Thursday, December 17, 2015

RIP Soundwave Festival

Up until yesterday, there had been a freaking amazing hard rock / metal festival run in Australia for the past 9 years called Soundwave.  It was that good, I flew over to Sydney for the 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2014 editions. 

That's not me, but I was there somewhere...

Thanks to Soundwave Festival, and main man AJ Maddah, I got to see all of these bands of whom I am a big fan for the very first time – at least 10 of these are bucket list bands for me:

Alice in Chains (twice), Faith No More, Iron Maiden, Machine Head, Alter Bridge (twice), Rob Zombie (twice), Stone Sour, Testament, Down, Monster Magnet, Sevendust, High on Fire, The Sword, Baroness, Reel Big Fish, Black Label Society, Mastodon, Hellyeah, Filter, Five Finger Death Punch, Staind, Bush, Jane’s Addiction

Then you can add to that the following bands that I’d already seen, but got to see again because of Soundwave (including probably two of my five most-loved bands):

Nine Inch Nails, Clutch (twice), Queens of the Stone Age, Primus, Slash, Lamb of God, Megadeth (this is somewhat ironic – they famously canned their planned Soundwave appearance but still played an Auckland show!)

Unfortunately, yesterday Soundwave 2016 was cancelled.  It wasn’t a huge surprise – anyone could figure out that there were serious challenges behind the scenes.  A few days ago AJ announced this would be the last year for Soundwave, capping off a series of late / somewhat underwhelming band announcements, rumoured huge names that never quite materialised, stories popping up about tax debts from previous festivals, and so on.

The big problem, ultimately, was that the line-up wasn’t of the same calibre as previous years, in terms of both headliners and overall depth.  Soundwave almost became a victim of their own success – previous line-ups had been so consistently, absurdly good, it made it that much more starkly obvious when this year’s line-up came up short of that high benchmark. 

There’s a very good reason for how the line-up ended up, though.  Remember, most major rock/metal bands are from the US, and therefore expect to get paid in US Dollars – with a few from the UK.  From mid-2009 onwards until mid-2014, the AUD was very strong against the USD.  In fact, the AUD/USD rate was pretty much over 0.9 the whole time apart from a couple of brief lulls.  It was over 1.0 for most of 2011 and 2012.  And then, in mid-2014, the Aussie dollar tanked – dropping from 0.93 in September 2014 to 0.70 a year later. 

All of a sudden, a band that costs US$100k – which at 1:1 would’ve cost AU$100k – now costs AU$140k at 0.7:1.  Any operation that had its main cost line go up 40% in the space of 2 years is going to have a serious problem (that would probably sink all but the most profitable businesses).  So the only solution is just to have less bands, and hence the somewhat diminished lineup this year – with no really big headliner, but some solid draws nevertheless (Deftones, Disturbed, etc.) and a genuine wildcard in Metal Allegiance.

The (comparatively) weak line-up meant the punters didn’t front up early on like they have in previous years, which creates a fairly vicious cycle – those weak initial sales will naturally make other bands, who might be big drawcards, reluctant to sign up.  My suspicion is Soundwave’s approach was always to use a big first announcement to drive sales and publicity, to therefore fuel subsequent signings for the second and third announcements – essentially allowing them to give the audience the biggest and best selection of bands they could possibly get.  Up until this year it worked admirably.

Even under these challenging circumstances, AJ was clearly working furiously up until the ship sank to try and get a big name to rescue proceedings.  There was some speculation it could’ve been Guns N Roses with the original line-up – that might have done it.  It turned out it was Rage Against the Machine.  Expecting a band who hasn’t played a show in four years to reunite for a tour on six weeks’ notice was probably pretty optimistic – and I’m not totally sure they alone would’ve saved the day – but hell it was worth a go.

What I actually find really disappointing about the demise of Soundwave is not so much the fact it’s over, or the way it ended, but the way some punters have reacted.  “People on social media” have been incredibly quick to put the boot into AJ, Soundwave, and this year’s line-up, with some celebrating the festival’s cancellation.  Seriously, if you are going to blame anyone, blame the governments of China and Australia.  The former, because the tanking Chinese economy has dried up demand for Australia’s mining exports, which is largely what has caused the AUD to tank.  The latter, because they clearly did not have a plan B for the economy in the event that mining tanked.

Frankly, you guys do not know how good you have had it. 

Year after year, Soundwave churned out a festival that was comparable to many of the huge festivals in the US and Europe.  We’re talking about the likes of Rock on the Range, Sonisphere, Download – huge names that fans in Australia and New Zealand would dream of being able to go to maybe once in a lifetime.  Those festivals have a potential catchment based on populations well into the hundreds of millions of people; AJ and Soundwave gave us the same thing in our backyard of 25 million or so.  So many festivals down under have involved filling in chunks of the day between a few relatively decent bands; at Soundwave the problem was normally that you wanted to see more bands than you possibly could and hence had to manage the clashes.

And of course, we didn’t just get the festival, we got the deluge of sideshows that came with it – in fact, a lot of bands took the opportunity to come over the ditch to New Zealand, either for their own shows, or as part of Westfest (which is probably now also in a terminal state).  I got to see Clutch, my favourite band in the world, play in the freakin’ Kings Arms in Auckland!

It would’ve been nice to have the once-mighty Soundwave go out with a huge bang, rather than have it crawl into a heap while a bunch of lame internet trolls and keyboard warriors put the boot in, whilst the fight over refunds potentially gets messy.  But that wasn’t to be, and unfortunately idiots are going to behave like idiots.

But I, for one, am pretty bloody grateful for everything Soundwave has given me.  Not just the chance to see a lot of great bands, but some great memories for both myself and my primary concert-going co-conspirator.  So thanks, AJ Maddah, for everything that you did for rock and metal fans down under, through Soundwave, and Soundwave Touring - over the past decade it's hard to imagine anyone who's done more. 

Here are my top five Soundwave highlights (not including sidewaves, which would also garner honourable mentions for Iron Maiden, Alter Bridge and Clutch):

They had an early afternoon set, on the metal (side) stage.  They played only six songs.  But somehow, this was one of the most intense, powerful festival sets I’ve ever seen a band play.  It was like they distilled an entire show’s worth of energy into just six tracks, with every single member of the band holding nothing back.  It was brutal, it was uncompromising, and it has me incredibly excited for their full headline set in Auckland in March next year.  I’d waited ten years to see Sevendust live, and somehow they managed to completely fulfil expectations with just a short festival set.

AIC had recently reformed, with new singer/guitarist William DuVall.  Here was a band I thought I would never, ever get a chance to see perform live, with one of my most respected/admired musicians in Jerry Cantrell.  And I found myself right up the front, right on the barrier, watching a rejuvenated, energetic AIC rip through a stunning set of classic tracks – Man in the Box, Nutshell, Rooster and No Excuses, plus big personal favourites like Rain When I Die and Dam That River.  This was my first Soundwave experience; the bar had been set very, very high.

In exactly the same category as AIC – “bands that I never thought I’d get to see because they’d split up”.  Faith No More were everything I’d hoped for and a lot more.  They came dressed in lounge suits with lavish floral arrangements on stage, and had a great setlist including a few hidden gems like Surprise! You’re Dead, The Gentle Art of Making Enemies.  They finished with We Care A Lot – probably the single best track they could have finished a set with.  Throughout, Mike Patton’s presence and vocal ability was nothing less than captivating.  He plays with the crowd much like a cat toys with a mouse – and frankly it was a reminder of how few decent front men have emerged in the past decade or so.

The exception to the above observation about the dearth of front men in recent times is one Myles Kennedy, singer/guitarist for Alter Bridge.  Although, one great thing about Alter Bridge is what a tight unit they are – the way that Kennedy, Brian Marshall, Mark Tremonti and Scott Phillips just continually riff off one another on stage. 

This time around they had an early afternoon main stage set; not ideal, but they sure left everything out there on stage.  It’s impossible not to like a band with such great songs and so much enthusiasm for the songs, the crowd – Mark Tremonti in particular seems to perform with the sort of raw, unabashed energy of a kid (or mildly drunk adult) rocking out to Guitar Hero.  The scary thing about this band – they keep on getting better.  The step-up from their previous Soundwave set to this one was huge.

If I had to pick one Soundwave highlight, this would be it.  It was 9pm, at the end of a long, hot, messy day.  Machine Head were up on the metal side stage, playing against System of a Down, one of the main headliners.  For the next 60 minutes, they put on a performance that I’ve only seen rivalled once since – and that was by them, earlier this year.  Those songs, that energy, just wash over the crowd, and totally envelop you.  And there’s this continual call and response between band and crowd, that just continually pushes the intensity and the energy level up, and up, and up.  This was the first, glorious time I saw Machine Head live; now I consider them the greatest live band in the world today.

Post-mortem; the gig list:

Nine Inch Nails (Vector Arena, Auckland, 2009)

Soundwave 2009, Sydney

Clutch (Auckland, 2010)

Soundwave 2010, Sydney

Queens of the Stone Age (Logan Campbell Centre, Auckland, 2011)

Iron Maiden (Sydney Entertainment Centre, Sydney, 2011)

Soundwave 2011, Sydney

Soundwave 2012, Sydney

Bush, Staind (Enmore Theater, Sydney, 2012)

Alter Bridge (Enmore Theater, Sydney, 2012)

Westfest (Vector Arena, Auckland, 2014)

Clutch (The Metro, Sydney, 2014)

Soundwave 2014, Sydney

Down (The Powerstation, Auckland, 2014)

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

The Top XV of 20XV

As I sat down to write this post, I realised it’s my first (possibly only) blog post for the year.  Life gets in the way, I guess.  In a year that had its challenges, music played a bigger part than ever, and while I may not have blogged much, I sure as hell spent a lot of time listening to, thinking about and reflecting on music.  Aside from that, it got me through tough periods at work, personal challenges, and helped me to a time of 1:27 in my first half marathon.

Brief interlude #1... Gig of the year

Before moving on to albums, I have to mention my favourite gig of the year- Machine Head at the Studio, Auckland, on 18 June.  It’s been a slightly quiet year on the gig front to this point – having missed a bunch of shows while I was overseas in Feb/March.  That’s almost a good thing, because Machine Head were so unbelievably excellent, they ruined other live shows for me for a brief period.  I still struggle to articulate why this gig was so good – but it was.  Relentlessly ferocious, intense and evocative, an outstanding setlist comprising their greatest moments and assorted random gems, a band who have mastered their live craft throwing absolutely everything into it, and a sold out crowd of devoted fans giving it right back.  Even that doesn’t capture the sheer transcendence of the show.  It was one of those shows you walk out of slightly dazed, and still shaking your head the next day (and the day after that) wondering how the hell it managed to be so insanely good.  I still haven’t figured that out.  I have never seen a show like it before; I would be bloody lucky to see one on par with it again.

Machine Head took a big risk going solo with their “…An Evening With” tour, in smaller venues, but by all accounts it has paid off for them big time.  Routinely sold-out shows, and consistently outstanding performances – in my mind there is very little disputing the fact that they are the greatest live band in the world today.  We got to meet them before the show and they are all bloody good guys as well!
Honorable mentions also to Chris Cornell, and Halestorm (an unexpected highlight).

Brief interlude #2... 5 Favourite Songs of the year

And in another brief interlude, my 5 favourite songs of the year:

1.       Metal Allegiance (feat. Mark Osegueda) – Pledge of Allegiance

2.       Clutch – Firebirds

3.       Armored Saint – Win Hands Down

4.       Stoneghost – The Sound Remains

5.       The Atomic Bitchwax – Fuckface

The Main Event: The Top XV albums of the year...

15. Ghost Ship Octavius – Ghost Ship Octavius

A record that I only discovered courtesy of a linkage to one of my favourite (ex) bands, Nevermore.  Drummer Van Williams joined up with some new buddies for what is best described as heavy, progressive metal.

14. Act of Defiance – The Birth and the Burial

I was disappointed to see Chris Broderick and Shawn Drover leave Megadeth – I personally considered the Mustaine/Ellefson/Broderick/Drover line-up to be one of Megadeth’s strongest.  That was mitigated when they announced they were forming Act of Defiance with a couple of colleagues.  Their debut record is a pretty impressive effort, which I’d describe as new-school thrash metal.

13. The Winery Dogs – Hot Streak

Seriously, Mike Portnoy could be the hardest working guy in music.  Does the guy ever sleep?  The Winery Dogs' second album is a step up from their first, taking similar rock, soul and progressive influences and tightening up the songwriting.

12. Blackalicious – Imani, Vol. 1

It’s good to have these guys back in the game, ten years after they released The Craft.  Chief Xcel’s production is slicker than ever, and Gift of Gab is still well worthy of the name.  A very, consistent record, with Blacka and Alpha And Omega both being instant classics.

11. Faith No More – Sol Invictus

Personally, I don’t enjoy this album as much as some of Faith No More’s older records, but I sure as hell respect it.  The music world is a far better place for having bold bands like FNM making different and unusual musical statements – Sol Invictus is exactly that.  I can’t claim to love every song on here – but I love what it stands for.

10. High on Fire – Luminiferous

The modus operandi this time around for High on Fire seems to be all-out savage.  There’s something really primal and Motorhead when they do this and Matt Pike’s throaty roar fits the style perfectly.  Raw and energising.

9. Sevendust – Kill the Flaw

Sevendust’s consistency, longevity and dedication to their craft is something very few bands have.  Time after time these guys put out solid albums and work their backsides off touring them.  Kill the Flaw is a strong record, perhaps not quite their very best, but still worthy of a place in the Sevendust pantheon.  What shines about this record is that, not only do they throw out the now-expected absolute crusher or two (in this case, Torched, Silly Beast and Kill the Flaw), but they also deliver some really crunching mid-tempo numbers (Death Dance, Not Today) in a way that I haven’t really heard since Home. 

8. Symphony X – Underworld

Following up the brilliant Iconoclast was always a tough ask – an album that married Symphony X’s general propensity for epic concept records with a new-found heaviness to their previously more progressive sound.  Underworld continues in the same direction – potentially further polarising fans of the band’s older sound – and it’s another very good album.  Some huge epics and great melodic contrasts – and it wouldn’t be a Symphony X record without some insane guitar from Michael Romeo.

7. The Atomic Bitchwax - Gravitron

I’ve been acquainted with this band for a while but it wasn’t until this, their sixth album, that I actually took any real notice.  It’s a gloriously swaggering hard rock album, filled with the same sort of irreverent exuberance that brought me to love Orange Goblin’s Back from the Abyss, or Rose Hill Drive’s Americana in recent times.  And thank god, someone finally remembered the long lost art of the hard rock instrumental – not once, but twice in this case, on Fuckface and War Claw.

6. Stoneghost – New Age of Old Ways

The debut effort from London-based Stoneghost caught my attention for two reasons.  Firstly, it hits hard, really hard – thanks to some mega-riffs and a singer who knows just when to ramp it up from ‘mildly aggressive’ to ‘absolutely f%$king nuts’.  Secondly, while influences from the likes of Lamb of God and Mastodon are immediately apparent, Stoneghost have combined those with a raw – almost happy – energy that gives most of their songs a surprisingly bouncy feel.  Bouncing around in a padded room, perhaps, but bouncy nevertheless.  Check out The Sound Remains for a shining example.

5. Tremonti - Cauterize

Mark Tremonti’s first solo album was a huge surprise – a guy I only really knew as the guitarist from Alter Bridge, and formerly Creed, delivered one of the albums of 2012, with some huge riffs, amazing solos, and above all, great songs.  And while Cauterize delivers the phenomenal guitar work you would expect from a guy who is arguably the best guitarist on the planet post-2000, it’s also a huge step up in the songwriting department from the first album, marrying those bruising riffs with some great melodies.  Tracks like Radical Change and Another Heart have a thrashier vibe, while the harmony shines strongly on Cauterize and Providence, and Flying Monkeys is probably the highlight with its surreal stomp.

4. Iron Maiden – The Book of Souls

There’s just something indomitable about this legendary band.  Over 30 years into their career, and with absolutely nothing to prove, they release a double-CD epic featuring the two longest songs they’ve ever written, despite society’s attention span being at an all-time low.  If that wasn’t enough, they announce a new world tour, with a 747-400 filling the role of Ed Force One to carry them around the world, and singer Bruce Dickinson is getting an upgraded pilot’s license to fill the thing, having recently beaten throat cancer.  At this point I’m prepared to say that Maiden have gone beyond legendary status – they are absolute metal heroes. 

I was sceptical that Book of Souls could turn out to be over-indulgent, but two of the album’s longer tracks (If Eternity Should Fail and The Red and the Black) are huge highlights, and the 18-minute (!) closing track Empire of the Clouds is utterly mesmerising and could well be the greatest Maiden epic of them all.  There are probably a few tracks on the Book of Souls that could classify as filler, but when it hits such incredible highs, that really doesn’t matter a lot. 


3. Metal Allegiance – Metal Allegiance

Even the staunchest metalhead could hardly contain their excitement when the core Metal Allegiance group of Alex Skolnick (Testament), Dave Ellefson (Megadeth), Mark Menghi and Mike Portnoy announced plans for an album.  When guest names like Phil Anselmo, Mark Osegueda, Phil Demmel, Charlie Benante, Chuck Billy and Randy Blythe also get thrown into the equation, followed up by a couple of absolutely blazing singles, well frankly the whole scenario becomes insane (in a very good way).

Metal Allegiance’s debut album doesn’t disappoint, with some absolutely killer tracks and fantastic playing throughout.  Although the vocalists were chosen after the songs were written, they all seem to be eerily good fits for the tracks they appear on – Chuck Billy’s powerful rasp is perfect for the fist-to-the-face thrash assault of Can’t Kill the Devil, Mark Osegueda owns the vicious, hyperactive Pledge of Allegiance and it’s impossible to imagine anyone other than Phil Anselmo on the explosive, Southern-flavoured Dying Song.
Personally I’d love to see more of these collective efforts from the likes of Kings of Chaos, because – done well – the results are pretty stunning. 

2. Armored Saint – Win Hands Down

Ah, the roundabout ways that one discovers bands.  I have my recent Anthrax obsession to thank for the discovery of Armored Saint – that introduced me to John Bush, whose voice is sheer, unadulterated rock through and through (for the record, I like both the Bush and Joey Belladonna eras of Anthrax – they both have their merits).  Next thing I know, there’s a new Armored Saint album out, with Bush at the helm, and upon investigation it turns out to be as good an expression of no gimmicks, no bullshit, old-school heavy metal as you will find in 2015.  Whether it’s poking fun at social media (That Was Then, Way Back When), general irreverence (Up Yours), or just straight up shredding (Win Hands Down), this album is a sure-fire, um, winner.

1. Clutch – Psychic Warfare

Most of my friends will tell you that I had decided the new Clutch album would be #1 before it was even released.  But Psychic Warfare takes a similar approach to its predecessor (and Metal Hammer’s 2013 album of the year) Earth Rocker, whilst simultaneously improving almost every aspect. 

There are, of course, brilliant songs, like the vibrant Firebirds, the southern groove of A Quick Death in Texas, and the out-and-out attack of Noble Savage.  But probably the greatest trick Clutch pull here is a sort of stealth concept album – most of the songs operate on two levels.  The first is a more immediate level relating to some of singer Neil Fallon’s personal experiences, and the second provides a hidden narrative connecting the songs, with a deluded protagonist on the run across America from mysterious unseen alien forces, before finding salvation in rock and roll.  Another stunning effort.