Monday, 22 January 2018

Firewind/Rage - London Review

After a month or so without a gig, it was with glee that I headed back up to London for the first live music-related outing of 2018. The occasion was a double headline show, which saw Greek power metallers Firewind and German traditional heavy metal veterans Rage share top billing; with England's own rising stars COP UK acting as the support. The venue was the Underworld in Camden, which has never been a favourite venue of mine but it is a regular choice for European metal acts that can only pull a modest crowd here in the UK. Melodic metal is, sadly, not hugely popular over here and bands like Firewind and Rage can easily fill much larger rooms elsewhere in the world. Despite this, these bands keep coming back to the UK - for which I am eternally grateful. Speaking of 'coming back', it was actually only less than 12 months since Firewind last played at the Underworld. That was back in February last year, and was part of the first leg of their tour to promote the then-new album Immortals. That gig was a full-length Firewind headline show, and indeed a very good one, which attracted a good crowd on a Sunday night and saw the band on good form. Bands do not usually return so quickly, but I jumped at the chance to see the Greeks again so quickly. Being a co-headline show, I knew that Firewind's set would be truncated somewhat to allow Rage to have a similar amount of time on stage, which may have put me off the idea if it was not for COP UK also occupying a slot on the bill. They are a band I have seen a few times over the years, and are another group I will always take an opportunity to see. Due to the strong bill, there was a pretty good turnout for a Sunday night. I did feel however that Firewind suffered somewhat as it seemed that quite a few people left after Rage's set. All of the show's marketing heavily featured Rage over Firewind - their album cover was on the posters, for example - so it was clear that there were definitely more Rage fans in than Firewind fans. The show also seemed to be plagued with delays, which meant that both Rage and Firewind had reduced sets. Both bands were allocated 70 minutes on stage, but I would say that both lost at least 10 minutes due to slow changeovers - which is not really acceptable for a professional music venue. This could have been avoided if: a) the doors had opened at 6pm as advertised, rather than 6:30pm; and b) there was not nearly an hour gap (planned) between the doors opening and COP UK hitting the stage. The entire night felt like it was up against the clock, which could have easily been avoided if the evening was more smoothly handled.

Luckily, COP UK had their full 45 minutes set. They hit the stage at 7:25pm and immediately went into the opening two numbers from 2016's excellent No Place for Heaven - The Core and My Blood. The Sheffield-based five-piece are a band I have been following for around nine years now, having first seen them at the Cambridge Rock Festival in 2009, and this was my sixth time seeing them live. The Core is still a cracking opening number, right from Andreas Rippelmeier's (guitar) opening melodic guitar riff, and it contains one of the band's best choruses which frontman Dale Radcliffe belted out to the decent-sized crowd. COP UK, despite Radcliffe pointing out that over half of the people on the stage are not actually from the UK, are a band that regularly seem to change their line-up. Radcliffe, fellow-founding member Kevin Tonge (drums), and Henning Wanner (keyboards/vocals) were joined by the aforementioned Rippelmeier and Mystic Prophecy's Joey Roxx (bass guitar). It is unclear whether Rippelmeier or Roxx are permanent additions to the COP UK ranks, or whether they are just helping out on this tour. Things were further complicated when Rage guitarist Marcos Rodriguez replaced Rippelmeier for a rendition of Love is to Die For. I believe that he may be the band's main guitarist these days, and that Rippelmeier is subbing for him so he does not have to pull double duty - but either way it is all rather confusing! As much as I love COP UK, I really wish they would settle down with a strong, permanent line-up going forward as all this fluctuation cannot be good for the band. That being said, Rippelmeier was a revelation, and easily my favourite person to have ever played guitar for the band. His John Sykes-esque style is perfect for the band's sound, and he added plenty of shredding solos to the songs - particularly in single Catch Me if You Can. A treat for fans of the band came towards the end, as they debuted a new song - Keep on Moving - from their upcoming fourth album. The song was similar to the melodic style found on No Place for Heaven, so I look forward to getting that new album when it gets released. After that, the band brought their set to an end with their hard-hitting cover of Journey's Separate Ways (Worlds Apart) which had many in the crowd singing along. Given the crowd's reaction at the end of their set, I think it is fair to say that COP UK make a few new fans with this London performance. The setlist was:

The Core
My Blood
Love is to Die For [w/ Marcos Rodriguez]
Body and Soul
Catch Me if You Can
Stranger Than Fiction
Keep on Moving
Separate Ways (Worlds Apart) [Journey cover]

Despite them being around for years, and knowing I would be at this gig for months in advance, I regret to say that Rage are a band that I was not really at all familiar with prior to this gig. With a big crowd gathered for their set, the German three-piece - led by founding member Peavy Wagner (vocals/bass guitar) - proceeded to tear through an hour or so of hard-hitting, if fairly generic, heavy metal that was enjoyable and well-received. After a couple of numbers however it was clear that Wagner's voice was cracking a little due to what seemed like a bad cold. The aforementioned Rodriguez stepped in to help his band mate and sung one of the songs, and helped out with plenty of backing vocals throughout the rest of the set. Wagner made it through the show however, and started to sound stronger as time went on. While the songs the band played early on did not really make a huge impression on me, towards the end the songs started to stick a little more. The Price of War and the oldie Nevermore spring to mind as being memorable late on in the set; but it was the closing duo that really stood out. Don't Fear the Winter was probably the most melodic song of their entire set, which is probably why it ended up being my overall highlight of their hour on stage, and the following number Higher than the Sky led to quite a big crowd sing along conducted by Wagner. This song also contained a rather extended Dio tribute section, made up of snippets of Black Sabbath's Heaven and Hell and Dio's Holy Diver which were sung with much enthusiasm by Rodriguez. Despite a slow start, I found myself really enjoying Rage's set by the end, and they certainly received a big reception from the crowd. I shall I have to pick up a couple of Rage albums in the near future and investigate their music properly.

It was Firewind that I was mostly at the gig to see, but as I have already mentioned this did not seem to be the case for many others. There was significantly less people down in pit for Firewind's set than for Rage's, which was a shame, but luckily not enough to really ruin the atmosphere. After a really slow changeover, which really was not necessary considering that the drum kit and entire backline were used by all three bands, Firewind eventually took to the stage with the excellent Ode to Leonidas from their latest offering Immortals. It is one of my favourite Firewind songs, and hearing it live again was great. Henning Basse (vocals), despite being a relatively new face in the band, is a great frontman and really started to command the crowd from the outset. He had some microphone trouble in the first few songs, but after this was sorted he was like a beast unleashed as he prowled the stage and sung the band's songs with his gritty power. As was expected, the set the band played was a truncated version of the one that they played last year, but they still managed to include at least one song from each of their seven studio albums. Early highlights were the bouncy Head Up High, which has an excellent riff from Gus G. (guitar/vocals) - who is one of the best guitarists on the planet right now - and the darker-tinged Few Against Many which features a great chorus. Despite the delays and technical issues, the band were really on fire throughout their hour on stage and played like their lives depended on it. Johan Nunez (drums) in particular put in a shift behind his drum kit, twirling his sticks throughout the songs and just generally hitting his drums as hard as he could. He really drove the band forward and made the others up their games! Another highlight was the band's signature instrumental piece The Fire and the Fury, which seemed to be played with much more urgency than usual. G. shredded his heart out as always, and Bob Katsionis (guitar/keyboards) played blistering leads on his guitar and keyboard simultaneously. It was a seriously impressive few minutes of music, and it made me realise what a powerful band Firewind are when they are at their best. Another personal favourite song, Lady of 1000 Sorrows was featured towards the end. The ballad features some rare bluesy playing from G., and a heartfelt vocal from Basse that really carries everything. Mercenary Man followed, but by this point it was clear that the 11pm curfew was swiftly approaching. G. managed to persuade the staff to let them play two final songs - rather than just the one - which meant that the crowd got to hear both the anthemic Tyranny and the poppier Falling to Pieces. The latter rounded out the evening nicely, and even saw G. leap down from the stage during a portion of the song and solo in the crowd which was fun to see. The setlist was:

Ode to Leonidas
We Defy
Head Up High
Few Against Many
Between Heaven and Hell
World on Fire
The Fire and the Fury
Wars of Ages
Lady of 1000 Sorrows
Mercenary Man
Tyranny
Falling to Pieces

Despite the delays which cost both Firewind and Rage time on stage, this was an excellent evening of European metal that got 2018's gigging calendar off to a strong start. It is always great to see Firewind and COP UK, and with a potential new discovery unearthed in Rage, it proved to be a successful trip to London.

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