Steelhouse Festival: 10 Things We Learned At The Classic Rock Gathering

Photo: Monster Truck by Darren Griffiths

Classic rock weekender Steelhouse Festival recently returned to its hilltop enclave near Ebbw Vale for a weekend of riffs (yes!) and rain (no!). Jon Stickler was there to soak it all in. Here’s what he learned.

1. The Sky Hates Classic Rock

It rained. A lot. Early arrivals on Friday afternoon were met with similar torrential rainfall to that which plagued Steelhouse in 2015 and, while some moaned at spending a couple of days ankle deep, it was incredible to see the positive Steelhouse spirit prevail again. Crowds risked the onset of Trenchfoot to pack out the arena for standout performances from Skindred, Saxon, Last In Line, Monster Truck and Rival Sons.

2. Not All Heroes Wear Capes

If you weren’t familiar with Bernie Marsden before the weekend, you are now. The former Whitesnake guitarist racked up three appearances, having joined Hand of Dimes for their Friday night warm up set before a solo acoustic show on Saturday. On Sunday he re-teamed with Hand of Dimes for a run through Here I Go Again, stepping in for King King who were forced to cancel their set due to vocalist Alan Nimmo falling ill. With the weekend affectionately dubbed BernieFest, I’m surprised he’s not already been confirmed for Steelhouse 2018.

3. Monster Truck Are Classic Rock’s MVPs

These Canadian big wheelers are going places full throttle and they duly made a massive impression on Steelhouse. Their wet and wild set brought out songs from their two LPs, 2013’s ‘Furiosity’ and last year’s ‘Sittin’ Heavy’, along with some glowing praise from fans. No strangers to the grind – the band have been touring over the last four years – they showed their appreciation for the crowd’s resilient energy by powering through blue-collar anthems such as Why Are You Not Rocking?, Old Train, Don’t Tell Me How to Live and Sweet Mountain River. A bare-chested Jeremy Widerman announced to the soaked crowd that it wouldn’t be fair for him to be out of the rain and subsequently joined them beneath the downpour.

4. Nostalgia Was Strong

Last In Line epitomised the vibe of Steelhouse on Saturday night. Featuring former Dio drummer Vinny Appice and guitarist Viv Campbell, also of Def Leppard, reunited along with keyboardist Erik Norlander, bassist Phil Soussan and vocalist Andrew Freeman, they might’ve seemed a bit strange to the under 40s crowd but, nevertheless, horns were thrown and massive singalongs erupted to anthems such as Rainbow In The Dark, Don’t Talk to Strangers, Holy Diver and The Last In Line.

5. Skindred Are The Ultimate Party Band

While not everyone’s cup of tea, it’s hard to deny Skindred’s passion for putting on a show. Headlining the Saturday night, it was a shower of jams from one of the best live bands in the business, despite the atrocious weather. Doom Riff, Sound The Siren, Kill The Power, Ninja, Warning… the big riffs and bad language culminated with the irrepressible Newport Helicopter. How could you not enjoy it? Despite some griping from the die-hard classic rock fans, who complained that Skindred didn’t suit the Steelhouse line up, I’m betting a lot of people went away realising there’s more out there than Thunder and Joe Bonamassa.

Photo: Rival Sons by Darren Griffiths

6. Steelhouse Pint Pots Are Fantastic

Having got over the initial shock of not having to remortgage my house for a round of drinks, and despite supping from the same cup all weekend, I think I speak for many when I say that the plastic pint pots were a brilliant idea. With enough people unsteady on their feet from the mud, the arena could do without thousands of paper cups littering the grass. Tidy souvenir too.

7. Classic Rock Is In A Great Place Right Now

We all love to watch the old school anthems belted out on stage but if we just stick to the heritage acts playing the same sets at the expense of backing new, young bands, there will be nothing to listen to in 20 years’ time. Steelhouse’s appeal comes from bringing the two together, with the nostalgic thrill of the timeless classics backed up by supporting new blood. Midlands-based Stonebroken have an army of fans and can knock it out the park with every performance, Inglorious’s star is rising fast and Broken Witt Rebels are without a doubt one of the most exciting new bands in the country, so it’s only right that they had a chance to shine. I was also blown away by Jared James Nicholls, an American guitar slinger who was relatively unknown to me at the start of the weekend.

8. Hurry up ‘Arry!

Steve Harris, we love you and everything you do, but seriously, why did British Lion take so long to hit the stage? Despite the sunny intervals fuelling Sunday afternoon’s positive vibe, the Iron Maiden bassist and band arrived on the Trooper stage over 30 minutes late apparently due to difficulties preparing the stage. It left their performance a bit flat. Good job with the beer, though.

9. There Are Too Many Chairs

I know the conditions underfoot were abysmal, but was it really necessary to bring chairs into the beer tent? It was a struggle to reach the bar given the number of music fans sat down – some wearing merchandise of the bands performing on stage. It appears to be happening more and more often at festivals and it must be crushing for the acts playing to a handful of people. We’re all in it together. We’re all soaked. We’re all muddy. We’re all tired. Get out of the tent, stand with your mates, a beer in your hand, get involved.

10. …and The Bands Played On

Saxon are most definitely one of the great survivors of NWOBHM. Returning to the mountain for their second headline performance, having last played in 2013, this was another masterclass in belting out a marauding set of British metal classics. It rained, obviously, but there weren’t many there who didn’t know a Saxon tune or two and it didn’t stop a monumental finale. Heavy Metal Thunder, Motorcycle Man, Dallas 1PM and 747 (Strangers in the Night) were still incredible to witness, especially with the added wow factor of the band’s Eagle production backdrop.

Steelhouse Festival will return to its mountain top location at Hafod-Y-Dafal Farm in Ebbw Vale between July 28 and 30, 2018.

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Talk Of The Devil: Ghost Hold Black Mass In Cardiff

Hype is a strange beast. It conjures memories of the times when the next big thing has fizzled into little more than a puff of smoke. But striding through the fog in Cardiff, Jon Stickler finds Ghost – a band who won’t be destroyed by any sort of expectation laid on their shoulders…

Ghost have long resembled one of Tim Burton’s wet dreams since emerging in 2010, but the commercial success of last year’s ‘Meliora’, paired with notable performances on the North American leg of the Popestar tour, has led to the mysterious cult act being praised one of the best bands of metal’s modern era.

Following a short set spanning several looping, multi-layered compositions from Zombi’s recent album ‘Shape Shift’, the Pennsylvanian, John Carpenter-influenced synthwave duo leave the stage with the lights reduced to two red glows from the side of a stage shrouded in thick smoke from incense burners.

The haunting choral strains of Miserere mei, Deus by Gregorio Allegri echo throughout the room, signalling the beginning of Ghost’s unholy mass. The Masked Ball from Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut plays over the PA while the ghouls: Fire, Water, Wind, Earth and Aether take their positions on stage. The music fades and the roar goes up for the punchy start of Square Hammer from their current ‘Popestar’ EP as Papa emerges from the darkness in a flash of light, clad in full blasphemous robes and complete with Mitre and skull painted face.

The bassline to Pinnacle To The Pit is something straight from the deepest circles of hell, while other big moments include Secular Haze, complete with swinging Thurible, Con Clavi Con Dio, the thumping Grammy-winning Cirice, and Body And Blood, with the latter introducing us to the sisters of sin, two questionable nuns tasked with sharing Communion with the front row.

Around the halfway point the beguiling Papa swaps his papal regalia for spats and a tailcoat before taking us through Mummy Dust, making it rain confetti and Papa-branded dollar notes. The singalongs to He Is and the overtly satanic Year Zero are ear-shattering but it’s Absolution that steals the real ‘holy fuck’ moment of the night.

When Papa asks the clergy who has seen the band before there is a deafening cheer, while the newly converted are equally as loud when he asks who hasn’t. The crowds sing back the riff and lyrics of Ritual before the band close the show with the refrain of “come together, together as one, come together, for Lucifer’s son” from Monstrous Clock. We’re plunged into total darkness as The Host of Seraphim, from the 2007 film The Mist, plays out on the PA for one final spine-chilling moment.

If you look past the mystique, the Danny Elfman overtones, the elegance of the Nameless Ghouls, the devilish charisma from Papa and the tongue-in-cheek themes of a coming Antichrist, Ghost are a band fully invested in what they do. They know their shit. Any rubbish about gimmicks should make way for talk of not if but when this band will start headlining major festivals. Hail Ghost!

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Game Changers: Gojira And Code Orange Raise The Bar In Bristol

Sometimes, a bill comes along that makes your jaw drop. That’s exactly what happened when Gojira announced that their UK run in support of ‘Magma’ would feature openers Code Orange and Car Bomb. Nowhere to hide, right? Jon Stickler hit the pit to find out…

Having dominated the review pages for the past week, as well as setting alight social media, it’s no surprise I’m fighting my way through a capacity crowd at Bristol’s O2 Academy early doors, with the faithful gathered to send off one of the most talked about bills of this decade. Seriously, if you’re a fan of heavy music and decided it wasn’t for you, sit down and have a word with yourself.

New York’s math-core mob Car Bomb perform among the shadows and shove aside any sense of misfortune in opening for two of the most vital bands in metal right now. They quickly get down to pummelling the crowd with dizzying visuals and a chaotic barrage of machine gun riffs, insane drumming and mind-bending solos from last year’s ‘Meta’. Nearly two decades into their career the band are only now devastating UK audiences. This is their first proper run of dates this side of the Atlantic, but no doubt they’ll be back.

Fists clenched, it’s time for Code Orange to face up to the anticipation that spiked when they were announced for this bill. Having been under the spotlight since signing with Roadrunner for the launch of their killer third album, ‘Forever’, the Pennsylvanian band, who line up as a quintet for this tour, exceed all expectations here in smashing out a performance of sheer aggression.

Straight out of the gate they send bodies flying with influences from hardcore and metalcore. Opening with the chugging title track from ‘Forever’, the band give it their absolute all through seven additional cuts from the record, plus My World, I Am King and Slowburn from their Deathwish Inc. years. Their no nonsense set sees three of the five share vocals, with drummer Jami Morgan taking on the majority of the duties during the carnage.

Guitarist Reba Meyers’ clean singing on Bleeding In The Blur displays the band’s versatility while the energy, changes in pitch, tempo and Eric Balderose’s subtle use of electronics keeps them unpredictable in a scene that has become bloated with carbon copies of the same metalcore sound. On the basis of this crushing performance alone, Code Orange show that they’re ready to stand toe-to-toe with any of metal’s established powerhouses.

Speaking of powerhouses, Gojira were last in the UK supporting Alter Bridge at the end of 2016. Tonight they’re on the road supporting something much better, last year’s ‘Magma’. And they do it in front of a much more appreciative audience. The French four-piece, led by sibling combo Joe and Mario Duplantier, appear to have a huge job on their hands following the staggering display from Code Orange but quickly prove why they’re leading the charge in the modern era of metal.

Opening with Only Pain, their brutal sonic attack includes five more cuts from ‘Magma’ – Silvera, Stranded, The Cell, The Shooting Star and Pray – all of which get the audience bouncing with fierce enthusiasm. The dual guitars of Duplantier and Christian Andreu, the soaring vocals and anthemic choruses are utterly jaw-dropping, demonstrating that Gojira have stepped onto a much bigger playing field and found they enjoy the extra space. The same applies to their stage show, which features some truly dazzling visuals and a captivating synchronised light show. One can only imagine the possibilities of an all out spectacle if given the right opportunity.

There’s a break in the onslaught for a thundering drum solo that doesn’t outstay its welcome, while the chit chat is kept to a minimum apart from Joe pausing to recall a time the band had to cancel their first show in Bristol after selling just four tickets. How times change.

Some are calling Gojira the best band in the world right now and it must only be a matter of time until we’re chanting  their name at major festival headline performances. In years to come when we think about game changers in metal and heavy music, we’ll talk about this tour.

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Out Of This World: Avenged Sevenfold Raise Their Game On The Stage Tour

Avenged Sevenfold are back to their breathtaking best on ‘The Stage’ world tour. Jon Stickler saw them raise hell with In Flames and Disturbed in Cardiff…

The first metal extravaganza of the year hit Cardiff’s Motorpoint Arena on Thursday, bringing with it three huge bands, a lot of fire, expansive video screens, lights, cameras, podiums, catwalks and, naturally, a massive inflatable astronaut. This is what an Avenged Sevenfold show looks like these days.

It’s an early start for In Flames, who take to the stage at 6.15pm. The venue is only half full but the Swedish death metallers power through and intense 30 minutes of songs, including the more refined material on their latest offering, ‘Battles’.

Disturbed, meanwhile, turn up the brutality scale further and run through Prayer, Stupify, Ten Thousand Fists and Down With The Sickness, plus their spine-tingling take on Simon and Garfunkel’s The Sound of Silence is pretty special too. David Draiman makes odd noises, flames engulf the stage, the capacity crowd wave their phones around in the air.

After ‘Nightmare’ and ‘Hail To The King’ many dropped Avenged Sevenfold to the bottom of their playlists. Having returned with the super fast release of ‘The Stage’ a few months ago, the Huntington Beach quintet have upped their game and are back to crushing venues with a perfect arena rock album.

Opening with the new record’s title track before swinging into Afterlife and Hail to the King, wild drums, thunderous bass, rapid shredding, intricate solos and vocals that shift from guttural roar to anthemic singalong combine to batter the Motorpoint Arena.

The record’s only been out for a few months but the capacity crowd chant, roar and throw horns while screaming song lyrics back to the band word for word. Another new track, Paradigm, is followed by old school cuts To End The Rapture and Chapter Four from ‘Waking The Fallen’ before the slow burning Buried Alive.

The band keep bodies slamming into one another even through their more sprawling numbers, Nightmare, Sunny Disposition and Acid Rain. Proggy sounds from Dream Theater, widdly solos from Maiden, the swagger of Guns N’ Roses, the heavy riffs of  Metallica and gothic traits from Black Sabbath had Avenged Sevenfold dreaming big from day one and tonight’s white-knuckle ride of a show sees them bring all their influences together.

Sticking with the new record’s space exploration theme, the show draws to a close with a brief appearance from a huge inflatable spaceman, who rises towards the rear of the arena and looms over the audience for the duration of the last few songs while countless astral projections fill the room.

Returning to the stage with unwearied enthusiasm the band belt out Bat Country, A Little Piece of Heaven and Unholy Confessions while inciting the biggest pits in south Wales since Thatcher shut down the mines. The songs from ‘The Stage’ are just as fantastic in the live environment as they are on the album. The muscular tracks that kicked up dust on ‘City Of Evil’ and ‘Waking The Fallen’ have returned and on this evidence the band should be well equipped for festival season.

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Masters At Work: Clutch Unleash Psychic Warfare On Cardiff

Clutch have just wrapped up a short run of ‘Psychic Warfare’ tour dates across the UK and Europe. Jon Stickler was in attendance at their raucous Cardiff show and here’s what he thought… 

It was beginning to look a lot like Christmas when Maryland road warriors Clutch rolled into Cardiff University as part of the final stages of their 2016 Psychic Warfare tour, bringing with them their trademark bluesy jams, pummeling riffs and groove-driven hard rock.

Openers Lionize are closely affiliated with Clutch, thanks to enlisting guitarist Tim Sult for a few albums and drummer Jean-Paul Gaster producing their last LP, and their reggae-infused funky blues was a hit with the growing crowd. Valient Thorr, meanwhile, raised fists in the air with an erratic blend of hardcore and rock ‘n’ roll.

The unstoppable force that is the Clutch live show has become the stuff of legend since their formation in the early 1990s. Uniting the tribes of rock and metal through their blue-collar, no nonsense ideology, here they burst onto the stage with Passive Restraints and The House That Peterbilt, from their earlier catalogue.

That’s before rolling up their sleeves for the faster-paced Pure Rock Fury, Sucker For The Witch, from the new record, and the one-two punch of Power Player and You Can’t Stop Progress from ‘From Beale Street to Oblivion’.

A wild-eyed Neil Fallon was up to his usual tricks and, as one of rock’s most animated lyricists, he kept the stage banter to nothing more than the expected pleasantries while throwing some of the wildest shapes around. Guitarist Sult laid down riff after riff alongside spellbinding energy and precision from bassist Dan Maines and drummer Gaster.

The set was top heavy with cuts from ‘Psychic Warfare’, with A Quick Death In Texas, Your Love Is Incarceration and Decapitation Blues also thrown in alongside The Face, from ‘Earth Rocker’, Minotaur and 50,000 Unstoppable Watts from 2009’s ‘Strange Cousins from the West’, plus cuts from the earlier ‘Robot Hive/Exodus’. A slow-burning The Regulator wound up the main set before the band tore through an encore featuring Electric Worry and X-Ray Vision.

While existing just outside of the mainstream for, astonishingly, over 25 years, Clutch remain one of a few bands who consistently capture the essence of rock in its most natural form. No need for pyrotechnics, big screens, laser shows, or even a drum riser, just four masters at work.

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Fun With A Capital F: Steel Panther and Bowling For Soup Rock Cardiff’s Motorpoint Arena

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Jon Stickler waded into a sea of spandex and pop-punk nostalgia as Steel Panther, Bowling For Soup and Buckcherry hit the stage at the Motorpoint Arena in Cardiff. The result? Fun with a capital F.

Tonight, Cardiff gets its turn to become party central as Steel Panther, Bowling for Soup and Buckcherry rock into the Welsh capital for one of the more unlikely tours of the year: a potty-mouthed, pop-punk-via-glam-metal triple header.

Although most are a little surprised to see Buckcherry on the bill, their raw, gritty sound gets everyone excited and a high-octane performance straight out of the gate shows the band are excited to be here too. The snake-hipped, bare-chested Josh Todd bawls his way through a series of the band’s staples, including Sunshine, Ridin’, Gluttony, Out Of Line, Lit Up and their revved up cover of Icona Pop’s I Love It, Say Fuck It.

Next up are not-retired-anymore Texas pop-punk troupe Bowling For Soup, who use their moment in the spotlight to do what they do best: bounce fans back to their teenage years with a lively, humorous set. Old school hits 1985, Girl All The Bad Guys Want, High School Never Ends, Almost and The Last Rock Show are paired with their theme song to Phineas And Ferb and a mid-set cover of the song everyone mistakenly thinks they wrote: Stacy’s Mom by Fountains of Wayne. “Who wants to hear our song about Stacy’s Mom?” laughs frontman Jaret Reddick as many of the crowd cheer. “Yeah, that’s not our song.”

As the last few stragglers made their way in from the cold, Steel Panther waste no time in raising temperatures as they bring a taste of Sunset Strip’s sleazy underbelly to south Wales. Sounding tighter than guitarist Satchel’s spandex, all four lycra-clad lotharios turn the knobs (no pun intended) to 11 for a set drawn mainly from their 2009 debut ‘Feel The Steel’ and its 2011 follow up, ‘Balls Out’.

Opening with Eyes of a Panther and Just Like Tiger Woods, the mirth flows throughout their set. Some say they’re not a real band, while others moan that it’s all a gimmick but, among the hairspray and explicit jokes there are four astounding musicians who wouldn’t have got where they are if they didn’t know their shit inside out. On top of that, they bring together thousands of rock and metal fans tonight and if that’s not something to celebrate and shout about then I don’t want to know. Flawless fun.

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Airbourne: Ready To Walk With Rock’s Giants

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With their new album on the way, Jon Stickler saddled up for a midweek date with Airbourne and found the Australian rock devotees ready to ascend to the next level.

It’s a Wednesday at the end of the month. You’re knackered and skint. What do you do? You go to see Airbourne. That’s what you do.

For those yet to witness the Aussie rockers’ stage antics, it should be made clear that perma-shirtless frontman Joel O’Keeffe, his sticksman brother Ryan, guitarist David Roads and bassist Justin Street do not fuck about.

Roaring riffs, screaming vocals and shedload of beer combine for a whirlwind set at Cardiff’s Y Plas, with the band kicking off with an appropriate opener, Ready To Rock, before thrashing out cuts from their first two records, ‘Runnin’ Wild’ and ‘No Guts. No Glory’. Too Much Too Young Too Fast, Chewin’ the Fat and Diamond in the Rough all get an airing, as well as the rabid, swaggering title track from their 2013 album ‘Black Dog Barking’.

Evidently pleased to be back in the Welsh capital, the band embrace their welcome in true Airbourne style. Joel launches beer cans to fans aloft shoulders across the packed club before cracking cans open with his skull, soaking the stage and a good few rows at the front with glorious Brains. It might be a school night, but the crowd are wild and being so close to the action makes the show all the more special, particularly as Airbourne play a lot of festivals and have picked up their share of arena supports.

The band show no trace of nerves after returning to the road only a few weeks ago. Having wrapped up recording sessions for their new album, ‘Breakin’ Outta Hell’, they seem revitalised. Also, there isn’t a shred of scaling down to suit the smaller venue and a sweaty, beer-soaked Joel perches on the shoulders of his guitar tech to plough through the reverent crowd for a lap of the venue during an extended Girls In Black jam. The boozy fun continues back on the stage, with our fearless leader chugging the best part of a bottle before swaggering through Cheap Wine and Cheaper Women.

The band have their foot down and fire up all cylinders for the new record’s title track. With a quick change of backdrop, mayhem ensues and soon there isn’t a single person who isn’t headbanging, fist-pumping or clapping along. It’s not a bad response to a song that’s barely a month old.

The gutsy No Way But The Hard Way, or as Joel calls it tonight, No Way But The Cardiff Way, links up with Stand Up for Rock ‘N’ Roll to close the main set before drummer Ryan winds up the air-raid siren, signalling the band’s return to the stage for two final songs. Not content with your standard intro solo, Joel takes up a power stance on top of the backline to build up the pace for Live It Up before closing with the blistering Runnin’ Wild, dipping into a bit of Paranoid and Dirty Deeds on the way.

Not since the primal displays of Bon Scott and Angus Young have we seen such a performance of rock ‘n’ roll in its purest form. With the new record out in September, plus a nationwide trek following in November, this already high flying band are cruising clear skies on their way to being one of the biggest rock bands of the 21st century.

Photo: Craig Thomas for Tallboy Images.

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Steelhouse Festival: Rock Returns To The Mountain

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Steelhouse Festival has become a home away from home for the UK’s hard rock scene in recent years. Last weekend, Jon Stickler ventured up the mountain to see how the latest chapter in an underdog success story would play out.

Held high above Ebbw Vale and geared towards classic rock’s broad church, Steelhouse is one of the fastest growing festivals in Europe and already boasts previous performances from Europe, Dee Snider, Magnum, Michael Schenker, Saxon and UFO. Now in its sixth year, and despite some haunting flashbacks to 2015’s torrential downpours, this year the fearless beer-riddled faithful returned to the mountain to set a record attendance.

Following Friday night’s warm up show, featuring a south Wales showcase from Buffalo Summer, Those Damn Crows and Everyday Heroes, winners of a live Battle of the Bands competition held prior to the festival, Wigan’s riff warriors Bigfoot smashed open the main event with a monster Saturday lunchtime set comprising cuts from their ‘Stone Soldiers’ EP.

Dirty Thrills and Vega carried on the party, throwing their swaggering AOR solos and soaring vocals across the sun-drenched arena, before assured Bristol rockers Tax The Heat picked up the award for best dressed band of the weekend while roaring through songs from their recent record, ‘Fed To The Lions’, which, if you’ve got any sense, should be queued up in your playlist right now. Don’t miss out when they tour with Ash and Terrorvision this winter.

Having performed at the other end of the country in March, appearing on the bill at Hard Rock Hell Prog in Pwllheli, everyone’s favorite siblings in rock music, Finland’s Von Hertzen Brothers, made the world feel a little better with selections from last year’s ‘New Day Rising’. They can expect a very warm welcome when they return as part of the bill at this year’s Planet Rockstock in Porthcawl in December. Three Welsh shows in the space of 12 months…that’s what we like to see.

As the day progressed, the buzz was all about the evening session ahead of the headliners, Thunder. Psych-rockers Blues Pills exploded onto the stage with High Class Women from their 2015 self-titled debut, with Elin Larsson’s soulful tones just as breathtaking as the views from the mountain. The arena was enchanted by songs old and new, including a mesmerising cover of Jefferson Airplane’s Somebody to Love, building excitement ahead of the launch of the retro rockers’ second album, ‘Lady In Gold’, next month.

The Answer, performing at the festival for a record third time, celebrated the 10th anniversary of their superb debut album, ‘Rise’, by playing it in full before unleashing Spectacular and newbies Thief of Light and the title track from their upcoming new record, ‘Solas’. The Northern Irish band went down as one of the highlights of the weekend and their co-headline run with the Dead Daisies in November is quickly becoming one of the most talked about tours of the year in these circles.

There aren’t many bands that sit as comfortably as a Steelhouse headliner as Thunder. As soon as AC/DC’s Thunderstruck blasted out of the PA, we knew we were in for another magnificent display of showmanship. Danny Bowes was as energetic as ever, and still has one of the best voices in rock to boot, while lifelong chum and guitarist Luke Morley riffed through all of the classics. Performing with the confidence that comes from decades of touring the world, every minute of Wonder Years, Higher Ground, Backstreet Symphony, The Devil Made Me Do It, Love Walked In, Dirty Love and more was lapped up by a boisterous crowd.

Those up early enough on Sunday were greeted with, yes, you’ve guessed it, rain. A very wet day two kicked off around lunchtime with glam-rockers Last Great Dreamers, whose infectious, crunchy power-pop hooks went down well with a small, hungover and damp crowd. Despite everyone being pissed off with mother nature, the band, who originally operated during the 1990s before reforming in 2014, gave it their best shot at raising spirits.

Next up, Steelhouse regulars Hand of Dimes pulled in the masses with Nev MacDonald and former Kooga bandmate Neil Garland rolling out Moonlight Mile from their upcoming debut album before making way for the ballsy new blood in the shape of Toseland and Milton Keynes’ RavenEye. Look out for the latter’s debut album, ‘NOVA’, out on September 23.

With the collective mood changing for the better, the Dead Daisies just had to come along and disappoint. With so much hype swirling around the supergroup – featuring John Corabi, Doug Aldrich, Marco Mendoza, David Lowy and Brian Tichy – it was underwhelming that their hour long set included six covers, including Free’s All Right Now, Fortunate Son by Creedence Clearwater Revival and the Beatles’ Helter Skelter.

It came across as flat and lazy, especially when performed by such a competent ensemble of musicians. I was hoping to hear more from the band’s self titled debut and last year’s ‘Revolución’, but new tracks from their upcoming third album, ‘Make Some Noise’, at least kept me hanging around. Hopefully they’re firing on all cylinders when they headline Planet Rockstock in December. With the rain finally stopping around tea time, the energetic power-pop of Ginger Wildheart’s Hey! Hello! provided a much-needed adrenaline shot. Terrorvision, meanwhile, screamed confidence throughout their quite superb hit-packed set. They clearly had lots of fans on the mountain.

A monumentally silly performance from the Darkness closed the party, to the airing of mixed opinions. The band copped a lot of shit during the build up to the weekend, but as soon as they hit the stage we were reminded of just how huge an album ‘Permission To Land’ is. They’re not everyone’s cup of tea, but any doubts about their performance disappeared as they rocked through new songs from ‘Last Of Our Kind’, including Barbarian, Roaring Waters and Mudslide, alongside classics Black Shuck, Get Your Hands Off My Woman, Growing On Me, Friday Night and One Way Ticket. Gimme a D! Gimme an ARKNESS!

Following a savage closing party in the beer tent, it was time to dust off the hangover and endure the bone-shaking mountain trail back down to reality. Thank you, Steelhouse, for another fantastic few days at one of the most welcoming festivals out there.

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Download Festival 2016: The Sun Always Shines On TV, But Not On Derby

Photo credit: Adam Elmakias/Download Festival
Photo credit: Korn by Adam Elmakias/Download Festival

Every year, without fail, God pisses upon the hallowed turf of Donington Park during Download. He drinks well over the recommended two litres of water per day, crossing his legs and tapping his feet. Then, as 90,000 or so metalheads descend upon the site, God unleashes his mighty pissbeast. The Devil has the best tunes, but there’s no need to be so sour about it.

Friday

There’s grass. Actual grass. You can run your hands through it. You can uproot it and roll it between your fingers. You can pretend you’re in a butter advert. Royal Republic revel in something approaching sunshine while opening the Main Stage – quite fittingly dubbed ‘The Lemmy Stage’ – with enthusiasm usually reserved only for small children watching Frozen. Two obnoxiously large, neon lightning bolts flash behind vocalist Adam Grahn, creating a backdrop to match ludicrously-titled songs like Make Love Not War (If You Have to Make War – Make Sure to Make Time to Make Love in Between). Live, they’re a heavier proposition than usual, sounding more like an indie band dabbling in rockabilly while covering Clutch. It’s a bloody lovely way to kick off the weekend, and they’re back in the UK this October. Which is a bit of all right.

Puppy play to a sparse crowd at the Maverick Stage, letting their mixture of Weezer, Pearl Jam, Iron Maiden and vocals reminiscent of Wheatus do the talking. Half the audience are loving it, half of them look like they’ve been asked to explain exactly why they’re voting to stay in or get out of the EU. It’s confusing but, with time, Puppy are sure to master their craft and get people on board.

Back over on the Lemmy Stage, Alien Ant Farm drop Movies early on and play a load of other stuff that’s not really important. It’s flat and doesn’t have any place on the main stage – this is pure nostalgia, and not even decent nostalgia at that. Everyone’s waiting for Smooth Criminal, and while we wait, singer Dryden Mitchell makes a weird declaration, telling the Donington crowd that all he wants to do tonight is cuddle Babymetal and watch Jeremy Kyle. It feels like we’re in an episode of Brass Eye, so we leave.

“God bless Ryanair for getting us here on time,” proclaims Zoax mainman Adam Carroll, not a trace of sarcasm seeping from his throat. He takes the Maverick Stage by force with his feral screams and a beard the size of a small dog, flanked by the spasmodic fuckery that is the rest of the band.

Back at the Lemmy Stage, Babymetal are about to come on and God’s toilet flushes. Rain rips through the atmosphere like bullets. Revellers scream. Others cheer. Babymetal are late. We stand. The cheesy intro video rolls and the Kami Band burst into BABYMETAL DEATH. The girls get on stage. People go batshit. They run around pretending to be bumblebees or something and Gimme Chocolate! begins.

And here, on the main stage of Download Festival – The Lemmy Stage – is where it becomes crystal clear. Babymetal need to go. They are a novelty act. Yeah, all right, Karate is a tune and Su-Metal’s vocals are good, but aside from that, it all falls on the gimmick and it falls flat. The dance moves are amateurish, the metal is passable and that’s about it. It’s manufactured and designed to shift units, and that’s fine. But, even more so than Alien Ant Farm, it has no place at Download Festival, least of all in such a coveted spot that could have gone to a band that deserves the exposure.

The antithesis of Babymetal is Heck, who’ve pulled a decent crowd at the Maverick Stage. This is a real band. Yeah, they’re all over the place, climbing up the rigging and rolling around in the mud, but it’s not a gimmick. Mathcore-infused blasts of hardcore from their new album ‘Instructions’ are actual songs compared to the raggedy mess they spewed out under their former Baby Godzilla guise. Go see Heck, bang your head, sing along and please bring a crash helmet.

Photo credit: Heck by Ben Gibson/Download Festival
Photo credit: Heck by Ben Gibson/Download Festival

Back to the tent to change clothes, seeing as Converse and cargo shorts aren’t really doing the job. Christ, it’s so nice to feel the silkiness of an antibacterial wipe between the toes, the sensation of new socks, the comfort of this air mattress…Bollocks. Fell asleep. Missed Killswitch Engage. They were probably brilliant. They always are.

Back into the arena for the Lemmy tribute and it’s not, as some suspected, an all-star cast shredding through Motörhead classics. Nah, it’s just a video. A tasteful, classy tribute to the man. Large portions are culled from 2010’s Lemmy documentary, with a few extra segments thrown in by Lars Ulrich, Triple H and the like. Live footage elicits cheers all round and, even though everyone’s drenched, they’re out in masses to celebrate the icon, the musical bulldozer, the gentleman.

If anyone’s holding back tears following the Lemmy tribute, the moisture is wrung out by Korn. In a festival environment, nobody can touch this band. Well, except maybe Rammmstein, but we’ll get to that later. For now, Korn are the band of the day. Y’all Want A Single? Yes, please. We will take one hour of bouncy, groove-laden anthems.

All Time Low take to the Zippo Encore Stage and it’s barren. Which is a shame, because they open with Kids In The Dark and it’s a temporary remedy for trench foot. But, then again, nobody’s here because everyone’s over at the Lemmy Stage. Rammstein are on and, frankly, if you’re seeing something else, you’re wired wrong. This is it. Three years of absence, nothing really in the way of new material. The German industrial unit’s last show on UK soil was right here. Let’s see what else they’ve got for us.

Paul H. Landers and Richard Z. Kruspe descend on platforms from the top of the stage, chugging along to a standard riff. The whole band’s at it and then – darkness. The clicking of heels. A spotlight to the left of the stage, and there’s Till Lindemann, dressed like a Victorian pimp. It’s all very Vaudevillian, so extremely Rammstein. Till leads the audience into an overture of sorts – allegedly called Ramm 4 – and orchestrates the chorus of “Ja! Nein! Rammstein!” like it’s a staple.

And then Reise, Reise. Du Hast. Ich Will. The main centrepieces remain, as does the fire from the walls, ceiling, wings, masks, the keyboard player, Till’s jacket and anything else that can be set ablaze. The band are tight and Lindemann’s thundering, bassy vocals are powerful enough to send a grown man to the naughty step, but an annoying crackle pervades from one of the guitars without being fixed.

Technical niggle aside, this is flawless. The band decide to omit Mein Teil, Pussy and Benzin, instead replacing them with b-sides and rarities. Hallelujah is an absolute juggernaut and leaves you wondering why it was scrapped from ‘Mutter’, the cover of Stripped is gloriously sexy and a rare outing for Zerstören leaves casual fans scratching their heads. An acoustic Ohne Dich has the band perched on the stage’s lip like they’re around a campfire or something. It’s ridiculous. It can’t be real. There aren’t enough superlatives to sum this up, really. Unpredictable, ungodly and the best stage show on planet Earth. Ja.

Saturday

Photo credit: Black Sabbath by Ben Gibson/Download Festival
Photo credit: Black Sabbath by Ben Gibson/Download Festival

Brown scratch marks trailing down the tarpaulin. Mud or shit? Who knows? Who cares?

It’s Black Sabbath day.

A double-header of new(ish) UK talent assaults the Maverick Stage on this drizzly afternoon as Black Peaks and Turbowolf are up. The former boast the densest, beefiest racket since Mastodon released ‘Remission’ over a decade ago, losing none of their heaviness in the live environment, while the latter hit the stage like a bag of jelly beans splitting at the top of Everest. Turbowolf are sass personified, and it doesn’t matter that they don’t play American Mirrors. Their feel good, trippy rock ‘n’ roll is a reminder that the old can sound new and that, in fact, a conga line can be organised with ease on a muddy Saturday in the Midlands. Superb.

Another British twin attack over at the Dogtooth Stage now, with varying results. Milk Teeth’s scattershot, knee-scraping punk goes down an absolute treat, with punters straining their necks to have a peek inside the tent. Acoustic renditions from ‘Vile Child’ showcase Becky Blomfield’s gorgeous voice, but the same can’t be said for Dead!. Their intro tape is a clip from the That’s Not Metal podcast, in which hosts Terry Bezer and Stephen Hill lay into the band and call them “everything that’s wrong with art.”

It would be a pretty funny, middle finger move on the band’s behalf if they came on sounding like Tool and melted our faces, but that’s not the case. No, Hill and Beez were spot on: this is lowest common denominator, soulless pop-punk. Well, no, scrap the punk. It’s pop music with kinda grungy guitars, masquerading as rock music and performed with the transparency of Clingfilm. Nothing punk about it. Vocalist Alex Nelson addresses the crowd: “This is our first year at Download Festival and you’ve filled this tent up!” Nope. Ask someone how full the tent was for Milk Teeth.

Megadeth take to the Lemmy Stage and it’s pretty much business as usual: thrash metal classics interspersed with songs from whatever new record MegaDave is peddling these days. This year, it’s ‘Dystopia’, a step up from ‘Super Collider, which isn’t saying much. Aside from an abysmal rendition of an abysmal cover – Sex Pistols’ Anarchy In The UK – Megadeth survive. Mustaine keeps chit chat to a minimum – he still sounds like the Grinch – but Sweating Bullets and Holy Wars are fully banging.

Photo credit: Milk Teeth by Ross Silcocks/Download Festival
Photo credit: Milk Teeth by Ross Silcocks/Download Festival

Architects have pulled out due to a family emergency so it’s up to Against The Current to save the day at the Zippo Encore Stage. They don’t, really, and there are a lot of disgusted people with beards and tattoos walking away. They do the job they’re supposed to do – Paramore with a lot of the fun and innovation sucked out – but it’s just not a great fit for the festival, especially in Architects’ slot. Chrissy Costanza’s vocal performance is bang on and she’s clearly going to be a prominent pop-rock figure in years to come, but her stage banter comes off as arrogant rather than confident, especially when her band’s in this spot due to the misfortune of another act.

The average Skindred show is always going to be better than a sex sandwich, and the Donington faithful are hungry. There’s no space to scratch your arse, elbow or any other nook/cranny. The crowd goes wild. If there’s even a shred of justice left on this excuse of a planet, Skindred will command a similar slot on the main stage in years to come. But at the moment, we can’t breathe, so we escape the crush to pick up a falafel wrap and some churros. Not as good as Skindred, but they’ll do. More rain. More churros. The churros are now moist.

The riff. That riff. The riff that started it all. Black Sabbath, from the album ‘Black Sabbath’, by Black Sabbath. It’s the definitive heavy metal band saying farewell to old Donington Park. They’re going out on an extensive UK tour next year, but let’s not sour the mood. Tony Iommi and Geezer Butler churn out those colossal, bluesy riffs like they just wrote them yesterday. Children Of The Grave. Into The Void. Iron Man. Classics all night.

But it’s not a perfect show. Far from it, in fact. Bill Ward is still missed behind the kit. Tommy Clufetos is an ace drummer but he just smashes the shit out of his kit, rather than utilise any of the jazzy, subtle brushes Ward is famed for. Ozzy Osbourne’s a bit of a problem, too. He’s up and about, interacting with the crowd like the great frontman he is, but the bloke wouldn’t be able to hold a note if someone covered it in bubble wrap and gently placed it in his hands. It’s part of the charm, but you can’t give him a free pass. If this were a new band, they’d be slated. But it’s Sabbath. The songs. They’re just so iconic, man. Not even Osbourne’s wobbly vocals and Ward’s absence can properly take away from the magic this band conjures in a live environment.

Sunday

Photo credit: Frank Carter by Derek Bremmer/Download Festival
Photo credit: Frank Carter by Derek Bremmer/Download Festival

Everything’s broken. Mud everywhere. The Converse are fucked. Our lift home’s been stuck in gridlock for three hours. One of our party is ill. Sunday begins an omnishambolic failure, but the tail end of Frank Carter & The Rattlesnakes sets us right. The feral hellraiser is standing atop the crowd, spitting out his bluesy hardcore anthems and having them screamed right back at him. The Maverick Stage is heaving, everyone’s having a lovely time and I Hate You provides one of the loudest, most defiant singalongs of the weekend. Yes, Frank.

It’s been exactly five years to the day since Disturbed last played the UK – right here at Download, in fact – and the crowd standing before the Lemmy Stage is enormous. The nu metal bounce of hits like Down With The Sickness and Stupify cause ludicrous behaviour from all in attendance. Halfway through, chrome-domed, chin-pierced frontman David Draiman leads us into that hammy, overly-earnest cover of The Sound of Silence. Why is he sat on a stool? Why does Halestorm’s Lzzy Hale need to then come on and do a U2 cover? Why have they wheeled out poor Blaze Bayley for literally a minute? Why did they do that abysmal cover of Killing In The Name yet not play Stricken? So many questions and all we get is a succession of weird noises.

Billy Talent have us sorted, though. An hour of anthemic, punk-driven rock ‘n’ roll splendour. The Zippo Encore Stage’s audience is somewhat sparse, but that’s probably down to the large majority of people fucking off home. Because it’s raining again. Oh well, they’re missing out. This band is so tight. Clad in black and red, they look the shit as well as sounding it. From Devil In A Midnight Mass to Viking Death March, Billy Talent are on top form and even with key member Aaron Solowoniuk sitting out – he’s dealing with a relapse of multiple sclerosis, with Alexisonfire’s Jordan Hastings filling in on drums – they’re still one of the strongest bands of the weekend. And yes, we know they were on at the same time as Gojira. We get it. Gojira are the best band ever.

Straight up next are Jane’s Addiction, and while Dave Navarro is one of the best guitar players in the game, mixing heavy metal, alt-rock, psychedelia and all manners of other merriment with ease, it’s a bit uncomfortable watching Perry Farrell grind against semi-naked women as he sings. So we leave and watch Napalm Death desecrate the Dogtooth Stage. Barney Greenway’s electrocuted Dad dancing is always a showstopper, almost distracting you from the sheer intensity and consistent brilliance of the Brummie grindcore legends.

Photo credit: Disturbed by Ross Silcocks/Download Festival
Photo credit: Disturbed by Ross Silcocks/Download Festival

And then everything stops. Because nobody’s allowed to play while Iron Maiden are on. Bit greedy of them. Anyway, the obligatory UFO intro and ridiculous Eddie-themed video play. The Mayan stage set is revealed. The beginning of the beast.

Well, ‘beast’ is a strong word nowadays. Because Iron Maiden is not the all-conquering, all-knowing institution it once was – it just thinks it is. Any Maiden fan who tells you ‘The Book Of Souls’ is their best work this millennium is a dirty liar. It’s bloated, meandering prog and everyone’s telling Maiden it’s brilliant, so of course they decide to dedicate half the setlist to it. Some of the songs fit nicely – the opening salvo of If Eternity Should Fail and Speed of Light are sure stayers, but the rest of it can get in the bin. Climb like a monkey? Fuck off.

The posturing makes it too much to handle. Towards the end of the 13 minute The Red And The Black, is Adrian Smith, head jolted back with his mouth curved in an O, finishing off a guitar solo or himself? Bruce Dickinson’s as fit as a butcher’s dog but even he struggles to hit those high notes. But he thinks he’s the dog’s bollocks, doesn’t he? And so does most of the devoted crowd, lapping up his overly long, irreverent rants.

The classics are, of course, amazing. Hallowed Be Thy Name – which was missed on the Maiden England Tour – is an obvious highlight, but even Blood Brothers from ‘Brave New World’ sounds like a Cannibal Corpse song in comparison to some of the ‘Book of Souls’ material. It’s just stale, and, hogging half their stage time, it slows down the pace of a usually unstoppable band to the speed of gridlocked cars on the roads outside.

And back to the car. To civilisation. Download Festival, there’s been some ups, d(r)owns and absolutely smashing churros. We’ll be back next year. But please sort out this pissy weather, yeah?

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Slam Dunk Festival: Star Turns From Panic! At The Disco, Creeper Conquer Countless Queues

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“Mate, can I slam dunk it?” says a strapping young lad in a basketball vest, before blasting a ball of rubbish into an outstretched binbag. The litter-picking volunteer’s bemused features follow every rippling sinew, every bulging muscle.

There’s nothing else to do. Thousands of ill-dressed music fans lurk outside the University of Hertfordshire, their flappy ear tunnel things whistling in the wind. Goose-pimpled in their sleeveless shirts, starved of music and five minutes away from a celebrity-endorsed charity appeal, the Slam Dunk faithful shuffle through the gates as though Hot Topic were sponsoring March of the Penguins. There’s more queueing inside. The queue was for another queue. It’s queueception.

Soon, though, ska-punks Spunge are having it large on the Desperados Stage. Alex Copeland tells knob jokes that make All Time Low look like Stewart Lee, jumping around and insisting: “You can’t go wrong if you skank along.” Having been stood in a queue for hours and with only gory stumps remaining with which to skank, the back half of the crowd disagrees.

The poor lads in Chunk! No, Captain Chunk! appear to be geographically challenged. “Fuck yeah, London!” they shout. “How you doin’, London?” they ask the Hatfield crowd. The ludicrous turnout for their early slot on the Impericon Stage ensures maximum crowd participation and the band’s spasmodic, slightly jarring meld of pop/metal/hardcore/everythingelseyoucanthinkof is much stronger live. Still doesn’t make a lot of sense, mind.

Miss May I get the pit going, rolling out Relentless Chaos to tidy things up at the Atlas Stage. A heavy-set chap – a young rhino, a baby bulldozer, a wrecking ball made of bubble-wrap – charges through the toilet queue and sprints across the campus before the song ends. A woman waiting for the toilet gives up and just marches into the gents’. Good on her.

The University shop is selling festival essentials. It’s clever, because they’ve marked single cans of Budweiser up to £5 to comment on the filthy state of retail within the confines of festivals. Actually, no. Turns out it’s £5.

“Let’s try King 810 again but dial up the Korn influences and ditch the marketing strategy that was interesting but ultimately kinda screwed them,” says Cane Hill’s publicist. Probably. The Fresh Blood Stage hosts the band’s intense, violent brand of metal, where they’re essentially serving the same shit on a different plate: groovy, ‘90s nu-metal metal riffs with hip-hop swing, topped with a vocal that’s David Gunn in a cheese factory. We’ll wait until the full-length, ‘Smile’, to cast judgement.

Yellowcard are delivering their platinum pop-punk classic ‘Ocean Avenue’ in full on the Main Stage and, y’know what, it’s actually an album worth celebrating. We are at the point where Wheatus can tour their self-titled record and have it deemed an occasion, so the public has started to realise that the ‘playing [insert name here] in its entirety’ shtick is in dire need of quality control. But ‘Ocean Avenue’ is fully banging and, to be honest, you could watch it without ears and still have a lovely time. Sean Mackin is somewhere between Chas Smash and a third of Slipknot for most of their set, dicking about while wielding a violin and occasionally playing it.

A queue that leads to about three of the stages sprawls, giving zero thought to stage times or personal space. A wall of humans closes in. That scene with the squid in the garbage chute from Star Wars appears a breeze in comparison. The Starting Line are on but, given the rate of the queue’s progress, they’ll probably have split up, had mediocre solo careers, reformed for a lucrative sum of money and released a crap comeback album by the time anyone gets in to see them, so it’s straight up to the Fresh Blood Stage for Boston Manor. There are pits, there is pop-punk and a promising barrage of energy exuding from the Blackpudlian five-piece and, with only an EP and a brace of singles under their belts, it’s bloody wonderful to see so many punters supporting upcoming, home-grown talent.

And that theme continues with the next act: Creeper. We’re two years into their career and everyone knows every word. Stagediving is conducted as though there’s a pot of money and some Grindstore vouchers over the barrier. The entirety of Misery should really be called ‘Misery – Creeper ft. Audience’ and Will Gould is a right superstar, conducting the crowd, headbanging, grinning and basically succeeding in being all eras of Gerard Way packed into one convenient package with an extra sprinkling of sass.

Creeper’s three EPs are each incredible slices of goth-tinged pop-punk with lofty, grandiose ambition punching from the speakers. It’s Meat Loaf, it’s AFI, it’s Misfits. It’s fresher than salad served straight from a bush. The band’s ascension may have caused some scepticism but Gould and guitarist Ian Miles have been in bands together since they were teenagers. This is no overnight success. This is a musical behemoth and it’s going to steamroll through the planet like an iron-plated train covered in stickers of bats. Get on board.

Cancer Bats further indulge their Bat Sabbath alter-egos, opening with a cover of Children Of The Grave. It’s huge and, followed by Hail Destroyer, it’s astonishing when you realise how far the Bats have come since ‘Birthing The Giant’. Liam Cormier bounces around, shaved head vibrating, screaming every syllable as though it’s blocking his windpipe. Everything’s heavier – even the early, punkier material is beefed up. It’s Black Sabbath. It’s Discharge. It’s crushing, and a real shame that the Slam Dunk audience isn’t packing out the Impericon Stage for this proper, genuine band.

Brendon Urie’s shirtless. Of course he is. Brendon Urie does a backflip. Of course he does. Brendon Urie adlibs Every Time I Die’s Organ Grinder. Of course he does. Panic! At The Disco is now essentially ‘Urie & Friends’, but when it sounds this great…do you really care?

The band’s latest record, ‘Death Of A Bachelor’, is essentially what Fall Out Boy tried with ‘American Beauty/American Psycho’ but, well, it actually works. Its massive pop songs are cut with smatterings of Queen, Sinatra and the like. New ones Hallelujah and Victorious receive two of the biggest reactions of the night and, for a band as established as Panic!, that’s no mean feat. But only one song from ‘Pretty. Odd’? Boo.

BANG. Fire erupts from the Main Stage. There are some more backflips. There are flashing lights and strobes and it all looks proper lovely. There’s that cover of Bohemian Rhapsody that really shouldn’t work but kinda still does. Urie’s got a cold but that doesn’t matter – his high notes are still ludicrously perfect, his energy levels could power your house until you die and, for a man with a hacking cough, he’s one hell of a gymnast. Panic! are finally heading to bigger UK venues this winter and, judging by this outing, they’re going to own it.

There’s a massive queue for the shuttle bus back to the train station. Well, shit.

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