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?

Desperately Seeking Something

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‘Guitarist wanted for female black metal group. Must be ok with a bit of corpse paint’.

Am I ok with a bit of corpse paint? I don’t really know what I am these days, but I think I’d be ok with a bit of corpse paint. A more pertinent question is whether these black metal ladies would be ok with a 38-yr old who is not that good at the guitar and can only come to rehearsals if she finds a babysitter.

I am trawling the small ads on my local version of Craigslist. My youngest child is about to start nursery, which means it’s time to think about going back to work. I have plenty of qualifications and experience, but I’ve been out of the workplace for nine years so the prospect is pretty daunting. And in any case, all I really want to do is join a metal band.

I have barely ever played with another musician before; the piano is a solo instrument, and as a young pianist I had only myself to rely on. There were a few gigs as an accompanist, and a disastrous evening as a last minute stand-in with the Liverpool Chamber Orchestra, performing a Brahms Quartet unrehearsed- despite counting furiously, I somehow finished about 20 seconds before the other instruments, and will never play Brahms again- that was the longest and most sheepish 20 seconds of my life. Consequently I never reached the dizzy heights of playing a piano concerto with a full orchestra.

The electric guitar is the opposite of a solo instrument; it yearns for accompaniment. Sure I’ve been thrashing away to backing tracks downloaded from the internet, but that’s starting to wear a bit thin- I need the visceral kick of a live drum beat, the thrill of an audience.

‘Just put out an ad looking for bandmates’ my guitar teacher suggested, as if it were that simple to start a band. And perhaps it is- after all Metallica were famously born when James Hetfield responded to an advertisement placed by drummer Lars Ulrich in a local newspaper.

I decided to start small, and a couple of weeks ago I put an ad in the school newsletter to start up a parents’ rock band. I wrote it after a few glasses of wine and sent it to the PTA president on a drunken whim, so I was mortified to see my text word-for-word in the newsletter the next day, replete with over-enthusiasm and exclamation marks.

‘You have basically humiliated yourself in front of your entire community’ said my husband helpfully. ‘The only solution really is to move out of the area’. I have yet to receive a single response to my ad. Tumbleweeds fill the ether, and people avoid my eyes in the school carpark.

This is a huge relief to my husband, but it’s also something of a relief to me; I don’t actually want to fill my garage with dads, nodding our way through Journey covers, making knowing guitar faces, arguing with the school bursar over who gets to play Slash’s part in Sweet Child O’ Mine. That scenario is the apotheosis of the midlife crisis I am pretending not to have. I want to be in a proper band, with original songs and tour buses and sex and drugs and vomit and hotel-room-smashing. Ok maybe not all of those things.

But let’s face it, I’m not ready to start my own band; name any standard metal riff and I can play it, but I haven’t a clue how to co-ordinate with other musicians. And anyone who has read my blog knows that my ‘original material’ is abysmal. I need to join someone else’s band, with someone else in charge. What I secretly want to do is join my guitar teacher’s band, because that would avoid me having to make any effort whatsoever, and he could carry me through any difficult guitar parts just like he does in our lessons. But since he is a highly technical mathcore virtuoso who has devoted his life to music and is about to go on a big European tour, and moreover probably finds my existence the most embarrassing aspect of his life, this idea is typical of the spectacularly wishful thinking which has yet to get me anywhere.

So here I am looking through the classifieds.

We are two fifteen year old boys hoping to start a metalcore band. Influences Korn, Slipknot, Bullet For My Valentine. Please get in touch if you play guitar or drums’. Sure, and perhaps after band practice I can make them a snack, help them with their homework and then drive them back to their parents’ houses.

We are FUCKWHORE!!! Brutal hardcore punk. We need a fucking sick guitarist, fucking losers need not apply!!!’. I may be a fucking loser but that’s not why I won’t be applying to your band, gentlemen.

Soft rock cover band needs rhythm guitarist. Bon Jovi, Heart, Whitesnake. Wedding gigs etc. Contact Greg’. Greg, you are my nightmare.

‘Established 80s Hair Metal tribute band seeks new shredder, age unimportant but must look the part’. God, that would be my dream- to wear spandex leggings, leather bustier and a huge perm, and play blistering solos with abandon. But even if I was a better shredder I would never have the balls to apply for this, because although the ad doesn’t mention it, what they really want is someone with actual balls. 80s Hair Metal was all about the misogyny- can you imagine a female member of Motley Crue, Poison, Guns N Roses? Nope. Perhaps if I was twenty years younger they might hire me as a groupie, but they wouldn’t let me near a guitar.

So the search continues. Any band that sounds remotely metal tends to be looking for a drummer or vocalist- there is very little demand for guitarists, because everybody around here seems to play the guitar already.

There’s a spectre looming; the spectre of Last Chances. Last chance to change career, last chance to climb the corporate ladder, last chance to make a name for myself other than ‘Mummy’. Last chance to escape the fate of becoming a permanent housewife, resigned to gym classes, bake sales and school runs. And behind that spectre lies the encroaching world of work- the 9 to 5, the office politics, the suit and heels, the water cooler gossip, the deadlines.

Last chance to become a guitar goddess. Maybe I will give Fuckwhore a call…..

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Reclaiming Brutality

Metalheads see the world in binary; that which is Metal, and that which is Not Metal. Categorising is easy, since there is very little grey area or uncertainty.

Skulls, monsters, death, horror = Metal.
Barbie, teddy bears, Duplo = Not Metal.

Harley Davidsons, HGVs, industrial machinery= Metal.
Pushchair, 7-seater with booster seats, breast pump= Not Metal.

And so on- you get the idea. Almost everything in my world is Not Metal. And the very worst criticism that can be made of something is that it’s Not Metal. Conversely, the very highest praise that a metalhead can bestow on something or someone is that of Brutality. The more brutal you are, the more metal you are; it’s directly proportional.

But brutality is a problematic concept. It is inherently masculine, and also has connotations with a specifically masculine form of violence.

Another problem is that many metalheads who lay claim to brutality are some of the least brutal people I’ve ever come across. In spite of themselves, metalheads tend to be quite nice. At Download Festival a group of boys in the beer queue yelled ‘BRUTALITY!!!’ at me while making furious ‘devil-horns’ hand gestures in my face. They were all wearing waterproof ponchos and looked as if my six-year old son, who has a green belt in karate, could have floored them in one fell swoop.

What brutality really means is power; metal is power, and we all need some of that in our lives.

I know about brutality.

Brutality is being woken up every hour of the night, for ten years in a row.

Brutality is pushing four babies’ heads out of your vagina without pain relief, having said vagina sewn up again in four different and complex ways, and being brave enough to have sex afterwards. My lady parts have seen enough surgical steel to make even Cannibal Corpse’s lyricist queasy.

Brutality is when all four of your children need to take a shit at once. On an aeroplane. When the seatbelt signs are turned on. Happens every time.

Motherhood is brutal. In the best possible way. So I lay claim to Brutality on behalf of all mothers; we are all a little bit metal whether we know it or not.