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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Swiss Metal Alliance- Dispatches From Metal Suburbia

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This weekend I’m supposed to be writing up an article on Nostromo for Broken Amp magazine, and preparing for my big Children of Bodom interview tomorrow. That is in itself unrealistic with four children running wild around the house. But I’m distracted by a little metal concert I attended last night, so I’m going to write about that instead. Partly an exercise in procrastination, mainly a tribute to three bands who are keeping the flame alive and doing what they love.

Versoix is an affluent suburb on the banks of Lake Geneva; a residential area where not much happens.  But last night its community entertainment venue, Les Caves du Bon Sejour, played host to the ambitiously-titled ‘Swiss Metal Alliance’. A group of Swiss bands- Deep Sun, Elferya, Headless Crown and others- are on a mini-tour of the country this spring, and I am an aficionado of random metal concerts in unlikely places. Plus, when there’s free metal happening around the corner from your house, it’s a moral duty to attend.

The venue seemed deserted from the outside, but the faint sound of operatic warbling over blast beats led me down into a basement where Deep Sun, a symphonic metal band from Solothurn, had just begun their set. I am not a fan of symphonic metal- it’s a bit of a cheesefest let’s face it- but Deep Sun’s vocalist Deborah has some serious pipes, and I was really impressed by her note-perfect performance. She worked the tiny crowd as if she was in a huge stadium, her stage gestures making full use of some magnificently toned biceps.

Unfortunately Deep Sun were beset by Spinal Tap issues; at one point the guitarist’s instrument stopped working, so he disappeared off and could be seen faffing about with cables at the back of the stage. The rest of the band did their best to cover for him with some extra forceful headbanging, but even a symphonic band needs a guitar. Where’s your sense of urgency man? Eventually he manoeuvred himself sheepishly back into place, and introduced some welcome guttural growls to the proceedings. Although the band do need to come up with a better lyric than ‘METAL!’ for him to shout repeatedly.

During the obligatory ballad, two youths wearing Obituary denim jackets held their lighters aloft, a poignant moment until they were told to switch them off. Oh you Swiss and your regulations.

So I’m still not sold on symphonic metal, but Deep Sun I salute you and hope this tour brings you success; I bought your t-shirt and will wear it with pride.

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There was time for a quick people-watch before the next set, and what a strange mixture of listeners in that basement. There were metalheads of all ages who, like myself, had straggled along to see what could be gleaned metal-wise from a Saturday night in Versoix. There were plenty of Nightwish fans due to the symphonic bent of the night, a few goths, and a lot of confused looking middle-aged couples wearing cashmere and chinos, who had maybe wandered in after dinner in the next-door Chinese restaurant. There was a man in a Breton-striped jumper having a cup of tea in an armchair, and a couple of guys wearing suits, despite it being a Saturday. Perhaps they had confused Swiss Metal Alliance with an aluminium manufacturing conference. The Swiss earplug brigade were out in force; I am coming around slowly to the idea of earplugs, but seriously people, it wasn’t that loud.

Next up were Headless Crown, a classic metal band from Geneva. This was officially the most fun you can have with your clothes on in Versoix. Headless Crown, average age around 50, clearly grew up with the classic metal masters and their music is heavily influenced by Iron Maiden. They would probably have more financial success as a tribute band, but they stick doggedly, and admirably, to their own material, which is solid stuff. They were enjoying themselves so much that it was impossible not to get swept up. There was so much pointing- at the crowd, at each other, at their guitars; so many guitar faces, from the constipatory to the orgasmic; so much guitar-swinging, back-to-back playing, running about the stage. I would love to know what their day jobs are, with those haircuts; indeed their diminutive drummer, who wore Nicko McBrain style cycling shorts, had the most absurd hair I have seen in many years.

Their best track sounded as if it was called ‘Satisfy Myself’; how wonderful and Steel Panther-esque to have a serious metal song about wanking. So I was disappointed when I realised towards the end that it was probably called ‘Searching for My Soul’.

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All five members of Headless Crown are excellent musicians who could easily have held their own in a much bigger band, which led me to muse on the vagaries of fate that brought them here. Lead guitarist Ced’s solo to ‘Reach Out For The Light’ was nothing short of miraculous, and he had a beautiful guitar tone. In fact, whoever was in charge of the acoustics at this tiny venue did a great job.

Headless Crown you were wonderful, and I want to be in your band! If you ever need a new guitarist….

Finally the main act of the night was ‘power and melodic’ metal band Elferya. Again, not my type of music unfortunately, but it was great to see such a determined young band, who have put a huge amount of thought into their image and stage presence. They have a beautiful violinist who gives their music a rich and distinctive character, and having already shared stages with the big symphonic names, including Epica and Eluveitie, they may be one to watch for the future.

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So- although Swiss Metal Alliance is obviously not a true representation of the Swiss metal scene, it’s a lot of fun, and there are worse ways to spend an evening. Support your local metal!

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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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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