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.

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