the harder rock of Rise Up, gracefully led by the smooth vocals of frontman John Paul Vaughn and Matt Cohen's (bass guitar/percussion) melodic bassline. The band then proceeded to play the vast majority of their debut album, the lengthy title track aside, and the diverse material came across really well on stage. While not a particularly active frontman Vaughn, who looked as if he had raided Spike from The Quireboys' wardrobe, really led the charge with a strong vocal performance throughout. Ghost Community's music if often keyboard driven, with many of the standout melodies coming from Robert Gerrard's keyboards. Aside from Rise Up, another standout number was the vitriolic Blue December Morning, which starts off slowly before building up to a heavier ending with Simon Rogers' (guitar/vocals) riffs. A slightly clunky, but enjoyable, cover of Marillion's The Uninvited Guest brought a powerful live set to a close with some excellent off-kilter drumming from Jake Bradford-Sharp. Based on this performance I am sure that Ghost Community will make a name for themselves in the prog world, and I hope to catch them live again soon. The setlist was:

Rise Up
Mirror Lakes
Anything and Everything
Blue December Morning
Ghost Community
The Uninvited Guest [Marillion cover]

After the raffle and a handful of the auction lots, it was time for Touchstone to hit the stage and they did with aplomb by opening with their traditional set-closer Strange Days. I had not seen this melodic prog band since the last Trinity event, so was really looking forward to see what new members Aggie (vocals) and Liam Holmes (keyboards) would bring to the band's live shows. 'Lots' is the answer to that and this performance was probably the best I had seen the band perform since the shows supporting Wintercoast back in 2009. With all three new songs from last year's EP Lights from the Sky present in the set, this was a forward-looking performance that showcased Touchstone reinvigorated and full of energy. Moo (vocals/bass guitar) has taken over the male lead vocal sections, as displayed during the prog metal epic Wintercoast which is still one the best songs of it's kind ever written, and Adam Hodgson (guitar/vocals) now adds extra backing vocals where required to bulk out the sound. The new songs came across well, especially the heavier Tangled Lines, and Aggie really seemed full of confidence on these songs that she co-wrote. She owned the older material too, and the golden oldie Blacktide sparkled with charm as it did at those shows so long ago. Holmes is a real find too, and his busy keyboard playing really added a lot to the band's sound. The aforementioned Wintercoast really came alive with his additions, including a classically-influenced piano break part-way through that really added to the song and added some virtuosity to proceedings. The set came to and end with one of the new numbers, Lights from the Sky, which is packed full of Eastern melodies and a commanding vocal display from Aggie. I wish they could have played for longer, as they were the band of the day for me, so I look forward to their upcoming new album and hopefully catching them live again sometime soon. The setlist was:

Strange Days
Tangled Lines
Lights from the Sky

The remaining auction lots were sold off as the crew were setting up for Lonely Robot, the headliners and final act of the day. Lonely Robot is essentially the solo project of John Mitchell (vocals/guitar) from Arena and It Bites among others. I had seen Mitchell previously fronting It Bites a handful, but this was the first time I had seen him on his own and presenting his solo material. Backing Mitchell was a band consisting of Steve Vantsis (bass guitar/vocals), who is known for being the long-time bassist for Fish, Touchstone's Holmes on keyboards, and Craig Blundell (drums), who is a long-time member of Frost* and also plays with Steven Wilson. With two albums now under the Lonely Robot moniker, there was a lot of material to showcase, but sadly the band's set had to be truncated somewhat to just over an hour as the auction overran and the time it took to soundcheck and set up all the gear. The band took to the stage and stormed through the blistering instrumental Airlock, which is built around Mitchell's excellent guitar solo, before going straight into God vs Man which has a heavier overall feel. Despite the band's second album The Big Dream only being released recently, most of the set was drawn from the debut album Please Come Home. The melodic rocker The Boy in the Radio was an early highlight, and possesses easily the best chorus Mitchell has written. Kim Seviour took the stage part-way through to duet with Mitchell on Oubliette, as she did on the album, before the heavier prog of Construct/Obstruct wowed the crowd. Throughout the gig, two people dressed in astronauts outfits walked slowly through the crowd, which was quite odd, but did help to add to the overall atmosphere of the night. The short, piano-led The Red Balloon followed before, after being told they had time for one more, a barnstorming version of Sigma from the new album brought Trinity II to a hard rocking end. The setlist was:

God vs Man
The Boy in the Radio
In Floral Green
Lonely Robot
Oubliette [w/ Kim Seviour]
The Red Ballon

Overall, it would appear that Trinity II was a success. The final total of monies raised for the cancer charities has yet to have been announced, but I would imagine it will be a healthy amount. Congratulations must go out to Adam Hodgson and Moo from Touchstone, Matt Cohen from Ghost Community, along with Jerry Ewing, who edits Prog Magazine, for compering the day with extreme enthusiasm. There was also a lady who was involved with the organisation of the day, but I cannot recall her name so apologies for not name-checking her here! While it is a shame that there were not a few more people there on the day, it is safe to say that those in attendance had a great day of live music and contributed to raising money for a worthy cause. I hope there is a Trinity III in the future, and I am sure I will be there if there is!

Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Snakecharmer's 'Second Skin' - Album Review

The term 'supergroup' is often overused these days, but in the case of Snakecharmer I think it applies. While the members that make up the still-relatively young blues rock band might not all be instant household names, many of the songs they have been a part of over the years are world-famous. Snakecharmer was initially put together in 2011 by two founding members of British rock legends Whitesnake. Guitarist Micky Moody and bassist Neil Murray reunited and assembled a strong ling-up of musicians which initially toured playing sets consisting of many early Whitesnake classics. Joining Moody and Murray in this new venture were frontman Chris Ousey (Heartland), guitarist Laurie Wisefield (Wishbone Ash), keyboardist Adam Wakeman (Ozzy Osbourne; Headspace), and drummer Harry James (Terraplane; Thunder; Magnum). While Ousey's bluesy voice is more akin to Paul Rogers' tones than David Coverdale's style, Snakecharmer impressed live and the chemistry between the six band members was clearly there from the off. New material was inevitable, and two years later the band's self-titled debut album (which I reviewed here) was released to strong reviews. While the busy schedules of the individual band members has always limited Snakecharmer's live activities, the band toured as often as they could in support of the album, with a set that contained a healthy amount of new material alongside Whitesnake classics. At the end of the 2015 UK tour, Moody announced that he was leaving the band, and I was probably not the only fan who feared the band would slowly fade away as a result. Thankfully, that has not been the case as the band recruited Northern Irish guitar sensation Simon McBride (Sweet Savage) to fill the void left by Moody. Despite enjoying a short stint with reformed NWOBHM stalwarts Sweet Savage in the mid-1990s, McBride has mostly made a name for himself on the blues circuit as a solo artist and has supported Jeff Beck and Joe Bonamassa among others. This new-look Snakecharmer regrouped last year and began to write the songs that would eventually appear on their second album, which was released earlier this month as Second Skin. While the material on the first album was mostly written by a combination of Ousey, Moody, and Wisefield; Second Skin sees the Ousey/Wisefield writing partnership really coming to the fore. The other four members of the band have also contributed to the album's songwriting, but it is Ousey and Wisefield that dominate which helps to give the album a strong overall identity. While I enjoyed Snakecharmer, I think the material on Second Skin is stronger overall and there are a few songs on here that really jump out as instant personal favourites. While the blues rock sound of the first album is intact, some minor changes have been made to improve the album's overall feel. Wakeman's keyboards are definitely more prominent in the mix than previously, which is a big improvement in my opinion, and overall Second Skin just seems to rock a little harder than Snakecharmer with more energy and attitude.

The album's opener, Sounds Like a Plan, really kicks things off nicely with a heavy, uptempo blues rock feel. The clean guitar chords and keyboard intro soon gives way to a snaking main riff and a driving verse which is lead by Murray's melodic bass playing. Ousey sounds more energetic throughout this album, and this new-found confidence is displayed instantly on this song. He packs the verses with enough grit to match the bluesy rhythms, and explodes in the soaring chorus by belting out the lyrics. Wakeman's keyboards add extra depth to the choruses, with lots of flourishes which are quite reminiscent of those classic 1970s horn sections that many bands utilised around that time. The Kind of Love, the album's lead single, is very reminiscent of the majority of the songs found on Snakecharmer. James' drum beat grounds the song as a simple guitar lead provides early melodies while the keyboards swirl around underneath. Ousey is a little more restrained in the verses, but lets rip more during the choruses when the band ramps up behind him with some ringing power chords and stabs of Hammond organ. Wisefield and McBride display their new-found chemistry throughout, with many subtle twin-guitar harmonies and a great mix of fuzzy chords and bluesy leads. Are You Ready to Fly, the only song on the album co-written by McBride, is a muscular mid-paced slab of blues rock. The main riff is quite slow, but it packs a real punch, and the Hammond organ backing really takes the listener back to the 1970s. It is perhaps unsurprising that Murray's bass playing is prominent in a song like this, and his growling playing really helps to add depth. Murray's playing always added the boogie to those early Whitesnake albums, and he does the same throughout Second Skin. There is a great instrumental section here with some great off-kilter guitar rhythms which explodes into a soaring bluesy solo, before transforming back into the song's Free-like chorus. Up next is Follow Me Under, which is easily my favourite song from the album. It is an uptempo piece of bluesy party rock with a driving power chord riff and some excellent vocals from Ousey. The song is consistently great, but it really comes alive in the chorus with some classy melodies a big keyboard arrangement. The two guitarists impress again with plenty of bluesy melodies throughout. It is songs like this that really set Second Skin apart from Snakecharmer and show that the band have improved as songwriters over the past couple of years. I'll Take You as You Are is another mid-paced rocker, akin to Are You Ready to Fly but with a little lighter feel. Acoustic guitar melodies dominate the verses and Ousey uses a slightly more delicate approach with the vocals. As with many of the songs on the album, the song really ramps up during the choruses with a more expressive vocal performance and lashings of Hammond organ. The guitar solo is excellent too, and packed full of classic bluesy phrasing. Unfortunately the album's booklet does not specify which guitarist plays each of the solo, so I cannot credit the individual player! Hell of a Way to Live carries on the mid-paced feel, but racks up the heaviness with a very catchy verse riff and booming drums. James' meat and potatoes drum style is sometimes a little basic for my taste, but it is songs like this where his simplicity really wins out. Sadly the song is let down a little by an uninteresting chorus, but points are regained during the excellent guitar solo.

Fade Away is the closest thing to a proper ballad on Second Skin, and is the album's slowest moment. The spacey opening guitar lines are unlike anything else on the album and put the listener in a dream-like state. While the guitars and keyboards are mostly used for atmospheric purposes throughout, it is the bass that actually ends up providing the most melody. Murray's bassline is far from simple and dances through the song adding subtle twists and turns to always maintain the listener's interest. Ousey really excels during the song too with a varied and emotionally-charged vocal performance. Ousey was probably the least-known member of the original Snakecharmer line-up, but he has proved himself to be an excellent singer and seems to have really come into his own here. After a few songs that reduced the album's energy somewhat, Dress It Up comes along and kicks things up a gear once. Again, the song is similar to much of the material on the band's first album, but hits the spot with a raw riff and another snaking bassline. The chorus is another winner, with lots of vocal harmonies to create a call-and-response type vocal arrangement which will ensure the song becomes a concert staple in future. This type of uptempo boogie blues rock is what I feel Snakecharmer excel and I would not be surprised to see them include more of songs like this on future albums. I feel songs like this bring the best out of Ousey's vocals and allow for Wakeman to really let up with his Hammond organ. Punching Above my Weight, one of the two songs on the album written by Ousey and James, is an acoustic-led rocker with a light, but upbeat feel with simple melodies that make it an instantly memorable moment on the album. While the band does ramp up somewhat as the song goes on, the acoustic guitar chords still dominate the sound along with the keyboards. The song's emotionally-charged guitar solo is the real highlight however, and it carries on even after Ousey starts to sing again. I like that touch and it really brings the best out of the vocals and the guitars as the two work so nicely together. This song is quite different to the rest of the songs on the album, but it works well and stands out for that reason. Forgive & Forget is another mid-paced piece of blues rock, complete with some excellent barroom piano from Wakeman as well as his usual Hammond organ chords. It is probably the most 'cliché' blues song on the album, with aching guitar leads that make use of lots of note-bends and a plodding bassline. There are lots of soulful backing vocals used throughout too which adds to that old blues feel. The album's final song, Where Do We Go From Here, is the other song co-written by James. It starts off as another slower number, with dark-sounding clean guitar chords and a restrained vocal performance. Approximately half of the song remains in this slower, sparser mode but the keyboards get more dominate as the song crawls along. The rest of the band comes in towards the end with raw power chords and lots of squealing leads too bring the album to an exciting close. Overall, Second Skin is an impressive follow-up album from Snakecharmer and shows the band in a new and improved light. The songwriting is much stronger here I feel, and this is an album I can see myself playing a lot over the coming months.

The album was released on 12th May 2017 via Frontiers Records. Below is the band's promotional video for That Kind of Love.

Monday, 22 May 2017

Iron Maiden - Birmingham Review

It might surprise readers of this blog that, before last night, I had not seen the mighty Iron Maiden live! This is probably hard to believe for some of you, but it is true. In fairness, I was a bit of a latecomer to the band. I always respected their influence and legacy, but I put my efforts into other bands and only really started to properly explore the Iron Maiden discography when I went to University in 2010. Since then I have obviously become well-versed in the band's music and have become a big fan. Being an Iron Maiden fan in their home country of England can be an extremely frustrating experience as live appearances are often few and far between. They are one of those bands who now seem to think that a single appearance at Download Festival constitutes a UK tour, and this is the main reason which is why last night in Birmingham was my first experience of the Irons live. 2015 saw the release of The Book of Souls (which I reviewed here), the band's sixteenth studio album. The predictable headline appearance at Download was used last year to promote the album in the UK, but not long after that weekend a full UK tour, the band's first in six years, was announced. I knew as soon as I saw the announcement that I had to make every effort to go, so a ticket was duly purchased for their stop off in Birmingham at the Barclaycard Arena. Despite being slightly smaller (only very slightly) than the prestigious Genting Arena (which forms part of the out-of-town NEC complex), the Barclaycard Arena is my preference for arena gigs in Birmingham. It is right in the centre of town so is extremely accessible and there is no reliance on packed, late-night trains afterwards. I had only been to the Barclaycard Arena once before, and that was to see Status Quo in December of last year. With all the seats removed, apart from the fixed balcony-type seating where I was, the place suddenly seemed so much bigger than it had previously. Unsurprisingly, for a band of Iron Maiden's stature, the place was full.

Before the Irons took to the stage, the gathering crowd were treated to just under an hour of American rockers Shinedown, a band who are well-known in their own right. I saw the band a few years ago supporting Alter Bridge in Nottingham, but they have become much more popular since them. Despite having a few good songs, I have never really become a big fan of theirs. Their 'generic radio rock for the masses' is pretty bland on their whole, but they still managed to put on a decent show. They opened with Devour, a song I know quite well, and proceeded to play a collection of their well-known material; including many songs that I was familiar with. An early highlight was Diamond Eyes (Boom-Lay Boom-Lay Boom) which saw quite a lot of crowd interaction and there seemed to be quite a few in attendance who were familiar with the band. The thing that has always annoyed me about Shinedown however is frontman Brent Smith's over-earnest and lengthy speaches between songs about how heavy metal is a lifestyle (Shinedown would not know heavy metal if it slapped them in the face) and other needless clichés that might well go down well in American, a country known for being over-sentimental, but just come across as strange over here. Plus, it was clear even from where I was sitting, that Smith had a lot of vocal 'help' throughout the set. I would not necessarily accuse him of miming, but there really were a lot of vocals on the backing track! This is never good to see, and it certainly put a downer on the band's overall performance. That being said, you cannot deny the quality and memorability of many of the band's songs, and they are songs written for arenas. The setlist was:

Fly from the Inside
Diamond Eyes (Boom-Lay Boom-Lay Boom)
How Did You Love
Second Chance
Cut the Cord
Sound of Madness

After the customary intro consisting of UFO's Doctor Doctor had been played over the PA, the lights went down and a short video was played before frontman Bruce Dickinson took the stage with a smoking cauldron and started singing If Eternity Should Fail from the latest album. When the whole band kicked in, it was clear that the crowd was going to be in for a good night as the sound was extremely clear and all six members of the band really seemed up for it. As this tour is promoting the material on The Book of Souls, a good portion of that album was played throughout the night, with older classics thrown in throughout. Speed of Light, also from the new album, was an early highlight, and saw both  Adrian Smith (guitar/vocals) and Dave Murray (guitar) trading leads and solos throughout. The punky Wrathchild from the band's early days went down a storm, before the rarely played Children of the Damned also received a huge cheer. While all six of the guys on stage really gave their all, it was Dickinson that impressed the most. While his voice is not quite what it was, you could tell he was straining to reach some of the higher notes, he still put in a top-notch performance and showed why he is one of the best frontmen in the business. He had numerous hats, costumes, and props throughout the evening to help him and he put on a real show. The new material came across really well in the set and Death or Glory, which is one of the more 'to the point' songs on the new album, was also really well received. The new song that I felt was overlong was The Red and the Black, which has never been a favourite song of mine, but the wordless vocal sections were belted out by the crowd with plenty of enthusiasm. The stone cold classic The Trooper predictably received one of the biggest reactions of the night, and Dickinson rushed around the top of the stage in his red coat and armed with his trusty Union Flag. He even tied up Janick Gers (guitar) with it at one point which was fun to see, and showed the chemistry the two have. Much is made of Smith and Murray in Iron Maiden, but Gers sometimes get forgotten about. This is a shame as he is a real showman and is definitely the second most active on stage after Dickinson (although founding member and bassist Steve Harris runs him close!). Plus, his rawer guitar style is a great contrast to the more precise styles of the band's other two guitarists, and he helps to add some real rock and roll to proceedings. He particularly impressed on The Book of Souls, a song which he co-wrote. From the delicate acoustic guitar intro, to the hard-rocking second half of the song, Gers really showed what an asset he is to the band. Two real classics were wheeled out at the end, and Fear of the Dark probably saw the biggest sing-along of the night before the band's self-titled song brought the main set to a loud and energetic close. There was of course time for some more and The Number of the Beast got the encore section off to a strong start while a big , inflatable devil observed from the rear of the stage. The newer number Blood Brothers also proved to be a big sing-along, before the evening came to and end with Smith's Wasted Years a song which is just packed full of great guitar playing. The setlist was:

If Eternity Should Fail
Speed of Light
Children of the Damned
Death or Glory
The Red and the Black
The Trooper
The Great Unknown
The Book of Souls
Fear of the Dark
Iron Maiden
The Number of the Beast
Blood Brothers
Wasted Years

Overall, this was a top night of high quality melodic metal from one of the all-time legends of the genre. I had been waiting many years to see Iron Maiden live so I am happy that I have finally had the opportunity to do so and they did not disappoint. I imagine that this will be seen as one of my gigs of the year come December, and it would definitely deserve that accolade.

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

New Device's 'Coming Home' - EP Review

Just over a year since their last release, New Device are back with their second EP Coming Home. January last year saw the release of Devils on the Run (which I reviewed here), their first EP in their then nine year career. It is amazing to think that 2017 will see the band celebrating their tenth anniversary! Having formed in 2007 during a time when hard rock music was starting to have a bit of a resurgence, New Device found themselves up against a lot of competition. I was growing up and discovering music around the same time and the likes of Heaven's Basement, theFALLEN, Glamour of the Kill, Dear Superstar, and others were really exciting. I loved all the classic rock bands, but it was great to have a new generation of bands to call my own. New Device were part of that troupe, but they went a little under the radar for me at the time and it has only been in the past couple of years that I have really given them a proper re-evaluation. Sadly, many of the late 2000s hard rock bands are no more, but New Device have bucked the trend and seem to be on a real creative streak of late. Their 2009 debut album Takin' Over was well received, but numerous line-up changes definitely cost the band momentum. Only frontman Daniel Leigh and drummer Greg 'Rozzy' Ison remain from the line-up that wrote and recorded Takin' Over, and it would be four long years before New Device would release any new music. Here We Stand finally saw the light of day in 2013, and introduced the band's now-core line-up of Leigh, Ison, guitarist Matt Mallery, and bassist Nick Hughes. A couple of other guitarists have come and gone in the intervening period but, with the band now slimmed down to a four-piece, New Device seems to have a stable line-up. A live album Takin' Over London, which was recorded in 2014, was released in 2015 to celebrate the fifth anniversary of the band's debut album, and since then New Device have been looking forward. A successful Pledge campaign allowed the band to record Devils on the Run, which was stylistically very similar to Here We Stand, and that momentum has been carried forward to create Coming Home, the band's first all-acoustic release. Naturally, given the stripped-back nature of the EP, Coming Home sounds quite different to anything New Device has done before. Most of the five new songs that make up the bulk of this release are on the slower, ballad-y end of the spectrum, which is probably unsurprising. Those fearing that Coming Home might be somewhat of a tame effort as a result need not worry however as the songwriting style is still very much that of Leigh's usual fare and the songs here are strong and work well as a collection. The physical edition of Coming Home also comes with two bonus tracks in the form of acoustic versions of On Your Knees (from Here We Stand) and Heaven Knows (from Takin' Over) which helps to add value for money when purchasing the CD and gives these fan-favourite songs new twists.

The EP opens with Everything, a delicate ballad which shows a softer side of Leigh's vocals to what he usually displays. It opens with just vocals and a single acoustic guitar, but it does build up into a full band arrangement in time with some sparse drumming and extra layers of guitar. Due to the stripped back nature of the song, and indeed the EP as a whole, the simple arrangements allow the melodies to really breathe. This song in particular is built around a really strong vocal performance, which is helped by some subtle harmonies in the choruses, and shows that Leigh is an emotional and versatile vocalist. I Miss You opens in a similar way, but the addition of some delicate piano lines really helps the song to stand out and add depth to the overall feel. Leigh's uses a slightly lower register in his voice on this song, and it helps to add a darker vibe throughout, which is helped by some prominent bass playing from Hughes and the minor acoustic guitar arpeggios. This slightly darker feel really helps the song to stand out and makes it one of the instantly memorable pieces on offer here. The EP's title track has some delicate string arrangements throughout, which helps to create somewhat of a dramatic feel despite the sparse, acoustic arrangement. What New Device has done with this song, and the entire EP, is show what some restraint can really do. All too often bands are intent on packing as much as they can into a song and some of the basic melodies can get lost. This is not the case here. Collide is my favourite song on this EP, with a really strong chorus with a really emotional vocal delivery from Leigh which seems him hit some quite high notes above a gorgeous guitar melody. This is a song that I could really see working well as a full band arrangement, especially with the wordless gang-vocal section part-way through that would really whip up a storm live. The song works fantastically in this acoustic arrangement however and in my opinion is the centrepiece of this little collection. On the Wind is the last of the five new songs here, and is another slower song but with a slightly funky overall feel with a tight drum performance and lots of little bursts of bluesy lead guitar from Mallery. This is another song that would really work well with a full rock arrangement, especially with all the lead guitar parts, but it closes out the new material here perfectly. As mentioned above, there are two bonus tracks on the CD which help to bulk out the physical release. Both versions are enjoyable, but probably not as good as their full electric counterparts. Overall, New Device have shown a new side to their songwriting and style with Coming Home and it is a welcome addition to their growing and impressive discography.

The EP was released on 21st April 2017 via ND Records.

Sunday, 14 May 2017

Snakecharmer - Tavistock Review

Snakecharmer was originally formed by ex-Whitesnake members Micky Moody (guitar/vocals) and Neil Murray (bass guitar) in 2011 as a vehicle for playing some of the songs live again that they helped to create with the legendary British rock band in the early 1980s. Early shows featured Whitesnake material exclusively, but the guys obviously felt that the chemistry within the band was good enough to write their own material and turn Snakecharmer into a 'proper' new rock act. The band's self-titled debut album (which I reviewed here) was released in 2013 to strong reviews, and it has been an album I have played fairly regularly since. Obviously the early Whitesnake influence is strong throughout the album, but the other four musicians that make up the band all brought their years of experience and touring with many world-famous bands to the table and the result was a strong collection of bluesy hard rock songs that are backed full of strong riffs, soaring vocal melodies, and fluid guitar solos. While Moody and Murray were arguably the most famous names in the band, it was frontman Chris Ousey and Laurie Wisefield (guitar/vocals), who played with Wishbone Ash for a number of years in the 1970s and 1980s, that wrote the majority of the debut album. Rounding out the band was Harry James (drums/vocals), from Thunder and Magnum, and Adam Wakeman (keyboards/vocals) who has had a long association with Ozzy Osbourne and Black Sabbath. Over the next couple of years the band toured sporadically, when their schedules allowed, to promote the album and I caught the band for the first time at the Cambridge Rock Festival in 2015. It was a great show, featuring plenty of their original songs along with some choice Whitesnake classics, and they went down a storm. A further UK tour followed in the Winter of 2015, which I sadly missed, and at the end of the tour Moody left the band. I feared this would be the end of Snakecharmer, as Moody had been instrumental in setting everything up, but last year it was announced that Northern Irish guitarist Simon McBride had been recruited to fill Moody's shoes. The announcement of a second album was also made around the same time, and the band has been busy since then working on what would become Second Skin, which was finally released a couple of days ago. This show in Tavistock is part of a fairly lengthy UK tour to support Second Skin, despite a few of the shows taking place before the album was actually released!

Before Snakecharmer hit the stage however the gathering crowd was treated to a set of hard rock by local band Departed who are starting to make a name for themselves in Devon (and further afield). I first saw the band a couple of months ago supporting The Fallen State in Plymouth and was really impressed by their high-energy sound. This set in Tavistock was made up of songs from their debut self-titled EP, new songs, and a rather rocking cover of Queen's Tie Your Mother Down. The songs during their early part of their set I was mostly unfamiliar with, so I presume they will make their way onto a release at some point, but towards the end they played the best cuts from their EP including the melodic Are You Ready? and the powerful Superstitious. Frontman Mark Pascall is a pretty captivating presence on stage and has a strong bluesy voice to match the material, and Ben Brookland (guitar/vocals) is a real star with his endless supply of catchy riffs and shredding solos. Departed are well worth seeing if you like great live rock music, and I suspect it will not be too long before they start seeing a bit more national exposure.

The changeover between the two bands was not a long one, and it was not long before the guys from Snakecharmer took to the stage. The 90 minute set comprised mostly of new material from Second Skin, but some choice Whitesnake cuts and songs from their debut album were also included throughout. I had heard a few of the new songs on Youtube, but with the album only being released the day before this show, I had not had a chance to even buy it let along hear it (I bought a copy at the merch stand during the gig)! They opened with a song I had heard though, Follow Me Under, which is an instantly catchy song with a soaring chorus which makes good use of Ousey's bluesy vocals. The new material is in the same vein as the first album, but the guitar pyrotechnics of new boy McBride are pushed right to the fore. He is an amazing guitarist and as soon as he starts playing you forget that Moody is no longer in the band. He had many chances to solo throughout and always impressed with his fast, but tasteful, playing. The Whitesnake classic Ready an' Willing certainly got the crowd going early on, but the single from their debut album Accident Prone was received just as warmly and shows that Snakecharmer are just as known now for their own songs and not just as a glorified Whitesnake tribute band. The slower Where Do We Go From Here from the new album was also warmly received, before then bluesy anthem A Little Rock & Roll from the debut really rocked and featured lots of funky keyboards from Wakeman. More new songs impressed in the middle of the set with both Hell of a Way to Live and I'll Take You as You Are impressing with big choruses and bluesy riffing. The new material seems to rock a little harder than the songs from the first album in places, and that shows McBride's heavier blues influence with some tougher riffs a bit more attitude. A monstrous version of Whitesnake's Crying in the Rain was a highlight late on too, and the song was stretched out to include lengthy solos from Wisefield, Wakeman, and finally McBride who really blew the roof off the place with his bluesy shredding. Wakeman's solo was great too, and it was really good to see him playing a proper Hammond organ during the set, as the growling sound basically epitomises 1970s hard rock for me! The new single That Kind of Love was well received towards the end too, and the main set came to an end with a powerful rendition of the Whitesnake mega-hit Here I Go Again which saw a large sing-along from the crowd towards the end conducted by Ousey. There was time for one more, and the band encored with another new song, the hard-hitting uptempo rocker Dress It Up which really impressed with another powerful chorus and a great solo from Wisefield. The band took their bows to loud cheers from the large crowd, and it was clear that everyone there had had a great night. The setlist was:

Follow Me Under
Are You Ready to Fly
Ready an' Willing [Whitesnake cover]
Accident Prone
Where Do We Go From Here
A Little Rock & Roll
Nothing to Lose
Hell of a Way to Live
I'll Take You as You Are
Fade Away
Crying in the Rain [Whitesnake cover]
That Kind of Love
Guilty as Charged
Here I Go Again [Whitesnake cover]
Dress It Up

After the set the whole band came out to the merch stand to sign autographs so I got my copy of Second Skin by all six members of Snakecharmer. I also took along my LP copy of Whitesnake's Live...in the Heart of the City, which I had got signed by Bernie Marsden previously, and Murray was kind enough to sign it for me which was really good of him! I'm really looking forward to spending time with the new album and after hearing many of the songs live in Tavistock I am sure I am going to really enjoy it.

Saturday, 13 May 2017

Mostly Autumn - Tavistock Review

Mostly Autumn's now-annual trip down to the West Country to the excellent Wharf in the Devonshire town of Tavistock is always one of the highlights of my gigging year. I have said this many times in the past, but the first ever concert I went to was to see Mostly Autumn at The Wharf back in 2006 and it was an evening that changed my life. It would be the shows supporting the Heart Full of Sky album the following year that would really cement my love for the band, including the one and only Mostly Autumn Convention, but that show in 2006 was where it all started. I usually see Mostly Autumn a handful of times each year, but the Tavistock shows are always special ones for me. This one was extra special in the fact that it was the first time I had see the band since the release of their excellent new album Sight of Day. In fact, the show in Tavistock was only the second UK show in support of the new material. The 2017 tour was kicked off in the band's hometown of York at the beginning of April to coincide with the official release of Sight of Day (although those of us who pre-ordered the album through the band's website have had their copies since February), and a string of dates in the Netherlands and Germany followed. I am glad the band continue to make the effort to come down to Tavistock each year, and luckily it seems there are plenty of others in the South West who share that sentiment. While I do not the turnout was quite as strong as it has been for the past couple of years, there were still plenty of people in attendance and the atmosphere was excellent throughout. While the current line-up of Mostly Autumn is the same as it has been since the 2015 tour, the band looked a little different at this show as regular drummer Alex Cromarty was unavaliable for this short run of shows, which also includes gigs in Southampton and Cardiff over the weekend, so his place behind the kit was filled by Henry Rogers from Touchstone, DeeExpus, and many other bands. Rogers (although Bryan Josh kept calling him Henry Roberts for some reason!) did fantastically throughout, having learnt a lengthy set in a very short space of time. He is more a technical prog drummer than is usual for the type of drummers Mostly Autumn usually go for, so it was interesting to see his heavier style (with the use of double bass drumming in parts) fit in with the band's music. It worked really well, and Rogers really is a fantastic drummer, but I still feel that Cromarty's more organic swing-based drumming is the best style for this current line-up of Mostly Autumn.

The show itself returned to the split-set format that the band used to use regularly, with a short interval for trips to the bar and to the toilets! As has become customary over the past year or so, Angela Gordon (flute/keyboards/vocals) and Chris Johnson (vocals/guitar) took to the stage alone and got the folky instrumental Out of the Inn started. The song builds from a flute-driven jig and soon morphs into a hard rock workout based around Bryan Josh's (vocals/guitar) guitar solo. The rest of the band slowly come on stage throughout the song as it builds up towards a strong climax. As with last year, the song led nicely into In for the Bite, from Josh's recent solo album, with it's Blackmore-inspired main riff and dramatic vocal from frontwoman Olivia Sparnenn-Josh. Despite being quite heavily pregnant now, with the baby due at the end of June/beginning of July I believe, her vocal performance throughout was as flawless as ever and seemed unaffected vocally by the tiny eighth member of the band! The set was clearly well-paced to allow her to get some little breaks occasionally but she sung her heart our as always throughout. The first set was filled with older material, and was mostly a condensed version of last year's touring set. It was good to hear Running from Dressed in Voices included again, as it was absent from last year's shows, and was the first song in the set where Sparnenn-Josh really let rip vocally. A couple of old standards that have not been played as much recently, the classic Evergreen and the bluesy-prog of The Last Climb, were extremely well-received by the long-standing fans. The former is always a live favourite, and builds towards and emotion climax which saw Rogers really explode behind his drums with a flurry of fills. Wild Eyed Skies is saw another dramatic vocal performance, backed by Iain Jennings' (keyboards) delicate piano melodies, before again exploding into a real symphonic rocker with walls of keyboards and guitar chords. The first set came to end with a stunning rendition of Johnson's Silver Glass, which has become a real setlist staple over the past couple of years, which was sung in his usual enigmatic style while Jennings played the piano parts and Josh nailed the emotional solo. It has always been one of my favourite Mostly Autumn songs, so it has been great to hear it live again a few times over the past few years.

After a short break, the band came back with another set that was dominated by songs from the new album. No short of four of the new songs were played in succession to kick things off, with Jennings' synth-heavy Tomorrow Dies getting this part of the evening off to a winning start. It is one of Sparnenn-Josh's most explosive vocal performances on record, and that was replicated perfectly live above the somewhat dancey rhythms. The ending saw both Josh and Johnson harmonising during the emotional dual-lead guitar ending, and it was great to see Johnson getting a chance to play a little lead guitar along with Josh. Only the Brave is made to be heard live, with Josh's raw lead vocals above the driving hard rock riffs and drumming. Gordon's flute solo replaced the myriad of folky instruments that are used in the instrumental section on the album version, but sadly she was a little buried in the mix so the effect was lost somewhat. The laid-back rocky vibe of Once Round the Sun and Sparnenn-Josh's delicate but gorgeous piano-ballad The Man Without a Name rounded out this little suite of new material. Mother Nature is possibly the ultimate Mostly Autumn song, and since it's resurrection in the live set last year it has become an ever-present fixture again - at least for the time being. It has everything that makes the band great; from the opening vocal harmonies from Josh and Sparnenn-Josh, through the Pink Floyd-inspired mid-section built around a lengthy Jennings' keyboard solo, to the hard rocking closing section which saw the band firing on all cylinders. Another real highlight for me was Johnson's Changing Lives, which is one of my favourite songs on the new album. The somewhat strange song worked really well live, and took on a slightly rockier edge than it does it on the album but Johnson's strong vocal performance still drove everything. The ending with the wordless vocal section saw a bit of crowd participation, and the lengthy instrumental section gave everyone on stage more chance to rock out. The last new song in the main set was Hammerdown, a song I have always enjoyed on record but it really came alive when played live. The organsic, bluesier sound was made for the stage and the gorgeous vocal harmonies really shone through. Sparnenn-Josh's Questioning Eyes has been a staple in the set since she took over lead vocal duties in 2010, and it is always a powerful live number. Her emotional vocal delivery always makes the song a special moment, and the slide guitar solo from Josh at the end only emphasises this. The cinematic Tonight, complete with band introductions, which has been out of the set for a couple of years, brought the main set to a soaring close. There was of course time for a couple more, and plenty of cheers and clapping brought the band back on stage. Raindown was the last new number of the night and a lengthy flute intro for Gordon introduced it before Sparnenn-Josh's gorgeous vocal lines really stole the show. The vocal harmonies between the two ladies are a key part of the band's sound and this song exemplifies this with the two giving their all during the section where the title of the song is repeated many times to a powerful effect. The ever-present set closer Heroes Never Die brought the evening to a close and the song always packs a punch live and it would not be a Mostly Autumn show without it! The setlist was:

Out of the Inn
In for the Bite [Bryan Josh solo material]
Drops of the Sun
The Last Climb
Wild Eyed Skies
Silhouettes of Stolen Ghosts
Silver Glass
Tomorrow Dies
Only the Brave
Once Round the Sun
The Man Without a Name
Mother Nature
Changing Lives
Nowhere to Hide (Close my Eyes)
Questioning Eyes [Breathing Space cover]
Heroes Never Die

Mostly Autumn shows are always special, and this one was no different. It was great to hear so much of the excellent new album played, although I do hope the band choose to play the epic title track of the new album live one day - maybe at the shows later in the year after the baby is born! Luckily I do not have to wait long to see the band live again, as I am heading up to Bilston in June to catch the band at the Robin 2, which after last night's display I am already looking forward to.

Thursday, 11 May 2017

Pyramaze's 'Contingent' - Album Review

Pyramaze were a band that I took a blind chance on a few years ago and it is fair to say I have not looked back. There are a couple of good second hand CD stalls in Plymouth's indoor market and I have made many worthy purchases at them over the years. On one such visit I noticed a copy of an album called Legend of the Bone Carver and was taken in by the fantasy-inspired artwork. At the time (we are probably talking about 8 or 9 years ago) my knowledge of metal music was nowhere near as extensive as it is now so the name Pyramaze meant nothing to me. I took a chance on the album and was immediately impressed. At the time I was becoming a big Iced Earth fan, and found the band's heavy, but melodic, form of metal to be somewhat similar to that American band's style. This was before I knew that long-time Iced Earth frontman Matt Barlow had contributed to one of the band's albums, in fact it was probably around the time of 2008's Immortal's release, the album that Barlow sung lead vocals on, that I stumbled upon Legend of the Bone Carver in Plymouth Market. Legend of the Bone Carver, which was released in 2006, remains my favourite Pyramaze album. It soon became clear that I became a Pyramaze fan at the wrong time, as after a short tour supporting Immortal's release, the band went into a deep slumber with founding member and main songwriter Michael Kammeyer leaving the band. The band's fans waited patiently and finally, in 2015, the band's fourth album Disciples of the Sun (which I reviewed here) was released. The album's release came as a bit of a shock to the metal world, but the reviews were universally excellent. This was a new-look Pyramaze with a new sound, but the songwriting and performances were up there with their three Kammeyer-led albums. The band's heavy power metal sound was replaced with a more cinematic and soaring brand of progressive metal that at first seemed strange but soon became accepted. Jacob Hansen, who is more known in the metal world as a producer, stepped into Kammeyer's songwriting and rhythm guitar shoes and Pyramaze produced a belter of an album that still receives regular plays here and is my second favourite album of the band's behind Legend of the Bone Carver. The band's fans were not made to wait quite as long this time for new music however, and just under two years later the band have now unveiled Contingent to the world. Contingent is the first Pyramaze album to feature the same band line-up as the previous album, and this stability has helped. This is a much more collaborative album with lead guitarist Toke Skjønnemand and founding keyboardist Jonah Weingarten, who had made modest songwriting contributions previous, taking on a greater songwriting role along with Hansen. The result is a varied and dynamic album that takes the smoother sound established on Disciples of the Sun and really runs with it, turning everything up to 11! The album is more bombastic than it's predecessor, which definitely brings back memories of the band's earlier albums, but the strong and melodic songwriting remains. It is frontman Terje Harøy, now on his second album with the band, who is the real star of the show here however, with a hugely impressive vocal performance that shows just how much he has grown in confidence over the past couple of years.

Breaking with tradition Pyramaze forego the traditional cinematic intro piece and get straight down to business with the hard rocking opener Land of Information, which is one of the most instantly memorable songs on the album. A keyboard-heavy intro soon gives way to a crunching, mid-paced verse and shows the newly-acquired grit that Harøy's voice now possesses. While the song is not as heavy as the band often is, the melodies are extremely strong and constantly shine through. The chorus is one of the album's most catchiest, with some soaring vocal melodies and fluid keyboard leads from Weingarten that provide an excellent counter-melody. Weingarten seems to be higher in the mix on Contingent than he has been on any previous Pyramaze album, and that really contributes to the epic, cinematic feel of the album. Not to be outdone however, Skjønnemand lets rip with a short solo towards the end that shows off his skills as a guitarist. Kingdom of Solace is another keyboard-heavy song, but the crunching riff that drives it gives it weight and is backed up by some sledgehammer drumming courtesy of original member Morten Gade Sørensen. This song is very reminiscent of the smooth sound created on Disciples of the Sun so fans of the band's modern sound should really appreciate this. Harøy's voice is less gritty here and he really oozes out of the speakers as he sings the chorus melodies. He does not posses the greatest vocal range of all time, and does not have as much of a distinctive style of previous vocalists Lance King and Barlow, but his voice is perfect for this version of the band and the style of music they are creating. The highlight of the song however is an impressive instrumental section which sees Skjønnemand and Weingarten trading fast leads without each other to great effect. Despite a piano-based intro, Star Men is more of a guitar-driven number. Skjønnemand's snaking main riff, backed up by Hansen's tough rhythms, drives the song and forms the basis of the verse which is accentuated by Sørensen's off-kilter drumming. The song is almost a power ballad, but with too much crunch to really be worthy of that label. Whatever the song is, it is very strong and possesses another instantly memorable chorus and a lengthy guitar solo. The new era of Pyramaze does not seem to give too much time over to soloing, instead choosing to focus more on the song's overall melodies and impression, but the few occasions when Skjønnemand gets to really cut loose he proves himself to be an excellent guitarist. A World Divided, which the band filmed a video for, starts out with a moody piano melody but then the rest of band come in and the song morphs into a real thrashy, power metal anthem which definitely brings back memories of the band's early albums. Sørensen's double bass drumming really drives the song, and the band's two guitarists riff it out together with some tight and heavy playing. Harøy's performance here is particularly strong and really demonstrates here why he is the man to take Pyramaze forward vocally. Nemesis carries on the somewhat heavier feel, but mixes the pummelling metal sections with soaring cinematic ones to great effect. A razor-sharp riff drives the chorus, which is backed up by a matching drum beat. The production is perfect and the band has never sounded as tight! The chorus is more keyboard-based, with another soaring vocal performance and layers of warm synths. The first half of the album is brought to a close with the short, keyboard-heavy instrumental Contingent - Part I: The Campaign which leads nicely into the album's second half.

20 Second Century follows on perfectly from the instrumental and is another song that is instantly memorable. It is another heavier song, with a really powerful main riff and a real headbanging vibe throughout with prominent guitars and a strong drumming performance. The song's chorus is once again reminiscent of the band's early days, with big power metal melodies and a fast double bass drum pattern. Weingarten's keyboards take more of a backseat here, but constantly provide a melodic halo to proceedings, and occasionally subtle piano melodies break through which add depth. Perhaps unsurprisingly for the song of this nature, there is another lengthy and flashy guitar solo here from Skjønnemand that takes the energy of the rest of the song and really runs with it. Obsession opens with a really groovy guitar riff that is doubled up with some really symphonic keyboards from Weingarten. His playing really comes to the fore again here, be it that playing in the intro or the many piano breaks that are scattered throughout which sit perfectly atop the mid-paced groove. This song is another which really emphasises the band's modern, keyboard-heavy sound well with the smooth vocals of Harøy and a strong cinematic atmosphere. Heir Apparent also has that strong modern feel, emphasised by the piano backing to the song's tight main riff. This song is a little more laid back than the last few numbers, but is no less enjoyable. The chorus in particular is the song's crowning moment with some really catchy melodies and plenty of strong vocal harmonies. Weingarten really plays out of his skin here with lots of beautiful piano motifs throughout and lots of soaring synth sounds which add depth while the song's main, slower riff is playing. The second part of the album's instrumental title track follows, which is again a keyboard-driven piece that is heavy on moody atmosphere and sets up the last part of the album nicely. Under Restraint picks up the heaviness again somewhat with a tight and heavy opening riff that leads into a crunchy mid-paced verse. I particularly like Skjønnemand's hypnotic guitar leads during the verses here, which are a little low in the mix but really help to enhance the overall mood perfectly. Where keyboards are used elsewhere in the album to provide subtle colour and mood, the guitars performs that role perfectly here with lots of little effects-heavy sections that make the song stand out. While the chorus here is still memorable, it is a little too similar to other choruses on the album to really make it's own impact. The guitar solo is excellent however, and really elevates the song despite the weaker chorus. The Tides That Won't Change is the album's only true ballad features the guest vocals of Kristen Foss who duets well with Harøy. The song is piano-based and enjoyable, but fails to reach the heights of the band's previous ballads, in particular the excellent She Who Summoned Me from Legend of the Bone Carver. It is a little predictable, but the vocal interplay between Harøy and Foss is strong and the two harmonise together very well. After the lull from the ballad, the album has one more trick up it's sleeve with the heavier closing number Symphony of Tears. It is a mid-paced rocker, but is one of the most memorable songs on the album with instantly singable melodies and soaring vocals. I particularly like the way the song speeds up during the chorus, which gives the song a real tangible energy. Usually choruses in metal are slower than the main song to make use of epic vocal melodies, but the reverse contrast here works very well and keeps the album surprising the listener right to the end. Overall, Contingent is another successful chapter in the Pyramaze canon and is one of my favourite metal releases of 2017 so far. The mix of all the band's previous sounds works well, and makes for a progressive and thoughtful album that really delivers with repeated listens.

The album was released on 28th April 2017 via Inner Wound Recordings. Below is the band's promotional video for A World Divided.

Sunday, 7 May 2017

Karnataka - London Review

Since releasing their fifth studio album Secrets of Angels in 2015, Karnataka have had a bit of a resurgence. A couple of UK tours in 2012 introduced Hayley Griffiths as the band's new frontwoman, but then the band battened down the hatches to write and record the album. Secrets of Angels received high praise on it's release and contains many of the band's best songs, so it is unsurprising that the band have been touring it ever since. The last time I saw the band was in 2015 on the initial Secrets of Angels tour at the Islington Assembly Hall. That evening was a fantastic display of live melodic progressive rock music and a large, appreciative crowd was gathered on the day. Despite another fairly lengthy tour in 2016, there were no dates that I was able to make. When I saw the announcement of the 2017 End to End tour towards the end of last year I knew I had to make an extra effort this time around as the band would be playing both Secrets of Angels and 2010's The Gathering Light at each of the shows. The final night of the End to End tour at London's O2 Academy, Islington seemed the most appropriate option so settled on a hotel in Finsbury Park for the trip. Islington's O2 Acedemy is a fairly regular haunt of mine and I have been to quite a few gigs there over the years. While there are better venues in London, there are also certainly plenty of worse ones too and shows there are always an enjoyable experience. With doors opening at 7pm, and Karnataka hitting the stage at 7:30pm, this was an evening of no fuss. The planned support act had to pull out at the last minute, but with the band playing two albums in full the punters more than got their money's worth. Sadly, both Panic Room and Ghost Community were also playing concerts in London on the same night which definitely affected the turn out. This seems rather poor planning on the bands' fronts and I would not be surprised if the turn out at all three of these shows were somewhat lower than expected. That being said, Karnataka still managed to attract a respectable crowd on a Saturday night given the competition and there is no doubt that those who chose Karnataka's gig definitely were in for a treat.

The show was split into two sets, with an album either side of a short interval. First up was the full performance of The Gathering Light. As the instrumental intro The Calling played over the venue's PA, Enrico Pinna (guitar/vocals) took to the stage alone to play along with the end of the piece, before the rest of the band joined him for the following lengthy instrumental State of Grace. The piece is still very guitar driven, but Çağrı Tozluoğlu (keyboards) added plenty of symphonic melodies to balance things out. Griffiths made her first appearance on Your World, a song she has really made her own since joining the band, and from then on the first set really rocked. While The Gathering Light material was written for a singer with a different type of voice to what Griffiths possesses, she still sings the songs very well and does so with plenty of confidence as she struts around the stage interacting with those in the front row and the other band members. The highlights of the first set were a monstrous version of The Serpent and the Sea and the gorgeous ballad Forsaken. The latter is one of my favourite Karnataka songs, and I love the contrast of the book-ending vocal sections with the lengthy guitar solo in the middle which sees the band firing on all cylinders. Pinna easily stole the show during the first set as he spent so much of it soloing. His fluid, emotional guitar playing was the defining feature of the album and seeing him re-create those solos live is always special. The album's title track is always a stunning live number and the version played in London was no different. Griffiths always owns this one vocally, and the whole band really really seem to up the ante as the lengthy songs draws to a close. Plenty in the crowd were singing the chorus at the tops of their voices too, and the atmosphere buildings constantly.

If Pinna was the star of the first set, then Griffiths was the star of the second. The Secrets of Angels songs are ones that she co-wrote, so naturally she is more at home with them and her confidence soars as a result. The song in the second half are more concise and rocking (the twenty minute closing number aside) and really showcase the band's rhythm section. Drummer Jimmy Pallagrosi and founding member Ian Jones (bass guitar) really lock in perfectly during the second set and their high-energy playing really drives the material. The symphonic Road to Cairo gets the second half going, but it is during the emotionally-charged Because of You that things really reach the top gear. The song is a real showcase for Griffiths and she knows it, nailing the vocals and owning the stage as she does so. The melodic and heavier Poison Ivy and Forbidden Dreams give the band a real chance to rock out and the audience show their appreciation with large cheers between songs. Karnataka have never rocked hard than they have since the release of Secrets of Angels and songs like this are a real welcome addition to the setlists and help to create a chance of pace when necessary. Borderline helps to lighten the mood with a killer chorus, before personal favourite Fairytale Lies really wows the crowd. This is the song that is, in my opinion, the closest to the original Karnataka line-up's sound and has been a real favourite of mine since the album was released. The delicate piano ballad Feels Like Home provides a little moment of calm in the set before the grand finale of Secrets of Angels itself. It is a real tour de force of progressive rock songwriting, with acoustic sections, full-blown symphonic rock instrumental passages, and a diverse and captivating vocal performance from Griffiths. The song is always a winner live and is has probably become the band's signature piece over the past couple of years. The venue erupted into rapturous applause when it was finished and the band took their bows with huge smiles. The setlist was:

The Calling
State of Grace
Your World
Moment in Time
The Serpent and the Sea
Tide to Fall
The Gathering Light
Road to Cairo
Because of You
Poison Ivy
Forbidden Dreams
Fairytale Lies
Feels Like Home
Secrets of Angels

More and more bands are now embracing these 'albums in full'-type sets, and it works well. Both of the albums Karnataka chose to showcase in full on this tour work well when played in sequence and playing only the newer materials shows that the band are forward-thinking and trying not to rest of past glories. It must nearly be time for a new Karnataka album however, so I wonder if that is what the band will turn their attentions to now the tour is over?

Friday, 5 May 2017

Labyrinth's 'Architecture of a God' - Album Review

Italy seems to be a hotbed for power metal, with many great bands coming from the European country over the years. Rhapsody of Fire (and all of their incarnations and spin-offs) are the undisputed kings of Italian power metal, but I would argue a case that Labyrinth are the best! My history with Labyrinth goes back to 2011, when I saw the band live in Wolverhampton supporting Sonata Arctica. It is fair to say that Labyrinth blew me away that night with their highly melodic brand of power metal, and the vocal gymnastics of dynamic frontman Roberto Tiranti. To this day I do not think I have seen any man hit notes as high as Tiranti did on that night in Wolverhampton, and it remains one of the best live vocal performances I have ever seen at a heavy metal concert. Despite this display, it took me a long time to warm to the band's albums. I bought their second album, 1998's Return to Heaven Denied, not long after the show but it did not immediately grab me. It is seen as a bit of a classic in the power metal world, and I have grown to love it over the years, but at the time it fell flat compared to the excellent live display I had seen. In fairness, I lost interest in Labyrinth in the years since that show. Live appearances were extremely sporadic and then, in 2014, Tiranti announced he was leaving the band. Mark Boals (Yngwie Malmsteen's Rising Force; Ring of Fire; Royal Hunt; Dokken) was announced as his replacement, but Labyrinth never toured or recorded with the American and it seemed the band was totally dead in the water. This all changed last year when the Italian record label Frontiers, who seem to good at convincing bands to re-unite and record new material, announced that Labyrinth would be re-grouping with a new line-up and releasing a new album in 2017. Architecture of a God is the band's eight studio album and the first since 2010's strong Return to Heaven Denied - Part II: A Midnight Autumn's Dream; which is arguably the greatest 'sequel' to a classic album that any band has produced and was the album the band was supporting on that 2011 tour. Founding members, guitarists, and songwriters Andrea Cantarelli and Olaf Thörsen, who started working together again in 2009 after Thörsen's seven-year departure, returned to their power metal roots on Return to Heaven Denied - Part II: A Midnight Autumn's Dream. The Thörsen-less Labyrinth moved down a heavier, more progressive direction in his absence, but the return of Thörsen saw the two guys who were behind the success of the original Return to Heaven Denied and 2001's Sons of Thunder working together again and creating high quality power metal. That trend has continued on Architecture of a God, and the results are very strong. Tiranti was convinced to come back on board again, and therefore completes the songwriting triumvirate which has produced much of the band's best work. The other three current members of the band are all making their Labyrinth debut on Architecture of a God. Keyboardist Oleg Smirnoff (Eldrich; Death SS; Vision Divine), who previously worked with Thörsen in Vision Divine has fit right in with the band's grand and romantic sound perfectly and has made a few choice songwriting contributions too. The rhythm section is made up of bassist Nik Mazzucconi (Edge of Forever) and the journeyman American drummer John Macaluso (Ark; TNT; Yngwie Malmsteen's Rising Force; Jorn).

Despite a lengthy keyboard intro, which introduces Smirnoff to the Labyrinth fans perfectly, Labyrinth waste no time at all with the hard-hitting opening number Bullets. A great twin-guitar riff, backed up by some frantic drumming from Macaluso, gets the song proper underway. Despite being a power metal act, Labyrinth have never been one to play at fast tempos all of the time for the sake of it, and this song moves along at a solid mid-pace throughout it's duration and is spearheaded by a great vocal performance from Tiranti. The choruses are quite dramatic, with a tough guitar backing, but it is the choruses where the song comes live. Fluid keyboard leads dominate the chorus' sound, and Tiranti's romantic and smooth vocals really ooze out of the speakers. Both of the band's guitarists, and keyboardist Smirnoff, get a chance to solo during an explosive instrumental section part-way through the song that really highlights the musical prowess of the band early on. Opening with a powerful bassline from Mazzucconi, Still Alive is another strong mid-paced song with plenty of crunch. The main riffs are simple, but solid, with a strong keyboard backing, but the verses take on a mellower feel, with prominent acoustic guitars and a slightly more toned down vocal performance. The song is pretty varied throughout however, with a more upbeat chorus with some really gorgeous melodies, and some excellent keyboard-led instrumental parts with some faster double bass drumming. All of the different parts fit together nicely however and things never feel contrived or bolted together. After two somewhat measured songs, Take on my Legacy really hits the ground running and is the first real dose of power metal on the album with a really fast drum beat that never seems to let up throughout. While I feel the more mid-paced material suits the band's overall style better, it is still great fun to see the band cut loose like this with some slightly thrashier guitar riffs to suit Macaluso's drumming. As you would expect, the guitar solo section is a real shred fest. Thörsen starts the instrumental section off before Cantarelli takes over; with both delivering some excellent fretboard pyrotechnics. A New Dream returns to the more measured approach of the opening two numbers and has the appearance of a quasi-ballad, although it does get somewhat heavier as it goes along. A strong acoustic guitar opening soon gives way a lush metal backing with plenty of keyboard textures and a really smooth vocal delivery. The chorus is based around simple melodies, but is delivered with so much conviction that it immediately stands out. Someone Says is another song with a strong power metal vibe, but this time relying on heroic melodies rather than speed. A great harmony guitar intro gets the song off to a strong start, with a driving rhythm to back it up, before acoustic guitars once again dominate the verse. The vibe still remains a very metal one however, as Tiranti's cuts loose a little more vocally and delivers a really memorable performance. The song does not stay acoustic-based for long, and the choruses in particular are heavier and retain that driving beat from the song's opening. A short, but sweet, guitar solo section is followed by a piano-led movement that really helps to shake things up a bit and provide some variety in what is mostly a guitar-dominated album. Smirnoff's playing is once again featured heavily on the short instrumental piece Random Logic. It is essentially a piano piece, with some excellent booming chords and ominous melodies, with a ghostly spoken-word piece placed on top. It acts as an extended intro to the album's title track which is up next.

Architecture of a God is the album's longest song and, unsurprisingly, it has a rather progressive feel. Lots of different sections are pieced together here to create an epic song that is packed full of atmosphere. Acoustic guitars and haunting keyboards are the order of the day for the opening section which really sets the mood with some stunning vocals from Tiranti. Heavier sections follow, which all start with a strident power chord riff that really kick the song into action; but it is the mix of light and shade that make this song so enjoyable. The acoustic-led sections sit well alongside the heavier moments and the song really feels like is contains all of the best parts of Labyrinth's sound. For this reason, I feel that it is probably the strongest song on the album and a really excellent slab of progressive power metal. Another instrumental piece, Children, follows and continues the band's early tradition of covering an Italian synth-pop song on their albums. Both Return to Heaven Denied and Sons of Thunder had covers of this nature, and Children is another interesting metal take on a piece of music which is probably as far from metal as you can be! It is essentially centred around guitar solos and melodies from the band's two guitarists, but Smirnoff's keyboards also dominate in places with some excellent synth sounds to balance out the heaviness of the guitars. Those Days is more of a typical fare for the band, with gorgeous acoustic guitar melodies and a soaring guitar intro from Thörsen that is packed full of tortured emotion. The song is another pseudo-ballad, with lots of downbeat and mellow sections, but the band does raise the energy at certain points throughout like during the heavier choruses. This is the sort of song I associate with Labyrinth the most, as they seem to be able to make these slightly mellower songs work a lot better than many other power metal acts do. Tiranti's vocal style is a large factor in this, and the band a certainly a stronger force when he is in the ranks! We Belong to Yesterday is a heavier song with a strong chugging guitar sound throughout and a really powerful drumming presence. Again, the song sticks mainly to the tried and tested mid-paced metal sound the band is comfortable with but still manages to pack a punch with plenty of soaring melodies and a fluid bassline throughout. The heaviness really picks up towards the end with some really doomy riffs that soon give way to another impressive solo section again featuring bot guitarists. Stardust and Ashes is another fast song, and this one really hits the spot with a great galloping feel and some excellent drumming throughout. Tiranti cuts loose a little more again vocally with some higher notes reached and a more in-your-face delivery used overall. The song is not as catchy as many of the band's other numbers, but as far as giving the album a late kick musically this really does the job. I would say it is one the better faster songs the band have done in their career so far and having the veteran drummer Macaluso in the ranks now probably helped give this song the boost it needed. There is even a short, melodic bass solo towards the end! The album comes to a close with the short Diamond that shimmers with lots of different keyboard textures and spacey guitar sounds. It has an odd sound, but works surprisingly well as an album closer with Tiranti's slightly mournful vocal added. Overall, Architecture of a God is a very strong comeback for the Italian band and is easily their best work since Return to Heaven Denied. There is a good mix of styles here, but the songwriting is strong enough to make it all work together nicely and still produce a powerful and cohesive album.

The album was released on 21st April 2017 via Frontiers Records. Below is the band's promotional video for Bullets.