Sometimes we forget what it’s all about, particularly those of us who have delved often into the underbelly and extreme ends of metal. We become concerned with bands being “progressive” or having “depth” and “innovation”. We seek out those making tortured artistic statements; driving dark emotions into their work, or those who seek to push boundaries. Despite being the first to call others on it, we’re being too cool for school ourselves, and writing off bands who sit outside the self-constructed tick box boundaries of what a “good” band should do.
And then you see a show that brings it right back to the heart of what dragged us into this glorious, complicated but actually oh-so-simple melee of metal. You see damn-near every single person leaving drenched in sweat beaming from ear to ear, bro-hugging and congratulating the support band on the way out, clutching drum sticks, or set-lists or just reliving moments from the set just witnessed with their mates. THAT, despite how “cool” or “uncool” you think a band is or are, is the sign of a great gig.
Tonight’s show saw two bands play sets that belonged at a bigger (but not better) venue. Atreyuwere warming up for Reading Festival and brought an arena headline performance to a 400 cap venue, while the spirited and lively Shvpes, with their powerful metalcore, won over a whole bunch of people who hadn’t heard much of them before, but will definitely do so now; a young band on their way to a bright future with pounding Parkway Drive riffs, Rage Against The Machine grooves and big, as in Goliath-sized, choruses, all led by livewire frontman Griffin Dickinson. Not just ones to watch, ones to pick up on now.
And Atreyu well and truly proved me a dingbat for sidestepping them all these years. This is what metal is about – a band connecting with an audience that love the music the band are playing, with band and audience just having a great time. Colchester Arts Centre’s growing reputation as one of the best small venues to play at was only enhanced as a “small” gig felt like a huge one, with the rapturous reception one usually reserved for a major headliner at a sell-out marquee show.
Make no mistake, warm up show or no, Atreyu brought it, peppering a ‘best of’ set with new, as yet unheard, tracks from their upcoming Long Live (Spinefarm) album, tracks that were lapped up like old favourites. Personal highlights, beyond the joyous atmosphere that left no horn unraised, were the slamming ‘You Give Love A Bad Name’ (never thought I’d see a moshpit like that to that song) and the pure rock-out jubilance of ‘Blow’.
The venue is a church and the congregation had come to worship, leaving invigorated and with happy souls.
Swedish melodic Death Metal warriors Amon Amarth are just finishing off one final jaunt round Europe before settling down to the hard task of stirring the blood of a follow up to their beast of an album, ‘Deceiver of the Gods’ (Metal Blade). Ahead of their recent show at a packed-to-the-pulpit Colchester Arts Centre (a converted church), riff-monger Johan Söderberg took time to fill in Ghost Cult on all that is happening in their world.
“It’s fun to play a church. I played one church before in the US, so this is the second time. It should have good acoustics. Churches were built for acoustics” grins softly spoken Amon Amarth guitarist Johan Söderberg. Later on Söderberg’s head will be whirling (in synchronized fashion with his band mates) and he’ll be cranking out heavy, catchy Viking metal to a fervent crowd. But backstage before the show, the unobtrusive man is a far quieter proposition than the riff god he’ll portray from the stage.
Amon Amarth are back doing what they do best – hitting it hard on the road, this time bringing their distinctive brand of Norse warfare to a whole host of smaller venues they’ve not visited before. “It’s been an old school traditional vibe, with the audience close to us. This is what we were aiming for, to have these intimate shows and also to get out in smaller markets we hadn’t played before.”
Normally when a band announces “An Evening with…” or “Back to basics” tour, it’s because their star is waning, and the “reconnecting with the audience” schtick is a way to mask a reduced demand. Yet Amon Amarth are still riding the crest of the ocean waves, and 2013’s Deceiver of the Gods their most critically and commercially successful album to date. But there seems to be a move from several bands, most notably Machine Head to bring their music to different, smaller venues, but to play more shows, actually pulling in bigger numbers across a tour than one marquee show would. “The down side is the perception, that maybe people think we’ve lost some crowd, or something, but that’s not why we’re doing this. This is just for something different because we’ve toured all the big markets already on this album, so this is for us. This is the last tour for the album, then it’s pretty much straight into writing because I never write on the road, I write at home.
“I started writing for the album before Christmas, when we had a break on this tour. I have some ideas that I’ll be working on when I get home. Then we have the rest of the year to come up with the songs. It’s always pressure in this band. Every album we make has always done better than the one before, so it’s always the pressure that you have to perform better, and do a better album next time.”
And there’s the crux, Amon Amarth have managed what so few can: continuous improvement and the art of tweaking and refining and step by step enhancing and perfecting a sound without straying from it. And Amon Amarth have managed to get bigger with each album, which is quite a rarity as these days a host of bands appear in a flash of glory before being dead and buried a couple of albums later, forced to reinvent themselves.
“It’s been a very slow on the rise!” Söderberg laughs. “With some bands they go straight up, and it’s easier to drop back down, if you have a slow progression, it’s easier to stay on the up.” Do you see it as a reward for a combination of improving professionally (technically and as a songwriter) and sticking to your guns (or, rather, hammers) in terms of what “Amon Amarth” is and does? “I think so, yes. We’ve always kept our style, and while we have changed, it’s not too much.
“Even when did the mini-CD the Under The Influence album, then we really tried to do something different and sound like a song in the style of other bands, but still some fans thought these we were regular Amon Amarth songs as well. Even when we tried hard to sound different, we still sound like Amon Amarth! When the five of us play together, it sounds this way. It doesn’t matter if we try to sound like something else, it sounds like us.”
To these ears, Deceiver of the Gods was peak Amon Amarth. They’d always had the catchy and the melodic, and their trademark Norse bounce, but on tracks like five-fister ‘As Loke Falls’ they opened the door and let out the Iron Maiden harmonies and licks that had bubbled beneath the surface, but never been allowed to flood into the sound.
“I like (to listen to) more traditional music when I’m at home, like Iron Maiden and other classic heavy metal. There’s so many bands these days, it’s impossible to keep up with every band, so I just stick to the old bands that I like.
“That (traditional metal) is what we always had as our influence, but these later albums, we now let that shine through compared to the previous albums. Of course, we still want to sound brutal -it’s also been the core of the band since the start, is that we have to keep that brutal sound (but) in the past we were (worried) ‘This sounds too much Iron Maiden, we can’t use that’ but on the last album, it changed and we were ‘Fuck it. Let’s use it’; if we like it lets go for it.”
Just as the Vikings hailed the Old Gods, so too their descendants, Amon Amarth, still worship the Gods of classic metal, and if that means they continue the path trodden so well from 1998’s Once Sent From The Golden Hall (Metal Blade) to the beast that is Deceiver of the Gods, with each step a stronger and bolder one than the last, then All Hail The New Gods!
More bands should take the same “back to basics” approach that DragonForce are applying to the UK leg of the Maximum Overload world tour. Rather than taking in the usual 5 shows in the same 5 major cities, this time around the sextet are taking in 20 smaller venues in 20 towns that don’t get to see many non-local bands.
And the people of Colchester, saved the £30 fare and hour journey to London to take in a show, have responded enthusiastically. The Arts Centre, a converted church that is actually a rather fine venue, is absolutely rammed, and the opening band aren’t even on.
Neonfly, a badly named band who thus far have flown under the radar, take to the stage and are greeted enthusiastically and respond as if they’ve just strolled out as a festival headliner. And it’s lapped up as they run through a selection of AOR influenced widdly Power Metal that veers between Sonata Arctica and UFO. They have all the poses (including some classic Priest choreography), all the solos and in Willy Norton, all the voice with his excellent Michael Kiske meets Tony Martin delivery, and a stage patter that’s part children’s entertainer and part Danny Bowes on happy pills. It’s 1988 again, and no one is complaining as single ‘Gift To Remember’ is met by a healthy number of hands in the air to its rocking riff and massive chorus. While closer ‘Morning Star’ may be a slightly disappointing end to a very enjoyable set, no damage is done as Neonfly have made a lot of new friends tonight, as songs aired from their upcoming new album Strangers In Paradise (Inner Wound) touch on Avantasia. And they have a guitarist called Fred Thunder.
DragonForce have quite the mixed live reputation, but since the arrival of vocalist Marc Hudson they seem to be a different beast these days. Hudson’s first album with the band, The Power Within (Essential/Roadrunner) was their best since debut Valley Of The Damned (Noise/Sanctuary) and the strength and reputation of their live show has grown since his arrival. Heading out on the road with a new album, Maximum Overload (earMUSIC), that picks up where Power… left off, could they continue the upward live curve?
Absolutely. In spades. From the rapid fire power metal, to the guitar duelling of Sam Totman and Hermann Li, who both make the fastest and most complex of guitar techniques seem effortless, to bassist Frédéric Leclercq’s facial comedy show and underpinning rumble and Hudson’s near flawless vocal performance, the ‘Force are on it.
Everything about DragonForce on this tour elicits grins and a feeling of joy, and it’s clear this comes from the stage, aided by Totman’s understated self-deprecation and ongoing banter with Leclercq, the two of them mocking Li, each other, the lyrics (the sword motions in ‘Black Winter Night’ were childishly brilliant), the crowd and themselves throughout while still delivering. It’s great to see. Li, on the other hand, is pulling every Guitar-God shape, including pick-sliding with his tongue, while in between Hudson, the bastard love-child of Chris Jericho and Sebastian Bach, has learnt the master of ceremonies role, padding and filling well in the longer than usual gaps between songs caused by technical issues to Vadim Pruzhanov’s keytar.
Highlights are hard to choose, but a mid-set ‘Seasons’ goes down a storm, a thrashy ‘The Game’ opens up a pit, and ‘Three Hammers’ is a colossal slice of One Direction meets ManOweeN, before all too soon it’s time for the bands best song, ‘Cry Thunder’ which concludes the set proper to rapturous cheers.
Immediate a holler rises for an encore, and the band oblige, camping through their dreadful version of ‘Ring of Fire’, before a vibrant ‘Through The Fire And Flames’ (I’m sure some guy near me was actual air Guitar Hero-ing) and a triumphant ‘Valley Of The Damned’ wrap things up to send a happy crowd spilling out, talking nearly as quickly as the flurrying fingers of Totman and Li about how much they enjoyed the show.
This is what a Power Metal gig should be about, a packed crowd singing along to hymns of cheese and metal with a band turning in a great performance, all creating a symbiotic exuberance. Simply great fun.