I was very excited about this one – four bands that I like all painting musical pictures in different and unusual ways. It all hung on the live representation. I just hoped the sound in the venue was going to be up to it. The Underworld was once like my second home but I hadn’t been here in a while. As I waited with a few others for doors on this damp and misty London evening, a lone violinist played atmospherically outside the tube station to the accompaniment to the sound of roaring traffic. A drum and bass musician followed. Musicians took turns. Courtesies were observed. An express courier van was stuck. The streets were heaving. Shops were lit. Traffic continued to roar.
At 6.15pm, the doors opened, 15 minutes after the scheduled time. The first band on the bill, Ørkenkjøtt from Norway, were due to start their set at 6.20. They were ready. My first pint had to wait as I took my position with another 25 or so spectators, while others trickled in to witness a large bearded robe-clad Norwegian gentleman and his glittery mates creating a dark and pungent atmosphere with their dark and moody intro. The material tonight was all from their album “Ønskediktet” which I bought after seeing them recently at ProgPower Europe 2012. I am very pleased with it. It has the “Opeth but not Opeth” quality of which I’d been forewarned, along with some traditional metal values but most of all interesting and abnormal patterns and lashings of experimentation. I imagine the band members must have been a nightmare in the chemistry lab at school. I picked up some of this at ProgPower but my overriding recollection was of an entertaining show in which the band’s penchant for traditional metal came through. These qualities were once again in evidence this evening. The tempo would change, there’d be a quick “Opeth” section, growls would be followed by rampant metal. It all hung together, and as the show went on, our bearded hippie friend continued to alternate between smooth chant-like vocals and growling, while the music swayed between atmospheric moodiness and rock n roll. The bass-playing, so important in the creation of that atmosphere, was exquisite. Meanwhile the guitarist who looked like a glam-punk blew us all a kiss. I looked around me. Apart from the Norwegian guy next to me who knew the band, the crowd seemed in a daze as if they didn’t know what had hit them. After “Skygger og Støv Del II”, the vocalist disappeared, paving the way for more experimental rock metal and a nice interlude from the bassist and drummer. Back came the vocalist, now dressed as “Redneck Randy”. The former hippie now wore a Lynyrd Skynyrd hat and drawled his way through this piece of furious rock and roll mayhem. Chaos descended as the musicians slowed down, the music became cacophonously woozy, the vocalist crawled on the floor shouting into a megaphone, the glam-punk guitarist rode on him and the other guitarist threw himself into the vacant space in front of me in the mosh pit. Landing crunchingly on his back, he continued to play. Tough sorts, these Norwegians. The crowd loved it. Ørkenkjøtt showed that they are not just entertainers but also showed in 35 minutes that they are true to their musical roots, combining their love of rock n roll with their interest in the experimental and atmospheric spheres of music. Time for a beer.
Next on was Persefone from Andorra. This is another band I saw only two and a half weeks ago at ProgPower. Although I already knew their album “Core” (2007), during that show they caught me a little by surprise with their intensity. Since then I have been listening to “Core” again and Shin-ken (2011), in their different ways both impressive maelstroms of technicality, metal and delicacy. There’s a spirituality about “Shin-ken” but it’s a ferocious spirituality. The spirituality was lacking tonight, partly due to the sound mix and partly due to the style of playing. What we did get was an exotic metal adventure. The singer is a small man with a very powerful metalcore voice. Oceans of technicality and intricate rhythms exuded from the guitarists, who provided a thunderous wall of sound. All this was to the detriment of the keyboard player, whose instrumental and clean vocal subtleties were drowned out. There was no shortage of energy or head-banging here. The band gave it their all and clearly enjoyed it. This started to radiate to the crowd, but the real ice-breaker was their unique “Star Wars” cover. Smiles broke out as the crowd realized what they were playing. “Inner Fullness”, a new song, was announced. This is where I have a slight problem with Persefone. It was the second time I’d heard this track live but it’s so technical and difficult that I find it hard to get into it. I know from later conversation with other spectators that I wasn’t alone in thinking this. Yet there was evidence that rays of progressive sunshine were breaking through, the quality of playing was always sublime and the band was always having fun. There was a return to more accessible territory with “Shin-ken”. Fast, furious and highly technical as ever, the drum line was irresistible. The set finished with my favourite Persefone track “Fall to Rise”. The subtle keys and the clean vocals were again overcome by the heaviness of the mix but the colourful guitar line which follows the clean vocals and is to die for was there in all its glory. We headbanged as the room was plunged into prolonged psychedelic strobing. A break gave the quiet moment needed to allow the emotional power of the clean vocals to emerge for the first time, and that guitar line following it was more intense. The reaction indicated that Carlos and his crew had won the crowd over with their energy and skill this evening. This is a band who collates ideas and just goes for it. I like Persefone.
It was the sight of Loch Vostok on the bill which initially got me interested in coming here tonight. From power metal beginnings, Loch Vostok developed a more progressive sound. This remains on their present album “V: The Doctrine Decoded” but unlike the others where concentration is needed, its fluidity, heaviness, catchiness and commercial nature make it an album for every occasion. I have been listening to it a lot. I can listen to it outdoors, indoors, on trains, everywhere. It has been become an essential part of everyday life. It’s not as useful as, say, a handkerchief, but it’s infinitely more enjoyable. So which Loch Vostok were we going to get tonight? There was a sound of rumbling thunder. “Twilight of the Dogs”, the song I know as the Satariel-sounding one on the new album, was launched. For some reason I’d imagined the singer to be a big man, but he’s actually more like a pocket battleship, dwarfed by his lofty band mates. It’s clearly a rule in Loch Vostok that you have to have a beard. “Twilight” had all the movement, power and melody I had hoped for to go with the total sound of this live set. Melody and thunder is what a metal evening of this sort is about, and to get us properly in the mood Loch Vostok duly followed up with the unstoppable “A Mission Undivine” off last year’s “Dystopium” album. The lead singer praised his bassist Jimmy, a large hairy beast of a man, and the drummer. “The drummer kicks ass”. He sure did. He and Jimmy were indeed the driving force behind this metal colossus, comprising melodic beats, unquestioned heaviness, power, subtlety and harmonies. To prove his capabilities, the drummer gave the lead into the next song. I tend to know Loch Vostok’s songs by the killer chorus lines so the one that I know as “sympathy is gone” is actually called “Citizen Cain”. It was all there in its mesmerizing glory, and the band even allowed themselves a bit of self-indulgence with the guitar work. The singer had a concise and novel way of introducing songs: “Niklas writes pretty good songs. Here’s one of them”. The song in question was “Regicide”, another killer song from the new album. It’s not just the quality of the songs but the strength and subtlety of the backing arrangements. Again, it was all here. Bloody hell, I thought, I’m going to die of happiness at this rate. The 100 or so spectators were taken back in time and treated to “Energy Taboo” off the 2009 “Reveal No Secrets” album. The bassist and singer mimicked the role of rock stars, but just for a laugh. The ambiance was of a different kind. The prog element was now greater than before. The control was superb – it seems almost pointless to say this. The combination of clean and growled vocals combined with the big heavy beat and flawless guitar melodies to create an electric edginess. It was like having magic particles in the air. And the structures of these songs are so hooky. “Check this riff out – it’s awesome” suggested the pocket battleship. He knew his songs. The last one of the night was “Dystopium” of the same album title. Yes, the riff was awesome. The five Swedish beardies delivered the song with power, panache sand skill. The songsmanship was again of the highest quality. “Dystopium” is darker than most. This came across, but with manipulation of the breaks the mood was a transforming one. Loch Vostok were crushing us into the ground. I wanted to move to this lively piece and did but at the same time found myself transfixed by the power and skill. My enthusiasm was shared by the appreciative audience. So they mixed the old and the new. I need to investigate the old albums a bit more. It’s unfortunate that Loch Vostok only had 40 minutes. It just wasn’t enough to showcase their massive talent and in particular parade their interpretations of the new album. For me, this could have gone on all night. Brilliant.
Headliners Leprous are another alumnus of ProgPower Europe, having played there in 2010. Back then they captivated me with their innovation and imagination. They play proper metal but in an unusual and way. Their music conjures up images of mental illness. What struck me about Leprous tonight compared to the last time I saw them, was how image-conscious they were. They worked through their set with few words in between, instead bridging the gaps with a series of dark, industrial sounds. For the most part the band played in murky darkness, save for red lights which generated a gloomy haze. The guitarist wore a black shirt, a grey waistcoat and a red tie, while the bassist had a red waistcoat and black tie. I recall that Kraftwerk and in modern times Diablo Swing Orchestra wear red and black – has anyone written a thesis about this phenomenon in metal? A black and white screen on stage meanwhile showed progressive images of cars at night, an eye, a waiter in a forest with an empty tray, a deranged man eating with his mouth open and a person constantly scratching their cut finger. The music was intense and groove-laden, but decidedly not normal. The tall, dreadlocked keyboard player, with a red bow tie of course, stood in the middle and led the headbanging. With great dexterity and range, he effortlessly sang the disturbing lyrics, supplementing them with prolonged whale-like cries and ghoulish screams. His keys injected sinister sounds into the equation. But this wasn’t about him alone. Leprous are a tight unit, operating in militaristic harmony. The drummer set a relentless pace. There was something very machine-like about this music, which came across still further in the appearance and movements of the individual band members who had their role to play. Yet there was an irregularity which acted like a constant threat. The mood did change mid-set from mechanized battering to one of sultriness. Above all this was atmospheric. While one guitarist pranced and swung his hair in front of the crowd, the other stayed back and purveyed lush rhythms. The bassist swung around in time to the progressive rhythms. The songs, as you would expect, came from the albums “Tall Poppy Syndrome” (2009) and “Bilateral” (2011). My personal favourite “Waste of Air” off the latest album was played. We found ourselves in still darker and scarier territory. The singer’s vocals have both a menacing and child-like quality about them. There’s something industrial and futuristic about this style, yet it’s also intensely progressive and with the drummer’s leads and strong song structures, it’s easy to move along to. Leprous gave us no time to think. The crowd was sucked in. “White” had all the familiar characteristics of strong bass, mechanical beats and a colourful rhythm. It’s not stop-start but its flow is typically irregular and its tone eerie and suggestive of danger. This was the last track of the set but by popular demand Leprous came back for an encore. So we got “Acquired Taste”, a shadowy track with a compelling build-up. The lead singer described the song as “one last lullaby”. More mellow than most, he displayed his impressive vocal range. And so it ended, four and a half hours after this evening’s musical adventure had begun. I’m not sure I entirely got Leprous in their live form. Without doubt the substance exceeds their image, but I found them a little predictable and clinical to the point of losing their personality. Maybe this was the point. It seems an odd impression, I realize, as their music is electrifying, persistent, unique and at times eerie. Their interpretations are always interesting. Those rhythms hammer through your brain. I reckon that if there was a “Manifestation of Mental Disturbance” tour, Leprous would be at the front of the queue.
It’s a shame there weren’t more people at the Underworld to enjoy this. Here we saw four fine bands injecting large quantities of energy and innovation. What’s more, each of them drew the audience out of their shell and succeeded in bringing smiles on faces, so ensuring we had a great evening’s entertainment.