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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Nostromo, Le Cave d’Ilot 13, 9.12.16

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2017 is going to be huge for Swiss grindcore legends Nostromo. They disappeared from the scene in 2005 but are suddenly and miraculously back with a vengeance- a string of tour dates supporting Gojira in January, a prime spot at Hellfest and various other European festivals, and a new album in production.

It’s been almost 12 years since Nostromo, the pride of Geneva’s underground metal scene, last played together, and Le Cave de L’Ilot 13, a bar underneath the modern-day commune of L’Ecurie, was the perfect venue for their homecoming concert. It was in underground spots such as this where Nostromo, formed in 1996, made a name for themselves and built up a loyal following. They navigated their way through the demo-CD network before going on to release several acclaimed albums (Argue, Eyesore, Ecce Lex, Hysteron Proteron) and sharing international stages with the likes of Napalm Death and Dillinger Escape Plan.

Nostromo’s style is difficult to define- grindcore in its soul and relentlessly brutal, but with a rhythmic complexity worthy of Meshuggah, jazz influences, intelligent lyrics, and a uniquely inherent menace.

This performance wasn’t publicised, so the crowd was an intimate mix of friends, family, commune residents and loyal devotees who had waited over a decade for this moment. So a special evening and there was a buzz of nostalgia and emotion in the bar pre-show, although emotion is hardly the word for what happened next.

Nostromo launched into their first track, Epitomize, with no fanfare and no warning, setting the tone for a half-hour of unremitting brutality. Wide-eyed vocalist Javier was so incensed with angry energy that he almost seemed to skip across the stage. Jerome, the guitarist, sound engineer and powerhouse behind the band, rarely strayed from the bottom two strings, but on these strings he created an immensely rich and threatening soundscape. There were moments of genuine beauty in Sunset Motel, and favourite tracks Selfish Blues and Stillborn Prophet had lost none of their momentousness.

This was about as challenging a listen as you can get, with constantly shifting and pummelling rhythms. The venue at L’ilot 13 is primitive- breeze block walls and damp wooden rafters almost collapsing under the strain- but thanks to Jerome’s acoustics skill the sound quality was excellent and his riffs rang out with extraordinary precision.

The ceiling was dangerously low, such that a few brave stage divers took their lives in their hands, and tall audience members found themselves rather evocatively covered in spiderwebs.

Nostromo powered their way through the best of their back catalogue- Collapse, Jagged, Twist The Knife, Delight- in a triumphant return to the scene. Even in the late 90s they were noted for the maturity of their musical composition, and now with all that life and experience behind them we can’t wait for the new material… roll on 2017.

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Amon Amarth, Salle Metropole Lausanne, 15.11.16

 

I had high hopes for Switzerland being a metal country. Huge mountains, Celtic Frost, general atmosphere of gloom- all of this has great metal potential. So perhaps it’s just the city of Lausanne letting the side down, because I was the most metal person in that crowd on Tuesday night. And that’s not a good thing.

Let’s be clear; earplugs are NOT METAL. Metal is SUPPOSED TO BE TOO LOUD.

At least half the people I saw were surreptitiously wearing earplugs. The man I stood next to in the crowd was shirtless, rippling with muscle, covered in tattoos, some of which bordered on the right-wing, his shaved head nodding furiously. But the tell-tale piece of blue plastic in his ear told me that ‘You sir, are a pussy’. And the way he eyed me sheepishly showed that he knew it too. He stood aside politely as I headed into the pit.

I was bemused by the sheer number of so-called metalheads with bits of chewing gum in their ears. Going to a heavy metal concert with earplugs is like going to an art exhibition wearing sunglasses. I wondered if they had been issued on the door due to Swiss noise protection regulations, and perhaps my husband and I had just slipped by unnoticed. Earplugs should in fact be confiscated at the door of metal concerts, on principle, along with the drugs and weapons.

But aside from the too-sensible crowd, the music tonight was wonderful. Another irritating thing about Switzerland is that things really do start on time, so we missed the first act, Grand Magus, as we were still having sushi down the road. But we made it just in time for Testament, my main concern of the evening.

As Testament’s biggest and most annoying fan, I am somewhat biased, but they were sublime. Precise, energetic, and playing their best music yet.  I was eager to hear them perform tracks from their new album, Brotherhood of the Snake, which is a concept album about, well, snakes. More specifically, a secret society set up by draconian aliens to exploit the earth, as told by 6000-year old Sumerian scriptures.

Concept albums have a reputation for self-indulgence, unfairly so because there’s no rule that says a record has to be an unconnected list of songs. It’s not as if Vivaldi threw a bunch of random stuff together to create the Four Seasons. Bach’s St Matthew’s Passion is a concept album.

And heavy metal is all about taking its listeners to a fantasy world, so why not. I was sold.

Brotherhood of the Snake was reportedly produced in a rush and under duress, but it has turned out wonderfully- aggressive thrash, but with new elements brought in from melodic death metal and jazz. Surprising changes of metre and register make this Testament’s most innovative album yet.

Chuck Billy’s versatile voice was on point, and he somehow manages brutality with an infectious grin. Alex’s playing is so effortless that it’s easy to forget he is playing the most difficult solos to be found in metal. Their inventiveness increases with every album, the world of thrash benefitting enormously from his study of jazz.

It’s hard to believe that Testament are a support act, but Amon Amarth, the Swedish melodic death metallers, are having an extended moment due to the current trend for Vikings and all things Scandinavian.

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This was one for my husband to enjoy. In general he loathes metal; he only chaperones me to these things because neither of us trusts me not to run away with someone with a waist-length beard. He may hate metal but he does love Vikings, and he delighted in the elaborate set of a Nordic longship and giant horns, and the costumed extras brought on to simulate axe-fighting. There were even two archers who pretended to fire arrows into the crowd, which was frankly quite unnerving.

Amon Amarth are another band with a concept album out, and lead singer Johann Hegg was clearly revelling in his role as the wronged hero from the Jomsviking legend.

Amon Amarth get away with their Viking silliness because of the high quality of the music; they play the most elegant and cinematic death metal, with heavily down-tuned riffs over blast beats contrasting with beautiful harmonised thirds. They even manage the unlikely feat of producing a ‘sing-along’ death metal anthem with ‘Raise Your Horns’.

An amazing evening which exemplifies the very high standards metal is reaching this year.

But next time, Switzerland, try without the earplugs. Go on, you might like it….

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Exodus, Le Rat, 30.07.16

‘Take care of each other in the pit tonight, ok guys?’

This was Steve Souza’s first interaction with the crowd, which I thought was rather sweet coming from a band whose songs include ‘A Lesson In Violence’, ‘Brain Dead’ and ‘Shovel Headed Kill Machine’. Exodus, one of the original thrash metal bands, still going after 35 years despite multiple line-up changes, are reknowned for the aggressive responses of their crowds, who often perform the infamous ‘Wall of Death’ formation. One of their most well-loved tracks, Toxic Waltz, is about exactly that: ‘You aim for someone’s head, to stain the floor red; give someone a kick, to prove your truly sick’.

But this was July 2016, when to be in a crowd in France was to be nervous. A spate of terror attacks had left the country in a state of semi-emergency, and we were in the south of France where only two weeks earlier scores of people had been killed by a terrorist driving a truck through the Bastille Day crowds on the Nice promenade. Bataclan was also still fresh in people’s minds, and all three bands that performed at Le Rat tonight made tributes to those who had lost their lives to terror in France this year.

Security was tight and the atmosphere was wary, but it was also proud and celebratory. Le Rat is a biker bar in Puget-sur-Argens, a very unassuming town on the Cote d’Azur. It was hard to believe that thrash legends Exodus were playing such a small venue, but they were on their way from Xtreme Fest in the west of France.

As we approached the venue it felt like being on the set of Sons of Anarchy. Harley Davidsons came and went; there was a hog roast and a burger van; whole families lounged around. Many had backpacks and tents as they were on their way to and from festivals.

After two highly commendable local bands, Exodus took to the stage, beginning with The Ballad of Leonard and Charles, and moving through a nice range going right back to their classics from 1985’s Bonded By Blood.

The crowd moved in and out. I bought a ladies’ size t-shirt depicting two demonic babies horrifically sewn together, knowing that I would never be able to wear it in public.

Souza did not need to worry about violence in the crowd that night.

There was an atmosphere of compassion and community spirit, a keen awareness of the privilege involved in seeing such a band up close.  Despite the extreme physicality involved, moshpits are more controlled environments than you might think. Participants are keenly aware of their fellow fans, and there seems to be a system. Any latent violence is purged in a catharsis of clashing bodies.

Now I’m a seasoned gig attendee (I’ve been to about seven), and I have never seen any violence or unpleasantness at a metal concert; in fact fans are uniformly respectful of each other. The most violence I’ve ever witnessed at a musical event was at The Corrs concert at Blenheim Palace, where the delicate Irish pop crooners performed for an audience made up of the Oxfordshire county set, average age fifty, who had paid upwards of two hundred pounds per ticket. A friend and I watched with glee as a rabble of tweed and anorak-wearers, worse for wear after one too many white wine spritzers, tried to mount the stage and were hauled off by security. We recognized a few of them from the school PTA.

All generations were at the Exodus gig tonight. Grandfathers with long white beards astride their Harley Davidsons. Small children eating pizza and chips at the catering van outside, and running in and out of the fishnetted and tattooed legs of their mothers.  Spotty teenagers navigating their first moshpit. I stood next to a nine-year-old boy whose father kept lifting him up for a better view.

So who knew- Exodus could put on a wholesome family show.

Drownload 2016

‘What the fuck are you wearing?’

‘What the fuck are you wearing?’

We were getting ready for Download in a stately hotel room in Leicestershire, the promise of a romantic night away being the only way I could persuade my husband to accompany me to the UK’s biggest rock and metal festival.

I had chosen denim hotpants, biker boots, a leather waistcoat and a studded cuff. I had gone heavy on the eye make-up and was wearing dark purple lipstick, for the first time ever. I knew it was try-hard. But I was trying hard. My husband was smartly dressed in a blue polo shirt, ironed jeans and brand new Nike trainers.  He looked like he was going for a gin and tonic at the Hotel du Cap, and I genuinely feared for his safety. I insisted I was going to buy him a band T-shirt as soon as we arrived at the festival, for his own protection.

‘You can buy it, but I’m never going to wear it. On principle’.

He smuggled me and my outfit out of the hotel before any of the wedding guests, golfers or shooting parties could see me, and we were off, in theory only a short drive away from Download. As we headed down the M1, the traffic became heavier and we began to spot more and more ‘metal’ cars- packed with bodies, tattooed arms pressed against windows, crates of beer in trunks, chassis vibrating with loud music.

I had a feeling of purpose, excitement- like-minded people heading somewhere together. I was part of something, I was one of them. But the traffic only became heavier and heavier.

How bad can it be? Four hours later, we had progressed little more than two miles. Engines were switched off. Every so often a sheepish metalhead would pop out of a car, glance furtively to the left and right them dash to the roadside to relieve themselves. When I made my own stealthy dash into the bushes I heard the muted blasting of every car stereo playing metal, mostly Iron Maiden in honour of the night’s headline act. We stuck resolutely to Radio 4, windows closed.

My husband said nothing but his silent wrath was filling the car and I wished I had come alone; I was going to be paying for this for a long time. I was even beginning to get disillusioned myself. I didn’t want to see metalheads drinking cartons of Capri-Sun and eating Marks & Spencer sandwiches on the side of the road. Illusions were gradually being shattered.

We had no supplies in the car and dehydration was beginning to set in when the first white shapes of the festival caravan park appeared on the horizon. It would have been in keeping with my metal failure to be admitted to the St John’s Ambulance tent for dehydration, due not to excessive alcohol consumption but to excessive traffic. We finally reached the festival car park, which stretched as far as the eye could see. We parked in a ditch, and there was a question as to whether we would need to be towed out, but it was too late now. We trudged for over two miles before we finally entered the arena. The atmosphere on the approach to the arena was muted, there was an atmosphere of frustration and disenchantment which I could tell was entirely due to the weather. Download is a three-day event and we were attending the final day. I had heard rumours of a washout, local newspaper headlines ‘Downpour 2016 Completely Flooded!’, ‘Don’t Go!’ etc, which I chose to ignore.

I had to look away when I glanced into the festival camp site- it was a vision of hell, abandoned tents floating on rivers of muddy rubbish. I felt for the people who were still here after camping for three days, and admired their tenacity. As we approached the entrance however the mood naturally lifted as the thumping became louder and we were close to our goal. Groups of metal fans, some terrifying, others less so particularly as they were wearing cagoules, high-fived strangers, shared beers and shouted things like ‘BRUTALITY!!!’. If he hadn’t been so desperate for a drink of water that he needed to get through the turnstiles and to the nearest catering truck, I knew my husband would have turned back.

Finally we were through the security gates, and nothing could have prepared me for the mud. We were standing at the top of a hill, next to a giant dog’s head (the symbol of Download) and from this vantage point, we could see the whole festival spread out below us, sloping down a hill. The enormous main stage was directly below us, and there were three other stages spread around, interspersed with food and clothing stalls and, absurdly, a fairground. From our position directly in between all the stages, four sets of metal music collided sonically into an indistinguishable clash and roar. It was nowhere near as loud as I had expected, the mud and rain somehow dampening and muffling everything.

Rivulets of fetid mud flowed over our feet. Further down the hill the rivulets were joining up and I could only imagine the hell at the bottom, particularly as that was where the toilets were. Within minutes my husband’s trainers were a complete write-off. There were a couple of stalls selling wellies, but he refuses to wear wellies as a matter of moral principle. He did, however, agree to buy ponchos and we donned those, I had to sadly acknowledge that no-one was going to appreciate my Topshop leather waistcoat.

There were people everywhere, moving slowly and gingerly through the mud. Some were sitting in camping chairs, forlorn and exhausted. A few, caked in filth from head to toe, were clearly regretting the comedy moment when they had decided to roll in the mud.

There seemed to be an inordinate amount of wheelchairs. I couldn’t tell whether this was because lots of disabled people like metal, or because the sight of the heroic wheelchair pushers just seemed to stand out.

In many ways it resembled a battle ground, appropriately enough given metal’s obsession with all things war-related. There was something quite poignant about all these bedraggled metalheads in cagoules. Somehow the atmosphere was still positive. Faces were grim but resolute, here for the music at all costs. Although there was plenty of alcohol, there were very few signs of drunken excess, only a few whiffs of marijuana here and there, and certainly no violence. Despite the frequent cries of ‘Brutality’ and the imagery of destruction and chaos, people were supportive of each other. This was not just because of the difficult weather conditions; metalheads look out for each other. Aggression is expressed but controlled. According to the musicologist John Powell, tests by experimental psychologists show that listening to angry music doesn’t actually make you more angry; in fact it calms you down by allowing you to express that anger sonically. There were also far more women than I was expecting, women of all ages and although most of them seemed to be accompanying boyfriends or husbands, they looked pretty metal to me.

I was in heaven; my husband could see how happy I was and I loved him even more for spending a whole day of his life doing something he hated. Although a part of me secretly wished I had some fellow metalheads to share it with, in truth there was no better person to be here with than the person who wanted to make me happy.

Images of glorious incongruity were everywhere. A man with a tattooed face offered me some hand gel as I came out of the portaloo. Three very short people with thick glasses and walking sticks whipped off their ponchos to reveal matching Shinedown t-shirts and danced in the mud, whirling their sticks above their heads. A man with a very long beard and a pierced chin nodded his head furiously to Gojira, fists and lips clenched, a confused baby wearing headphones in a carrier on his back.

We made our way to the main stage, where Disturbed were about to perform. Disturbed are a band from Chicago who play classic metal with a definite nu-metal bent, characterized by syncopated rhythms and a slightly computer-gamey feel. Frontman Dave Draiman, who sings in a pitch perfect operatic voice, has clashed with the anti-religious enclaves of metal since he is proud of his Jewish heritage, which can only be healthy for the genre. I was excited to see them perform as I had played a few of their tracks, but they were curiously lacklustre, failing to elicit a huge response from the crowd who, admittedly, were suffering terribly from the weather. Their rendition of ‘Ten Thousand Fists’ failed to raise ten thousand fists in the audience, although mine was proudly up there, to my husband’s embarrassment. At one point everything stopped and the guitarist took up his position importantly at the piano, so that Disturbed could perform a very serious and pointless cover of Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘The Sound of Silence’, complete with orchestral backing track. The irony of a song about silence being played at a metal concert may have been lost on Disturbed but it was not lost on the crowd, and there was a creeping sense of boredom in the air before things got going again.

We moved on to the second stage to watch Gojira, a very technical French band who sing about the environment, spirituality and their feelings. This may seem a bit weedy for metal, but they get away with it because they’re French. They are also incredibly ‘brutal’, with technical, precision guitar playing, blast beats and stop-start rhythms, and they created such a powerful atmosphere in that soggy tent that both of us were fully energized for the rest of the afternoon.

In between watching bands we wandered amongst the stalls selling gothic clothing and knick-knacks, stepping gingerly, buying Slayer t-shirts for our sons and pink ‘My First Metal’ t shirts for the girls. I bought an Iron Maiden ‘Book of Souls’ tour t-shirt, replete with the all-important tour dates on the back, and simply owning it gave me a sense of belonging.

Nightwish were second to Iron Maiden on the main stage. Nightwish are a symphonic metal band from Finland, formed in 1996, with male musicians but a female vocalist, Floor Janssen, who has a trained operatic voice. They have an epic, cinematic style, apparently getting most of their inspiration from film music, and indeed their songs have been featured in a number of Hollywood soundtracks. They have had 13 number one singles in the modern home of metal that is Finland.

In Nightwish guitars are less important than the other instruments; the keyboard is prominent, they often use a full orchestra, and they have a player of uiellian pipes as a permanent member of the band. They sing about mythology, nature, and spiritual themes, even releasing an album about Charles Darwin which was surreally narrated by evolutionary biologist Professor Richard Dawkins. Their set at Download consisted of a giant sparkly spider, and an array of flame throwers.

The singer said things like ‘We’re SO happy to be here!!!!’, ‘You guys are AMAZING!!!’, and swished her hair in full circles during the breakdowns. I found them a bit light. In fact, I was rather proud of finding them a bit light.

The penultimate act we saw was Jane’s Addiction. This was one we could both enjoy- Jane’s Addiction are an alternative rock rather than a heavy metal band, and my husband was a fan as well. I was particularly interested in their guitarist, Dave Navarro, and as luck would have it we found ourselves in the front row, deep in mud but right in front of Dave. Navarro is ridiculously handsome and despite his thick black eyeliner, the epitome of masculinity. I believe I originally agreed to go out with my husband back in our university days partly because he looked a bit like Dave Navarro.  However my husband and I had aged and greyed, while Dave looked exactly the same as he did twenty years ago. This would imply that being a heroin addict is better for your health than having four children.

He played the guitar with utter nonchalance, staring into space somewhere past the audience, almost no interaction between him and the band or the audience. He was so effortless but the sound he was making was incredibly full- hitting all registers. It was as if there were three or four guitarists out there. Jane’s Addiction spiced up their act by having cavorting women in bikinis being suspended from hooks, and this was all rather unnecessary but kept my husband interested. He was beginning to exhibit the early symptoms of trench foot and his reserves of goodwill were waning, but finally it was time for the main event, Iron Maiden.

Iron Maiden are the beloved godfathers of metal.  They have been going for over forty years, having produced 16 studio albums, selling 90 million copies and touring the world countless times. Their line-up has changed slightly over the years but their winning formula hardly at all. They play classic heavy metal with precise, memorable riffs, anthemic choruses and even more anthemic guitar solos. The most fascinating aspect of the Iron Maiden phenomenon is that they have achieved their global success despite being almost completely ignored by the world’s media and radio stations. And most of this happened in the days before the internet and social media, so it was purely album sales, touring and fanzines. And of course their impeccable branding. Even people who couldn’t name a single Iron Maiden song or band member recognize the jagged red font and the evil grin of Eddie, which is emblazoned on a million t-shirts all over the world.

Download 2016 was a stop on Iron Maiden’s Book of Souls tour, and there was no expense spared on the set and effects. The theme was the Mayan empire, and the ruins and foliage were accompanied by an expensively-made animated film shown on huge screens. Bruce hadn’t bothered with a costume and was wearing a disappointingly dad-like padded gilet with a fleece underneath, and sensible shoes. But he made up for it with the quality of his singing and his onstage banter which made every member of the audience feel included. The guitarists bounded around the stage and swung their guitars around with glee- only Iron Maiden could get away with such a move in this century. The twin axe attacks were performed back to back or pointing at the crowd, in time-honoured fashion.

We made the very unmetal but canny decision to leave half way through Iron Maiden’s set to avoid the car park rush. In fact I had done the whole festival in the most unmetal way possible- day tripper, luxury hotel, drink of choice prosecco, accompanied by a man wearing a polo shirt. My husband was so triumphant that we had escaped from the car park before the hoards ‘We screwed everyone!’ that for him it made up for the rest of the day entirely. My legs felt as heavy as if I had run a marathon after a day of trudging through calf-deep mud. But I was happy, exhilarated, and wistful. This was my music, these were my people, and I had wasted so many years.

Saxonised, The Bullingdon 15.02.16

It was becoming imperative that I attend a gig. The first- fine I’ll admit it- the only- metal concert I had ever been to was in 1995, when I accompanied my younger brother and his friends to see Korn at the Manchester Academy. The only reason they allowed me to come was because I could drive, and when I picked them up they were alarmed to see that I was wearing heels. In Liverpool in the 1990s it was unthinkable for a girl to wear trainers unless she was actually exercising. But in Manchester, only fifty miles away, trainers were ok. It was only when I went to university down south that I discovered it was socially acceptable to wear trainers with jeans.

Wearing heels that day would prove to be my downfall, confirming that dressing correctly is an essential part of being accepted into the metal community. As we queued outside the Manchester Academy I felt horribly out of place, and this feeling only intensified when we went inside and my brother and his friends completely disowned me.

Twenty years on and I had made no progress on the subcultural capital required to call myself a true metalhead.

The logistical problems involved in a woman with four small children going to a heavy metal concert are myriad. Going out at all in the evening is immensely complicated. In ten years I had barely left the house after 6pm, to the extent that I had almost forgotten what darkness looked like. First, you have to have the will to leave the house after the kids are in bed, when every fibre of your being is begging you to put on pyjama bottoms and collapse in front of the TV. Secondly, you have to find a babysitter, one who can handle not only a baby but also three other deeply manipulative children (‘Mummy says we’re allowed to watch The Omen’, ‘Mummy says we can have three bags of Doritos. Each.’). You also have to spend a week beforehand pumping enough breastmilk to cover all eventualities.

Then there’s the question of finding a gig to attend. Going to London was out of the question as it took too long, so I would have to find something locally. Occasionally well-known metal bands do pass through Oxford, playing at the O2 Academy, and I kept an eye out, but continually missed them for a variety of un-metal reasons. Bullet For My Valentine came and went- it was parents’ evening at school that night. I missed Trivium as we were on a skiing holiday.

I finally found something metal that was feasible, at The Bullingdon. The word Bullingdon may conjure up images of David Cameron, Boris Johnson and cronies enjoying ritualistic banquets at the eponymous old boys’ club, but the Bullingdon pub has nothing to do with David Cameron whatsoever- it’s a bar on Cowley Road with a small stage in the basement. It is arguably the most ‘metal’ pub in Oxford, although this is admittedly fairly easy to achieve.

Saxon are one of the earliest heavy metal bands, formed in 1977 in south Yorkshire, part of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal. You may never have heard of them but within the metal world they are legendary. However I was not going to see Saxon, I was going to see Saxonised, a tribute band. ‘the only Saxon tribute band in the UK’. This felt safe. They weren’t even the top billing that night, in fact they were third on the bill, but I knew they would be playing metal of sorts.

Finally there was the problem of who to go with. My friends without exception treated my new metal hobby with the utmost contempt. It was not even a worthy subject of conversation. There were one or two loyal ones who would have agreed to go with me as a favour, but nights out are so precious for women at our stage of life that I didn’t want to make someone waste an evening on something they hated. I was more than happy to go alone; I’ve never had a problem with going out alone.  However there was the question of whether it was appropriate to go alone, and I knew my husband would judge that it was not. I didn’t like to ask him either; his time is precious too, and it’s not as if I have ever gone to a football match with him. Plus I was embarrassed at revealing my childlike enthusiasm for this, and perhaps there was a part of me that wanted to keep this to myself. But it looked as if there was no option, so I sold it as a romantic evening out- we would go to a new gastropub in East Oxford he had wanted to try, then ‘pop in’ to listen to a band on the way home.

When we arrived at the Bullingdon entrance it was very quiet, especially for a Saturday night. The bouncers looked amused when I proudly displayed our tickets, dutifully purchased in advance, and waved us into an empty venue. The band were just starting their first number as we went down the stairs into the basement room. I immediately felt conspicuous in the empty space. The crowd consisted of four people. Two women were standing in the middle of the floor.  They were conservatively dressed in knee length skirts and heels, as though they had come straight from work, even though it was a Saturday. They held their gin and tonics and danced awkwardly, as if they would be more comfortable dancing to Abba at an office party. Perhaps they were the WAGs. Then there were two men. Both were wearing baggy denim shorts, even though it was February and they were in their 50s. Both had mullets, even though it was 2016. One appeared to be the band’s manager, as he was fiddling about with equalizers at the back and setting out T-shirts for sale. The other was sitting on a bar stool filming the whole thing on his iPhone.

My husband made no comment but his face was increasingly stony. We hugged the bar and I drank Smirnoff Ice for the first time in years, having no idea what type of beer to ask for.

Saxonised were wonderful musicians. The lead singer had an operatic baritone voice which didn’t miss a note. He had a ‘sea urchin’ 1980s mullet- short and spiked on top, long at the back- and I wondered what sort of day job he was able to do with that hairstyle. He was wearing reflective Oakley sunglasses on top of his head, and half way through the concert he inexplicably put them on. I wondered if there was some cultural reference I was missing, or if he was simply trying to hide from the tragically empty space.

The lead guitarist played as if he and the guitar were one entity, incredibly fluent solos which rang out with clarity due to some impeccable mixing from the soundman/manager.

Most of the band were middle-aged, but the rhythm guitarist was young and looked like an extra from Lord of the Rings, with long blonde hair in ragged curls, and sleeveless T-shirt to show off his tattoeed biceps.

 As a group they were incredibly professional and showed no annoyance or disappointment at the emptiness of the venue. After the first number I ventured away from the bar to whoop and make the ‘devil horns’, that universal hand signal of metal appreciation which was invented by Ronnie James Dio. There was total silence, tumbleweeds, so after that I kept my elbow firmly propped on the bar with an air of nonchalance. However I was utterly captured by the energy of the music.

For the final number, the anthemic ‘Denim and Leather’, the lead singer tried valiantly to whip up the crowd, ‘Come on, it’s like a fucking funeral in here!’.

And unfortunately, it was. By this point my husband was playing Angry Birds on his phone. At the end as the band were packing up, on a sugar high after three bottles of Smirnoff Ice, I ventured up to the front and headed straight for the Tolkien-esque young guitarist to quiz him about his equipment. My husband followed, ever the wary chaperone, and so when the guitarist turned to see these two very sensible-looking people waiting to speak to him, I could see a flash of hope in his eyes- could this be his big break, a record company, a music magazine? He quickly hid his disappointment when I told him I was just learning the guitar and politely took me through his rig. He lost me very quickly as I have a terrible habit of asking questions then glazing over for the answers, but my husband listened intently as he talked with enthusiasm about his rig. He nodded knowingly: ‘So you basically have to be an electrician then’. The guitarist looked even more crestfallen, and at this point I noticed that I had my hand on his bicep, and it had been there the whole time we had been talking. This was an involuntary reaction on my part, and I realised with dismay that it probably came across to him as maternal rather than flirtatious, given our estimated 15-year age gap. Nevertheless, it was a rather nice bicep, and fortunately my husband didn’t seem to have noticed.

As we thanked him and walked away he called after us ‘Like us on Facebook…’, but he trailed off, having exhausted his reserves of futile self-promotion. We had another drink in the upstairs bar, and as we headed home half an hour later we walked past the band loading their equipment into a battered van. I wondered if they had a hotel or if they would have to drive all the way back to wherever they were from, crammed up against their amplifiers. We stopped to congratulate them again, and they seemed genuinely happy to be noticed and shook our hands. I hoped we had cheered them up. Poignantly, the venue was now filling up for the main act, and the queue snaked past their van. I imagined that 20 years ago I could have jumped in and driven off into the night with them. In particular, with the blond-haired one. How easy it would be to become a groupie.

That night my ears were ringing and I found it difficult to sleep after the exhilaration of the music, but the fact remained that I had been almost the only attendee at a failure of a gig, and I had still not experienced any sort of metal communality. I was still an outsider.