Friday, February 28, 2014

Soundwave Festival, this time with moar pictures

So, in my last blog I promised some pictures from Soundwave.  And here they are!  Of slightly variable quality because I took them on my phone.

First up (not from Soundwave), a few from Clutch's great show at the Metro...

Neil Fallon launches into Earth Rocker... BWAAAAAAA

DC Sound Attack... MOAR COWBELL!

Pretty sure this was during The Regulator

Not sure what track this was from.

The Wolfman Kindly Requests... 

And now moving on to Soundwave proper...

Alter Bridge shredding...

The one and only Mr Mark Tremonti.  Absolutely gives it everything on stage.  And he was wearing a Death Angel shirt too!

Tremonti and Myles Kennedy shredding.

On to Testament...


Riff lord Eric Peterson...

Messrs Skolnick, Billy and DiGiorgio...

And again...

Filter's Richard Patrick...

Clutch, once again.  JP Gaster, Neil Fallon and Dan Maines bringing it... (sorry Tim Sult, didn't quite get you in the shot!)

Neil doing his 'possessed preacher' act...

And some from AIC... quality on these not great because it was late afternoon and the sun was on an unhelpful angle...

Jerry Cantrell and Sean Kinney...

William duVall, Cantrell and Kinney...

The mighty Down... Phil Anselmo acting out, the highly under-rated Pepper Keenan stage right, Bobby Landgraf and Pat Bruders stage left...

And finally... Mastodon, with pretty green lights!

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Soundwave Festival Sydney, 24 Feb 2014

After missing last year's Soundwave, it was good to be back in action this year.  With a typically huge line-up including several personal bucket list bands (Testament, Down) and the mighty Clutch, it promised to be another great year for a festival that seems to just bring it year after year - even if a couple of bands I was keen to see (Sevendust and Megadeth) ended up pulling out.  I did end up seeing Megadeth in Auckland at Westfest though - more on that in another post.  And I might add photos to this one at some point too (currently on my phone).

First thoughts were that the venue set up was more or less perfect this year.  I've been to a lot of festivals, at a number of different venues, and hands down this was the most well organised and laid out festival I've been to.  To begin with, there were no queues at the entry gate, fast and easy to get through, and you could get your wristband (to buy alcohol) on the way through as well.

The 'no queues' theme basically applied to everything throughout the day, at least the areas we where, aside from a short wait at the merch tent (first world problems!).  Toilets, bars, food and water fountains were all in plentiful supply and readily accessible, and there were plenty of shaded areas to get out of the sun for a bit too.  It's a far cry from the early days back at Eastern Creek but this reflects the extent to which AJ Maddah and his team have basically done their utmost to improve it year after year.  As far as I'm concerned, Soundwave this year in Sydney has basically set the benchmark that all festivals should aspire to in terms of set up.

Anyway, festivals are ultimately all about the bands and this year's Soundwave was no exception.

Amon Amarth (Metal Stage, 11-11:40am)
I'm not a fan of this band of Viking metallers, but I was intrigued to see the massive fire-breathing Viking ship they'd brought along.  It was pretty damn cool.  Credit to these guys for bringing it even at the very early hour of 11am, with an energetic set.  Musically they had some great sounds but I've never quite gotten into the death metal / growling vocal style of a lot of metal bands (except in small doses).

Alter Bridge (Main Stage, 12:30-1:15pm)
In my opinion, Alter Bridge are one of the most under-rated modern hard rock bands on the planet.  I caught them at Soundwave a couple of years ago and then at a sideshow at the Enmore Theater, and they just seem to keep getting better.  Their set spanned all 4 albums thus far, and included some very ballsy decisions - like including both of their two most epic tracks (Blackbird and Cry of Achilles).  But these guys have the songs and the ability to pull those sort of things off, and listening to Myles Kennedy and Mark Tremonti trade guitar solos is a clear reminder of just how talented this band is (also - Tremonti is just an awesome guitarist to watch, he absolutely puts everything into it.  Oh and he was wearing a Death Angel shirt too, inspired choice).  Anyway, Cry of Achilles was probably the highlight - and it's impressive when the crowd already knows the chorus of songs off the new album that aren't even the singles!

My only gripe was that I'd really have liked to hear more of them, but hey it is a festival set and they're certainly not the only band that fell into that category.

Testament (Metal Stage, 1:40-2:20pm)
With the way the sidewave cards fell (I saw Clutch in Sydney on Thursday night and will get to catch Down in Auckland in a couple of weeks), Testament were basically my number one priority on the day.  And wow did these guys ever bring it.  Chuck Billy sounds absolutely massive live - even better than on record and the sheer ability of players like Alex Skolnick, Eric Peterson, Steve DiGiorgio and the Atomic Clock Gene Hoglan just oozes out of every note.  There were only seven songs in their set but it was a little like Sevendust's set at a similar time in 2011 in the sense that they dominated every single second of their set and closed with an absolutely frenetic rendition of The Formation of Damnation.  And of course there were going to be some tracks I was disappointed to miss (in particular True American Hate and Disciples of the Watch) but I was stoked to hear them shred Three Days in Darkness - not always mentioned on lists of Testament's greatest tracks but it deserves to be. Overall, they demonstrated why they are such legends of the thrash metal genre.  Testament were absolutely everything I hoped they'd be, and I sure hope they get down this way again and do a full show in Auckland this time.

The setlist included:
Rise Up
The Preacher
The New Order
Into the Pit
Three Days in Darkness
Native Blood
The Formation of Damnation

After that it was time for lunch and a bit of a breather, before heading inside to Stage 5 (again, inspired decision to have a mix of indoor and outdoor stages).

Filter (Stage 5A, 3:40-4:20pm)
I have great memories of catching Filter at the Powerstation back in 2000, and seeing singer/songwriter Richard Patrick spend roughly equal amounts of time singing from the stage and atop the crowd.  I've followed them pretty steadily since then, and they've steadily produced a lot of good tracks that have mostly been overlooked for not being as radio-friendly as early staples like Hey Man Nice Shot and Take A Picture.

They made a big call in opening with (Can't You) Trip Like I Do, originally a Crystal Method dance track that was re-done as a collaboration with Filter on the Spawn soundtrack.  But it was a good decision because it's still got some of the best vocals of any Filter track and there's nothing like hearing Richard Patrick really belt out that chorus (his scream is still one of my favourites in hard rock).  It was also great to hear Jurassitol, a big personal favourite even if it is a little more obscure.

Predictably, they included both singles off the new album, and got a big singalong on Take A Picture. Solid performances but I would've liked to hear them take a bit of a risk and throw in something like Under or Welcome to the Fold.

Clutch (Stage 5B, 4:20-5:00pm)
Having seen them put in a great performance at the Metro only a few nights earlier, a short festival set was always going to be slightly anticlimactic but I'm pretty sure Clutch couldn't put on a bad show if their lives depended on it.  Singer Neil Fallon comes across like a man possessed on stage, madness in his eyes as he fires off great lyric after great lyric.  The set leaned heavily on their most recent album, Earth Rocker, which suited a short festival set because it is faster and heavier than some of their back catalogue.

And yes, they are still the greatest band in the world.

Alice in Chains (Main Stage, 5pm-6pm)
Probably the second-biggest drawcard for me on the day.  I was lucky enough to see them from the second row at my first Soundwave back in 2009, when they'd just reformed with new singer/guitarist William DuVall.  That was a great show, and so was this, even if we did miss the start after rushing down from Clutch.

Having heard them play a classic set back in 2009 I was looking forward to hearing some of the great material off their two newer albums, and they included a punishing version of Stone as well as Hollow and also Check My Brain (which we missed the start of).  Other highlights included a typically sludgy Man in the Box, an unexpected melancholic moment in Nutshell which DuVall delivered incredibly well, and closing with the legendary Rooster.

Down (Stage 4, 5:40-6:40pm)
Fortunately for us, Stage 4 was running a little late so we only missed 1 song at the start of Down's set after catching AIC.  It's almost worth seeing them just to see Phil Anselmo's banter between songs - undoubtedly one of the great characters of the metal scene.

Down have some great riffs on their albums but they're even better delivered live by a bunch of guys who swagger around the stage with a confidence that says "we're gonna kick your ass and there's nothing you can do about it".  It's the sort of confidence that can only come when you're comprised of essentially a supergroup of veterans from various hard rock and metal bands.  Ghosts Along the Mississippi, Lysergik Funeral Procession, and Losing All were all delivered with the crushing strength of a sledgehammer.

Critically, they're just messy enough live to be really memorable too. Not so messy as to undermine the songs, but just messy enough to remind you that you are seeing a live band with genuine chemistry - and that this particular band is even better live than on record.

For closing track Bury Me in Smoke they bought out a bunch of guys from other bands too - not all of whom I recognised, but again it had the real sense of this being a genuine, unique performance and not just a by-the-numbers festival set.

Definitely looking forward to catching a full set from them at The Powerstation in a couple of weeks time.

Rob Zombie (Stage 3, 7:15pm-8:15pm)
Between Westfest and this performance, Rob Zombie showed just how much his live showing has improved since he was last at Soundwave.  He dances around the stage like a maniac, and both guitarist John 5 and bassist Piggy D are highly animated too.

Mastodon (Stage 4, 9pm-10pm)
We were definitely slowing down by this point after a huge day, and as much as I like Mastodon, I'm not totally sure they were the ideal band to close the metal stage.  It felt like it needed something a bit messy, something with big hooks and big energy, like Machine Head's incredible set a couple of years ago - or Down perhaps.  Mastodon's stuff is pretty technically challenging, which kinda demands it is performed with a degree of precision that doesn't necessarily align with where the crowd's collective heads are at after a long day of metal (and in many cases drinking).  By this stage our feet were getting pretty tired so despite the fact that Mastodon were ripping into their set with a lot of enthusiasm, we made the decision to call it a day - bearing in mind we'd been there right from the first band at 11am, some 10 hours earlier, and that we'd seen Mastodon play a similar set on the back of the same album only a couple of years earlier as well.

This turned out to be a stupid decision, because they closed with Blood and Thunder and brought Neil Fallon from Clutch out to join them (he performed on the original studio version).  Which I guess just shows you can't win them all, and even if you're completely knackered, sometimes it's worth staying right until the bitter end.

Overall, it was an exceptional day, with a phenomenal line-up.  For the most part we were pretty lucky with clashes - although this was helped by the fact that neither me nor my mate were particularly keen to see the headliners (Avenged Sevenfold and Green Day) which probably would've given us some serious headaches.  We were lucky to see a ton of great bands put on great shows, with none of the big drawcards putting a foot wrong.  I've been to some great Soundwaves but this one was right up there with 2012 for having a day literally full of awesomeness, from beginning to end.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

6 weeks of awesomeness

Sometimes, in New Zealand, it seems we go months on end without any decent gigs.  That's somewhat understandable, I guess - we've got a small population, and two of the three main centres don't really have a decent large-sized concert venue.  Bands really have to want to come here.

Historically we used to get a lot of shows off the back of Australian tours, but even some of those have started to dry up a bit lately - maybe it's the strength of the NZ dollar, or maybe it's because for many large bands (e.g. Muse), the only place with a world-class venue is Auckland and one stop just doesn't make economic sense.  Of course, when bands do make it down here, the shows tend to go off because the audience is generally well and truly up for it - we're not spoilt like certain Northern hemisphere cities which get great gigs on a weekly basis.

Big Day Out was the first concert I'd been to since Tool in May last year - at 8 months, that's a fairly decent drought even by the usual NZ standards.  However, looking at the line-up for the next six weeks, it would fair to say the drought is emphatically over.  It's quite possibly the best line-up of gigs in a short period of time that I've ever had.  Admittedly not all of them are in New Zealand, but hey, a line-up like this something to seriously get excited about.  Here's the agenda...

Wednesday 19 February: Westfest, Vector Arena, Auckland (Rob Zombie, Megadeth, Five Finger Death Punch, Eagles of Death Metal)

So, some random guy basically did what most NZ rock and metal fans had been hoping someone would do for ages and set up a mini-Soundwave Festival, bringing over a selection of bands from the SW lineup before the first leg of the festival in Brisbane and Sydney.  I'm not so fussed about the second night, but the first night has some big draw cards.

It's also a great opportunity to mitigate the inevitable clashes that will happen at Soundwave itself - you don't feel so disappointed missing a band when you've seen them a few days beforehand.

Rob Zombie was great when he last appeared at Soundwave back in 2011.  Despite some technical hitches he put on a great early evening set - the Zombie blend of great riffs and big choruses makes for a great live experience.  On the back of last year's Venomous Rat Regeneration Vendor (allegedly a concept album that actually makes no sense to anyone except Rob Zombie himself), he looks to have hit some great form too - and is probably the closest thing we've got to a modern day Alice Cooper.  Hell, as long as he plays More Human Than Human, I'll walk away happy.

Although I'm a big fan of Megadeth, I'm a little iffy about how they'll go live.  They were great when I saw them on the Endgame tour back in 2007, but since then their studio output has been pretty mixed, and they've resorted to tuning everything down half a step live to match Dave Mustaine's increasingly croaky vocals.  Their recent set lists are pretty solid though, and the current iteration of Megadeth - Mustaine, Dave Ellefson, Chris Broderick and Shawn Drover is probably the most musically talented they've ever had (which is certainly something for a band that counts Marty Friedman, Nick Mensa and Chris Poland amongst its alumni).

Then there's also Five Finger Death Punch - I'm still not totally convinced but a mate is a huge fan - and Eagles of Death Metal.

Thursday 20 February: Clutch, The Metro Theatre, Sydney

The greatest band in the world, touring on the back of one of their best albums yet.  Although they're also at Soundwave a few days later, I couldn't pass up the opportunity to see Clutch live again.  Given tight scheduling, there was no opportunity for a repeat of their blistering 2011 Kings Arms gig, and given we were going to Sydney for Soundwave anyways, going a couple of days early to catch Maryland's finest was a no-brainer.

Although I'm looking forward to hearing some of the great tracks off Earth Rocker - especially DC Sound Attack, The Wolfman Kindly Requests... and Crucial Velocity, I'm also hoping they chuck in a few real old-school classics like A Shogun Named Marcus, The Elephant Riders and Texan Book of the Dead.  Which, based on recent set lists, looks entirely likely.

Sunday 22 February: Soundwave Festival, Olympic Park, Sydney (Testament, Down, Alice in Chains, Clutch, Alter Bridge, Mastodon, Megadeth, Rob Zombie, Filter, Graveyard, Five Finger Death Punch, Living Colour, Walking Papers and a whole bunch more)

Once again, Soundwave has come up with an astounding line-up.  I was disappointed that Sevendust pulled out, but the reality is that there are still a phenomenal number of great bands in one place, on one day.

I'm particularly keen for Testament, a band I've only really gotten into in the past year, but who are absolute titans of thrash metal - great songs, and a great band.  Based on the quality of their output, from classic albums like The New Order to 2012 standout Dark Roots of Earth, these guys deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as the so-called Big Four - if not above certain of the less consistent members of that group.  The current line-up are basically all legends in their own right, and I'm incredibly excited to be able to catch them live - especially if they play Disciples of the Watch and True American Hate.

The reality is the bands I've listed above that I'm particularly interested in are only about a third of the line-up - there's a ton more bands too and I'm looking forward to checking out some new acts, time permitting.  However, that won't include the headliners, who are way below the standards set by the likes of Iron Maiden, Faith No More, Metallica, and Nine Inch Nails in previous years... this year we instead get the horrendously over-rated Avenged Sevenfold, and Green Day, who produced a great album about 20 years ago (Dookie) and have essentially spent most of the time since then rehashing it. But I'm cool with that - history shows that bands playing against the headliners can often produce amazing sets (Machine Head at SW2012, Deftones at Big Day Out 14), and I sure won't be watching the so-called headliners.

Thursday 6 March: Down, The Powerstation, Auckland
I was looking forward to seeing Down at Soundwave.  When they announced they were coming after Soundwave to do a show in Auckland, I was a lot more excited.  If their live album Diary of a Mad Band is anything to go by, between improv jams, and Phil Anselmo going off on entertaining rants, they average around 7 minutes per song.  In a festival set, that doesn't make for a lot of songs!

But at their own show, well that could be something great from this New Orleans supergroup.  Aside from being responsible for some of the best interviews I've ever read, singer Phil Anselmo (Pantera, Phillip K. Anselmo and the Illegals) is one of the talents of his generation and guitarist Pepper Keenan (Corrosion of Conformity) is incredibly under-rated both as a musician and a songwriter.

I was introduced to them when I got a free review copy of 2002's Down II: A Bustle in Your Hedgerow - I was just blown away by the riffs, the songs and the sheer edge of their sound.  For me, Down became a gateway to a whole lot of hard rock and metal acts.  Along with Testament, they're the two true bucket-list bands in this epic concert line-up (Clutch, Alice in Chains, Alter Bridge and Megadeth would also qualify but I've already seen them live).

Imagine a setlist containing Ghosts Along the Mississippi, Rehab, Lifer, Stone the Crow, Lysergik Funeral Procession, On March the Saints, Witchtripper... well that could be something to behold.  What would be even more awesome would be if they repeated some of their antics at Hellfest 2013.  A family emergency caused Clutch to have to make a late-minute cancellation, so instead the punters were treated to a second set from Down to close the night, with them throwing in covers of Pantera, Corrosion of Conformity, Crowbar, and all sorts of gems that you just wouldn't normally get.

Wednesday 19 March: Nine Inch Nails and Queens of the Stone Age, Vector Arena, Auckland
Quite possibly the best double-header to ever hit Auckland.

Firstly, you have a reformed, revitalised Nine Inch Nails, who have been playing some great shows off the back of last year's Hesitation Marks and doing all sorts of cool, crazy reinterpretations of older tracks.  For sheer live intensity, they're a rare phenomenon - I can recall seeing them in Sydney at the Hordern Pavilion in 2007 and it was just an absolutely blistering performance.  It helped that we got almost all of The Downward Spiral at that show, too.

When Trent Reznor talked about reinventing the concept of NIN as a live act, I didn't quite know what to make of it - but watch the opening of some of the sets they played at the likes of Lollapalooza last year and you totally get what he's on about.

And then you have Queens of the Stone Age, who not only reinvented themselves musically on last year's standout ...Like Clockwork, but they've also added a mind-boggling visual set-up utilising the insane artwork of Bonehead that featured extensively online in the lead-up to the album's release.  There are very few great front-men to have emerged in the past 15 years - I'd count Josh Homme as one of the few (along with Alter Bridge's Myles Kennedy).  With any luck, I might finally get to hear them play (You Think I Ain't Worth A Dollar, But I Feel Like A) Millionaire too.

Wednesday 26 March: Jurassic 5, The Powerstation, Auckland

One of these things is not like the other ones.  I'm not a huge hip-hop fan but I definitely enjoy Jurassic 5, and was lucky enough to catch them back in 2007 at the St James - shortly before they split up and the St James closed.  No doubt, they're a talented group of guys and they certainly showcased their skills that night with a stunning set spanning their studio output and with all sorts of other little gems thrown in too - it's a gig that would probably still rate in my top 10.

So it was great to hear news of their reformation last year, with original member Cut Chemist also back in the fold, and even better when they recently announced a couple of NZ shows.

And after all of that... well let's just hope it's not another patch of 8 months and no gigs.

Monday, February 3, 2014

The Crystal Method - album review

The Crystal Method (TCM) first burst on to the scene with 1997's Vegas - a widely-acknowledged classic that still sounds fresh today despite electronica's general tendency to date pretty horribly.  For reference, this was around the time that certain media outlets were proclaiming the death of rock (again), that electronica would become the new rock, and so on, largely because The Chemical Brothers and The Prodigy were producing some great stuff.  And while those names are still around, names like Leftfield, Fluke, Underworld, Fatboy Slim and Propellerheads are for the most part a distant memory. 

TCM have managed to not only survive, but to stay relevant - which is no mean feat.  Credit this to the ability of messrs Ken Jordan and Scott Kirkland to push the boundaries and also to basically just try a whole range of stuff.  There have been remixes (highlights include their reworking of the Doors' Roadhouse Blues), the Community Service mix albums (which later evolved into a weekly - and consistently good - radio show), and soundtracks/soundtrack contribution (London, Almost Human, Pirates of the Caribbean, Bones, etc etc).  And of course there have been studio albums too, which have provided some of the best moments.  I'd never have picked them to collaborate with Kyuss/Vista Chino vocalist John Garcia but to this day, Born Too Slow remains as possibly my favourite Crystal Method track (ditto the Richard Patrick / Trip Like I Do combination).

This self-titled record is their 5th studio album and sees their sound continuing to evolve.  Opening track Emulator sets the tone with an up-front number that's clearly motivated more towards the dance floor than the headphones - stomping beats and pounding bass are the order here.  In fact, the album rides a similar vein for most of its first half.  Over It blends dubstep-influenced bass-drops and squelches with the vocals of Dia Frampton, whilst Sling the Decks, Jupiter Shift and 110 to the 101 all sound much like old-school TCM with the benefit of new school production and ideas.  The low point here is probably Storm the Castle, which would be a decent track if not for some fairly irritating vocal samples (which recall the Chemical Brothers' old habit of spoiling decent tracks by lobbing weird abrasive samples in).

The album's second half sees things deviate in a slightly more experimental direction, starting with Dosimeter - a collaboration with Nick Thayer, which certainly adopts his usual tendency towards tempo and dynamic shifts.  Following that is Grace, a collaboration with Leann Rimes which certainly earns a spot in the TCM pantheon of clever guest spots.  Rimes' soulful vocals ride a tight TCM groove, with glitchy off-kilter background synths creating just the right level of discord to add a real edge to the track.  Difference doesn't really offer anything interesting, but album closer After Hours certainly does, echoing the combination of groove and glitch employed earlier on Grace, again with great results and this time with a more psychedelic tinge.

The pre-order edition also came with 3 bonus tracks - 2 remixes that aren't anything to get excited about, and Lucian, a track that certainly is.  It's a driving, powerful number that marries TCM's electronic and cinematic elements perfectly - a huge soundscape with big beats and sci-fi synths, which is probably my favourite track on the album.

Overall The Crystal Method is a solid listen, but it falls into the same trap as most of TCM's albums in terms of having enough moments of brilliance (in this case Sling the Decks, Grace, After Hours and Lucian) to make you notice that that the rest of the album isn't always at the same level.  Perhaps that's a slightly harsh criticism in an era where most electronic artists are happy to push out singles and EPs rather than putting the effort into pulling together a whole album, and perhaps TCM have set a very high bar for themselves with much of their output.  Still, if they could produce a whole album like Lucian, that would be something to behold.