It is widely believed to have been the American/Canadian band, Steppenwolf, who popularised the term, “heavy metal.” The phrase can be found on their 1968, self-titled album, among the lyrics to Born to Be Wild. In fact, it was John Kay who sang the immortal line, “I like smoke and lightning, heavy metal thunder.” It caused a generation to sit up, take notice and use the term to describe an ever-growing genre of exciting, electrifying and intense music.
Years later, many of us can still relate to these elements. The smoke, The lighting. The “heavy metal thunder.” It keeps us coming back into halls, venues, clubs and stadiums. We can’t get enough of the volume and musical power that emanates from the stages and the sound systems of our towns and cities. Time and again, we happily hand over our hard-earned money for tickets, so we can walk into big rooms to feel the walls move and the floors vibrate.
This is the thought I’m having as Jann Hillrichs – Nailed to Obscurity’s youthful-looking drummer – hammers out the booming introduction to the band’s opening song, Black Frost. His drums are reverberating around London’s Kentish Town Forum, pulsating our chests, shaking the air, and locking into a powerful groove that draws those in the room closer to the stage. It’s a gigantic sound that the German band is using with great effect to command the attention of the arriving crowd. The emphasis here, is on the word, “arriving.” It’s an early start tonight, and consequently, the venue is still only modestly full as Hillrichs’ bandmates join in with a steady, grinding oscillation. Not put off by the space in the room, the band’s vocalist – Raimund Ennenga – croons over the musician’s widening crescendo and builds his melody towards a formidable growl that ushers in an explosion of gothic guitar lines that weave around the verses, lifting the song towards its conclusion and into the metallic chug of, Protean. By the time the second song ends, the venue has filled considerably.
It’s encouraging to see a steady flow of metalheads making their way through the doors and towards the performance occurring on the stage. It’s a testament to the organisers that for this tour, they’ve curated a four-band lineup that no one seems to want to miss. New songs, Liquid Mourning and Clouded Frame are played to a packed house and the cheers that greet the end of each track make it clear how much enthusiasm the crowd has for Nailed to Obscurity’s steady, doom-influenced melo-death. It’s a strong start to a highly anticipated night and the band looked just as pleased as the crowd as they sign off with the energetic bounce of Desolate Ruin.
While the stage is being set for the next performance, I take the opportunity to enjoy a beer and have a look around. My attention is drawn to the array of battle jackets being worn in the crown and the different patches stitched onto them. As people hurry past me, disappearing deeper into the crowd I see a large number have the words, “Dark Tranquillity” on their vests, among other metal classics. It’s a clear indication that many people in the room are only minutes away from seeing a firm favourite band of theirs. Sure enough, there is a rapturous cheer as Dark Tranquillity spring onto the stage and fire themselves into their first song – Identical to None.
Considering the Swedes have forged their 30-year career in a furnace of blackened riffs and furious blast beats, I find it surprising how happy and jovial Dark Tranquillity seem onstage. There’s no moody posturing here. None of the aloofness can be associated with extreme metal. Instead, frontman, Mikael Stanne, bounds across the stage wearing a satisfied grin as the fans shout their approval, throw their hands up and sing the lyrics back at him. It’s a happy reciprocation of the positive energy coming from the stage. Stanne knows he is preaching to the converted tonight. Lost to Apathy and What Only You Know barely need an introduction. The crowd simply recognises and responds to each track as if they are greeting old, familiar friends. Enjoying the firm connection, Stanne teases us with a guessing game, daring us to anticipate the next song – “This next one is a title track…?” he says, quizzing us, before the band launches into an uplifting rendition of Atoma.
Contributing to the performance is a huge, digital backdrop that Dark Tranquillity are using to add a stadium-sized flare to the proceedings. On the screen, images drift past, glowing shapes morph into psychedelic patterns, sparks fly, and different themes are portrayed. At one point it appears to rain behind the band while they drive out another set of crunching riffs, mining their back catalogue for a diverse setlist. Cathode Ray Sunshine and Hours Passed in Exile are both drawn from the twenty-year-old Damage Done album. Each track sounding as fresh and full of vigour as it did on release – which provides a good summary of Dark Tranquillity’s approach. 30 years in and the band are a good distance along their trajectory. A classic melo-death band; easily one of the forebears of the scene, yet tonight, there isn’t an ounce of a suggestion that they take this for granted. Everyone on stage is performing with the energy and enthusiasm of a much younger band; A band with everything to prove. When they close their set with the raucous, crowd participation sing-along of Misery’s Crown, I feel like a lot of people could go home at this point feeling satisfied with the evening they’ve had – However, there is, of course, much more to come.
In fact, “more,” is a bit of an understatement when it comes to the next band on tonight’s lineup. The folk metal nonet, Eluveitie, are – even if you only take the number of musicians into account – the absolute definition of the word. Intrigued by a perplexing selection of instruments lined up on the stage, I watch the road crew as they busy themselves with a Celtic harp that needs to be sound checked and a quiver full of tin whistles and burkes that is being attached to the central mic stand. It seems for a metal band, Eluveitie has anything but a conventional lineup, and as a result, my expectations are completely open. But nothing could really prepare me for the sight and sounds of the Swiss band in full flight.
As numerous musicians cascade onto the stage, I notice Carmen Busch, with a violin, taking her place among the more traditionally equipped band members, and of course, Annie Riediger, positioned stage-left, is turning the crank on her hurdy-gurdy! As I try to take it all in, my focus is snatched straight into the centre by the savage roar of Chrigel Glanzmann, giving a full-throated call to arms that leads the band into their latest single, Exile of the Gods. In keeping with their more-is-more theme, the band’s second vocalist, Fabienne Erni takes the lead on this track, leaving Glanzmann to forcefully strum out rhythms on a mandola – another unorthodox instrument that leaves me thinking Eluveitie are indeed, a unique band in the heavy metal pantheon. They hit an early stride and Fabienne’s powerful voice is tailor-made to carry the song’s rousing chorus upwards, into the peaks of the venue.
Keeping the energy levels high, the musicians’ cycle onwards, through the songs, Nil and Deathwalker, and I consider how integrated everything sounds. With so many musicians laying their textures onto the songs, it would be easy to expect a jarring mess – instead, the band sounds perfectly balanced as legato violin lines blend into guitar solos and tin whistle melodies – occasionally cutting back to allow Riediger’s percussive, hurdy-gurdy riffs to cut through the heavy music and propel everything forward.
In other moments, Eluveitie pared their sonic tapestry back, taking some time to showcase the individual skills of the band members. Midway through the set, standing alone onstage, Jonas Wolfe peels out a dexterous guitar solo. Then further into the performance, Alain Ackerman gives the crown an impressive drum showcase. Finally, perhaps the most breathtaking of all is Fabienne’s turn. While standing up, next to her Celtic harp, she demonstrates the haunting power of her acapella singing on the track, Anu.
Overall, I’m impressed with Eluveitie’s passion and commitment to their performance. There isn’t a moment in their set that doesn’t include something interesting or exciting to focus on, and most importantly of all, none of the extra elements gets in the way of what is also a collection of hard-hitting, heavy metal songs. It’s safe to say the crowd agree because they make enough noise for the band to return for three more songs. Aidus, Ategnatos and Inis Mona are the final lively turns in what has been a worthy headlining show; but tonight, is a double headliner and we still have the mighty Amorphis to come – so, it’s back to the bar to refill my beer glass.
When the Finnish band casually take their place on the Forum’s stage, it is to a hero’s welcome. The venue is as full up as I’ve ever seen it – it is wall-to-wall with people in here, and it seems every one of them is making as much noise as possible to welcome Amorphis on stage as they crank into the pounding double punch of Northwards, straight into the uplifting, On the Dark Waters – both lifted from this year’s Halo album.
Visually, Amorphis cut a more traditional profile than the preceding band, and it does take a moment to reacclimatise from the visual tornado of Eluveitie back to the more streamlined presentation of a six-piece band – but sonically, Amorphis have enough confidence in their delivery and strength in their material to come across every bit as epic. When the chorus of Death of a King soars over the crowd, the ensuing participation is a moment of affirming connection that unites the crowd to the song and brings to mind the powerful sense of camaraderie that is so often found in music.
This upbeat mood is carried into Silver Bride, for which the keyboard player, Santeri Kallio picks out his infectious hook to draw everyone into the lurching bounce of the song’s verses. On this track, the always-versatile Tomi Joutsen keeps his delivery clean, right up until the final moments, when he switches to his incredible death metal growl to emphasise the song’s climax and usher us towards Into Hiding, a throwback to the band’s classic, Tales from a Thousand Lakes album.
This is one of two tracks to be taken from Amorphis’s debut. The other played later in the set, is Black Winter Day, which receives one of the biggest cheers of the night, but not before the band have reminded us how their songwriting has developed and diversified since their death metal beginnings. Wrong Direction is a gothic pop tune that swirls towards a dramatic mid-section before lifting off again into a final glorious surge. Then we get two powerful tracks from the band’s most recent album. Despite both being released this year, The Moon and Seven Roads Come Together already sound like classic Amorphis tracks. Alongside each other, they perfectly demonstrate Tomi Joutsen’s ability to switch from a savage death metal growl to an invigorating, melodic baritone with ease. His transitions are so clear that if you closed your eyes, you would swear there were two vocalists onstage.
Letting his impressive voice speak for itself, Tomi plants himself front and centre for most of the set. The music swirls around him, and Kallio brings in an array of textures, using synths and organs to embellish the driving rhythms and Esa Holopainen’s excellent solo work.
Amorphis really are master songwriters, and tonight feels very much like a celebration of their ability to craft heavy tracks that smash and exhilarate in equal measures. This is further evidenced by the crushing, eastern-flavoured riffs of, The Bee and the band’s final performance of the night, House of Sleep.
The time has flown past, and there is no encore once the final refrain fades into the appreciative cheers of the crowd. Instead, Amorphis bid us farewell, and leave us to head off into the night, undoubtedly with any number of earworms from tonight’s set running around in our heads.
The clear triumph of tonight’s gig has been the consistent quality of all four bands on the lineup. Amorphis, Eluveitie, Dark Tranquillity and Nailed to Obscurity put on a series of top-level, world-class performances, and I would happily see any of them live again. I’ll give an emphatic recommendation that they all go on your “ones-to-see-live” list if you haven’t caught them already.