Breaking down the month of May with Holly Henderson

It’s been an incredibly active month for Holly Henderson, a talented musician and songwriter (and guitarist in female rock combo DORJA) who I have been following for some time now. At the beginning of May she played her first gig with her new live band at a music event in her home town of Maidstone, which your correspondent saw, having made the crazy decision to drive all the way there from Merseyside, watch her set, hang for a while and drive back – all on the same night! More on that later, but hot on the heels of that, one of the tracks from her upcoming album (‘Loneliness’, which she performed at that gig) has now been aired on BBC Radio Kent, and if that isn’t enough, she has just unveiled the promo video for her song ‘Breakdown’, a track taken from her ‘Opium Drip’ EP.

As well as all of that, she has been performing with DORJA, and has also appeared in a promo video for their track ‘Reaching Out’ which was shot in April, while all five band members were in the UK. (Vocalist Aiym Almas is based in LA while drummer Anna Mylee lives in Belgium.) DORJA will return for more UK live dates in July and I intend to see at least one, hopefully more of their shows.

Regarding the gig, which took place on the May Day bank holiday at The Style And Winch in Maidstone, this was as part of an all-day music event featuring several acts. However, I was only concerned with getting there in time to see Holly’s set and despite setting out in early afternoon, barely made it there in time. With the exception of the song ‘Your Hands’ (performed in rearranged form to suit the band format), taken from ‘Opium Drip’ I was unfamiliar with all of this material, since the album that will feature it is still to be released. The pacy rocker ‘Loneliness’ impressed me in particular, and she proved to be a natural fronting a band, displaying a welcome sense of humour in her between-song chats. She did have a few serious messages too, urging us (as a species) to ‘stop raping the planet’ before performing a number dealing with that topic. (As an aside, Delain’s ‘The Tragedy Of The Commons’ is also concerned with that issue.)

Many of the audience were known to her, including her mum who was situated to the left of the room close to the front. She was backed by her ‘guitar compadre’ Jamie Chellar, backing vocalist Katy Chellar, bassist Martin Taylor and drummer Luke Phillips. All were impressive players themselves (especially the drummer, who got the chance to kick up a storm close to the end of the set) and a cover of Radiohead’s ‘High And Dry’ provided Jamie with a moment in the spotlight. This outfit is tasked with recreating live the music made in LA with guitarist Pete Thorn, drummer Blair Sinta and bassist Jon Button and although I’ve yet to hear the finished album, on the evidence of what I saw this group will more than do it justice.

At that gig Holly declared that ‘Loneliness’ would be the album’s first single, and it was played on BBC Radio Kent’s ‘Introducing’ programme on May 13 2017. This is a very ‘immediate’ sounding song, combining hard-driving guitar with Holly’s more tender vocal. She has said that while previously she has preferred to cover her vocals in reverb and other effects, she was encouraged by Pete Thorn to give her voice more prominence during the sessions for the album. Described as ‘awesome’ by BBC Kent presenter Abbie McCarthy, it bodes well for the album as a whole.

Finally, her video for ‘Breakdown’ was released on May 16 2017. This video was directed by George Mays, who personally invited Holly to LA in order to produce the clip after having heard her ‘Opium Drip’ EP. She flew out in November 2016 and spent around a fortnight on the project. The finished video features some special effects, literally of Holly putting herself back together after a ‘breakdown’ – there are scattered limbs everywhere, but it isn’t quite as horrifying as it sounds! The low lighting in the clip suits the mood of the song perfectly, and she is a natural in front of the camera.

Holly has come a long way from when I first saw her live (here in Liverpool) a little over two years ago; her inherent talent meant she could never be expected to play rhythm guitar in a covers band for ever. Even while doing that gig, she had uploaded to her Facebook page some snippets of her own playing, and demos of material she was writing (some of which ended up on the ‘Opium Drip’ EP) so the more awake fans of her then band could see clearly she was headed for bigger things. With the imminent release of her album and live dates in the pipeline, it won’t be long before the ‘tastemakers’ come calling. I fully expect her to appear on BBC Sound of 2018 at the start of next year… no pressure then 😉

Holly and her band at The Style & Winch, Maidstone

Clockwise from left: Holly, Katy Chellar, Luke Phillips, Martin Taylor, Jamie Chellar

The BBC Introducing Kent radio programme featuring Holly is linked here (available until mid-June 2017) and her song is featured at 45:27.

The video for ‘Breakdown’ (dir. George Mays) can now be viewed on Vimeo (YouTube coming soon)

Breakdown from George Mays on Vimeo.

Lastly – the video for ‘Reaching Out’ by her band DORJA (dir. Dan Coffey):

Caught Live: Women In Rock, Eleven, Stoke-on-Trent May 12th 2017

There seems to be an increasing number of live acts celebrating a particular ‘theme’ of music; for instance the touring Supersonic 70s (aka ‘Solid Gold 70s’) is a live band with male and female vocal, who celebrate all things 1970s with a selection of hits from the decade taking in many different musical styles, and all presented with a dash of humour and period clothes for the performers. It is a welcome change from the number of tribute acts out there; almost any reasonably well-known band now will know they’ve arrived when they have their own copycat tribute act. While it can be enjoyable, the idea of doing a show based on a theme rather than a particular band is starting to become popular and so it is with this show.  It is exactly as it says on the tin, as far as I’m aware this is the only act of its kind on the circuit in this country. Once again a live band, but with two (sometimes three) female singers out front performing songs made famous by prominent female rockers.  The band musicians themselves aren’t necessarily female, but on the occasion I caught them their guitarist certainly was.  I was here mainly because DORJA guitarist Rosie Botterill was playing; she had been invited to guest on guitar for this show alongside their regular band.

Looking at the website for this act, they seem to have a revolving cast of singers who come in as and when available. They have been known to include The Duchess from the band Space Elevator in previous shows, but for this show the singers were Emily J Clark (who has appeared with ‘Vampires Rock’ among other shows) and Aussie vocalist Sara-Louise. Eleven is a bar and function room set in an industrial estate, which is easy to miss from the road (I drove past it myself before realising) with a not-very-obvious entrance up a flight of steps. However once inside, the room is spacious with a decent-sized stage. The group came on stage just before their scheduled start time of 9pm, with the singers and guitarist Rosie accompanied by male musicians: bassist Steve Clay, drummer Mick Neaves and keyboardist Jamie Brooks.  They kicked off with a rendition of Pat Benatar’s ‘Heartbreaker’ which introduced the powerful voice of Sara-Louise and ran through a series of rock favourites, including Joan Jett’s ‘I Hate Myself For Loving You’, Blondie’s ‘Atomic’ and Stevie Nicks’ ‘Edge Of Seventeen’. The songs were sometimes performed as duets, with the ladies taking the verses in turn, or sometimes one would step to the front of the stage while the other provided a backing vocal.

Not everything was obvious 1980s classic rock however; some surprises included Skunk Anansie’s ‘I Can Dream’ (which Sara-Louise described as more modern. It is, kind of – but it’s now 20 years old!) and ‘Remember My Name’ – a minor hit for Stevie Lange which is best remembered as a theme to a perfume ad from the early 1980s. Whatever they sang, the vocals were impressive from both women. These songs aren’t exactly crooned, after all! Sara-Louise took on the daunting ‘Alone’; described as a Heart song (it was a huge hit for them, but was originally written and recorded by the obscure act i-Ten) while the power ballad quota was maintained with Cher’s ‘I Found Someone’. After an impressive cover of ‘I Got The Music In Me’ (a 1970s hit for Kiki Dee) there was a short interval.

The band returned for their second set with the singers having changed costumes, picking up where they left off with ‘Hazy Shade Of Winter’; originally a Simon & Garfunkel song of course but included here on account of the fact that the Bangles had a hit with their 1980s cover. They went soulful with ‘Piece of My Heart’ next, though the arrangement was closer to the Joplin (Big Brother And The Holding Company, if we’re being pedantic!) version than the Erma Franklin original, once again demonstrating the sheer vocal power of these ladies. In this set they included a few more recent covers; Sara-Louise impressed particularly with her delivery of Evanescence’s ‘Bring Me To Life’ (which also meant bassist Steve Clay stepping to the mic in order to deliver the male vocal parts) and Halestorm’s ‘The Rock Show’. Other recent-ish covers were Pink’s ‘Just Like A Pill’ and ‘You Oughta Know’ – the Alanis song featuring the only F-bomb of the night courtesy of Sara-Louise (!)

The act did tread some more familiar ground, covering Tina Turner’s ‘What’s Love Got To Do With It’ and ‘Because The Night’, a song which was a hit for Patti Smith in the late 1970s but co-written with Bruce Springsteen (who has performed a version himself with different lyrics). They closed out with Suzi Quatro’s ‘Can The Can’, before ending as they started with a Benatar cover (this time ‘Love Is A Battlefield’). The encore was a Bonnie Tyler medley/mashup , starting off with ‘Total Eclipse Of The Heart’ they segued into ‘Holding Out For A Hero’, which saw both Emily and Sara-Louise come to the fore. And that was our lot!

Special mention must be made of Rosie, who had only a short time to learn a lengthy set and did a terrific job of filling in for their regular guitarist (Alex Ward). I got to speak to her afterwards (and get an obligatory photo!) and she said that she would be performing again with this act, although she didn’t know yet exactly when. She was concentrating hard on her playing, usually she is a little more expressive with her trademark ‘bounce’ as seen with DORJA and in her previous life in a punk cover band, but here she was more restrained, taking the lead when prompted but largely giving the singers the spotlight. She is a self-confessed fan of Slash and this show was therefore special for her to perform in his home town.

All in all then, a great night of female-fronted rock performed by two mightly powerful singers, and all for less than a tenner. They do a wide scope of material, but as a fan of the European symphonic metal scene I’d like to see that side of female-fronted rock represented too. They get close with Evanescence’s hit, but I did suggest to the girls afterwards that maybe one or two from the likes of Nightwish or Within Temptation would fit nicely in this show. Whether that’s taken on board remains to be seen, but your correspondent did wear a Delain T-shirt for the occasion, as their singer is my favourite when it comes to ‘women in rock’ (!)

This act plays frequently across the UK and so I will aim to see them again when they come to the North West.

4 - deserving

4 – Deserving

Rock Candy Magazine issue 1: April/May 2017

Rock Candy Magazine issue 1

Rock Candy Magazine issue 1

Click here to visit the Rock Candy magazine website

Available only by mail order, this new bi-monthly publication comes out at a time when there seems to be a glut of magazines covering this style of music. Radio station Planet Rock is to launch its own magazine in May 2017, and the long-established Classic Rock magazine has been resurrected after apparently having met its demise at the end of last year, when its publisher went bust. So why do we need this publication? Only time will tell whether or not we do, but the initial signs are positive.

Rock Candy is a label specialising in reissues of classic hard rock albums, some that have been long out of print. The label boss (Derek Oliver, one-time AOR correspondent for Kerrang! magazine) explains in his introductory piece that when he launched the label in the mid-2000s, he was scoffed at for insisting on putting the reissues out on physical CDs. Similarly, with this magazine, he and his team (consisting of many familiar names to Kerrang! readers of the 1980s) wanted to publish a magazine ‘actually printed on actual paper’ – feeling that the in-depth content of the magazine can only be appreciated properly with a physical paper magazine. It is indeed printed on very glossy paper, with full colour throughout, and the articles run to several pages in length. In particular, Oliver drew attention to one eight-page article on veteran Swiss hard rockers Krokus in this issue, saying that no publisher – or any sane person – would have let them do that had they not done it themselves!

They have made it possible to view an electronic copy of the mag for those who send for it, as was the case when I took out my subscription a link was emailed to me to access it immediately. However, I wanted to receive my physical copy before commenting. The cover features a vintage, ‘Pyromania’-era shot of Def Leppard frontman Joe Elliott, and what you’ll get inside the magazine is an unapologetic celebration of the era spanning the 1970s and 1980s, ‘when rock was better’ as they put it. To that end, the debut issue features lengthy pieces on Rush (the making of ‘Hemispheres’, Saxon, Girl, an appraisal of AC/DC from Anthrax guitarist Scott Ian, with articles on KISS manager Bill Aucoin and one documenting the sad demise of Warrant frontman Jani Lane. Def Leppard are covered with a series of vintage photographs (I see what you did there, fellas!) accompanied by explanatory notes for each by Joe Elliott himself.  As well as all that there is a review section covering the latest reissues both on Rock Candy records and also from other labels.

The whole point of this magazine is nostalgia, so there is also a picture section showing ticket stubs from 1980s gigs, a look back at two encounters with Ritchie Blackmore (including an amusing tale of his football playing exploits), and a feature examining news stories from the world of rock 30 years ago but with the benefit of hindsight. They haven’t totally eschewed the modern day; publisher Derek Oliver, editor Howard Johnson and two familiar names from Kerrang’s halcyon days (Malcolm Dome and Paul Suter) have compiled a list of video clips to look up on YouTube. Each writer chose a theme, for example Oliver picked a selection of Southern Rock clips to watch out for while ‘HoJo’ chose some classic Thin Lizzy for your viewing pleasure. If all that wasn’t enough for you, there is even a feature that recalls Kerrang’s ‘Lady Killers’ segment. That was an occasional spot showcasing a female rocker (usually a singer) accompanied by a glamorous photo; this article revisits some of those Lady Killers and brings us up to date with what the likes of Lorraine Lewis and Lee Aaron are doing now.

If you were a reader of Kerrang! in the days before Kurt came along, you will enjoy this magazine. Well-written articles as you’d expect from writers of this calibre, plenty of pictorial content, and in-depth features giving the artists themselves room to express themselves. My only niggle is the insistence on focusing solely on past glories; the team have intentionally stated that their remit is the 1970s and 80s era (with an occasional dip into the 1990s according to the publisher) and by sealing themselves off like that, there is the danger of this publication falling into the trap Classic Rock sought to avoid. That publication covers newer artists who (broadly) fall into the style set down by the greats of the past, as well as the greats themselves, and they did this in order not to ‘become a museum’ as they said. How much mileage Rock Candy can get out of artists from a set timeframe, and an era of 30-40 years ago remains to be seen but it has to be finite. Indeed the way they’ve approached it makes me think of the Northern Soul scene; another era of music that is sealed within a set timeframe and one that is jealously guarded by its ‘purists’. The classic rock scene has its purists too, but I do feel that there has to be room for new bands otherwise sooner or later you end up repeating yourself. Presumably the publishers of Rock Candy are hoping that they can help their readers discover (or rediscover) bands and albums that might have been missed first time around; the readers of this mag are likely to be the same people who read Kerrang! and Metal Hammer in the 1980s but back then, our pockets won’t have stretched to buy every single album recommended by the writers.

Despite this quibble I have taken the plunge and subscribed for the year, which will see five more issues arrive in my letterbox. I hope they can prove me wrong and that this mag does have longevity, it being independently published means that they made it available solely by mail order because of the cost implication of having it distributed to newsstands. You would have to be a dedicated rock fan then, in order to actually subscribe and the publishers are hoping enough of us are still out there to make this venture succeed. I hope they’re right!

Click here to visit the Rock Candy magazine site

4 – Deserving

Caught Live: Tax The Heat, Live Rooms Chester 22 April 2017

“You made the right choice”, said Tax The Heat frontman Alex Veale early into their set at the smaller L2 room at Chester’s Live Rooms. “We’re a real band, not a tribute!”
He was referring to the fact that there was another gig that night at this place, as UK Foo Fighters were playing in the larger L1 room and, judging by a quick glance at the crowd in that part of the venue, had drawn a substantial crowd. The L2 room is basically the bar area with a tiny stage in the corner and to my surprise, hadn’t pulled that much of a crowd. Quite a surprise for a band that has got quite a ‘buzz’ going, and is currently enjoying radio airplay on Planet Rock. Nonetheless, as the foursome took to the stage, the first thing Veale did was beckon over the sparse crowd who were scattered around the floor. They launched into proceedings with ‘Stood On The Platform’, and if anything their heavy sound is harder still when delivered live. Much of the power behind their live sound is from Antonio Angotti’s distorted bass, with drummer Jack Taylor also thumping out a punchy rhythm.

Alex Veale made frequent reference to the crowd who had taken the punt on them instead of UK Foo Fighters, making a jokey promise on behalf of guitarist Jean-Paul ‘JP’ Jacyshyn. “JP is really good at remembering faces, and when we headline at Manchester Apollo he’ll buy you all a drink!”. The band cut a dash in their smart suits, though Veale soon ditched his jacket to reveal a natty pale blue paisley shirt. He provided most of the lead guitar solos in the songs; the bearded and bespectacled ‘JP’ locked in with the other guys to supply the rock-solid foundation for their frontman.
Their look is a little at odds with their sound, it is steeped in old-fashoned rhythm and blues but performed with a heaviness and intensity that put many ‘Metal’ bands to shame. Towards the end of their set, they threw in a Prince cover (it being close to the anniversary of his passing) but assured us that “it will still sound like Tax The Heat!” The song performed was ‘Bambi’ and it was indeed just as slamming as everything else they played.

This was one of those shows that I for one will certainly look back on as being fortunate to be at; this band should by rights take off within the year and will indeed be playing much bigger venues than this. As it was, it was a privilege to experience this band’s raw power up close and personal, before they make that step up to the Apollos of this world.

Set list:

  • Stood On The Platform
  • Animals
  • Under Watchful Eye
  • Devil’s Daughter
  • Caroline
  • Your Fool
  • Some Sympathy
  • Hit Me Hard
  • Money In The Bank
  • Learn To Drown (You’re Wrong)
  • Fed To The Lions
  • Taking The Hit
  • Bambi (Prince Cover)
  • Lost Our Way
  • Highway Home

5 – Delightful

Rock in print – new mag launches, is it a good sign?

This month the UK’s only national radio station devoted to rock music (Planet Rock, available on DAB and internet) announced it was to launch its own monthly magazine. On the face of it this made little sense, as there is already one long-established magazine covering this genre (Classic Rock magazine, recently saved from closure) and it is dubious at best as to whether the market can sustain two print magazines.

Off the back of that, another magazine has also launched. Rock Candy magazine is an independently-produced publication (‘actually printed on actual paper’, they promise!) available only by subscription and published by the team behind the record label of the same name, which specialises in reissuing long-lost albums. The publication boasts writers who were part of the team which wrote for Kerrang! magazine during that mag’s glory days of the mid-to-late 1980s, as they put it ‘written by those who were there’. Rock Candy differs from the existing Classic Rock mag in that it has promised to dedicate itself to 1970s/1980s era rock music. Certainly with names such as Malcolm Dome, Derek Oliver, Paul Suter and Howard Johnson writing, the claim that they were there is true (all wrote for Kerrang! during the 1980s) but, unless my memory cells are fading faster than I thought, at least some of these wrote for Classic Rock too in the past. Indeed, when THAT mag launched in 1998 it set out to reach the same sort of reader, the older generation who had maybe become disaffected by the sea-change earlier in the decade that saw many good bands swept aside.

However, Classic Rock has lasted this long not by rehashing the old bands over and over again (although they had a habit of giving covers to Led Zeppelin or Pink Floyd on an almost bi-monthly basis at one stage!) but by also introducing its readers to newer bands who follow in the footsteps of the great of the past. There are certainly many who have come since, I’m thinking of The Answer for example who emerged around a decade ago, and definitely draw on the template set by the classic bands, or even Monster Truck as a more recent example. They had to do this, as one editorial they ran put it, ‘otherwise the mag would become a museum’. Similarly, I cannot see a magazine devoting itself only to older bands from decades ago having a shelf life. For one thing, its audience reach is both limited and ageing – your humble correspondent is now in his fifties and has been going to gigs for over 30 years, and with the best will in the world won’t be doing it for another 30! There aren’t that many like me around, and those who are still going to gigs still like to discover new music, albeit of a style that may remind us of those good old days of denim, leather and stacks of Marshalls piled high!

As regards the Planet Rock magazine, whose first issue will hit newsstands next month – it may catch on, with an established brand of its own to act as the hook and with a major publisher behind it (Bauer, owners of Planet Rock and – interestingly – publishers of Kerrang! until a day or so ago) but, will it have an impact on the existing publication? Classic Rock sells around 50000 issues a month, and only narrowly avoided closure at the end of 2016 when its parent company went bust. The title (and sister mag Metal Hammer) have been bought back by their previous publisher Future Publishing, for a fraction of what they sold the titles for. I suspect a long game is being played here by Bauer; they will throw resources at the Planet Rock magazine and if it succeeds, it will be at the expense of Classic Rock. With that title’s publisher not being as big as the Bauer organisation, it wouldn’t surprise me if the mag ended up in the hands of Bauer and ultimately be folded into the Planet Rock brand. The fact that Bauer have just disposed of the Kerrang! title is another factor, the circulation of that mag has nosedived in recent years and the company might prefer to get on board with the older demographic that is still going to gigs, buying records and reading about the classic bands.

Regardless, for a while at least there are three magazines covering this style of music and I intend to get a copy of Rock Candy mag in the near future in order to see for myself whether it lives up to its promises.

Caught Live: DORJA (supporting LiveWire AC/DC), Robin 2 Bilston 31st March 2017

Once again the dreaded Same Night Syndrome struck here, I had originally planned to go and see Blackberry Smoke this night but when the three dates for this all-girl band were announced things changed, since the only one I could possibly make was at this Black Country venue on that very night.  I’d long planned to go and see the band again after seeing them make an impressive debut last July in Birmingham, in the meantime I’d been following events closely as they demoed material and, at the beginning of the year finally went into a studio to put some of the songs they’d written down on tape. (Do they still use tape these days? 😉 )

When I saw DORJA last year I was already familiar with some of the band members, having seen them play on numerous occasions in their previous band (which performed covers of punk/new wave classics). At that time they had only recently left that act (and had shed the stage names I’d known them by until then); that, plus the fact that the new band would not only feature their own material but be in a more traditional hard rock direction, meant that I was still adjusting to the change when that gig took place. We were also introduced to a new face that night in vocalist Aiym Almas; a Kazakh-born, LA-residing singer who had been recruited by drummer and founding member Anna Mylee during her own time spent in LA. The band impressed those who’d come along, despite the singer suffering from illness which forced the other band members to take occasional vocal spots too.

By the time of this release and series of gigs I and others had got to know the band and their members better, mostly via a series of social media posts which provided updates on what they were doing. The girls (without the singer) met up in Anna’s Belgian homeland last autumn to demo material and also conduct an interview, while they had maintained regular contact with their US-based singer via the magic of Skype. When they played this time around, it was with Aiym firing on all cylinders, and I’d heard great reports from people who had attended the previous two dates. So, no pressure then, as I said to Anna during a pre-gig chat at their merch table…!

Anna’s kit was set up stage right (house left), as the LiveWire backline took up a lot of the stage. She came out first and pounded a rhythm reminiscent of Cozy Powell’s ‘Dance With The Devil’ before launching into opener ‘Reaching Out’. Straight away, it was obvious what a powerful and soulful singer Aiym is, this brought it home that last year we only saw about 30 percent of what she can do. In addition, she has real ‘stage presence’; almost regal in the way she carries herself. This band may be made up of attractive women (sorry girls, but you are!!) all of whom have confidence, ability and presence themselves (particularly dynamic bass player Becky Baldwin who is never stood still) but, I for one found it difficult to tear my eyes away from that captivating frontwoman.

All the tracks from the EP were performed, as well as some material that did not feature this time around including pacy hard rocker ‘Turn In All Around’ and ‘Far Gone’, a bluesier number that features a ‘Moby Dick’-style drum solo in the middle. (It’s kept short!) It is to be hoped that these do feature on another release in the near future.
Although the revelation for me was the singer, there was great playing from all concerned, and it was guitarist Holly Henderson who provided much of the backing vocal for the singer, their voices blended well together on the soulful ‘Not In My Shadow’. Across the stage, Rosie Botterill on the other guitar was responsible for my breaking out the air guitar, during ‘Fire’ 😉

They ended their set with a medley/cover, combining The Beatles’ ‘Helter Skelter’ with Zeppelin’s ‘Whole Lotta Love’, both with a raunchy and throaty vocal from Aiym.  They were given around 45 minutes by LiveWire and made the most of the opportunity, wowing the early arrivals and, judging by the amount of people at their stand afterwards, winning many new followers.

The band must surely be pleased with how these shows went; all the girls have plenty of other irons in the fire musically but when this five-piece do get together, they’ve showed in the few gigs they’ve performed so far that collectively, they’re really something special. LiveWire are to be commended for inviting them to support (they did a good -lengthy- set themselves, featuring two vocalists who cover both Bon and Brian material) and if DORJA can land themselves a support tour of this country opening for a ‘name’ band playing Academy-type venues, there’ll be no stopping them. I gave the EP four inflatable guitars, live they’re something else and therefore the five are awarded here 😀


5 – Delightful

Caught Live: Ghost, o2 Academy Birmingham 1st April 2017

When the dates were announced for this tour by Ghost, I was persuaded to check them out by a friend (with broadly similar tastes to my own) who thought they were excellent and put on a great live show. Knowing little of their material I took him at his word and booked a ticket, although it was for Birmingham rather than the closest show to me (yes, the dreaded Manchester Apollo yet again). Even if I’d wanted to go to Manchester, the date (31st March) was out since I was already booked up that night and besides, there were at least two other gigs – in the same city – on the same night that a rock fan like me would definitely have been interested in. I will cover what I call ‘Same Night Syndrome’ in a future post as it is an irritation, but you’d think that the potential audience for any of those shows would be hit given that they’re all aimed at the rock crowd, albeit different aspects of what we call rock.

Leaving that aside, I was actually delayed setting out for Birmingham on Saturday and so by the time I got there, the venue was packed. I’ve been to this place several times but only once before in the main hall (to the best of my recollection) and then that was in the upstairs balcony. In future I may do that again since although this hall looks big, it isn’t the easiest place to get any sort of viewpoint from. The back of the hall is hopeless, there are two bars sited at the back, plus a merch stand, meaning a lot of milling around and plenty of people clutching pints trying to manoeuvre their way through the throng. You can’t see in any case from here, since the mix desk has a curtain in the way. If you head over to the right hand side and try to find your way in down the side, forget it. There’s another bar sited there, with more of the same sort of milling about. Your only way is back towards the left hand side, over there it is relatively roomy but your view is badly obscured by a pillar and also by the balcony as you’re sited directly under it.

I was trying to find something approaching a good spot during the support act’s set; US duo Zombi weren’t grabbing my attention particularly as they worked their way through what sounded like an extended keyboard solo from a prog rock band. Except that wasn’t a solo spot, that was the act! The playing was fine but it did drag, and an actual song or two wouldn’t have gone amiss. I was watching from under the balcony, house left, while trying to scope out a possible spot on the floor. No chance of that, even when this duo finished and the crowd started to disperse – it soon filled, and I managed to get about five metres into the main floor before it solidified.

Resigning myself to a poor spot then, I waited for the main act. At about 9pm three crew members appeared, all in uniform and making a big deal of removing the covers from the drum kit and keyboard stands. They even bowed to one another as they entered the stage! Not to be outdone, the drum tech appeared and also bowed to the crowd before taking to the kit. For all we know, of course, these could be Ghost band members but we’d never know since they’re all masked! The drum tech did a short test of the kit before making a similarly grand exit. Following that, a lengthy passage of Gregorian chants boomed through the PA before the lights finally dimmed. Another lengthy intro ensued, before cheers heralded the arrival of the band – all dressed in matching uniforms, and all with masks that completely covered their faces so they appeared identical. These are the ‘Nameless Ghouls’; two guitarists, a drummer, a keyboardist and a bassist (a female whose identity IS known, but I shan’t spoil it for you here). The Ghouls are identified only by alchemical symbols, and it was keyboardist ‘Air’ and lead guitar player ‘Fire’ who launched into opening number ‘Square Hammer’, to an excited crowd.  The stage was bathed in ‘evil’ red light, there was plenty of smoke and effects as mainman Papa Emeritus III made his entrance, appearing suddenly in a puff of smoke to a huge roar from the crowd. I was surprised that they’d open with such a popular song, when it would have made a great set closer but it demonstrated a lot of confidence in my view. Papa Emeritus III was in his trademark mask, with robe and headgear making him look like a satanic pope. With the crowd already up from this spectacular opener, bassist ‘Water’ pounded out the intro to ‘From The Pinnacle To The Pit’ – the bass to this one made me think immediately of Alice In Chains’s 1992 hit ‘Would’.

A lot about this show was familiar; the anonymous band thing has been done many times before, and Papa Emeritus III himself has clearly taken visual cues from King Diamond. However their songs are actually quite accessible, with clean vocal rather than the growls so often heard from ‘black metal’ bands, and some impressive, nimble-fingered playing from guitarists ‘Fire’ and ‘Aether’.  They may have adopted a ‘Satanic’ theme and perhaps overdo it to the point of sending the whole thing up (even using a ‘Baphomet’ stage backdrop), but they have a knack for the anthemic singalong and the frontman himself proved to be quite the showman. Were a certain A. Cooper watching, he’d no doubt approve of the theatrics (if not the imagery) from these Swedes. Towards the end, when other frontmen would announce each member of the band to the crowd so that they could applaud each in turn, Papa Emeritus III achieved the same thing merely by walking up to the relevant musician, and with a mere gesture got the crowd to cheer each performer. One thing that was definitely not ‘evil’ was the tickertape shower as they closed the main set with ‘Ritual’. To paraphrase Ozzy: ‘What’s so evil about tickertape!’ Despite the elaborate costumes then, this was basically a rock spectacular that perhaps belongs in an arena rather than a 3000-capacity hall.

In conclusion, the show was nothing I hadn’t experienced many times before, but it was nonetheless entertaining. Papa Emeritus reinvents himself with each album and tour cycle and so when they come around again, it will doubtless be Papa Emeritus IV fronting the act with a whole new look. (Every incarnation of Papa Emeritus is performed by the same man, and his identity has also been outed for anyone curious enough to want to know just who this guy in the robe and mask is, speaking in a strong Scandinavian accent).

Would I see this act again? More than likely, yes – but I’ll get a seat further back next time, there’s little point in getting up close and personal with a group who operate anonymously and so you’re better off just enjoying the show as a spectacle from a more distant viewpoint.

4 - deserving

4 – Deserving