Monday, November 13, 2006

Live - Unholy Alliance

Unholy Alliance #2 – Palais Omnisports de Bercy, Paris 7th November 2006

The idea behind touring multi-band packages like this is that fans get the chance to witness several different acts within the same genre without having to attend several different gigs in order to do so – the obvious drawback is that if there’s a band on the bill that you’re not interested in, you’ve still got to shell out for their set whilst you stand in the bar. No such danger exists with this year’s leg of the Unholy Alliance though, with the enticing prospect of six quality purveyors of the fine art of heavy metal making sure that the floor stays full while the beer and T-shirt stalls find themselves relatively unsolicited for most of the night. We’re also faced with a more cosmopolitan line-up than last time, with bands from Finland, Sweden, Canada, France and the US making up the tour’s roster, so clearly a most enriching evening is in store for all.

Upon entering the venue around half five in the afternoon, a suspicious rumbling from the main arena suggests that Canada’s Thine Eyes Bleed have already begun practicing their art. Sure enough, they are ploughing headfirst into a potent thrash/death attack by the time I get in there, and the appreciative crowds down at the front prove that it’s not too early in the day for a pit. Whilst their muscular riffery and guttural vocal onslaught does little to distinguish them from thousands of other North American acts on a similar ilk, it has to be said that these guys have their act wound tight enough to turn heads even when placed alongside their peers – they could have easily slacked off as the opening act playing to a half-empty venue, but once they hit their stride they appear comfortable enough playing this arena stage that you could almost believe they’re headlining the night. A delightful splattering of guts to start the proceedings.

A late addition to the bill due to their status as homecoming heroes (though when you’re talking about a band from the Basque country playing a gig in Paris, it’s hardly on their doorstep), France’s Gojira slot in nicely alongside the other acts to provide a hearty dose of bowel-quaking death metal. Their chosen genre often proves way too constrictive for most bands, but Gojira’s success stems from their choice to forge their own identity as laidback, eco-friendly headbangers with a potent death metal delivery that quakes the very foundations of the venue. I rejoin the assembled masses on the floor for the first time to experience all this, and once you’re down there it’s positively overwhelming to feel their earthquake death metal rumble out across the crowd like giant, tumbling waves of noise. DM bands often place all-out hair flailing enthusiasm over any kind of personality that might set themselves apart from the rest of the scene, but the nice thing about Gojira is that it’s precisely their status as outsiders which has seen them develop such a following, and tonight the crowd accords them a warm, grateful reception as the sole Gallic influence on this most international of events in the metal calendar. As the final vibrations fade from Bercy after their exit, the French can feel well-represented in tonight’s encounter.

We go back across the Atlantic now as Maryland’s Lamb of God hit the stage with their stadium-friendly mosh metal to an enthusiastic crowd - indeed, expectations are high for this relatively rare chance to witness the band on European soil, compounded by a series of essential releases and a sterling reputation as one of modern metal’s best live draws. However, with the bar set so high it was always going to be a case of do or die, and as the set progresses you start to feel the initial burst of energy generated by their arrival on stage gradually dissipate as they fail to pull the crowd into their slipstream. As natural inheritors to Pantera’s crown as kings of rootsy, black-hearted American metal, you expect the band to flatten the place with a relentless barrage of bovine brutality, but despite the odd moment of hair-flailing abandon from the guitar players you get the impression that the band are running on slightly low batteries. Whilst their records seem to be tailor made to soundtrack sweaty moshpit bedlam, tonight most of the material just disappears into the atmosphere without ever fully connecting – once or twice they hit the mark, most notably with ‘Now you’ve got something to die for’, but even a closing ‘Black Label’ (minus the fabled wall of death, tellingly) can’t stop this from ending in stalemate. Were they on too early? Were they all knackered? Did they get a couple of dodgy croissants on the rider? Whatever the reason behind tonight’s luke-warm showing, let’s hope they can come back another time and pave over the cracks like we were all expecting them to.

After an introduction to the soundtrack of background lounge music, Children of Bodom rip into ‘Silent Night, Bodom Night’ and it rapidly becomes apparent that they are in safer territory. The Finns’ brand of Euro-friendly melodic thrash sprinkled with various Nintendo synth noises proves an immediate hit amongst those who don’t know them already, whilst seasoned fans lap up the chance to go seriously bonkers down the front. Whilst other bands in their genre can come across as achingly morose, COB make it clear that they’re in this for a laugh with the OTT sparkle of their keyboard driven metal assault proving difficult to resist, and even those who find the whole thing a bit corny end up banging their heads by the end. The setlist covers their various studio albums evenly (although let’s face it, said records are all pretty interchangeable) and the overall vibe is one of over-bearing festivity. The only downside is frontman Alexi Laiho’s moronic stage banter – you get the impression that when this fellow was learning English, he opened the dictionary at ‘F’ and pretty much stopped there….

The competition for best entrance of the night has been in full sway since we began, and I think we can safely say when the ‘Night Rider’ theme music jack-knifes into In Flames’ frontal assault over a background of blue neon grid lighting, the race for the title has been comfortably won. What’s more, their set proves to be the night’s most entertaining and well-handled of the evening – being only vaguely familiar with their material, I chose to hang back for this one but soon wished I was on the floor hanging on every note like their considerable following front of stage. The Swedes are a classic example of what makes their countrymen so annoying – they manage to deliver the most potent, thrill-packed set of the evening without looking like they’re even going out of their way to do so. Frontman Anders Friden makes a refreshing change to his predecessors tonight, resisting the urge to pour forth obscenities and desperate requests for the crowd to shout louder or mosh more vigorously, and he cuts a fine figure as an amiable master of ceremonies in between bouts of screaming his dreadlocks off. The band crank out extracts from their considerable back catalogue (which I shall now be checking out more thoroughly) and the lighting rigs which they appear to have nicked from some Scandinavian gameshow only add to this wholly pleasant battering of the senses. If there’s any fault to their showing tonight, it’s that it’s TOO flawless – the poppy likes of ‘Cloud Connected’ lack the vitriol and violence of some of tonight’s other contenders, but it’s small beef in the face of what is otherwise tonight’s undisputed highlight.

Which of course means that leading lights Slayer are…..well, a little average to be perfectly honest. Of course, the metal overlords on average form are still a lot better than most of their peers firing on all cylinders, but once the standard ‘Disciple/War Ensemble’ opening couplet is dispatched to bouts of Tazmanian Devil style pit mayhem, we find ourselves like hungry beasts waiting for the next chunk of meat to be thrown in. Trouble is, instead of picking from the massive stockpile of choice cuts from their back catalogue, they choose to fling out nut cutlets in the shape of four tracks from average newie ‘Christ Illusion’ and the slower, creepier numbers from their standard setlist. OK, we would have felt a bit cheated without ‘South of Heaven’, but would anyone seriously complain if they didn’t trot out ‘Dead Skin Mask’ or ‘Mandatory Suicide’ for the nth time? Where’s all the fast shit? Granted, ‘Chemical Warfare’, ‘Raining Blood’ and the devilish boogie of ‘Die by the Sword’ give the assembled throng plenty to fling themselves around to, but overall you can’t help feeling that longtime fans are probably counting the number of favourites they didn’t hear tonight rather than the show’s highlights. The band’s decision to spend ages getting ready for the next song while Tom Araya grins at the crowd doesn’t do anything to add to the momentum, and you start to wonder what has happened to the relentless energy these guys produced when they graced the same stage two years ago. This writer witnessed perhaps the best gig of his miserable little life that night, and so perhaps tonight was always going to pale in comparison but you can’t help but think of the wasted potential from a band with the power to turn groups of civilised human beings into flailing masses of drooling lunatics with the drop of a powerchord. I remember getting spun 360° across a strobe-flickered slampit to ‘Angel of Death’ back in 2004 and feeling like the roof might cave in at any moment – tonight, Slayer would do well to spill people’s drinks halfway back in the crowd. It’s not a total letdown, but as we file out into the November evening air there’s a pervasive feeling that tonight’s final feast of metal was ever so slightly undercooked.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Happy Halloween!!

Hope you all had a lovely Halloween.
xxx John