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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Things I Have Learned About Metal

Two years ago I walked into a guitar shop with a newborn baby strapped to my chest, and said the following words:

‘I’d like to buy a guitar and amplifier please. For playing heavy metal’.

I came home with an Ibanez SA360, a Marshall DSL5C, a bag full of cables, picks, pedals, and a ridiculous guitar strap covered in skulls.  I did remember to bring the baby as well. But at that moment my life changed forever; not because I have become an incredible and famous thrash metal guitarist (still working on that), but because I became a Metalhead. And it has made me happy.

            When my metal renaissance began I had no idea how much there was to learn; I was a freshman at the University of Metal, and although I’m still a long way from graduating, it’s time for a moment of quiet reflection in my very loud life.

  1. Knowledge Is Power

Two years ago I thought I knew about metal, because I had a couple of Iron Maiden and Metallica albums and had once seen a Korn concert. I knew nothing. I was so achingly naïve about metal that I cringe at some of the early posts on my blog. Metal prides itself on its history, and is constantly referencing that history, so that in order to be a true metalhead you must educate yourself. In order to join a subculture you must gain ‘subcultural capital’[1]. So I set about listening, reading, and building up my ‘scene knowledge’; from the basics such as metal’s roots in Black Sabbath and Deep Purple, to metal’s 90s wilderness years, its split into countless subgenres, and the musical motifs that define those subgenres.

Now I write for an online metal magazine, Broken Amp, and although I can hold my own in some areas (musicology, my favourite subgenres thrash and grindcore, and, er.. fashion), I am so far behind the rest of the guys who write for the site- they are veritable encyclopedias of metal. But that just makes me excited about how much more I have to discover!

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2. Metal Is Intelligent

Metal was saddled with a low-brow, apolitical, mindless reputation in the 1980s, thanks to affectionate spoofs such as Spinal Tap, as well as more sinister anti-metal campaigns waged by Tipper Gore and other conservatives. But those of us who love metal know that it is a complex, beautiful art form, which attracts intelligent and sensitive people.

Metal is now an academic subject in itself, with peer-reviewed journals, academic conferences and books containing the highest quality analysis. There is also some excellent metal journalism; I am constantly impressed with the standard of writing in Metal Hammer, Terrorizer, as well as many online magazines.

Metal is filled with cleverness, and I feel enriched from the people I’ve met. Testament’s lead guitarist has discussed with me the various merits of Thomas Mann novels; the bassist in Children of Bodom has explained Mozartian counterpoint to me; metal lyrics have led me to read HP Lovecraft, Carl Jung, Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

 

3. Metalheads Are Nice

Of course there are Beavis & Buttheads, misogynists, neo-Nazis, nutters like Varg Vikernes. But they are on the fringes, and there are nutters on the fringes of everything. Metal welcomed me with open arms; I felt accepted from the beginning, and everywhere I go I encounter niceness- at gigs, festivals, even on Twitter, it’s a world of positivity. Metal fans take care of each other- picking you up if you fall over in the pit, queueing politely for beer. My favourite moment of Download 2016 was when I emerged from the pestilent horror of the flooded portaloos and a man with a tattooed face offered me a squirt of handgel.

             My guitar teacher is in a well-known grindcore band that plays the angriest, most evil music you could possibly imagine. On stage he is terrifying. But in person- you couldn’t wish to meet a more gentle and considerate man. Metalheads are in touch with their feelings, perhaps because they have a safe outlet for them. A recent study at the University of Queensland found that listening to metal calms people down as much as classical music.

4. Metal Musicians Are Highly-Skilled

As a teenage pianist I needed a second instrument in order to get a place at a conservatoire, so I chose classical guitar. After a few lessons I plucked up the courage to tell the teacher about my metal ambitions. He was furious and launched into a tirade about how metal was not proper music, that these guys were ‘just twiddling about and pressing buttons’. I knew he was wrong but this was so deflating, and my classical guitar lessons fizzled out not long after.

Metal musicians are in fact the most highly-skilled in popular music. In the 1980s virtuosi such as Van Halen, Randy Rhoads, Yngwe Malmsteen, Steve Vai and Joe Satriani professionalised guitar playing, and since then metal guitarists have openly strived for technical excellence.

I have been battling away with my electric guitar for two years now, and it is slow going; even though I have a degree in classical piano, I still sound pretty rubbish and can just about knock out some standard riffs. The electric guitar is a complex instrument to be treated with as much respect as any orchestral instrument.

And let’s not forget about the other metal instrumentalists. Have you ever tried to fathom what Meshuggah’s drummer is doing? Because it’s a complex mathematical equation, and that’s before we even consider the immense passion and expression he adds to the mix. Steve Harris may be a ‘lowly’ bassist but he is the powerhouse and genius behind Iron Maiden’s 40-year success. Extreme metal vocalists are not just randomly growling and screaming into a microphone; extraordinary amounts of control are needed to achieve their range of sounds without damaging their vocal chords.

 

5. Metal Is All-Consuming

Before I became a metalhead, I use to listen to Radio 4, classical music, and sometimes even a bit of (god forbid) pop music in the car. Now I struggle to listen to anything that isn’t metal- I’ve become completely intolerant.

I’ve put on a stone in weight because instead of going to the gym I’m playing the guitar or writing about metal. And when I do go to the gym I no longer listen to ‘dance mixes’ but to Carcass and Exodus to get me pumped up.

I have thrown away from my wardrobe anything remotely floral, Boden catalogue, Marks & Spencer- basically anything that could be categorised as ‘Mum’. I only wear black band t-shirts, ripped jeans with an awesome chain hanging off them, and my beloved biker boots. Dressing is SO much easier nowadays.

I don’t buy women’s magazines anymore, only metal and guitar mags. I should really be getting a proper job again now my littlest is going to nursery, but I’m far too busy writing metal reviews for Broken Amp- that is now my job!

 

6. Metal Is Fun

Metal is the most fun I have had since I was a student. Metal is more fun than riding down the street in a shopping trolley after eight Long Island Iced Teas, eating a kebab at 4am then throwing up in the gutter. Actually looking back it wasn’t that fun.

Now I get up in the morning with things to look forward to beyond childcare and domestic drudgery. And that makes me a better mother, because I’m a happier mother. I look forward to gigs with the excitement of a child counting down to Christmas. When my copy of Metal Hammer arrives I get a warm glow and stash it away for a quiet moment without the kids, so that I can savour it. I listen to songs about dragons and Vikings without a trace of irony, but simply because they are fun. And extremity begets extremity- the heavier you go, the heavier you need, so that with my current favourites being Carcass and Entombed, goodness knows what I’ll be listening to in another couple of years.

 

7. Most People Hate Metal

My friends and family treat my new hobby with overwhelming contempt. She’s having a midlife crisis, she’s attention-seeking, she looks ridiculous, etc etc. It’s the elephant in the room, something we can’t discuss- as if I was having an affair or had had some sort of absurd facial cosmetic surgery failure.

            The only person who has attempted to join in, mainly because he would like to see me once in a while, is my husband. He has bravely attended gigs with me and is even coming to Hellfest for a ‘romantic weekend’. But he just doesn’t like the music, and he has really tried. The only time he has found something to like thus far was at a Zeal & Ardor gig.  Perhaps it’s either in you or it isn’t. My husband is understanding but in a sort of sympathetic way, as if I’m having a sort of prolonged nervous breakdown.

            The kids roll their eyes:  ‘Let’s just pretend she’s a normal mother’, I once heard them say to each other. My guitar-playing is mainly an annoyance because they can’t hear the TV when I’m practising, and they live in constant dread of me getting it out when they have friends over for playdates. Occasionally they indulge me- last week I had to review the new Iced Earth album so we played it in the car on the school run. ‘Mummy, what’s a Seven-Headed Whore?’ They answered it themselves:

2yo: ‘Is a bad bad bad bad lady’

5yo: ‘It’s like a dragon’

7yo: ‘IT CANNOT BE KILLED’

10yo: ‘It’s definitely not appropriate for us’

 

8. Metal Is A Global Community And A Force For Good

The first big metal gig I went to was Testament, when they passed through Oxford- just after I bought that first guitar. Seeing hordes of people making their way down Cowley Road wearing matching tour t-shirts gave me an enormous buzz, a sense of belonging, and this feeling is addictive. When you go to an Iron Maiden concert you are part of a global tribe. I love it when I spot a fellow metal shirt-wearer in an incongruous place, we catch each other’s eye and have a shared moment of fellowship. I suppose it’s like being a football fan, except that metal transcends local and national boundaries. It gives people an outlet, a voice, a safe space to channel aggression.

Last year I emigrated due to my husband’s work, and that sense of displacement is really hard, especially for the trailing spouse. Metal gave me a very important sense of still belonging somewhere, as well as a ready-made community here in Switzerland. It also gives me an identity; as a stay-at-home mum who gave up her career, it can be hard to accept that people only associate you with pushchairs, nappies and breastfeeding, when once you were a career woman in a suit. I’m still a mum, and I’ll probably never wear a suit again, but I’m also a Metalhead, and that gives me an inner strength.

The Tipper Gore/Parental Advisory/’metal is Satan’s music’ days are long gone; metal bands care about their fans, care about young people, care about the environment. Metal is a force for good.

 

9. Metal People Tend To Like Wrestling

When I joined twitter a few months ago I followed lots of metal fans and writers, and noticed that they were all on about WWE. It just so happened that my sons also got into WWE this year, so now I know all about Roman Reigns, Seth Rollins, Sasha Banks, Chris Jericho and the rest. I actually love collecting wrestling facts and toys with the kids- I’ve even been to see a live RAW show. And yes, wrestling is quite metal- counterintuitively positive values, escapism, tight trousers, controlled aggression, post-ironic visions of masculinity. And I am totally into it.

 

10. I Don’t Feel Marginalised As A Woman

Nobody within metal seems bothered either way that I’m a woman. In fact I’m rather regretting my ‘metal mama’ persona on social media, because it’s not even a thing. So what if I’m a mama? And I love that.

            Of course there are problems with sexism and misogyny in metal- but hang on- that’s the world in general, sadly. And at least metal gives women a space to experiment with alternative versions of themselves. It’s no coincidence that a disproportionate number of metal scholars in academia are women- Rosemary Lucy Hill, Michelle Philipov, Amber Clifford-Napoleone, to name but a few. They want to understand why they were attracted to this form of music that supposedly excludes them.

            Nowadays there are loads of female metal musicians, and not just the amazing vocalists like Alyssa White-Gluz and Cristina Scabbia. Nita Strauss is one of my favourite guitarists, Reba Meyers is completely brutal in Code Orange. Lzzy Hale is a metal star who happens to be female, but it doesn’t define her. It isn’t even necessary to mention when bands have female members anymore- it doesn’t need to be a thing.

11. Earplugs Are Ok

In fact they are more than ok- they are essential. When I first started going to gigs, particularly in Switzerland, I was astounded to see so many tough-looking people with bits of yellow stuff in their ears, and I even took the piss out of them. What kind of a pussy are you, with your earplugs….. metal is SUPPOSED to be loud! I was obsessed with the notion of affective overdrive, the need to drown myself in sound. But you can still do that while protecting your ears. As someone pointed out to me recently ‘There’s nothing metal about tinnitus’. I plan on still being able to hear this stuff when I’m old!

 

12. Metal Is Thriving

Anyone who thought metal’s heyday is long gone would be completely wrong. The old gods are still there, doing victory laps, comeback tours and ‘Best Of’ albums. But they are joined by a constant flow of exciting new bands. I’m supposed to be working on a ‘Best of 2016 so far’ album list for Broken Amp, and I simply can’t choose. And when I go to gigs there are loads of young people getting into the scene. These are exciting times for metal- the 1980s may have been glory days, but perhaps we are living new glory days now.

 

13. ‘Once A Metalhead, Always A Metalhead’

I believe it was Rob Halford of Judas Priest who said this. There is absolutely no going back for me now- this is my lifestyle.  I will continue my quest for new and more extreme forms of metal, while worshipping my heroes and the classics. I will wear my metal clothing with pride. Next week I will be setting off on my first pilgrimage to Hellfest, where I hope to be taking my children and grandchildren for many years to come.

 

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[1] Sarah Thornton, quoted in Keith Kahn-Harris, ‘Extreme Metal: Music and Culture on the Edge’

Iron Maiden, Liverpool Echo Arena, 20th May 2017

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There’s little to say that hasn’t already been said about Iron Maiden- beloved, iconic, untouchable- they are an export of which Britain can be extremely proud. And we don’t have an awful lot else to be proud of just at the moment.

Iron Maiden are on their first UK tour in six years, although it doesn’t really feel like they have been away, and indeed I last saw them perform less than a year ago at Download 2016. But travelling to see them in my home city of Liverpool felt like a pilgrimage, a necessity; I simply had to be there. Anyone who has seen the movie Flight 666 will know there’s a church in Brazil where Iron Maiden is preached as a religion; and there is definitely a quasi-religious feel about an Iron Maiden gig. Walking through Liverpool yesterday and seeing Eddie t-shirts everywhere, fellow Maiden fans of all generations heading towards a common purpose, was incredibly exciting. Liverpool is a party city, of passionate people, and at 4pm on a Saturday afternoon every pub, bar and restaurant was full, metalheads mingling with hen parties and football fans.

Attending with my brother was special for several reasons. The last time we went to a gig together was to see Korn in 1995, so this was a family metal reunion after 22 years. And Iron Maiden was where our shared love of metal began; begging our Dad to buy us Maiden t-shirts aged 8 and 9; saving up our pocket money to go halves on a cassette of Powerslave; arguing over our favourite track. My brother is a mild-mannered nuclear physicist, but he also used to be in a band and is a walking encyclopedia of metal. We spent a mini Maiden pub crawl (The Swan, The Pumphouse, The Baltic) discussing the finer points of grindcore versus hardcore, then headed towards the Echo Arena.

Iron Maiden delivered exactly what they always promise- pyrotechnics, giant inflatable and robotic Eddies, showmanship, musicianship, and joyfulness. The energy of these guys, after almost forty years on the road, is unbelievable, and they appear to love it as much as ever. In a set of almost two hours, there were lots of songs from the new album The Book of Souls, keeping the Irons new and relevant, but plenty of old favourites too- Children of the Damned, The Trooper, Fear of the Dark, Powerslave and more.  Bruce Dickinson, who inexplicably wears his favourite black hooded jumper despite the heat and his exertions, was charismatic and brilliant as always. He is one of those people who is so metal he is ‘beyond metal’. I was standing right in front of Janick Gers who was in his own delightful world of guitar tricks. Steve Harris ensured that every member of the crowd was singing. I was agonisingly close to catching one of Nicko McBrain’s drumsticks when he hurled them into the crowd. British audiences are not as effusive as some of Iron Maiden’s foreign crowds, but I hope the band could feel the love out there.

Today feels like Boxing Day, or the day after your birthday; a bit deflated that it’s over, but still riding high. Only a small percentage of the population like metal music, and even fewer people could name more than a handful of Iron Maiden songs, but that hasn’t stopped this band from becoming a global phenomenon. Everywhere you go in the world you see an Iron Maiden t-shirt. Their influence, both musically and culturally, is hard to overstate. They are the epitome of hard work, positivity and togetherness, and I am proud to be a member of the global Iron Maiden family.

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Metal Mama Guitar School: 10 Steps To Becoming The Guitarist You Deserve To Be

As a child you dreamed of being an axe god. In front of the bedroom mirror you were Slash, you were James Hetfield, you were Kirk Hammett- only much better than them. But you waited and waited; you listened to your parents and learned classical piano instead; you got a sensible job, married and had children; and now you’re nearly 40 and still not a famous guitarist.

Well I’m here to tell you that it’s Not Too Late. As long as you’re prepared to spend lots of money and live in a fantasy world, you can still be a guitar god with surprisingly little effort.

I have dabbled in guitar pedagogy in the past; my ‘Ten Very Easy Metal Riffs’ (see link) is a classic of the genre. But that was before I became the virtuoso I am today. For example, I now own three guitars, one of which has SEVEN STRINGS and is, to quote my sons, ‘epic’. I haven’t actually played it yet, but simply owning it is proof of my abilities. Furthermore, I can now play Master of Puppets at about 70% of full speed. I have also become a recording artist; my guitar teacher and I are currently recording my one-woman goregrind album, entitled Episiotomy. I’ve composed two tracks so far, one of which has an ACTUAL GUITAR SOLO in it.

So it’s time to impart some of my wisdom. Here are a few excerpts from my forthcoming instructional book; I hope they help you to attain the same shredding skills that I have acquired. Forget that whole 10,000 hours theory- just follow these simple rules.

  1. If you make this facial expression while playing, you automatically sound better:

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2. If you buy loads of random pedals it automatically makes you a better player. Just buy a new and differently-coloured pedal every time you go to the guitar shop, even when they tell you it’s a waste of money.

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3. Small amplifiers are ok for home use, but if you get one that’s bigger than your fitted wardrobes, it automatically makes you a better player.

4. If no-one has tried to strangle you yet, it’s probably ok to play The Trooper riff a few hundred more times in a row.

5. If you wear a Slayer t-shirt it automatically makes you play Raining Blood faster. Matching your t-shirt to your riff is not lame at all.

6. The noise suppressor is your friend. Crank it right up, it’s definitely definitely not cheating.

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7. Phrygian is your friend. Don’t bother learning the other modes, it’s not like you’re ever gonna play a solo, you’re terrible.

8. Don’t bother practicing scales or arpeggios. Who has time for that? Who do you think you are, Van Halen? And NEVER play on the clean channel. Stick with the power chords you know and trust.

9. It’s fine to just play the same riff over and over again and never learn a whole song. It’s not like you’ll ever be in a proper band.

10. Always, always finish your practice sessions with Black Sabbath’s Iron Man.

Finally, when you hear comments like ‘Mummy you sound horrible’, ‘I am actually going to divorce you if you don’t turn it down’, ‘Mum when are you going to make dinner’- IGNORE. These people are haters and they don’t understand about metal.

So there you have it- there’s no need to thank me, I’m all about giving back to the fans.

For more tips- get some proper lessons.

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Lancer, ‘Mastery’

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Power metal is a guilty pleasure; you might say it’s irony-free, but I say it has travelled (on its viking longship of course, or perhaps on the wings of a dragon) beyond the far shores of irony into the realms of pure fun, and that makes it ok.  Even the most extreme metalhead can’t resist a smile of recognition on hearing a good old overblown power anthem. You have to admire bands and fans who are so confident in their musical tastes they feel no need to follow trends or diverge from that very purest form of metal. And who doesn’t love a long-haired Teutonic guy in furry underpants? I know I do.

Lancer are a young Swedish band who you may have caught last month opening for Hammerfall on their European tour. Lancer built a solid reputation with their first two albums, and have joined the Nuclear Blast label for their third full-length release, Mastery, out now.

Mastery is a robust achievement with an epic, classic feel and an overriding sense throughout of the sheer joy of playing music. It begins with the anthemic ‘Dead Raising Towers’, and then takes us through a series of stories of a suitably apocalyptic, visionary nature. Lancer’s guitar tone is very old school, the influence of NWOBHM so pervasive as to be almost a homage. There’s a little too much borrowing from Iron Maiden for my liking, particularly in the mid-section key and chord changes, and the track ‘Victims of the Nile’ is almost Maiden pastiche.

But Lancer do show signs of taking the subgenre forward with innovations of their own- fast chord sections reminiscent of thrash, occasional blast beats, and a lack of keyboards keeping it all on the right side of cringe. Isak Stenvall’s vocals are impressively operatic, and if he’s able to hit those high notes live, their concerts must be spectacular.

A competent and enjoyable album, although in Lancer’s future work I’d like to see more musical development; for example more risk-taking solos. Given their technical virtuosity (they met at music school) Lancer are eminently capable, and with Nuclear Blast behind them there’s much more they can achieve. Because even power metal has to move with the times.

Best tracks: Dead Raising Towers, Mastery, Follow Azrael

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Black Sabbath and the Art of The Fugue

In musical terms, a fugue is a compositional style using two or more contrapuntal voices, exemplified by Baroque composers such as J.S.Bach. But I’m talking about the other definition of fugue- that psychological state involving the loss of awareness of one’s identity and the flight from one’s usual environment, often associated with female hysteria.

I frequently fantasise about running for the hills. When I’ve been dragged out of bed for the twentieth time that night and it’s only 1am. When I’m driving down the motorway with four people screaming in the back, one of them repeatedly kicking my seat and the others throwing Cheerios at my head. When I realise I know all the words to Season 8 of Peppa Pig off by heart but can’t remember anything I studied for my degree.

The blissful imagining of a brief escape from my daily life has been my go-to daydream for the past ten years, but I’ve never actually done it. Until now.

January 29th 2017 was a landmark day in my life, not because I had tickets to see Black Sabbath at the O2 in London, but because in order to attend this concert I was leaving my husband and children overnight, for the very first time. Black Sabbath, the founders and godfathers of heavy metal, were coming to the end of ‘The End’- their last ever tour- and I felt this was a momentous enough occasion to take the plunge. In fact, yes, it was my moral obligation to attend.  I bought the tickets months ago, but as the day approached I began to wake every night in a cold sweat. What happens if somebody gets a stomach bug? What happens if my husband forgets to pack their snack for school? What happens if they miss me too much? What happens if they don’t miss me enough?  I began to secretly wish that something would happen to prevent me going.

I was in a parallel universe as I boarded the plane to London, and I kept patting my pockets trying to remember what I had left behind. Your Family. Once I got over this odd feeling of dismemberment, I have to admit that I barely gave any of them a second thought for the next twenty-four hours.

On a whim I had purchased the ‘VIP Soundcheck Experience’ package; the one where you don’t get to meet and greet the band, you don’t get to take photos, but you do get to feel like a criminal (‘line up against the wall please, I said against the wall’), and wonder whether you are a bit of a sad loser because you paid extra for this. However you also get a rather nice souvenir brochure with signed guitar picks included, and you get to stand right in front of the band while they churn out a quick Iron Man specially for you and a few other die-hards. I was leaning over the barrier directly underneath Tony Iommi, who exudes loveliness, and he gave me such a nice smile that it was completely worth it.

After a pleasant hour of people-watching and beer-drinking in the bar, I took up my position near the front for American band Rival Sons, the opening act. Rival Sons have the silliest collection of beards I’ve seen this side of Shoreditch. ‘We play rock and roll music’ the singer Jay Buchanan kept reminding us, and their brand of retro blues/rock is perfectly serviceable, if only just on the right side of hipster. However Buchanan’s phenomenal rock voice and stage presence made this worth watching.

Rival Sons were clearly very honoured to be there and did a good job, although I would have liked something a bit heavier, and I’m not convinced they were the right choice for a night of historic metal.

Black Sabbath began with the eponymous ‘Black Sabbath’, still menacing after all this time, and then proceeded with a setlist mainly from their first four albums. This gave the show a distinct Seventies feel, enhanced by the psychedelic backing screen effects, but the band’s doom-laded lyrics are somehow just as relevant today. Black Sabbath also had a new drummer for the tour- Tommy Clufetos- who kept the sound modern and had so much energy they gave him his own 10-minute drum solo.

Ozzy looked as confused and lovable as ever, exhorting the crowd to clap totally out of time to the beat. He had an array of drinks and medications lined up in front of the drums to help get him through, and he looked so pleased whenever he got the end of a song that he would break into an insane grin. But he was more in tune than usual and his eery voice was resonant.

Tony Iommi has been suffering from cancer on and off for several years, and this tour must have been gruelling for him, particularly tonight after just hearing of the death of Black Sabbath’s former keyboardist Geoff Nicholls.  However Iommi’s illness has clearly not affected his guitar playing, which was magisterial. His presence is somehow humble, despite the obvious influence of his riffs on the entire history of heavy metal. I realised that quite a few of his mid-song breaks have been entirely lifted by Metallica.

In keeping with tradition, here are a few of the un-metal ways in which I attended this concert:

  • I went with my best friend, who doesn’t know anything about metal, but who does like knitting and Welsh male voice choirs.
  • We felt like vomiting, not due to excessive alcohol consumption, but due to excessive consumption of a family-size pack of Yorkie giant chocolate buttons.
  • I sent several text messages to my husband during ‘Into The Void’ about not forgetting my son’s maths homework.
  • I didn’t know the words to War Pigs during the sing-along, which was embarrassing when the camera panned over me to reveal my metal failure on the big screen to 20,000 people.
  • We left before the end because our legs were tired, which conveniently allowed us to avoid the car park rush.

This morning I woke up naturally in a hotel bed, with no tiny limbs clambering on me, no voices in the dark solemnly informing me they have wet the bed. I am enjoying my first peaceful breakfast in ten years; I have been sitting down in the same position for half an hour without having to get up to wipe spilled orange juice or take someone to the toilet. And now I can’t wait to see the kids.

Thank you Black Sabbath, for giving me my first mini-fugue.  Oh, and for inventing heavy metal.

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Ten Very Easy Metal Riffs

Only an idiot would come to me for guitar advice. And yet, here you are. You’re looking for a quick fix, a shortcut to fretboard wizardry, and I am all about shortcuts. I started my guitar odyssey with grand plans- to join a band, become a Youtube sensation, write an album. But my plans have a tendency to deteriorate, and eighteen months on, I am still trying to work out what Mixolydian means, and have yet to nail a single decent pinch harmonic.

There is absolutely no shortcut to becoming good at the guitar; even with the most expensive and complicated equipment, teachers, books, tabs, instructional videos; there is no substitute for thousands of hours of focused practice. I do not have a thousand hours, or a hundred hours- I can barely manage one hour a week of practice if I wish to call myself a decent parent- and so I am still only at the half-way point of the Powerslave solo I started learning a year ago.

However, while there’s no shortcut to being a guitar god/goddess, there is a shortcut to pretending to be one, because of the nature of the power chord.

The power chord, the musical basis of all heavy metal, has an extremely complex sonic profile, but is incredibly easy to play. It may only consist of two or three notes, but run that perfect fourth or fifth through a distorted amplifier and it splits into infinite resultant tones. Those resultant tones hit the nervous system, giving that spine-tingling sensation and generally sounding awesome.

In order to achieve that sort of resonance on the piano you’d need the hand span of Rachmaninov, every finger splayed into the biggest chord possible, with the sustain pedal held down. But all you need to play a power chord is an amp with the distortion cranked up. Play a few power chords in the right order and you have a classic metal riff.

After a failed practice session, make yourself feel better with these guilty pleasures. Each takes about two minutes to learn, and will then give you a lifetime of satisfying moments. Moments only because, once you’ve played each riff about 20 times in a row, you’ll realise that you can’t actually the play the rest of the song, you’re not in a band, and nobody cares that you sound exactly like Slash.

‘Iron Man’, Black Sabbath

Toni Iommi’s iconic Iron Man riff is the perfect example of how sometimes the simplest can be the most powerful. Iron Man is so easy you can learn the whole song in a few minutes, and the solo is do-able too.

‘The Trooper’, Iron Maiden

Iron Maiden riffs tend to sound more difficult than they actually are, and The Trooper is perfectly manageable. However you’ll need a friend (or a loop pedal) for those gorgeous harmonised thirds. The verse is great for practising the trademark Iron Maiden ‘gallop’.

‘Sweet Child O Mine’, Guns N’ Roses

No power chords here, just a beautiful tune. Don’t forget to switch to the right pick-up to achieve the sweet tone needed for this emblematic and plaintive refrain. It just goes on and on and becomes rapidly tedious once you’ve got over the novelty of being able to play it. Sweet Child O Mine used to be your favourite song; it won’t be for long and you’ll drive your entire household crazy.

‘Back in Black’, AC/DC

Ok this is more rock/blues than metal, but how could I not include it. There’s a couple of pull-offs and a slightly awkward bend, but other than that it’s ultra-straightforward. My kids immediately start dancing when they hear this.

‘Dissident Aggressor’, Judas Priest

Actually many of Judas Priest’s songs could have been included here; this is my favourite.

‘Invincible’, Disturbed

The syncopated rhythms of Invincible are great fun to play and easy on the fingers.

‘Rock You Like A Hurricane’, The Scorpions

This basic power chord combo is the most satisfying earworm in metal, and once you get bored you can stick it on loop and try adding in the trickier lead guitar parts. Don’t forget to face your amp then spin around to face the mirror audience importantly at the seminal moments.

‘Enter Sandman’, Metallica

This was the first song I learnt, and it’s a great place to start because it incorporates a range of techniques, and helps you learn the contrasts that palm muting can achieve.

‘Crazy Train’, Ozzy Osbourne

Randy Rhoads’ opening riff to Crazy Train is one of the most iconic in metal and very easy to play. The verse becomes a little tricky with some big chords and runs, but the chorus is just simple power chords with some lovely artificial harmonics to add interest.

‘Smoke on the Water’, Deep Purple

Ok, this is a cliché- even my seven-year old son can play this one. But it has to be on there as it’s officially the Easiest Metal Riff Of All Time.

Which easy metal riffs would you add to the list?