HARD ROCK HELL NWOBHM
02 ACADEMY SHEFFIELD
It’s clear that the inaugural HRH NWOBHM festival has piggy-backed on or at least benefited from Brofest’s ability to persuade long-defunct bands to reform. Of the army of acts on the two-day line-up, many have already trodden the Brofest boards. But a good idea is a good idea, and the bands themselves are unlikely to care whether they’re revisiting their glory years in Newcastle, Nuneaton, Newport or – for the next 48 hours – right here in Sheffield. While London has a proud NWOBHM history of its own, it’s somehow fitting to witness this particular event taking place beyond the rapacious event horizon of the Capital. Even during the winter of discontent from which the NWOBHM sprang, the regions – in this case the former mining and heavy industrial hub of South Yorkshire – laboured under an investment and infrastructure deficit when compared to London and the South East in general. Sheffield may have come a long way since 1979, and avoided being nuked a la ‘Threads’, but in the frozen half-light of a December dusk, it’s all too easy for the mind to time-hop back to the bleaker days of Saxon’s ‘Hungry Years’.
As is often the case at NWOBHM get-togethers, the North East contingent are extremely well represented, and as Fist round off day one’s merriment on the second stage, Black Rose drop the curtain in the main hall. Loosely dividing the NWOBHM into three phases – early, mid, and late – we can place Black Rose in the ‘mid’ category, their 1984 debut ‘Boys Will Be Boys’ a blend of boisterous boys own bravura and drive-time riffage. Welsh veterans Persian Risk are an early highlight, impressing long-time fans and newcomers alike. As well as being an affable and eminently capable frontman, vocalist Carl Sentance has kept his chops in shape over the years, not least during stints with Krokus and Nazareth, and he’s arguably singing better than ever. Tunes from the band’s 1986 debut and sole original album such as ‘Dark Tower’, ‘Women And Rock’ and fist-pumping title track ‘Rise Up’ blend with early single cuts and more recent tracks to form a truly scintillating set.
That Mansfield’s own Witchfynde follow Persian Risk with such consummate ease merely confirms the class of both acts. During another rapturously-received set, the band – helmed by founding guitarist Montalo and featuring bassist Pete Surgey, drummer Gra Scoresby and frontman Luther Beltz – blaze through a brace of occult-laced classics, captivating the crowd, many of whom have travelled from around Europe – and further still – to worship at the altar of the Old School. ‘Give ‘Em Hell’, ‘Stage Fright’, ‘Cloak and Dagger’, ‘I’d Rather Go Wild’, ‘Moon Magic’ and many, many more… it’s easy to forget just how many great songs Witchfynde actually have.
Blitzkrieg are never anything less than solid on stage, but the upward peer pressure pounding from all sides drives them to deliver the best your correspondent has seen from them in some time. Better, even, than their 2016 showing at Brofest. The golden oldies are here of course – the mandatory ‘Blitkrieg’ and the epic ‘A Time Of Changes’ (vocalist Brian Ross’s favourite Blitzkrieg song) – while newer numbers hit harder and strike surer than their studio counterparts. And the wily old pro Ross himself is, as always, in fine voice. No-one would or could deny Jess Cox his place in NWOBHM history, but tonight the one-time Tygers Of Pan Tang frontman stages a shamefully shambolic performance, ransacking his dignity with chaotic car-crash renditions of early Tygers tunes. His backing band seem competent enough but Cox appears drunk as a skunk, alternately mumbling and yelling his way through a thankfully brief set.
Has there ever been a multi-day metal festival headlined by all-girl bands? If so, we can’t recall it, so history is perhaps being made here. Anyone starting to flag during Jess Cox’s set is given a sharp kick up the ass by the recently-reformed Rock Goddess, the trail-blazing trio who weren’t far behind Girlschool in terms of giving the guys a real run for their rock ‘n’ roll money. And let’s face it, there’s always been something uniquely satisfying about watching women wield what in the hands of most men is at base level an amped-up phallic symbol. In the event, the girls prowl the place like predators, owning the stage and cranking out a seamless clutch of old favourites and tracks from their forthcoming comeback album. And Jody Turner’s voice? She could still sing her way through the phone book and make it sound raunchy.
After a no-show by London retro merchants Wytch Hazel it falls to Bristol bruisers Jaguar to kick-start the festivities by tearing up the second stage. Now fronted by Night Demon vocalist Jarvis Leatherby following the departure of the pogo-sticking Jamie Manton (who, to be honest, always seemed like something of a liability), the four-piece are back at their frenetic best, a selection of recent material seguing seamlessly with favourites from their immortal 1983 debut ‘Power Games’. Necks snapping and beer flying at three in the afternoon; things could hardly have got off to a better start. Mythra‘s legendary 1979 EP ‘Death & Destiny’ is widely regarded – if it’s not a contradiction in terms – as one of the unsung gems of the NWOBHM, and the band themselves as a classic case of potential unfulfilled. The ubiquity of the Interwebs may have made material by once-obscure outfits available to all, but actually witnessing bands like Mythra in the flesh remains an all-too-rare event and one to be welcomed. Weighty and well-constructed, their material goes down a storm.
Cloven Hoof have cut some truly awesome stuff during their long if intermittent career, and on stage, they can be equally formidable. Today, however, a couple of little niggles somewhat take the shine off an otherwise powerful performance. Current vocalist George Call does a sterling job of course, but the rich, resonant tones of his predecessor Russ North prove hard to replace. Although not the band’s original singer, North’s voice became firmly associated with them through albums such as ‘Dominator’ and ‘A Sultan’s Ransom’ and its presence here is missed. The real gripe, however, is with the godawful guitar tone, a thin, teeth-grinding buzz from the worst days of all-in-one effects processors. Fist are perhaps best known for their 1980 debut 7” ‘Name, Rank & Serial Number’, one of the first releases on the legendary Neat label. However, they also put out a pair of quality albums back in the day – 1980’s ‘Turn the Hell On’ and 1982’s ‘Back With a Vengeance’ – which nicely showcase their blend of blues-tinged rock and street metal, and this rare showing goes down nicely in the second stage room now jam packed with half-cut headbangers. A couple of trivia nuts in the crowd even remember when axeman Dave Irwin briefly pulled live duty with Venom after Mantas quit in ’86.
Day two on the second stage gets underway courtesy of Quartz, a band who somewhat fell between the cracks for many metallers of later generations, but whose output is consistently good. Their return has served as a reminder that they should not be overlooked by any student of the NWOBHM. Formed by ex-Angel Witch bassist Kevin Riddles and drummer Dave Dufort, Tytan are another band who dissolved before they’d barely got going. A generally more straightforward, more melodic proposition than Angel Witch, their 1985 debut album ‘Rough Justice’ showed tremendous promise, and recent live appearances have cemented their class. Not only do they know how to write a riff, the sound on stage is tremendous too. With just three singles to their name back in the day, for many moons Trespass benefited – is that’s actually the appropriate word – from the scarcity factor which helped to inflate interest in the record collecting scene in which the NWOBHM loomed so large. Unlike many of the alleged ‘lost legends’ of the time, however, Trespass didn’t in fact turn out to be piss-poor punk or pub rock, and numbers such as ‘One of These Days’ and have definitely stood the test of time.
As a act who can raise eyebrows among the uninitiated, Stampede are an interesting proposition. Although their 1982 EP ‘Days of Wine and Roses’ is something of a NWOBHM staple, their 1983 debut album ‘Hurricane Town’ presented a decidedly sophisticated face. The band – featuring erstwhile Grand Slam and UFO axeman Laurence Archer – combine impeccable chops with tasteful restraint to carve out a pleasing counterpoint to the pedal-to-the-metal performances on offer elsewhere.
Getting the party started on the main stage, Tokyo Blade make for a breezy and upbeat overture. Rather like Persian Risk, they were from the get go one of those image conscious NWOBHM bands with a slick edge and one eye on Stateside success. Line-up instability and a perhaps inevitable lunge just one step too far over the commercial line ultimately scuppered any such mainstream dreams, but like the majority of their peers, all now older and in some cases wiser, Tokyo Blade are well aware of which side their bread is buttered on, a fact reflected in a solid, crowd-pleasing set. Demon always placed themselves toward the more erudite end of the NWOBHM spectrum, their penchant for death, devilment and demonic imagery tempered by stellar song-writing, disarming melodies and, as their career developed, pronounced progressive leanings. Along with Witchfynde (and Pagan Altar, Hell, and other cohorts not appearing this weekend), they helped make occult rock in the 1980s more than mere bargain basement Satanic shenanigans. No surprise, then, that they stage a spectacular show simply dripping with quality and panache, and while selections from their first two outings – 1981’s Night Of The Demon’ and 1982’s ‘The Unexpected Guest’ – elicit the best response, recent offerings scarcely slacken the pace, while material from 1984’s ‘The Plague’ – controversial and much maligned at the time – has aged remarkably well. Original guitarist Mal Spooner will always be missed, but frontman Dave Hill’s voice remains purest magic.
Ebony Records brought us many so-called ‘late’ NWOBHM acts, and their best-selling signing Grim Reaper remain the best known by some considerable margin. In many ways, their brief stint in the American sun was both a career high point and their undoing, but today all that remains are original vocalist Steve Grimmett – who famously fell into the ranks of UK thrashers Onslaught back in ’88 – and a stack of killer cuts from their original trio of studio albums: ‘See You in Hell’ (1983), ‘Fear No Evil’ (1985), and ‘Rock You to Hell’ (1987). While it would have been nice to see original six-stringer Nick Bowcott strutting the boards today, Grimmett has undoubtedly assembled a very strong backing band who spur the burly frontman into delivering a show which takes even hardened fans by surprise.
In terms of transatlantic tunefulness Chrome Molly lie several steps beyond even Tokyo Blade and Persian Risk, and they feel ever so slightly shoe-horned onto the bill. No such doubts about Vardis however, mainman Steve Zodiac deploying one of the best guitar tones of the weekend to deliver a belting set of ball-busting blues rock. It’s vintage power trio stuff from the Motorhead and ZZ Top school of less-is-more. Speaking of which, it’ll be a while before we hear three blokes make quite the glorious racket that Venom Inc. whip up and without a shadow of a doubt they bag the prize for performance of the festival. Going for the throat with a vicious rendition of ‘Rip Ride’, the sheer intensity oozing from the stage is pushed to the limit by the full pint of beer which connects with Mantas’ head before gushing down over his torso and guitar. To say he doesn’t look best pleased would be pitting it mildly, but his aggression flows into the songs which honestly sound better than ever. Nothing’s aired from 1985’s rather overlooked ‘Possessed’ album, but only the most cowardly curmudgeon would dare complain having watched the boys play their asses off and hand ours to us on a silver platter.
On one level, headliners Girlschool can’t really follow Venom Inc., so they don’t bother trying to pull any fancy tricks. Much like their Wacken show last year, they feed off the ton of goodwill hurled their way and an audience who are both massively up for it and surprisingly familiar with their songs. Guitarist/vocalist Kim McAuliffe, guitarist Jackie Chambers and bassist Enid Williams all take their turn in the spotlight, and their one-two punch-in-the-guts approach makes for a fitting finale to a fine weekend.
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