Damnation Fest, Leeds 4.11.17

This weekend my metal odyssey took me to Damnation Festival, a one-day indoor festival at Leeds University. 4 stages, 27 bands, an incredible line-up, and a whole day and night away from being a mum. I had built up this weekend in my mind so much- could it possibly meet expectations? Here are 10 things I learned at Damnation:fed513_93eb22e675bd4f7caf5de81bd9e91d76~mv2_d_1750_2450_s_2

  1. I am not hard enough for the Nails pit. Having seen hardcore punk band Nails already this year, I knew things would get crazy, so found myself a great, safe viewing spot up on some steps. However a surge of bodies forced me down into the pit, and it was tough to stay upright! I was hit hard in the chest and winded, but there was no escaping from the floor area, so my brother and another big bloke barricaded me into a corner from where I could watch in safety. Nails look like they should be playing the bad guys in Dawson’s Creek, but their set was 45 minutes of pure anger and had an immediate and profound effect on the crowd. It was incredibly intense and despite getting a bit smashed up, I loved it.
  2. Dragged Into Sunlight are genuinely unnerving. Hailing from my home town of Liverpool, Dragged Into Sunlight use ridiculous amounts of smoke and play with their backs to the audience. I was waiting for the moment when they all spun around, until I realised they weren’t going to. Their music and performance was powerful in a way I’m struggle to define, and I’m still sort of processing it.
  3. Agoraphobic Nosebleed’s female vocalist is incredible. As a grindcore aficionado, it was absolutely necessary for me to see Agoraphobic Nosebleed, a drum-machine grindcore band now in their 23rd (!) year. Currently they have a dual vocal line-up but it was Kat Katz (ex-Salome) whose pipes really stood out- wow.
  4. I have a crush on Gregor Mackintosh. He had me at ‘Blood and Chaos’ when I saw Paradise Lost in Geneva last week, and as frontman of supergroup Vallenfyre this afternoon he sealed the deal, with his lovely Yorkshire accent. IMG_2416.jpg
  5. Amazing festival line-ups are actually a bit stressful. My tactical planning was on the military level to make sure I saw everything I wanted. How do I choose between two of my favourite bands on at the same time? Do I eat or do I see Mutation? Queue for beer and risk missing Sodom? Decisions decisions…
  6. Your musical experience is entirely dependent on your crowd position. I’ve been spoilt recently, going to see great bands in small venues where I’m right at the front. So I couldn’t be arsed to watch Myrkur from behind a pillar thirty metres from the stage. I think she might have been brilliant, but I just couldn’t get into it.IMG_2395
  7. Dying Fetus are incredible. By this time I was starving and desperate for the loo, but I was determined to hold my viewing spot for Dying Fetus, and it was totally worth it. I’ll never get over how awful their band name is, but man those riffs… I wanted to see if John Gallagher could replicate his insane arpeggio runs live, and he didn’t miss a note. Again, it went by in a flash. 100 per cent exhilarating.IMG_2415
  8. Get to the merch stand early. We surveyed the shopping area on arrival and planned to come back and make our purchases later so we didn’t have to carry them around. But at 9pm- nooooo- almost everything had been cleared up. No official festival t-shirt for me!
  9. The smaller stages are full of gems. The Tone Mgmt stage was tucked away at the back of the Union and I had a superb time in there, right at the front, with Leng Tsche, Mutation and Psycroptic.
  10. You can actually have too much metal. Perhaps that is a sacrilegious statement. Perhaps I am too old and too ‘mum’ for this. But by 11pm I was knackered after 9 hours of solid metal, and I’m ashamed to say I left before Bloodbath.

 

Damnation Fest was well-organised and friendly with a brilliant line-up. Everything hurts today- ears, ribs, head, feet- and that can only be a good sign. My first Damnation and hopefully the start of a new annual pilgrimage to Leeds!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cattle Decapitation, L’Usine 10.09.17

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Cattle Decapitation are known for their gory lyrics, strong political statements about meat consumption and environmental destruction, and their generally horrific imagery. Watch their videos if you dare. But the live experience is less about the shock visuals and more about the excellent quality of the music. Their highly-technical riffs somehow evoke a sense of impending apocalypse, and the precise rhythmic changes are made even more exhilarating by the ease with which they are performed.

This is exactly the type of music I have been learning to play, and I would love a guitar lesson from Josh Elmore, whose virtuosity was a pleasure to watch from my front row vantage point.

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I don’t think Cattle Decapitation were too pleased with their audience at L’Usine; a Sunday night in Geneva was never going to be much of a party, and vocalist Travis Ryan was understandably a bit miffed that he was busting a gut to a half-empty room of blank faces. You would think telling the audience they suck is a sure way to lose them for good, but he did manage to rouse/shame enough people into action that their was a reasonable pit going by the end. It was unfortunate to see such an acclaimed band playing to a small audience, but I absolutely loved Cattle Decapitation’s set and I’m sorry if they didn’t love us Genevans- we’ll do better next time! Come on a Friday!

CD were admirably supported by Broken Hope; Jeremy Wagner has managed to keep this Chicago death metal band going on-and-off since 1988, and they sounded brutal and brilliant. They all had uniformly fabulous hair, and biceps of the night went to vocalist Damian Leski- lovely. I will definitely be checking out their new album (‘Mutilated and Assimilated’) this week, as well as their back catalogue- with song titles like ‘She Came Out In Chunks’, ‘Gobbling Guts’ and ‘Chewed To Stumps’, what’s not to love?  Nb: If you can’t handle Cattle Decapitation’s videos, don’t look at Broken Hope’s….

I’m afraid I missed the first two support bands, Hideous Divinity and Gloryhole Guillotine (!), as I was putting the kids to bed, but I did buy a couple of their t-shirts which are going to look great on the school run.

This ‘Hell On Earth’ tour is ongoing, with plenty of European dates still to come- highly recommended.

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Rock Altitude: Highs and Highs

While the eyes of metal are turned on the UK’s Bloodstock this weekend, there have also been some serious riffs emanating from a mountaintop in the heart of Switzerland. My full review/band interviews will follow on Broken Amp, but in the meantime here are a few pics and a quick round up from ‘metal day’ at Rock Altitude.

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Highs:

  1. Meeting Zeal & Ardor. Manuel Gagneux may be a genius, but he is also kind, humble, and a pleasure to talk to.

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2. Nostromo. Ok I’m a little biased since Nostromo are my boys, but they were truly mesmerising. Precision riffs like machine gun fire.

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3. Children of Bodom. The Finnish melodic death gods were the headline act, and also happen to be my favourite band. They played some deep cuts tonight from their earlier albums, and I shed a real tear during ‘Every Time I Die’. Gorgeous. Have I ever told you they are my favourite band? Can I tell you a few more times?

4. Underside. This young Nepalese band were a last-minute replacement for Walls of Jericho, and they were surprisingly heavy and brilliant. Definitely one to watch.

5. Meeting some lovely Swiss bands (Silver Dust, Impure Wilhelmina and others). I did a bunch of interviews in French and probably made a complete arse of myself, both grammatically and otherwise.

 

Cutest Moment: Henkka from Children of Bodom reaching down mid-song to fist-pump a headbanging toddler on the front row and give her a souvenir pick.

Lows:

My Alexi Laiho interview being cancelled. ‘Never meet your heroes’, they say, but yesterday I planned to do just that, the enterprising press officer at Rock Altitude having secured me a dream interview. It seemed too good to be true, and it was. I spent hours preparing and getting incredibly nervous, and went to absurd lengths to get there in time (I changed my flight and broke the speed limit), but after an hour of waiting… the record company vetoed it at the last minute. No-one’s fault, and such is life, but oh the emotions. Given that I literally worship the man perhaps I’m not the best person to interview him anyway- I might have fainted…

The only other low was, in the words of Alexi Laiho, ‘the motherfuckin’ cold and rainy-ass weather’, but those clever Swiss had all the arenas covered, so nothing could get in the way of a truly exhilarating night of top-quality metal.

 

 

Book review: ‘A History of Heavy Metal’ by Andrew O’Neill

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I’ve been reading this recently-published book very slowly, because I simply didn’t want it to end. None of my friends or family like metal; in fact, they all pretty much hate it. And that’s fine, because I prefer being an outsider and all of them including my children can actually fuck right off and listen to their shitty music or whatever because I love metal and I’ll just do it by myself. But the truth is I am quite a lonely metalhead, and so reading this book was like suddenly having a mate to go to the pub with and discuss my favourite subject for about fifteen hours.

Andrew O’Neill is a comedian who for several years has been performing a metal-themed stand-up routine, out of which this book developed. The chapters are packed full of jokes, footnotes and personal anecdotes which are very very funny. But beneath the light tone lies a deep reverence for metal, and beneath that passion lies an encyclopedic knowledge and a balanced approach.

O’Neill takes us through the history of metal with remarkable clarity. As you might expect from a stand-up comedian, he has brilliant story-telling ability, and while he’s aware that most of his readers will be seasoned metalheads already, he’s careful not to alienate non-metal readers too much. I regard myself as pretty well clued-up on the history of metal, but it is very comforting to have one’s favourite subject distilled on the page in this way. I also learnt a lot; O’Neill certainly sorted out the history of black metal for me, and throughout the book highlighted bands and albums I really need to catch up on (Converge, Tool, Neurosis- must must get round to listening. I know, I’m ashamed).

He makes a decent stab at addressing some of the controversies that metal has faced and continues to face; notably, the issues surrounding bands who are a bit (or a lot) racist or homophobic. Metalheads sometimes have to ask themselves, more so than fans of many other cultural forms, whether they can separate art from artist. O’Neill is honest about his struggles on discovering that certain metal musicians he had revered were, well, not very nice people.

Another hot topic in metal recently has been cultural appropriation: that is, celebrities wearing the t-shirts of metal bands they have never heard of. It’s usually Kim Kardashian or Kanye West, and it causes a storm of social media tirades every time it happens. O’Neill gives the best explanation I have read yet of why we metalheads find it really annoying. He also gives an excellent analysis of the state of metal today and how the internet has profoundly changed the practices of both bands and listeners.

There’s a lot of swearing and shouting in this book, but it’s all done in a joyful way, and I found the tone pitch-perfect. O’Neill is a good writer and has some lovely use of evolutionary metaphor and analogy when explaining how subgenres develop. I certainly don’t agree with everything he says. He doesn’t rate Megadeth or Testament, and he doesn’t even mention my favourite band Children of Bodom, which is a scandal that I demand be rectified in the second edition. I think he’s a bit harsh on metalcore and post-metal subgenres. But what would metal be if we all agreed? Half the fun is arguing furiously about who is good and who is shit.

Over the past couple of years I’ve read just about every book there is on metal, including many academic works from the burgeoning field of ‘heavy metal studies’. My husband is a professor and I used to be a research fellow, so I’m familiar with academia and aware that having a university position doesn’t necessarily mean you’re not an idiot. While there’s some incredible metal writing out there, there’s also some absolute drivel purporting to be analysis, and in terms of clarity and insight O’Neill’s informal book stands head and shoulders above everything musical that I’ve read recently. A few months ago I wrote a piece for Broken Amp magazine on ‘Ten Intelligent Books About Metal’, and if I could write it again I would absolutely add this.

O’Neill is currently performing at the Edinburgh Festival, and I will definitely try and catch his live show soon. But most of all:  Andrew O’Neill please can we go to the pub together and talk about metal for fifteen hours? I miss your book already!

https://www.andrewoneill.co.uk/

 

 

Like A Movin’ Heartbeat: Def Leppard’s ‘Animal’

The first aIbum I ever bought was the 1987 rock classic by Def Leppard, Hysteria. Eight years old, with a £5 birthday voucher to spend in Woolworth’s, I knew nothing about Def Leppard at the time. But the album was on display in the Top Ten rack and there was something transgressive about the jagged font and sci-fi/terror artwork on the cover that appealed to me. I ended up playing and rewinding that cassette thousands of times, until it wore out completely. Def Leppard’s fourth album, Hysteria was a huge global success, charting at number one in both the UK and US and selling over twenty-five million copies to date. It is full of classic songs, creating seven hit singles and providing, for me, the gateway to a lifelong love of heavy metal. But third track ‘Animal’- that’s where my cassette tape really wore out. This track played a formative role in my youth, and is surely one of the most beautiful and evocative rock songs of all time.

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‘Animal’ is ostensibly a song about lust; raw, raging, animal lust:

I need your touch, don’t need your love, whoa oh
And I want, and I need
And I lust, animal

While this is clearly an unsuitable topic for an eight-year old, most popular music lyrics and themes are similarly inappropriate. And as with many other popular rock and pop songs, ‘Animal’ is conveniently full of metaphors, most of which can be interpreted innocently by a child:

We are the hungry ones, on a lightning raid
Just like a river runs, like a fire needs flame

Cry wolf, given mouth-to-mouth
Like a movin’ heartbeat in the witching hour
I’m runnin’ with the wind, a shadow in the dust
And like the drivin’ rain, yeah, like the restless rust
I never sleep

I misheard ‘lust’ as ‘love’, and originally thought the song was about animals, helped along in this misconception by the song’s video which is set in a travelling circus. Even today I often discover the true meaning of songs for which I had had my own childish interpretations. Pre-sexual stirrings of desire are glossed over by a child’s consciousness and instead invoke a general sense of inspired longing. Despite the lyrics to this song referring to the opposite of romantic love, the layered guitars, sultry vocals and slick-yet-gritty production manage to convey a particular type of Eighties romanticism which construct ‘Animal’ as the very essence of yearning.

The most beautiful aspect of this song, from the very beginning, is the complex guitar sound. This was the sound that made me fall in love with the guitar. As a musician, whenever I hear a song I automatically transcribe it in my head into standard notation and guitar tablature, but it’s very difficult to decipher exactly what is going on in ‘Animal’.  So the first question one asks is- how on earth did Def Leppard come up with it?  And the answer is- with difficulty. The Hysteria album was notoriously difficult and expensive to make, and ‘Animal’ caused particular headaches. First written by Def Leppard guitarist Phil Collen in 1984, it took another two and a half years before the song was recorded. This was a turbulent time for the band; drummer Rick Allen had a terrible car accident and lost his arm, famously continuing to play afterwards using a modified drumkit. Meanwhile the band were struggling to adapt to their new lifestyle as rock stars and, under pressure to replicate the success of their previous album Pyromania, the budget spiralled wildly. The band’s disagreements with producer Jim Steinman resulted in him being replaced with their former producer, the legendary John Robert ‘Mutt’ Lange, whose winning, perfectionist stamp is all over Hysteria.

The vocal melody to ‘Animal’ came first, and the uniquely layered guitar sound was developed long afterwards via the band playing experimentally under the vocal line.  The combination of clean and distorted tones is irresistible, and Mutt Lange made extensive use of delay, reverb and other effects to create a rich sonic landscape. Heavily produced it may be, but this only exemplifies the full expressive range of the electric guitar, all of which can be replicated live. A simple yet evocative solo ends with an iconic pinch harmonic which is immensely satisfying and also anaphonic, intentionally or not, as it mimics the cry of a wolf.

When I first bought Hysteria I had no idea Def Leppard were British.  Theirs is the sound of late 80s America: road movies, Hollywood, small towns, canyons and scrubland. Joe Elliott’s singing voice sounds as if he is from anywhere but Sheffield; it’s almost a Californian drawl, with a rock rasp but also a certain whispery languidness, particularly on ‘Animal’. And of course Mutt Lange’s American power-ballad feel on the album is also distinctive. Indeed, Def Leppard, despite being part of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, experienced American success before they made it in Britain. ‘Animal’ therefore becomes not the sound of America, but the sound of American dreams.

            There’s a poignancy to ‘Animal’ that’s very hard to define; and in fact, how can one ever define poignancy in music? The vocal harmonies, the tantalising bassline that dances around the dominant and subdominant, the ‘important’ chorus key change- all of these factors contribute. But the song never becomes syrupy, because Def Leppard continually remind us that they are, above all, a hard rock band. After the second chorus there’s a ‘heavier’ breakdown, with low register beast-like growls and a metal-style riff, plus there’s a certain grittiness that Lange managed to retain through the overdubbing. Perhaps the poignancy then comes from this Beauty and the Beast dichotomy- a rock band known for drunken escapades and misbehaviour stumbling upon something beautiful, showing their vulnerability. A song about raw sexual desire stumbling upon romance and tenderness.

There have been no significant cover versions made of ‘Animal’. It would be difficult for an artist other than Def Leppard to record this without replicating it entirely, for to put one’s own stamp on the song would be to lose its essence. It has remained intact, classic, of its time and yet timeless. ‘Animal’ may not have the best lyrics, or the best riff, or the best solo, or the best chorus; it has a very subtle beauty which is unique.

It’s been thirty years since I first heard ‘Animal’, and these days I write about metal and play death metal guitar. Most of the music I listen to and play is far more extreme than Def Leppard, but as with most true metal fans, I always return to Def Leppard and accord them the respect and honour they deserve for their seminal role in rock history. And I always return to ‘Animal’, one of those glorious songs that stirs up memories unfettered by adult concerns. The peculiar irony of a song about lust invoking a very romantic and innocent form of nostalgia.

 

Cute Stuff My Kids Say About Metal

Metal is all-consuming, and so is parenthood. I’m a stay-at-home mum with four small children, who have no choice but to share in my love of metal. The kids are there for my guitar practice, they listen to the albums I review, they help choose my clothes; in fact the only time I’m ever away from them is when I’m at a gig.

            Many would say that metal and parenting are incompatible, and of course there are aspects that I need to keep from them, such as excessively graphic t-shirts and album covers, excessive volume on the amps. But in general metal values are positive: power, creativity, independence of expression, commitment, … and fun! A happy mother makes for happy children, and I’m never happier than when I’m doing something metal.  The kids and I discover and evaluate music together, and as I study and improve at the guitar, they are inspired to work hard too. The girls make up ballet routines to Metallica; the boys do their karate training to a Parkway Drive soundtrack. There are few things cuter than a tiny child in a band t-shirt, and in their attempts to understand metal my kids come out with some of the cutest statements. Here’s a selection…

‘Mummy look we’ve been practising our brutal faces!’

 

Before the arrival of friends for a playdate:

  • ‘Mummy you’re not going to play the guitar when they’re here are you?’
  • ‘Let’s just pretend she’s a normal mother’
  • ‘Mum could you not wear the Iron Maiden today’

 

Commenting on my attire:

  • ‘Ooh your t-shirt is scary Mummy!’
  • ‘Why do you have all those chains dangling from your trousers?’
  • ‘I sort of prefer it when you wear a dress.. ‘
  • ‘Poor Daddy’

 

On learning that I write for a metal magazine:

  • ‘Aren’t you too old for that?’
  • ‘You should get a proper job like Daddy!’ (who’s gonna pick you up from school and cook your dinner then, you little fuckers)
  • ‘Oh god, first it was boobs (I’m a breastfeeding counsellor), now it’s guitars. You are literally the most embarrassing person in the world’.

 

Helping me to review the Iced Earth album:

  • ‘Mummy, what’s a Seven-Headed Whore?’
  • ‘I know, it’s like a dragon’
  • ‘IT CANNOT BE KILLED’
  • ‘Iz a bad bad bad lady’
  • ‘It’s definitely not appropriate for us Mum’

 

On hearing the latest grindcore riff I composed:

‘Mum that is so blatantly the tune to Peppa Pig but in a minor key’

And when I try another:

‘Nope, that’s the theme to Octonauts’

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My 5yo daughter is by far the most metal member of the family:

  • ‘This is just not heavy enough for me’ (on listening to Heaven Shall Burn)
  •  ‘Mummy can’t pick me up today because she has gone to Hell’ (to her teacher when I went to Hellfest)
  • ‘Mummy, why are some people born to love metal?’
  • ‘How about some Gojira on the way to school today?’
  • ‘Oh this is EPIC!’ (on hearing the new Decapitated)

 

Arguments in the back of the car that have ended in fist-fights:

  • Whether the Children of Bodom cover of Black Winter Day is as good as the Amorphis original
  • Whether Alexi Laiho sounds like a goblin or an orc
  • Whether the Killswitch Engage version of Holy Diver is actually better than Dio’s original
  • Whether KISS is metal or not

 

And finally, for now, my 2yo before she went to sleep last night:

‘You’re my metal mama and I’m your metal baby’

 

 

With the little one still a baby, it will be a long time before we can do a family camping trip to Download or Bloodstock. However as my eldest approaches his teens, the possibilities for embarrassing him increase and I await them with glee. Just wait til I start my band…

 

 

 

 

My Hellfest (Clisson, 16-18 June 2017)

Back from Hellfest, and now that I’ve thrown away boots so filthy they could not be salvaged, had the finest shower known to man, and laid out my 47 new band t-shirts to admire- it’s time to reflect. This was my first Hellfest, and given that it was blazing hot, I’m not much of a camper, and had a non-metal husband in tow, I think I gave it a pretty good shot. An in-depth report will follow for Broken Amp magazine, but here’s a quick round-up and photos.

HELLFEST HIGHS

  • While She Sleeps– this was really really special, an unforgettable set and an absolute privilege to be there. While She Sleeps are having an amazing year and there’s no way they should be playing at 12.15pm on an outlying stage. In any case they performed like headliners, with incredible musicianship and appreciation for their fans. And as for the stage diving- check this out:
  • Decapitated– masters at work. The Polish technical death metal pioneers absolutely blew me away- mesmerised.
  • Ultra Vomit– Ultra Vomit are Hellfest locals (from Nantes) so they may have received some special treatment, but they totally deserved their place on the main stage. Funny, good-natured, they sounded brutal even when singing about ‘ze shit et le pee pee’, and they had the whole main arena singing and dancing.
  • Shopping. Oh my goodness Hellfest was metal shopping heaven. I went completely overboard. Wondering if my new Cannibal Corpse bandana will work on the school run.
  • Clisson– lovely welcome from the locals, and superb organisation. Even the village pharmacy and optician had made satanic window displays; local kids sprayed hot festival-goers with water; despite Hellfest being sold out, I didn’t queue once, for anything, the entire weekend. Everyone knows the stories about local priests and Catholic organisations objecting to the event, but for me there was no evidence of anything but positivity.

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HELLFEST LOWS

  • Steel Panther– I was really excited about Steel Panther; I’ve always found them entertaining and Satchel is one of my favourite guitarists. However my husband was appalled- ‘rapey, juvenile, homophobic’- he just didn’t get the joke, and seeing them live I realised that maybe he had a point. Getting girls up onto the stage then pressuring then into taking off their tops? Not cool. In order for Steel Panther to work, the joke needs to be on them, not their audience. So disappointing. I still want to like them, their music is good and they seem like nice guys- but they’ve taken the joke so far that it’s no longer parody, it’s just offensive.
  • Missing Nostromo and Slayer: aargh, my two big favourites for the festival and they had to play after my flight had left last night. Dying to know how Nostromo did- such a big come-back moment for them.
  • Cashless– we dutifully charged up our Hellfest Cashless cards, only to discover that the only thing you could really buy with them was beer. There was a time when my husband and I could easily drink 200 euros’ worth of beer in one day, but that time has long gone sadly.

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HELLFEST SURPRISES

  • Motionless In White: I did not expect to like this gothic metal band, but I checked them out on the main stage and they crushed it. Great music and much heavier than I expected. I am now a fan.
  • Exercise– according to my husband’s fitbit we walked 42 kilometres over the course of the weekend! Result- makes up for all the burgers and chips we ate!
  • Chelsea Grin–  so, so fun. I may be a mum approaching 40 but I got down with the kids in the circle pit, and discovered I’m rather good at slam dancing. My eldest son would have cringed himself to death.

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LEAST SURPRISING THINGS EVER AT HELLFEST

  • The sheer number of cheese-based food options. The French really do like to eat a lot of cheese, even when it’s 37 degrees and there’s no shade. There were also lots of people eating oysters and mussels that had been sitting out in the sun all day. Bonne chance, mes amis.
  • Blokes in costumes. There were blokes in wedding dresses, monks’ habits, dinosaur suits, tutus, nappies; and there was of course the obligatory aggressive-fat-naked-guy with only a sock over his willy. I almost gagged when he brushed his back sweat over me.
  • Which-band-to-watch dilemmas– with such a strong line-up it was impossible to see everyone I wanted to see, and I was left wanting more- but there’s always next year. I LOVED Hellfest!

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