Friday, 19 January 2018

Black Veil Brides' 'Vale' - Album Review

Black Veil Brides are an interesting band. The American melodic metal five-piece made a big impact in 2010 when they released their debut album We Stitch These Wounds, and have managed to maintain a large global fanbase ever since. In their early days, Black Veil Brides sound was very influenced by the metalcore movement that had dominated the popular alternative metal scene for the best part of the 2000s. Melodic riffing and soaring, anthemic choruses mixed with punky breakdowns and harsh vocals helped the band to create an accessible sound while still having a bit of a bite, and the teen goth/emo scene had their new darlings. In fairness to Black Veil Brides, they have always been more than that. In contrast to many of their peers, who have rigidly stuck with the angsty teen rebellion tropes for longer than is believable or acceptable, Black Veil Brides have always strived for a grander sound with more thoughtful songwriting. The metalcore elements of their sound were mostly gone entirely by the time 2011's Set the World on Fire rolled around. By this point the band were displaying a big 1980s glam metal influence, both in sound and appearance, something which has continues to influence the band ever since. Unlike many commercially successful modern rock and metal acts, Black Veil Brides have always sought to go one further each time. 2013's Wretched and Divine: The Story of the Wild Ones (which I reviewed here) was an ambitious (by the band and genre's standards) concept album that showed a maturity that many of their peers lack, and 2014's self-titled album (which I reviewed here) streamlined the band's sound and showcased them in a simpler and sleeker light. Releasing four albums in five years, along with a fairly heavy touring schedule throughout, clearly took it's toll on the band and, as a result, Black Veil Brides have had a fairly quiet few years recently. This is set to change this year however as, last week, the band released their first album for four years - simply titled Vale. For this album, the band have hooked up once again with producer John Feldmann. Feldmann produced Wretched and Divine, so it is perhaps unsurprising that this new album contains many similarities to 2013's concept offering. The lyrics throughout Vale seem to reference the concept of Wretched and Divine at times and the lush sound, complete with plenty of orchestration, definitely borrows from the former's grandeur. That being said however, this album is much more concise than Wretched and Divine, showing that the sound forged on the band's self-titled album is here to stay to some extent. In many ways, Vale feels like a combination of the last two Black Veil Brides albums, but with some influences from frontman Andy Biersack's pop-centric side project Andy Black.

After the extremely short spoken word intro Incipiens Ad Finem, the album proper gets underway with The Last One - a catchy number that sets the tone for what is to come. Despite opening with some sombre piano melodies, which soon see clean guitar and slow drumming added to the mix, it is not long before a big guitar lead, courtesy of Jake Pitts, comes crashing in and establishes the song as a strong mid-paced rocker. Ashley Purdy's bass guitar features prominently throughout as he drives the song with his thick, pulsing playing; all while the band's two guitarists lay down simple, but crunchy, riffs. Biersack has such an instantly recognisable voice, and his commanding delivery really helps the song to stick. The chorus in particular showcases this, with his poppy vocal melodies sitting perfectly atop the band's tight metal riffing. Black Veil Brides, and lead guitarist Pitts in particular, have never been afraid to show off their musical abilities and this song is no different with a short shredded solo towards the end that helps to inject a little flair. Lead single Wake Up is an anthemic piece that revolves around a percussive motif, led by Christian Coma's drumming, which features a wordless vocal call-to-arms from Biersack that then forms part of the song's chorus. Musically this is typical Black Veil Brides, with crunchy guitar riffs providing a strong backbone which allows the theatrical Biersack to shine. Pitts, along with rhythm guitarist (and occasional violinist) Jinxx, own the song's mid-section however with a fantastic dual-guitar solo that is far more accomplished than what is usually heard on your average modern commercial metal album. When They Call My Name is a bit slower, and takes on a slightly ballad-y vibe in places with the piano and orchestrations playing a bigger part in the overall sound. The song does grow in stature as it moves forward, with the traditional metal instrumentation starting to gain more dominance. The chorus here contains another wordless vocal section, which is something that the band seem to fall back on a lot throughout Vale. These sections are often memorable, but when the trope resurfaces in several of the song here it soon looses it's appeal. This song even fades out with that wordless refrain, and this is something I would like to see the band do less of in the future. The Outsider, which has been floating around online for quite a while now, is a really strong mid-paced effort that is one of the album's best moments. The song's sound takes me back to the glam metal-influenced sound found on Set the World on Fire (which is still my favourite Black Veil Brides album), and features a stadium-sized chorus to match! Pitts and Jinxx's riffs create a strong groove throughout the song, and the tougher overall feel really helps it to stand out from the crowd. Another excellent solo from Pitts adds to this, but it is the anthemic chorus where the song really shines - and it is one that will be in your head for days after hearing it. Dead Man Walking (Overture II) is a fairly lengthy song that runs in at over eight minutes. It is the band's longest song to date, and is not a bad first effort at a 'long' song. Heavier sections mix well with gentler, more emotional pieces to create a diverse sound. The long chorus is another strong moment with some really urgent-sounding vocal melodies - but the ending chorus section which repeat the phrase 'dead man walking' over and over feels clumsy and does spoil the effect somewhat. Despite this there is still plenty to enjoy here, including another excellent guitar solo (that actually has time to build and really 'go somewhere' this time) and a gorgeous symphonic closing section that references melodies from some of the album's other songs.

Our Destiny is a more traditional Black Veil Brides rocker, but again it relies heavily on some wordless vocal melodies which do not really add all that much to the song. Elsewhere however the song shines - especially during the verses which are led by a great tripwire guitar riff, which is perfectly matched by Coma behind his drum kit and augmented by some excellent orchestral stabs. It also contains a strong chorus which, despite some rather overly earnest lyrics (another of the band's occasional pitfalls), is memorable. The King of Pain opens slowly, with some atmospheric clean guitars and keyboards, and soon moves down a slightly more poppy route than is usual for the band. During Black Veil Brides' downtime, Biersack released a pop-influenced solo album under the name Andy Black - and this song definitely sounds like some of the DNA from that project has been injected into it. The heavier guitars are still present, especially during the chorus, but overall this song just feels lighter with more overtly poppy melodies. This is no bad thing however, and adds another string to the band's bow while helping the album to feel more diverse. My Vow is a short, punchy number that recalls the band's early sound with a driving guitar riff and a slightly punky attitude. Gang vocals are employed during the choruses, along with more wordless vocals (which actually quite work well this time), which really help the song to hit hard during it's short duration. Those who have been lamenting the more in-your-face sound that the band had on their first two albums will love this song, as it contains some of that youthful exuberance and strutting sensibilities. Ballad of the Lonely Hearts is, unsurprisingly, somewhat slower than much of what is found throughout the rest of the album. It is still not a pure ballad however, with plenty of riffing and dual-lead guitar melodies, but it is one that relies more heavily on the orchestral backing to create a strong atmosphere. Despite some good efforts however, I feel that this is one of the album's weaker moments. The chorus is, in my opinion, quite trite and lacks the razor sharp melodies that the band has built their career on. Luckily Throw the First Stone helps to get the album back on track with a real sledgehammer of a riff that is packed with real groove, that soon gives way to a bass-heavy verse which features lots of tricky drumming from Coma. The groovy riff from the song's intro resurfaces throughout, often accompanies by some rather menacing spoken word whispers that sound like something Machine Head or Fear Factory might have come up with in the late 1990s. It sounds slightly strange to hear Black Veil Brides doing it, but it works quite well and does not sound as forced as it could have. Vale (This is Where it Ends) is the album's closing number, and is another pseudo-ballad that opens up with delicate acoustic guitar melodies and a strong orchestral backing which creates a strong atmosphere. As with When They Call My Name, the song does build up somewhat as it moves along with crunchy guitar rhythms and drums being added into the mix, but at it's heart this is a gentle song that ends the album on a calm and reflective note. Overall, Vale is another strong outing from Black Veil Brides and one that sees them further the more mature sound they have been developing since 2013. While the band's newer work lacks the pure excitement of their earlier albums, the Black Veil Brides of 2018 is a band with more experience and one that shows more finesse when it comes to songwriting.

The album was released on 12th January 2018 via Lava/Universal Republic Records. Below is the band's promotional video for Wake Up.

Monday, 1 January 2018

Music of 2017 - Part 2

As promised yesterday, when I started my round of the 2017 musical year, today I will detail my favourite albums that have been released this year. Nearly every music blog attempts to do something like this each year, and it is a good way to look back at all the great music I have enjoyed over the past year. As always, writing this list has not been easy. 2017, each year before it, has been packed full of great new albums and there are plenty of albums that could have easily been included here but just missed the cut. Ask me on another day and this list might look different, but I feel I have picked the ten albums that have most defined my intake of new music throughout 2017. As always, only studio albums of new original material are eligible to be included. EPs, live albums, compilations, covers albums etc. are not in contention here so the below ten albums contain some of my very favourite new music of the year.

10) Aaron Buchanan and the Cult Classics - The Man With Stars on his Knees
Former Heaven's Basement frontman Aaron Buchanan returned to the rock world after a fairly quiet couple of years with a new backing band, which includes his guitar-wielding sister Laurie, and a new album packed full of new anthems. While some of the songs are similar to the sound he helped forge on Heaven's Basement's excellent 2013 release Filthy Empire, there are plenty of other flavours here too including plenty of early 1990s grunge and even some theatrical pomp. This is a hard-hitting album that is tied together by Buchanan's excellent and expressive vocal performance.
Listen to: Dancin' Down Below, The Devil That Needs You & Morals?

9) Firewind - Immortals
Firewind returned in January with their first album in five years and their first effort with German powerhouse vocalist Henning Basse. Founding member and guitarist Gus G.'s time away from the band focusing on his solo career clearly gave him new drive when writing the songs for this album, and the result is a heavy, yet melodic, collection of songs that could well the band's best effort yet. Firewind's brand of power metal has always been tougher than that of their peers', and this is clear here as each song is driven by one of G.'s knockout riffs and backed up by an earth-shaking vocal performance. While G. has done plenty of good work outside of Firewind over the years, the Greek power metal band is his true home and it is where he has always demonstrated his talents the clearest.
Listen to: Ode to Leonidas, Back on the Throne & Lady of 1000 Sorrows

8) Black Star Riders - Heavy Fire
Another album from the early part of the year, Heavy Fire sees Black Star Riders further establish themselves as one of the very best classic rock revival bands of recent years. This is another collection of no-nonsense hard rock with few frills, and similar in style to their previous two releases, but I feel this is the album which has finally allowed them to step out from the shadow of their previous band Thin Lizzy and stand up firmly on their own. From the air raid siren that accompanies the title track's muscular riff, past the twin-guitar laid back groove of Dancing with the Wrong Girl, to the soulful blues stomp of Ticket to Ride, this is an album which oozes classic rock class from start to finish.
Listen to: Dancing with the Wrong Girl, Testify or Say Goodbye & Ticket to Ride

7) Iced Earth - Incorruptible
Iced Earth are an extremely consistent band, so it should be no surprise that their latest effort Incorruptible is included here. Jon Schaffer is one of the best rhythm guitarists and riff writers in the world, and his distinct guitar style has dominated the band since their late 1980s genesis. There are plenty more great riffs to be found here, and frontman Stu Block - on his third album with the band - turns in a dynamic and powerful vocal performance throughout which helps to bring Schaffer's compositions to life. New lead guitarist Jake Dreyer also impresses throughout, and has contributed many of the band's most memorable leads and solos in recent years to the songs here. This is an album that continues to the band's impressive run of albums and reaffirms their place in the metal world.
Listen to: Black Flag, Seven Headed Whore & Clear the Way (December 13th, 1862)

6) Anathema - The Optimist
The Optimist feels like the album that the Liverpudlian six-piece Anathema have been working towards since their rebirth in 2010 with the critically acclaimed We're Here Because We're Here. The band's usual mix of trippy rockers and atmospheric ballads has been merged with a distinct experimental electronic vibe in places which has been used to great effect throughout. The vocal interplay of Vincent Cavanagh and Lee Douglas is still what makes Anathema such a captivating listen, but the subtle musical additions throughout have made this a stand-out album in their discography and feels like the culmination of their recent sound evolution.
Listen to: Leaving it Behind, Springfield & Back to the Start

5) Trivium - The Sin and the Sentence
Trivium prove that they are one of the best modern mainstream metal bands in the world with their eight album The Sin and the Sentence. With a fantastic new drummer in Alex Bent in tow, Trivium reacquainted themselves with their heavier selves here which has resulted in a technical, heavy, yet melodic, album that contains some of the band's best songs in years. Matt Heafy has never sounded better vocally. He largely sticks to clean singing throughout, but is not averse to unleashing some gut-wrenching screams when the moment calls for it. In many ways The Sin and the Sentence feels like the ultimate Trivium album, and one that contains the best elements of all their previous albums all wrapped up in a devastatingly heavy production.
Listen to: Beyond Oblivion, Betrayer & The Revanchist

4) Styx - The Mission
Each year throws up surprises, and Styx's sixteenth album The Mission was certainly one of 2017's greatest unexpected releases. A new Styx album was certainly not something I was ever expecting, with the band seemingly content to rest on past glories, but The Mission is a real return to form from one of the best pomp rock bands out there and one that recalls their late 1970s greatness. The melodic songwriting that helped make the band so popular has never sounded so fresh, all wrapped up in the glorious vocal harmonies of Tommy Shaw and Lawrence Gowan. What I really love about this album though is it feels as if it was recorded in 1978. The retro-sounding Hammond organ that appears throughout is very evocative of that era, and the spacey lyrics that fuel the album's tight concept feel like something from a bygone era.
Listen to: Hundred Million Miles from Home, Radio Silence & The Outpost

3) Brother Firetribe - Sunbound
There has been plenty of excellent AOR albums released this year, but the best of the bunch for me was Finland's Brother Firetribe and their fourth album Sunbound. While the band clearly write their songs in the style of and as a tribute to their 1980s heroes, they are so well written and produced that it does not matter that this is pure pastiche. The feel-good melodies and lyrics that made AOR such a force to be reckoned with in the 1980s. Sunbound is an album that just unashamedly wants to have a good time, and the band (for some of whom Brother Firetribe is a side project) clearly enjoy letting their hair down and remembering a simple time when a big chorus was all you needed.
Listen to: Taste of a Champion, Give me Tonight & Big City Dream

2) Mostly Autumn - Sight of Day
Regular readers of this blog will know that the York-based progressive rock band Mostly Autumn are one of my very favourite bands so it will surprise no-one that Sight of Day has been included here. While I feel that their previous effort, the dark concept album Dressed in Voices, is a better album overall; this new effort contains some absolutely stunning stand out songs that are up their with the best things they have ever one. Founding member and guitarist Bryan Josh continues to improve as a songwriter, and choice contributions from Olivia Sparnenn-Josh, Iain Jennings, and the returning Chris Johnson help to make Sight of Day an album packed full of variety and tonnes of heart. The album is worth hearing for the title track alone, which is quite possibly the band's best song to date and contains everything that has ever made Mostly Autumn great packed into a 14 minute epic that questions the very concept of life.
Listen to: Sight of Day, Changing Lives & Tomorrow Dies

1) Threshold - Legends of the Shires
The return of vocalist Glynn Morgan to the band after more than twenty years away, and the re-embracing of the band's progressive metal roots, has really rejuvenated Threshold and allowed Karl Groom and Richard West to write a soaring concept album full of the band's trademark melodies but one that takes more twists and turns than the band's other more recent albums. This is a long album, but one that never gets boring and only improves over time. Morgan's vocal performance is excellent, and the soundscapes created by West's diverse keyboard textures are a perfect bed for him - and Groom's guitar solos - to lie on. While this is not as overtly catchy as the band's last few albums, I feel that this one will have more staying power going forward. This is packed with true class, and shows that Threshold should be held in as high a regard as bands like Dream Theater and Fates Warning.
Listen to: Small Dark Lines, Stars and Satellites & Lost in Translation

Well there you have it, my favourite albums of 2017! There are so many that could have been included, and there were some albums that I felt bad about having to miss out. Album's like Battle Beast's furious Bringer of Pain, DragonForce's Reaching into Infinity, and Kreator's Gods of Violence could have easily been included here, and that just goes to show what a wealth of riches 2017 has provided. Over the last few years I have also detailed my favourite gigs of the year, something which I will also do now. Last year I decided to pick my top 3 'big' and 'small' gigs of the year - as arena shows are really hard to compare against small club nights out - so this is something I have decided to do again. I have been to so many great gigs this year, so picking my favourites was just as hard as it was picking my favourite albums!

Top 3 'Big' Gigs of 2017:

3) Guns N' Roses, London Stadium, 17/06/2017
Axl Rose's reunion with Slash and Duff McKagan was one of the biggest musical events of the past few years, and the lengthy world tour that followed was always going to be something special. The London Stadium was the host of the band's two London shows, and I attended the second night with thousands of other people from across the country. The setlist spanned the band's entire history, and saw Rose and Slash really strutting their stuff and showing why they are such a loved duo. The show lasted for the best part of three hours, and included all of the band's best-known hits as well as a glut of deep cuts and lesser-known numbers. The actual show was one of the best I have seen, but I was quite far back from the stage which is why it has dropped down this list somewhat.

2) Kiss, Barclaycard Arena, 28/05/2017
Kiss were one of the first bands that I discovered on my own, and I had been wanting to see them for over ten years. The opportunity finally came earlier this year, and a night in Birmingham found the veteran glam band on top form as they stormed through a set that contained most of their greatest hits alongside a handful of deeper cuts. A Kiss concert is a true show however, and they had the stage show to back up their legendary reputation. There were pyrotechnics aplenty, and the moment which saw Paul Stanley fly out over the crowd to a small stage near the back to belt out a powerful rendition of the latter day Kiss classic Psycho Circus is the part of the show which really stands out

1) Marillion, Royal Albert Hall, 13/10/2017
While not as 'big' as the previous two shows in this list, the Albert Hall is still a large place and the show that Marillion put on inside the hallowed hall certainly made this a night to remember. The first part of the show included the entirety of their latest album Fuck Everyone and Run, before the second part saw the band joined by some classic musicians for a set of some of their greatest songs. The atmosphere within the sold out Albert Hall was something very special indeed, and being seated so close to the stage made everything even better. This seemed like it was a defining night for the band, often so cruelly dismissed and ridiculed by the mainstream, and this felt like vindication after so many years in the wilderness. This is one of the very best shows I have ever been to, and one that will stick in my memory for many years to come.

Top 3 'Small' Gigs of 2017:

3) Eclipse, Thekla, 23/04/2017
Sweden's Eclipse had never been a huge favourite of mine, but I am glad I took this opportunity to see them on their latest UK tour as it made me a real fan! The venue was surprisingly busy throughout the night, and the band played melodic anthem after melodic anthem that the crowd just lapped up. Erik Mårtensson is a great songwriter and frontman, and he really owned the stage all night as he belted out those soaring stadium-sized choruses. They made a new fan for life with this performance, and I cannot wait for them to come back!

2) Tyketto, Thekla, 28/01/2017
Tyketto are a special band, and a packed Thekla proved that they are still a draw here in the UK. Danny Vaughn is another excellent frontman and led the band through a lengthy career-spanning set that saw plenty of singing from the big crowd. New(ish) guitarist Chris Green often stole the show however. He played the old songs perfectly, and really cut loose when performing the songs that he co-wrote with the band for their latest album Shine. Tyketto are a band that never really got the credit and recognition that they deserve, which is sad, but there are still clearly plenty of us fans around and I am sure they will be back soon.

1) Mostly Autumn, The Assembly, 16/09/2017
A Mostly Autumn show in The Assembly in Leamington Spa has become an annual tradition now, and one that usually sees the band performing an extended set packed with fan favourites. The show this year opened with a full performance of one of my favourite new releases of the year Sight of Day, before undertaking a second set that included many of the band's best loved older numbers. This was another show that was pushing three hours, and was easily the best of the three Mostly Autumn shows that I saw in 2017. Mostly Autumn shows are always special occasions, but this one felt like of the best of theirs that I have seen, and I am already excited for the next time!

Sunday, 31 December 2017

Music of 2017 - Part 1

As another year comes to an end, I find myself thinking just how much great music we have seen in 2017. I always wonder if the onslaught of excellent new albums coming from the rock and metal worlds will slow each year, but it never seems to happen. I have been running this blog since 2012 now, and each year has seen me make probably around a hundred new music-related purchases (including live DVDs etc.). While the mainstream media and the big music corporations keep stating that the 'album' (be it streamed/downloaded, a CD, or a vinyl record) as a format for releasing and consuming music is dead, the many bands that I follow continue to defy this mindset. In my world, the album is still the primary method of music consumption and I hope this continues to be the case. A point that I like to reinforce each year is the fact that his blog is purely a by-product of my own personal music fandom. I am not a professional music journalist, and all of the albums that I review here are ones that I have purchased purely because I wanted to listen to them. The reviews come later and gives me a chance to be creative and share my love of music with those who wish to read them. Finding the time to write my reviews is always a challenge, especially as I started a part-time Masters course back in September, but I will continue to find time throughout 2018 to write about the music I love. I just wish to say thank you to anyone who has taken the time to read my musings throughout the year, and also to those who have shared my writings on social media. It always great to see people enjoying and engaging with my work - it is why I keep it up! For the last few years, prior to publishing my top 10 Albums of the Year, I have taken some time to shine a light on a few albums that I did not get the chance to review throughout the year. I shall do the same this year, as there are few releases that I have enjoyed a lot throughout 2017 that I never had the chance to review. I shall also highlight my favourite live release of the year, as I do not usually cover live albums in my usual writings.

Up first is the ninth studio album from progressive metal project Ayreon, the brainchild of Dutch composer and multi-instrumentalist Arjen Anthony Lucassen. Those familiar with the Ayreon sound will immediately take to The Source with it's melodic guitar lines, organic retro-sounding keyboards, and Jethro Tull-like folky sections. What makes The Source stand out however is the sheer wealth of vocal talent found within. Lucassen has assembled his best cast of singers yet, with Dream Theater's James LaBrie, Kamelot's Tommy Karevik, and Nightwish's Floor Jansen being just three of a twelve-strong cast. As with all of Lucassen's work, Ayreon and beyond, there is a lot to digest here which makes repeated listens a necessity. The melodies and concept are captivating however, and fans of progressive metal will revel in the musical riches that are found within The Source's many layers.

Almost in direct contrast to Ayreon's progressive bombast, The Dives' tight power pop is just as satisfying. This young American band impressed when I saw them open for Kiss back in May, and their debut four-track EP Everybody's Talkin' was purchased at the merchandise stand after their set. Despite only being short, this has been a regular on my iPod since with each of the four songs oozing class with the tight melodies and strong energy. Shades of Cheap Trick and The Beatles are found within, but all wrapped up in a distinct rock 'n' roll blanket that makes this such a joyous listen. The only complaint I have is that many of the best songs that the band played live are not featured here, but this certainly bodes well for the future and I look forward to what The Dives will do next.

British rock 'n' roll vagabonds The Quireboys' second wind is still blowing strong as the six-piece released their fifth album in as many years in September. This latest outing, dubbed White Trash Blues, is a covers album which sees the band tackling a collection of their favourite blues songs in their own brash and high-energy style. Blues has always been a big part of The Quireboys sound, so they sound at home sinking their teeth into some of the genre's best-known standards. Muddy Waters' Crosseyed Cat sounds fresh and urgent, Willie Dixon's much-covered (I'm Your) Hoochie Coochie Man has rarely sounded so powerful, and Taj Mahal's strutting Leaving Trunk is pulled into the modern day thanks to frontman Spike's Whisky-soaked vocal. The Quireboys are one of the best pure rock 'n' rolls bands going in 2017, and this album showcases another side to the band who's reputation has been enhanced greatly by releasing four excellent albums of original material since 2013.

October was a very busy period for new rock and metal releases, so it was inevitable that a few were going to fall through the cracks. Austria's Serenity were one of the victims of this hectic month, and their sixth album Lionheart has only recently been added to my collection. A concept about Richard the Lionheart's deeds is perfect fodder for a power metal act, as Serenity's love for all things historical once again drives their songwriting. Frontman Georg Neuhauser has the perfect voice for this type of epic storytelling, and his relatively new songwriting partnership with guitarist Chris Hermsdörfer has improved massively since the release of 2016's Codex Atlanticus. While Serenity will always be one of power metal's second division acts, and will probably never better their 2011 opus Death & Legacy, Lionheart is a strong entry into the band's catalogue and one that shows they continue to be a creative and impressive force.

Another victim of the October glut was Sons of Apollo, the new progressive metal supergroup formed by former Dream Theater members Mike Portnoy and Derek Sherinian. This was always going to be a technical album, and of course it was with all of the bombast and intelligence that often comes with progressive metal. The band's debut album, the nine-track Psychotic Symphony, is a heavy effort that allows Portnoy plenty of time to shine behind his drum kit, and allows guitarist Bumblefoot to demonstrate why he should be considered one of the generation's very best players. Frontman Jeff Scott Soto and bassist Billy Sheehan make up the rest of the band, and all five pull together to make an album that sounds familiar, but at the same time is not too derivative of anything any of them have done previously.

Those are five albums which I thought deserved a mention here, and I am glad that I have at least been able to highlight them in some way before 2017 ends. As mentioned I will also briefly discuss my favourite live release of the year, and this happens to be Delain's new double live album and DVD combo A Decade of Delain: Live at Paradiso. Filmed at Amsterdam's Paradiso venue in 2016 to celebrate the band's ten year anniversay, A Decade of Delain shows the Dutch six-piece symphonic metal band at their very best. Delain have always been a powerful presence in the live arena, and this first official live release showcases this with a good selection of songs from their five studio albums and a host of special guests that make appearances throughout the concert. Despite Delain being a tight and talented band, it is frontwoman Charlotte Wessels that truly steals the show throughout. She is one of the most likeable frontwoman ever and showcases her excellent voice and infectious charisma throughout the night. Delain's music has always been harder-hitting and more concise than many of their symphonic metal peers, and it is this that makes them such a captivating live band.

Well that does it for Part 1 of my round-up of 2017's new musical releases. My Albums of the Year list will come tomorrow, but until then there are a couple of other things I would like to discuss. 2016 saw the real start of many of our favourite rock and metal stars passing away. 2017 has, sadly, been much the same and I am sure this will carry on into the future. There were a couple of deaths that came as a shock however, the first of which was former Mostly Autumn guitarist Liam Davison who sadly passed away in November. I had seen Davison with Mostly Autumn many times over the years and, although he had not been a part of the band since 2014, has left a lasting legacy on one of my very favourite bands. His 2011 solo album A Treasure of Well-Set Jewels is a fitting representation of his skills as a songwriter, vocalist, and a guitarist; while his wealth of material with Mostly Autumn over the years shows him more restrained but always part of something greater. He will be sorely missed. The other death that came as a shock was that of Sanctuary and former Nevermore frontman Warrel Dane. By all accounts, Dane was a very troubled individual but his power vocals and idiosyncratic lyrical style was a big part of what made both Sanctuary and Nevermore such powerful and vital bands in the metal world. There is no-one else out there quite like Dane, and his passing leaves a big hole in the metal scene.

Moving on from those sad thoughts, I would briefly like to look forward into 2018 at some of the albums that we already know are coming out. January and February already look to be extremely busy months for new releases with Magnum, Orphaned Land, and Saxon (among others) all releasing albums during the first months of the year. The first new album of the year for me will be Leaves' Eyes Sign of the Dragonhead which drops on 12th January. Looking further on into the year we will be treated to a new album from British hard rock legends Whitesnake who will be releasing their first album of original material since 2011, provisionally titled Flesh & Blood, at some point during the first part of the year. Another legendary British rock band Uriah Heep will be entering the studio soon to record a new album for release during the back end of the year, as are the rejuvenated American progressive metal band Queensrÿche. 2018 will also see the release of the video of Marillion's stunning concert at the Royal Albert Hall this past October, which is another release I am gleefully anticipating. 2018 is already promising to be another excellent year for new music, and I am sure I will be finding myself listening to all sorts of goodies throughout the next twelve months. Check back here tomorrow for my Albums and Gigs of the Year lists, and have a great 2018!

Saturday, 23 December 2017

The Quireboys - Plymouth Review

It seems tradition now for The Quireboys to undertake an unplugged tour of the UK each year. For the past two years I have caught the stripped down four-piece version of the popular British rockers at a Working Men's Club in the Northamptonshire town of Rushden (one of which was a spur of the moment trip after a football match in Luton), both of which proved to be memorable nights. While The Quireboys truly excel in their all-out hard rock mode, which has brought them plenty of success all over the world since forming in the mid 1980s, their acoustic shows are still something special. Stripped down to the bare bones, the band's songs shine in their beautiful simplicity. This formal also allows the band to relax somewhat, with frontman Spike often taking the time to tell the crowd various stories from the road and joke around on stage with the other members of the band. Joining Spike in these unplugged jaunts are fellow classic-era Quireboys member Guy Griffin (guitar/vocals), and longtime members Paul Guerin (guitar/vocals) and Keith Weir (keyboards/vocals). The chemistry between these four musicians, who have been working together since the early 2000s now, is clear they clearly enjoy these more low-key shows as much as they enjoy the high-octane rock of their usual gigs. Luckily this time I did not have to travel far to see the band, as they opted to come down to the South West for a show at the underused Hub in Plymouth. This was The Quireboy's first trip to Plymouth for quite some time, and there was a good-sized crowd gathered in the venue for the entirety of the evening which helped to create a good atmosphere throughout.

Before The Quireboys took to the stage there was one support band however, and The Stretch Report has the task of warming up the crowd. It was strange having a set of electric hard rock supporting an acoustic headliner, but it would have worked well if The Stretch Report were actually any good. Sadly however, they were not. Despite a relatively promising start with a couple of generic but enjoyable enough three-chord rock songs, the set went downhill pretty quickly with derivative song after derivative song that showed little songwriting prowess and few interesting ideas. What made things worse was the fact that the band just were not very tight at all. The sound was often mushy, with some truly horrid guitar tones, which when combined with the sloppy playing just made for a fairly miserable set. Sloppy covers of Cheap Trick's Surrender and Slade's Mama Weer All Crazee Now could not save the set, and I was happy when the band walked off stage. There are so many better bands that could have filled this slot, including the excellent local act Departed, and The Stretch Report were definitely one of the weakest support acts I have seen for quite some time.

Luckily The Quireboys came on stage about 40 minutes later to wipe away all the memories of The Stretch Report. The show was delayed in starting for a while however as there seemed to be some problems with one of the monitors, but luckily this was sorted out and the band took to the stage at around 21:50. The band seemed fired up for the show from the start, and hit the ground running with three songs from their 1990 debut album A Bit of What You Fancy. There She Goes Again seems to be the band's go-to set opener for their acoustic shows,  and it gave the crowd an early chance to sing, taking over from Spike in the chorus to fill the room with voices. Misled and the quieter Roses & Rings followed, before another oldie Devil of a Man was pulled out of the vaults. This song is a regular in their unplugged sets, and it is always special to hear it live. Spike always sings the lyrics with real passion, and it is clearly a fan-favourite. The band moved forward in time next for a couple of numbers from the late 2000s including a stunning rendition of another fan-favourite Mona Lisa Smiled. The unplugged format of the show reduces the guitarists chances to solo, but Guerin took a short solo section during this one. In fact, he handled the vast majority of the lead playing with Griffin often content to sit back on his stool and strum the chords in his usual laid-back, cool way. Another new number Beautiful Curse followed, before Spike took a chance to plug their latest studio project - an album of their favourite blues songs called White Trash Blues. A couple of these songs were played during the night, in a stripped down acoustic form of course, with a powerful version of Slim Harpo's I'm a King Bee going down particularly well. Another staple of the band's unplugged sets is the old Spike solo number Have a Drink With Me, which always sees Spike, drink in hand, toasting the crowd and encouraging all drinks in the air. This always goes down well, and the heartfelt ballad is always a highlight of the night. Another blues track, Rufus Thomas' Walking the Dog, was another powerful wig out with plenty of excellent piano from Weir. Weir, who was really high in the mix throughout the night, played his heart out all night. His barroom style of piano playing has always been perfect for the band, but he really was on another level tonight with plenty of extended solo sections in many of the songs. There was still time for a couple more surprises late on, with a rare outing for the beautiful Late Nite Saturday Call wowing the crowd, before one of the band's biggest hits Hey You was wheeled out. This song would not normally be a surprise at a Quireboys show, but it is not one that is usually done acoustically. It worked well however, and made for a perfect end to the main set, along with the closing number 7 O'Clock which saw Spike armed with his trusty harmonica. There was still time for a couple more, despite it being well past 23:00 by thus time, but it would not be a Quireboys acoustic show without a version of I Don't Love You Anymore. The heartbreaking power ballad is always an excellent experience live, but the version in Plymouth was particularly potent, with Spike dragging out the ending for quite a while to allow the rest of the band to jam somewhat. There was time for one more after this, with Sweet Mary Ann allowing the crowd to have one final sing along before the band finally took their bows and left to plenty of cheers. The setlist was:

There She Goes Again
Roses & Rings
Devil of a Man
Mona Lisa Smiled
Beautiful Curse
I'm a King Bee [Slim Harpo cover]
Whippin' Boy
Have a Drink With Me [Spike solo material]
Walking the Dog [Rufus Thomas cover]
Late Nite Saturday Call
Hey You
7 O'Clock
I Don't Love You Anymore
Sweet Mary Ann

This was my final gig of the year, and it was a great way to sign 2017 out in style. Out of the three Quireboys acoustic shows that I have now witnessed, this was the best in my opinion. The venue and the atmosphere were better, and the band really seemed on top form (even more so than usual). With the promise of another full electric tour next year, and most probably another acoustic run, I am sure it will not be too long before my next Quireboys outing!

Thursday, 21 December 2017

Morbid Angel's 'Kingdoms Disdained' - Album Review

While I am a big fan of heavy metal, and have amassed a great deal of knowledge of the genre over the years, I will be the first to admit that my exposure to the extreme metal subgenres has been very limited. Despite liking lots of pretty heavy bands, a key factor in my enjoyment of any music is melody. Whether this comes from vocals, guitars, or keyboards is irrelevant, but soaring hooks and melodies are what draw me to certain bands and songs over others. That being said, over the years I have often tried - often in vain - to acquaint myself more with extreme metal. While I quite like the energy and atmosphere that black and death metal bands often conjure with their music, it is the often-lack of any true melodies or the extremely raw production that almost always ends up putting me off. When extreme metal acts become too polished with big production values, they often cease being true representations of the genre. Big productions often bring choirs or orchestras along with them, and the result it something more melodic than most of the purists can take. There have been a few 'truer' extreme metal acts over the years that I have managed to enjoy however. England's Carcass, despite being one of the founders of the 'melodic death metal' sound, are a true death metal act that just happen to utilise a lot more lead guitar passages than their peers; and Poland's Behemoth are a black metal band that are epic in scope and unforgiving with their music. These bands, plus a handful of others, have always excited me. My quest to add more extreme metal acts to my iPod brought me to America's Morbid Angel earlier this month, when I took a chance and picked up their new album Kingdoms Disdained after reading some good reviews of it online. Morbid Angel, formed back in 1983 by guitarist Trey Azagthoth, are true legends of the death metal world and are of course a band I have been familiar with for some time. The very positive reviews that I read, plus a couple of samples of the songs online, prompted me to pick this up and I am glad that I did as this is probably the first 'true' death metal album (excluding Carcass' more melodic offerings) that I have ever found myself enjoying. Kingdoms Disdained is the band's tenth studio album, and their first for six years following 2011's poorly-received Illud Divinum Insanus. I have no opinion on that album as I have never heard it, but by many accounts it seems to be one of the most-hated albums by any big-name death metal acts and that Kingdoms Disdained is a return to Morbid Angel's core sound and, as a result, form. Azagthoth is the only remaining original member left in Morbid Angel, and joining him on this album are vocalist and bassist Steve Tucker, who rejoined the band in 2015 once again replacing the outgoing David Vincent, and new drummer Scott Fuller (Abysmal Dawn; Annihilated). The former is performing on his first Morbid Angel since 2003's Heretic, and the latter is making his debut in the studio with the band. The production here, courtesy of Erik Rutan, is loud and full. The sound here is heavy and thick, without any of the tinny drums or buzzsaw guitars that make some extreme metal releases unlistenable to me.

The album's opening number, Piles of Little Arms, sets the tone for the entire album with a rolling blast beat-driven intro that is led by Azagthoth's abrasive guitar riff. While many portions of this song are fast, with Fuller's drumming really driving everything forward with much haste, there are moments that slow things down somewhat and introduce groovier elements. Tucker, performing on his first Morbid Angel album for quite some time, sounds excellent and really full of energy throughout. His deep growls are full of venom, and his performance on this song, atop the discordant riffing, really stands out. Guitar solos are not exactly forthcoming here, but the song ends with some wah-drenched guitar leads that lead nicely into D.E.A.D, the album's second song. D.E.A.D really takes things a step further with a progressive take on the standard death metal formula that mixes Behemoth-esque passages that use strident guitar chords and simpler drum beats, with twisted fast sections that really show off Fuller's skills as a drummer. His energy certainly adds to the overall feel of this album, and he should be commended on a strong performance throughout. There are lots of memorable riffs throughout this song and, while it is fairly short at just over three minutes in length, it stands out for it's originality and technicality. Garden of Disdain returns to the band's more typical formula with Fuller's fast footwork driving everything and a mid-paced verse that is packed full of venom with Tucker's bass guitar high in the mix to give the song depth. The bass is often lost in extreme metal albums, but thankfully that is often not the case here. Tucker's playing is often highlighted, which helps to really bulk out the songs and give the album a much heavier overall feel while still sounding well-produced. This is a song which never really reaches break-neck speed, but instead often relies on a more chugging feel despite some fast double bass drumming. The combination works well, and the song is a powerful one as a result. The Righteous Voice opens up with an unsettling guitar riff that always seems at odds with the more conventional drumming beneath it. This conflict works well however, and helps to create a unique atmosphere for the song. Azagthoth's use of pinch harmonics throughout also helps the song to stand out, and adds to the discordant nature of the piece. The verses are much more typical however, with Fuller's blast beats driving everything as Tucker bellows the lyrics. There's another strange guitar solo in this piece, and this one comes out of nowhere with some tortured leads that cut through the mix with an eerie feel. Architect and Iconoclast is one of my favourite pieces on the album, and this is partly down to the grooves that are packed into it. This is not a song that never really picks up the pace to a great extent, but instead makes use of the strong riffs and drum patterns to create interesting images that ooze out of the speakers. Fuller really shows off his skills again here with some excellent drumming displays that are packed full of inventive twists and turns. This is a track that shows that there is a lot in death metal that I can enjoy, and one that will ensure I continue to explore the genre. Paradigms Warped also opens fairly slowly, with some excellent guitar-led grooves that highlight the power of Azagthoth's playing. With many death metal acts utilising quite simple guitar lines, Azagthoth often goes beyond this to create much more involved soundscapes with his instrument. He has a progressive approach to songwriting, and that is showcased here with some choppy riffs and sections that allow Tucker's bass to take the lead for contrast.

The Pillars Crumbling is much more riff-driven, with an opening figure that contains some true classic rock strut before the drums come in properly to bring true death metal elements to the track. This is a song that is much less 'busy' than many of the other pieces here, with Azagthoth's guitar playing simpler riffs and leaving most of the more abrasive soundscapes behind. As a result the song stands out and actually becomes somewhat catchy in places, with the riffs really getting stuck in your brain. For No Master puts the speed back into the album, and is packed full of blast beats throughout. This is a real death metal anthem that showcases all of the hallmarks of the genre that Morbid Angel really helped to forge back in the 1980s. It really is a relentless piece of music. Many of the band's songs slow down in parts for some light and shade, this one really carries on the energy throughout and takes no prisoners with the lightning-fast riffing and drumming. Declaring New Law (Secret Hell) is another more groove-based piece with Tucker's bass taking on a prominent role throughout to add real depth and grit. It also features a guitar solo from Vadim, who has since joined the band as a second guitarist. The solo is his only contribution to the album, as Azagthoth handled the rest of the guitar work throughout the album, but he makes an impact with this twisted creation. As mentioned, the song is one of the albums slower offerings with a mechanical grinding sound throughout that is caused by Tucker's precise bass playing. Vadim's solo is the opposite of this, and comes out of nowhere with more melodic phrasing than would normally be expected on a death metal album. It sounds good, if a little out of place, and this helps to the song to stand out somewhat. From the Hand of Kings is more of the band's trademark death metal sound, but one that also showcases the band's progressive side a little too. The riffing throughout is excellent and mixes fast and slower sections with ease. Out of all of the songs on the album, this is one of the most powerful pieces as everything here is just really heavy. It is songs like this where Rutan's production job really shines, as it really boosts the sounds made from the rhythm section to give the song that big bottom end. All too often these instruments sound tinny on death metal albums, but that is not the case here as everything sounds tight and heavy. The album's closing number, The Fall of Idols, is another premium slab of death metal that again showcases all of the hallmarks of the genre. It is probably one of the least-interesting pieces here however, as it lacks the standout riffs or drumming of many of the preceding songs. This may be down to my own lack of knowledge of the genre, but for whatever reason this song just does not stand out as a much as the others. It still has a great driving energy however, which helps the album to end strongly despite the lack of standout features. Overall, Kingdoms Disdained is a really enjoyable album from Morbid Angel and one that has helped me further my quest to understand and appreciate extreme metal a lot more than I currently do. I shall certainly go back and explore some of the band's older works now.

The album was released on 1st December 2017 via Silver Lining Music. Below is the band's promotional soundclip for For No Master.

Tuesday, 19 December 2017

Extreme - Birmingham Review

There was obviously something in the American water during the late 1980s that meant that some rock bands started incorporating funk influences into their music. Two of the main exponents of that style of music, Extreme and the Dan Reed Network, teamed this month for a tour of the UK. While not exactly the calibre of band that they once more, Extreme still remain a popular draw in the UK. This, coupled with the fact that they tour over here relatively infrequently, means that their shows are always well-attended. Extreme's last UK trek was back in 2014, which was to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the band's most well-known album Pornograffitti. The tour was a big success, with the multi-platinum album being performed in full each night, and most of the tours sold out. Despite regular mentions and promises of a new album in the media, the band have not been forthcoming with releasing any new music. This has not deterred the band from returning however and, after a successful headline slot at this year's Ramblin' Man Fair, Extreme returned to these shores for another series of headline dates across the country. Without a new album, or any major anniversaries to celebrate, the format of the band's show this time around took the form of a more traditional greatest hits set with songs from all five of Extreme's studio albums featuring throughout the night. The venue of choice for me was the decent-sized O2 Academy in Birmingham. This venue has never been a particular favourite of mine, in fact I had not been to the venue since seeing Extreme there last time in 2014, due to the low stage and often unreliable sound. I sat up in the balcony last time, which improved the experience somewhat, but this time I opted to try the floor again. I found a decent spot near the back which actually afforded me a pretty decent view throughout, and to my surprise the sound was also pretty good. Both bands sounded clear and everything was nice and loud.

As mentioned previously, the Dan Reed Network were the evening's opening act. Dan Reed (vocals) and his band are quite well-known in their own right however, and received a strong reception from the crowd throughout their 45 minute set. I had only started listening to the band recently, and I have to say I was truly blown away by their show. From the opening grooves of the cinematic Cruise Together, to the closing dancey beats of Get To You, Reed held the crowd in the palm of his hand. Despite only being casually familiar with the band's four studio albums, I recognised each of the nine songs played and revelled in the layers and grooves packed into each song. Reed himself is an excellent frontman and singer, but Brion James (guitar/vocals) often stole his thunder with plenty of slinky riffs and powerful shredded solos that saw him come across like a more rock-orientated Nile Rodgers. All of the songs played were excellent, but personal highlights included the uptempo hard rock of Baby Now I and the more reflective and low-key Champion, from their 2016 come-back album Fight Another Day, that made great use of Rob Daiker's (keyboards/vocals) soundscapes. The real highlight of the set however was a potent version of Ritual, one of the band's best-known songs, that really saw the crowd come alive with plenty of dancing and singing. While I had been aware of the Dan Reed Network for some time, it is only over the past couple of months that I have really started to listen to their music in earnest. Having now seen the band perform this excellent set in Birmingham, I will make an effort to see them on their next headline UK tour as I have no doubts that their own show will be a special experience. After their set, the whole band went to one of the merch stands in the venue to sign autographs and take picture with fans. I managed to get my copy of Fight Another Day signed by the whole band which was a great addition to the evening. The setlist was:

Cruise Together
Under My Skin
Forgot to Make Her Mine
Baby Now I
Rainbow Child
Make It Easy
Get To You

Some band's would have struggled to follow Reed's energy and songcraft, but Extreme are no ordinary band and, once they hit the stage, wowed the capacity crowd with over two hours of bona fide hits, fan-favourites, and deep cuts from their back catalogue. Opening with three numbers from the much-loved Pornograffitti was a wise move, and this helped to set the mood early on. It ('s a Monster) was a high energy opener, before the groovy Li'l Jack Horny and the smash-hit Get the Funk Out really established that this was a rock 'n' roll party. The latter proved to be the first real sing-a-long of the night, conducted by energetic frontman Gary Cherone, and the atmosphere throughout was excellent. Cherone proved during the night why his often considered one of the best rock frontmen of all time, but it was often guitarist Nuno Bettencourt that stole the show with his jaw-dropping fretboard theatrics. He really is one of the best guitarists of all time, and seeing him strut his stuff up on the stage once more was something to behold. The first half of the show was packed full of fan favourites, with Rest in Peace and Kid Ego impressing early on, before an extended version of Play With Me, with a great drum solo from Kevin Figueiredo in the middle of it which also saw Bettencourt join in with his own small percussion set, brought the first part of the show to an end. A short acoustic-led section followed with a rare outing of Tragic Comic impressing before another big hit in the form of Hole Hearted prompted another big sing-a-long. After Bettencourt's acoustic guitar showcase Midnight Express, the second 'electric' portion of the show kicked off with the raw rock of Cupid's Dead before the band played a few lesser-known tracks. Newer numbers like Take Us Alive, from 2008's Saudades de Rock which actually went down surprisingly well with it's pseudo-country trappings, and older deeper cuts like Stop the World set the mood for this second portion and it was great to hear some songs which do not always make the cut. It was during the second portion however that some of the crowd seemed to get a little bored, which was a shame. It is always hard for bands to choose setlists that will keep the majority of fans happy, and it seemed the inclusion of some of these lesser-known songs caused the minds of some of the more casual fans to wander. They were soon brought back around however with a couple more tracks from Pornografitti to close out the main set. He-Man Woman Hater, with Bettencourt's impressive guitar intro, went down well, but as soon as the band hit Decadence Dance the place erupted and Cherone did not even bother to sing the first couple of lines of the song as the crowd did that for him. It it one of my favourite Extreme songs, and it was a powerful way to end a set that by this point was well over the 90 minute mark. After much baying from the crowd, the band came back out for a four-song encore. The acoustic mega-hit More Than Words was first up with the crowd often singing louder than Cherone once more, but it was the high-energy rock of Warheads that stood out for me during this section. It is another personal favourite, so it was great to finally hear it live. The relatively more relaxed Peacemaker Die and a rousing cover of Queen's We are the Champions ended the show in style, with the band rocking on high energy to the end and taking the crowd with them. The setlist was:

It ('s a Monster)
Li'l Jack Horny
Get the Funk Out
Rest in Peace
Hip Today
Kid Ego
Play With Me
Tragic Comic
Hole Hearted
Midnight Express
Cupid's Dead
Everything Under the Sun - Part II: Am I Ever Gonna Change
Take Us Alive
Stop the World
He-Man Woman Hater
Decadence Dance
More Than Words
Peacemaker Die
We are the Champions [Queen cover]

Overall this was a great evening of high-energy funky rock from two of the best exponents of the sound. Extreme are legends for a reason and their diverse set was excellent, but the Dan Reed Network more than held their own and provided the perfect opening act for the high-octane Extreme.

Monday, 18 December 2017

Fish - London Review

The last few years have found Scottish singer Fish in a nostalgic and reflective mood. After releasing one of his best ever solo efforts A Feast of Consequences in 2013 and touring heavily off the back of it, his last couple of tours have seen him take a look back into his Marillion past. While Marillion material has always featured in his setlists over the years, the last couple of tours have seen it dominate. 2015 saw Fish take Marillion's seminal 1985 release Misplaced Childhood on the road for the last time to celebrate the album's 30th anniversary, and this year sees him giving 1987's Clutching at Straws the same treatment. Both albums are huge milestones in Fish's long and successful career, and it seems fitting that he should give them both some more time in the spotlight again before he retires. His Farewell to Childhood tour was a huge success and it seems like this current run will also prove lucrative. So far he has only covered the UK with this show, but I would assume that 2018 will see Fish and his band venturing further afield. Speaking of Fish's band the line-up is the same as the majority of the Farewell to Childhood tour, with John Beck (keyboards/vocals) back in the band after his broken arm incident to join forced again with Robin Boult (guitar), Steve Vantsis (bass guitar/vocals) and Gavin Griffiths (drums). There is an addition to the band on this tour however, as vocalist Doris Brendel has been added to the line-up to provide backing vocals and occasional wind instruments when required. The addition of female backing vocals really added to the overall sound of the band, and Brendel's presence certainly helped Fish out with some of the more demanding vocal sections. That being said, Fish sounded very strong vocally throughout the show which was probably aided by him having a fairly quiet year on the music front. The show in question that I saw was at the lovely Islington Assembly Hall in London, which seems to be a real haven for mid-sized rock acts these days, and was the second of a three night residency. As expected, the show was sold out so there was a large crowd gathered in the venue throughout the night and the atmosphere was excellent.

The start of the show was tinged with disappointment however as the scheduled support act, the excellent French progressive rock band Lazuli who I was looking forward to seeing again, had to pull out of the rest of the tour due to illness. I had assumed that there would be no support band as a result, but this was not to be the case as singer/songwriter David Ford took to the stage at around 7:45pm. Being a single individual without a backing band I expected this to be your generic acoustic guitar-wielding act, but Ford was certainly a lot more than that. Throughout the set he turned his hand to guitars, keyboards, harmonica, and percussion which led to a diverse set. Many of his songs involved looping, which allowed him to give the impression of having more musicians on stage without the use of a backing track. Seeing this done well is always impressive, and it seems that Ford is a master of his craft. While the songs themselves were not always the sort of thing I would usually listen to, they were enjoyable and performed with plenty of passion. It was clear too that a Fish crowd was not the usual sort of people he would perform to, but by the end of the set he had seemed to win quite a few in the audience around and he received a healthy amount of applause as he left the stage at the end of his set.

By the time Fish took to the stage at 9pm the place was packed and he received a warm welcome as he walked out to the electronic beats of The Voyeur (I Like to Watch), a rarely-played number from his debut solo album Vigil in a Wilderness of Mirrors. The song is quite an upbeat number, which ensured the evening kicked off with a bang. Beck's keyboards really helped to drive the song, and Fish was clearly enjoying singing the song again after so long. As with the Return to Childhood shows, the evening opened up with four solo cuts before delving into the Marillion material. Another song that has not featured in the set for a few years, Emperor's Song, was a welcome addition with it's poppy atmospherics, before the industrial-tinged Circle Line helped to inject some attitude into the proceedings. Fish was uncharacteristically quiet during the early part of the set, and only stopped to talk to the crowd after the third number where he introduced the politically-charged ballad State of Mind, which saw Boult strap on an acoustic guitar as Fish spat out the lyrics. The rest of the main set was made up of the material found on the Clutching at Straws album, although it was not played in the original running order. At first I thought that this might hamper the experience somewhat, but I did not find that to be the case. Misplaced Childhood required it, as the songs all run into each other, but this is not the case with Clutching at Straws and Fish often stopped to talk about the songs and tell little stories about how they came to be. The opening trilogy of songs, with the personal favourite Warm Wet Circles occupying the middle spot, remains one of the greatest album openings of all time and it was great to hear Fish sing them once again. There were a few of the songs here that I had not heard him perform live before, including the bouncy Just for the Record, which featured more excellent keyboard work from Beck, and the gorgeous ballad Going Under with Boult's atmospheric guitar playing. Songs which feature in Fish's sets more regularly like Incommunicado and Slàinte Mhath still hit the spot however, with the latter in particular really getting the crowd going with plenty of clapping and singing. Sugar Mice is still one of Fish's best ballads, and the lyric is packed full of excellent imagery. It was also a bit of a guitar showcase for Boult who, despite being quite a different style of guitarist to Marillion's Steve Rothery, took his own take on the legendary guitar solo. With that little breather passed, the set ended with two of the album's heavier pieces. White Russian is lead by a great groove, which saw Vantsis really driving the song with his bass, and the lyrics are some of Fish's more potent. It is a heavy song thematically, and one that still rings relevant despite being thirty years old now. The album's closing number The Last Straw brought the main set to an end, and the band walked off to a huge round of applause. There was time for more however, and there was one more rabbit pulled out of the Marillion hat with a performance of the B-side Tux On, a song which had not been performed live prior to this tour. This led into the second half of the song Perfume River, one of the highlights of the excellent A Feast of Consequences album. After another quick walk off stage, the band came back once more for a devastatingly powerful version of The Great Unravelling, again from Fish's recent solo album. This turned into one of the evening's highlights for me, and really highlighted the skills of all six of those on stage and it was a fitting end to an excellent evening of live music. The setlist was:

The Voyeur (I Like to Watch)
Emperor's Song
Circle Line
State of Mind
Hotel Hobbies [Marillion material]
Warm Wet Circles [Marillion material]
That Time of the Night (The Short Straw) [Marillion material]
Just for the Record [Marillion material]
Incommunicado [Marillion material]
Torch Song [Marillion material]
Slàinte Mhath [Marillion material]
Going Under [Marillion material]
Sugar Mice [Marillion material]
White Russian [Marillion material]
The Last Straw [Marillion material]
Tux On [Marillion material]
Perfume River
The Great Unravelling

As Fish moves ever-closer to retirement, any opportunity to see the big man live has to be taken. This was another excellent concert from the Scottish singer, and one that showcased some of the best material, both past and present, that he has ever been a part of.