Blazefest: Stormzone, with Worldsend, Sandstone, Baleful Creed, Altus, Rebels By Nature, Donum Dei & Lipstik Lizards
Empire Music Hall, Belfast – Saturday 8th March, 2014
For the uninitiated, Blazefest is a charity festival now in its fourth year. It is the brainchild of Darren and Dawn Shields-Pettitt, whose young son, Blaze, has spent much of his short life in and out of the Royal Belfast Hospital For Sick Children and who were so moved by the dedication of the staff there, that they felt compelled to find a way to give something back. Given their (and Blaze’s) love for all things Heavy Rock, the charity venture was almost inevitably going to be Heavy Rock-themed, and so Blazefest was born. Being such supporters of the local Rock scene (regulars at all the local Rock hotspots), the pair have no trouble at all attracting some of the biggest names in local Rock music to play Blazefest and this year was no exception, despite European Metallers, Crossholder, pulling out a few weeks previously and then, on the eve of the gig, local up-n-comers Maverick also pulling out due to illness to their lead singer, David Balfour. Replacements were queuing up to play and the full 8 band line up was complete by the time the whole event kicked off to a sparse but lively late afternoon crowd.
Festivals should always have a mix of styles and also of experience/maturity from the new to the established. Blazefest managed to have both. With the incredibly experienced at the climax of the evening with Stormzone, Worldsend and Sandstone, we got a taste youth and exhuberence at the front end of the day’s proceedings. None more so than opening act Lipstik Lizards. They’re an eclectic looking bunch with a lead guitarist straight out of the Classic Rock guide of ‘how a Rock guitarist should look’ (and the boy could play ‘n all), a rhythm guitarist who looked like Josh Homme (QOTSA) and a lanky, slick-quiffed lead singer/bass player (Matthew Duly) who looked a perfect frontman for a Franz Ferdinand style Brit-Rock band. But no matter how they looked, what is important is how they sounded. And they sounded quite good, especially it being their first gig and Duly not really being a bass player but filling in (he certainly knew the shapes to throw). They seemed to favour a fairly basic Sleaze Rock style with their lead guitarist admitting ‘all our songs are about women’. No song, it has to be said, really stood out although ‘Please Me, Tease Me’ has a certain basic immediacy. That is something the band can work on, but this was a good start.
Thrash Metallers Donum Dei were next up. Again, they are a very young band, but a band that you can tell straight away has some miles on the clock, moreso than Lipstik Lizards. Like The Lizards (sic) their look does not match their style (not a criticism) which catches you out when you hear their Metallica-influence Classic Thrash full of aggression, menace and no little amount of gruff. Being a Gooner I found it mildly unsettling that their frontman, Thomas Marshall, looks like Jack Wilshere, so it amazed me this young man could bounce around stage what with a broken foot and all, until I realised it wasn’t actually the Arsenal/England midfielder at all. Thrash and all its sub-genres are not my area of expertise, but I can recognise the high musical content, lots of time changes and changes of riff style and when Domus Dei broke into their groove riffing they had many a head bobbing. The thing I liked the most about them was their enthusiasm, and despite the aggressive, slightly cynical/doomy nature of their song content, they actually looked very happy to be onstage. I was also told afterwards that the band basically locked themselves in their dressing room with Stormzone to pick their brains, get advice etc. Other bands would have just gone out and got bladdered to celebrate their lucky break at their late invite to the ball as it were, but these young lads clearly have their heads screwed on and know how to make an impression. It augers well for the future.
Rebels By Nature come on stage like a force of nature. Apparently, they haven’t played for 2 years and it seemed to me there was 2 years-worth of pent up energy and frustration in their performance as they battered the audience with song after song of no-frills Grungy/Garage-y/Southern Rock. Their singer, Phill, is manic, almost to the point of an asthma attack it seems, as he struggles to catch his breath between songs. The lead guitarist thinks he is flexing his muscles on Venice Beach as he foregoes his T-Shirt. The rhythm section is steady if unremarkable save for the fact that there is a rose between the thorny men in the shape of bass player Hayley Guisely. She can certainly tough it out with the best of them and showed her mettle halfway through the set when Phill, daydreaming of being Daltry at the I.O.W. Festival perhaps, ‘windmills’ the microphone straight into her face, causing her to bleed and play the rest of the set with her back to the audience. It was a memorable performance in terms of fun and spectacle.
Altus, I am told, have been a band in flux, having recently changed vocalists and headed in a newer, heavier direction. It is a direction that takes them completely out of my sphere of what I feel able to critique. They play a dirge-like, doom-laden, brand of Metal that I can appreciate musically but, once the vocals start, I am at a loss. New guy Matt Cordner is a ferocious looking man, all muscles and ‘sleeve’ tattoos and his vocals are equally a match for his image – gruff growling for the most part and being a singer and lyricist at heart, I have to confess this kind of vocals just leaves me at a loss to comment. This is a style of music that has its own rules, its own very dedicated (and successful) underground movement and, if the cheers, increased crowd numbers and amount of Altus T-Shirts are anything to go by, Altus are a band who know what they are doing and are doing it well. They were also donating all proceeds from sales of their E.P. on the day to the Blaze Appeal, so well done them.
Co. Down Heavy Rockers, Baleful Creed, are next and are a band I am familiar with, having seen them live before and being a proud owner of their eponymous debut album. The thing I love most about Baleful Creed is their sound. The tone guitarists Allen and Finlay extract from their instruments is so fat and full it just gives them such a great sonic platform to work from, as shown by songs such as ‘Illuminati’ and ‘Thorazine’ which are full of Sabbath-like menace. Song of their set (and their album) is ‘Autumn Leaves’; a song that could be straight off an early 90’s Grunge album (and that’s praise from me). Not a band given to histrionics or onstage antics, they let their music do the talking. Their album is really a amalgam of previous E.P. releases and as such shows a band in progression, but now I feel they are confident in their sound and who/what they are, and I am really looking forward to future material from this band. The crowd has now begun to really swell, with the ‘after teatime’ brigade beginning to filter in and, while Baleful Creed are not a band that will get you off your seat with adrenalin (See Stormzone/Sandstone for that), the reception for their set is (rightly) warm and fulsome.
I have to confess that Sandstone are a band that has somehow gone under my radar. A local band (from Derry), they play on the European mainland more than their homeland, indicative of a style of music (Technical Power Progressive Metal) that is still admired on the continent, especially Germanic, Scandinavian and Slavic nations, more than it is in the land of its origin. But, it is clear the band do have a following with Derry accents most audible in the front rows and a healthy number of Sandstone T-Shirts on view as the band prepares to come on. What I then witness and listen to is a masterclass in Power Metal, a band that is so slick, so technically proficient that it is almost mind-boggling. The twin guitars of Stevie McLaughlin and Dee Kivlehan are absolutely shredding, the (new) rhythm section of Tom Alford and Eamon McNaught are so tight you would never believe this was their first gig together, and then there is Sean McBay’s high pitched, yet melodic, voice atop it all. The ensemble remind me of bands like Crimson Angel and Annihilator. It is very evident the band have serious road miles on their clock, their onstage presence is confident and together, with McBay being every inch the cocky frontman, his movements only hampered by a stage smaller that what he is probably now used to. It’s always difficult to really appreciate songs when you are only hearing a band for the first time and don’t know their material, so I can’t single out any song in particular that stood out for me, it was more the overall effect of literally ‘W.T.F. was that I just heard?’ I simply must check them out further and amend my ignorance of a truly talented local band.
Worldsend have the unenviable task of following that Sandstone set and being before the headline act, Stormzone. A band that is majorly talented and original (I dare you to classify them) their only downfall is a lack of momentum. A case in point, their last gig was December 2012, the end to a very successful UK Tour supporting Little Angels, and somehow they were unable to follow up on that and keep their momentum going. So, if there is a touch of rust on the cogs, then they can be forgiven, but a couple of songs in we get ‘Without A Trace’ and indeed the rust is gone without a trace. Eddie Currie, is a man who is clearly getting rid of 18 months of pent up frustration as he wheels like a dervish about the stage. You have to admire someone who commits to his role as the frontman so completely. The rest of the band is tight, with Paul Boyd’s clever bass playing filling in the sound behind J McCloskey’s technical guitar playing and filling in the backing vocals duties superbly as well. Boyd is a supremely talented individual. Mention must also go to new drummer, Andy McCullough, who did a fantastic job. Highlight of the set is the wonderful ‘Inconspicuous Others’, a song that reminds me a touch of A Perfect Circle and which I can’t wait to hear properly recorded. So, Worldsend lads, my message is simple – ‘stop yer slacking and keep ‘er lit!’
Readers will know how highly I rate Stormzone. Their latest album, ‘Three King’s’ is an amazingly strong album, the gig I reviewed at the Diamond Rock Club in December was an absolute triumph, and all that really remains is for them to get the reward their talent and perseverance deserves. I was expecting a fitting end to this day of quality music as were the crowd, who were now thronging against the stage in anticipation of their heroes. And heroes they have now become. No longer are they just another local band, doing the rounds of the local venues in regular cycles. No longer are they prophets not accepted in their own country. This is a band that is at long last starting to get national and international recognition and their home town fans, many of them in bands themselves, now look up to Stormzone as the torch bearers for local Heavy Rock across the world. There is no petty, small-town envy, there is only admiration.
Stormzone have just returned from a very successful UK Tour supporting Heavy Metal legends Saxon, and it shows from their demeanor onstage, the well-oiled, machine-like precision with which they deliver their heady brand of Heavy Metal, that this is a band who are in their moment. It is etched in the smiles of joy of their faces as they perform together. This is, as their opening tune says, ‘Where We Belong’. As they blast through a barnstorming set of their quality back-catalogue it is very, very difficult to pick out a favourite song. ‘Fear Hotel’s chugging menace and fun catchphrase of ‘the exit’s to the right’ is superb. ‘Spectre’, complete with unbelievable tonsil gymnastics from Harv, is brutal and magnificent all at the same time. A special place on the night must go to the band’s ‘ballad,’ ‘Beware In Time’ – a song that is young Blaze’s favourite and the band played especially for him earlier on at the soundcheck (before he was sent home to bed away from the madness). It is performed with such polish and skill, that even those I spot in the crowd who you would not expect to be fans of this type of music, stare in open-mouthed admiration at such talent. All too soon, Harv is announcing the band’s now-traditional show-closer, ‘The Legend Carries On’, stating that this ranks as one of his all-time favourite shows.
This has been my first Blazefest, and it won’t be the last. Mention must go to the sound guys and stage crew who got a fantastic sound for all the bands and who turned them around in next to no time. The organisers hadn’t officially disclosed a final figure at the time of writing, but I am told the event raised several thousand pounds. It is great to see fans of a genre that gets such negative publicity, coming together and showing that Heavy Rock music of whatever sub-genre is a force for good and source of joy. All this for a tenner!! It also proves, as if proof were needed, that Northern Ireland has more top-quality Heavy Rock bands per head of population than anywhere on earth!
Go to the Blaze’s Appeal Facebook page to check out this worthy fundraising drive.