Blazefest V – Selene, Irontown Diehards, Donum Dei, Xerosun, Conjuring Fate, Screaming Eagles, Sinocence & Maverick.
Venue: Empire Music Hall, 21st March 2015
Reviewed by Melanie Brehaut & Al Gilmore
Photography by MetalplanetBelfast.com
Of all the rock and metal gigs in Northern Ireland, there is one that is very special in the hearts and minds of our metalheads: Blazefest. Now in its fifth year, Blazefest was set up by parents Darren and Dawn Shields-Pettitt to fundraise for the Royal Belfast Hospital for Sick Children on behalf of their son Blaze. Sadly, young Blaze is no stranger to the hospital, having been diagnosed with a myriad of medical problems before he was even born. Chief amongst those was hyronephrosis (a potentially life-threatening kidney condition) and other kidney complications, as well as an allergy to general anaesthetic. This brave little boy has been through more surgeries, infections and complications in his short life than most of us will in a lifetime – and yet he’s still here, fighting.
In 2011 Blazefest was conceived as a way for Blaze’s parents to ‘pay it forward’ to the hospital that had taken such good care of their son. They reached out to the rock and metal community and soon learned how generous and big-hearted those folk are, with bands immediately offering their services and thousands being raised every year. Blazefest 5 features eight acts (for £10!!) – Selene, Irontown Diehards, Donum Dei, Xerosun, Conjuring Fate, Screaming Eagles, Sinocence and headliners Maverick – all of ’em ready to put on a hell of a show.
So, with the room filling rapidly, Northern Ireland’s own (and possibly only) symphonic metal band Selene take to the stage, and with a blast on the snare drum launch into their set. Those of us who caught them at their first ever live show in the Limelight a few short weeks back waited with bated breath: had they (vocalist Shonagh Lyons in particular) worked on their stage presence and self assurance? Thankfully, they had: Lyon’s voice is beautifully crystal clear and she sings with clarity and confidence, gazing out to the crowd and even indulging in a bit of banter with the crowd – there’s even a touch of sass in there! Vocally, she is expressive and passionate as she smashes every note out of the park with substantially less nerves on show than last time. They romp through their set with that unique combination of beauty and brawn that the genre demands, with the malevolent ‘Blood’ and note-perfect set closer ‘Paradise Lost’ particular highlights, and leave the stage having thoroughly redeemed themselves with a set of sweet, symphonic metal perfection. Marvellous!
Relative ‘new kids on the block’ The Irontown Diehards are up next. Although the band only recently formed, the members are all veterans of the local music scene. This experience is apparent the instant they launch into their set of good time hard rock. All be-hatted and nattily dressed, they present a united front of class, energy and talent. Vocalist Phil Dixon is the consummate showman: charismatic, animated and in possession of a powerful voice, he strides the length and breadth of the stage, never letting up for a second. Indeed, the whole band give it their all, playing like they’re headlining Wembley. Their music is muscular yet fun, a cross between the Red Hot Chilli Peppers at their most funk rock, the hip-swivelling swagger of Aerosmith and the riffage of Alice In Chains (courtesy of the six-string mastery of Andrew Baxter). The result is catchy and ridiculously enjoyable, but also a bit quirky with it. And their harmonising will have you swooning…For such a ‘new’ band, the Diehards are remarkably self-assured and have clearly gelled extremely well together. Expect to see big things happening for them.
Then it was time for some metal, in the shape of whipper-snappers Donum Dei. Don’t let their baby faces fool you, however: they may be young but they mean business. Hugely enthusiastic and eager, they play proper old school metal reminiscent of classic Metallica, with liberal doses of NWOBHM thrown in. The result is rousing, rollicking heavy metal complete with thick, chunky grooves and beefy as fuck riffs. In between songs such as ‘Terror’, ‘Grave Lands’, and ‘Justice Fails’ (the latter complete with raucous crowd singalong) vocalist Thomas Marshall is witty and warm (indulging in some brilliantly silly banter), and clearly at home on a stage. His enthusiasm is contagious; everywhere you look there are smiling faces and nodding heads – even drummer Alastair beams broadly throughout their entire set! Final number ‘Courage From Within’ wraps things up with a crash and a wallop, and goes down a storm – as indeed does their entire set. Definitely a young band on the rise.
Musically, the band are modern metal, similar to of the likes of Machinehead, with a bit of industrial stomp added. It’s their vocal magician of a frontwoman that marks them out as something different, however. Reminiscent of Arkona’s Mascha, she often sounds like two or even three different singers within a single song. She is classy and powerful and has a commanding stage presence – even her headbanging, with her sheaf of blonde hair, is a thing of beauty.
A highlight of their set is ‘Heart In a Box’ – a ballad, Halas announces. Right…imagine an ode written by a bitter, scorned woman raging at the world, with an equally fierce metal band at her disposal, and you’ll get an idea of what this ‘ballad’ sounded like! Brilliantly crafted songs, a powerful modern metal band and THAT voice…another excellent choice by the organisers of Blazefest.
As Melanie passes the reviewing baton on to me, I can’t help but think that I have got the easier task, given that the four remaining acts are all now well established in the higher echelons of the local Rock/Metal music scene. But I have thoroughly enjoyed the 4 lesser known acts that have taken us through to this point, with the Irontown Diehards in particular being right up my street and (along with Gasoline Outlaws) are my local rock tips for 2015.
Next up is one of the safest pair of hands in local Heavy Rock music – N.W.O.B.H.M. merchants, Conjuring Fate. This is a band that never lets you down anyway, but tonight especially take advantage of the festival’s short ‘n’ snappy format to the max. They hit the stage running and pull no punches with ‘House on Haunted Hill’ first up played at 100mph. As with the previous acts, it takes the soundman one song to adjust from one band to the next (no criticism implied), so by the time they launch into ‘Land of the Damned’, we hearing the band at their very best. Singer, Tommy Daly is in fine form, with vocals that would strip paint and a cheeky bonhomie with the punters down the front, including an interesting use of a water bottle. Either side of Daly, guitarists Phil Horner and Karl Gibson swap solos, trade guitar ‘tricks’ and exude the kind of ‘making-it-look-easy’ stage craft usually reserved for veteran bands well into a multi-date tour. Inflatable guitars are flung into the crowd so they can play along. Highlight of a fantastic set is a tough competition but the classic Metal of ‘Mirror’ just about wins it from the set closer ‘Backwoods Witch’. They leave the stage to a mass ovation, proving the wisdom of positioning them as the band to really kick off the evening half of the festival and take it to the next level.
It’s been pretty much on the heavier side of things up to this point, so the Classic Rock sounds of Screaming Eagles come as a bit of light relief (to my wimpy ears especially), but Adrian McAleenan’s Les Paul still provides the riff-loving audience with plenty to chew on. In the middle of recording their second album, you could be forgiven for thinking the ‘Screagles’ would be taking it easy, keeping their powder dry for the studio. But nothing could be further from the truth, in fact it feels like the 4 lads were relishing the break from the confines of the studio. It’s a testament to the quality of the band’s debut album, ‘From The Flames’, that they could make up a song set with any 7 songs from that album and we’d all be well entertained. But what we get is a barrage of heavy rock riffage in the form of ‘Down the River’and ‘Take My Time’, the slightly more L.A. Sunset Strip Rock of ‘Hungry For More’, the riff-tastic ‘Fight The Fire’.
The bluesy, atmospheric ‘Vampire’ is next and features a fairly successful attempt by Chris Fry to get the crowd flexing its own voice in a singalong. The now customary ‘DC homage of ‘Blood’ (including a brief snippet of AC/DC’s ‘It’s A Long way To The Top’) brings a massive cheer from the audience before a thoroughly enjoyable set concludes with ‘Rock n Roll Soul’. Right lads, get back in that studio and finish that long-anticipated second album.
It’s back to the heavier, darker side of Rock now with Sinocence who have just finished recording the second of the trilogy of E.P.s under the monicker of ‘No Gods. No Masters’. The moody intro music that heralds their arrival heightens the sense of anticipation among the crowd. Like Conjuring Fate before them, Sinocence get the big guns out right from the start as the monster riff that heralds its signature anthem ‘Long Way Down’ cranks out from the guitars of Anto & Moro. The crowd are only too happy to belt out the chorus. Sinocence are a band that is hard to pigeonhole because the word ‘thrash’ may wrongly infer a brainless quality to what they do and nothing could be further from the truth. Sinocence are very much a thinking man’s band. You don’t get song titles such as ‘Occam’s Razor’, ‘In Kymatica’ and ‘Ascension Code’ from a band whose only wish is for its audience to lose brain cells.
This was, I admit to my shame, my first time seeing the band in the flesh and I am mightily impressed. They harness the anger they feel about modern life and all its inequalities using Slayer-esque riffing, but be it through the usage of the full range of guitar effects or through Moro’s vocals which steer clear of the harsher style of Thrash vocals (i.e. no growls), the message combines with the music instead of being lost among the noise. I can’t wait to get caught up on their recorded work or to see them live again at the Diamond Rock Club on May 9th because (with Irontown Diehards in support). But tonight, with the inevitable overrun that occurs at every festival, Sinocence have given me a mere taste of what they have to offer and I am hungry for more. Sandwiched in among their own strong material is a special treat, when Screaming Eagles front man, Chris Fry, joins the band for a rip-roaring version of Pearl Jam’s ‘Even Flow’ . Did I enjoy it? Well, ‘Even Flow’ is my ringtone. So that’s that question answered.
And so, here we are. Somehow 7 bands have come and gone in a flash, each one setting the bar very high indeed for the following band. Headliners Maverick have a lot to live up to. But this is a band that seems to relish a challenge; a band that seems to challenge itself constantly to improve. And improve they have, certainly over the 4 or 5 times now I have seen the band play. They think big. They have watched all the videos from their heroes from the heady days of Heavy Rock in the mid-to-late 80’s and this has instructed their development into what they are now. From the (slightly overblown) intro, through the band’s onstage antics (the shape throwing, the pointing, the position swapping, the bass-player going walkabout in the crowd) to the songs themselves ‘Snakeskin Sinner’, ‘Paint By Numbers’, ‘Rock n Roll Lady’, ‘Electric’ etc Maverick are the walking, talking, Rocking embodiment of 1980’s Rock/Metal. And you’re either into that or you’re not. It’s as simple as that. I gorged myself on this music back then (gorged and then sickened myself on it if I am honest). But, this does not stop me from enjoying what Maverick are and especially how they do it. It is impossible not to like these 5 hardworking lads and it’d be very churlish for anyone to begrudge them the success they are enjoying. (Since Blazefest, the lads have announced that they are heading out on a European tour in support of The Poodles).
Maverick certainly know how to entertain and prove a fitting headliner to what has been a remarkable afternoon and evening’s listening. They close the show with a mightily popular version of Bon Jovi’s ‘You Give Love A Bad Name’, the call-to-arms of ‘In Our Blood’ with its chant-along chorus, the self-explanatory ‘We Are Maverick’ and finally, the always fun ‘Top Heavy’ and the Empire has been thoroughly entertained for another year. Another year and another hefty donation to the R.V.H. of over £3000! Well done to Darren & Dawn and to all the various organisers and participants who all gave their time voluntarily.
You give Rock/Metal a good name! See you next year!