Live Review: Agent Fresco, Belgrave Music Hall, 22nd November 2015

Agent Fresco - Belgrave Hall - 22nd Nov 2015
Agent Fresco, Belgrave Music Hall, Leeds, 22nd November

Witnessing Lost Ground, Cleft and the incredible Agent Fresco at Belgrave Music Hall in Leeds on Sunday evening was akin to witnessing the destruction of all the hoary old myths surrounding technical and progressive music in one fell swoop. Even today, assessors of the scene still occasionally trot out cliché-ridden, by-numbers reviews of music that is damned faintly as too cerebral, too serious, too outré, too cold; a conclusion that is, certainly on tonight’s evidence, ridiculously wide of the mark.

Yorkshire trio Lost Ground delivers an emotive set of alternative math rock to an appreciative audience. Sublime chord progressions, propulsive grooves, wigged out time signatures and hearts on sleeves are the order of the day. An increased stage presence would, to these eyes and ears, take the band to the next level, but it’s a very minor quibble and James Akbar’s fluid drumming particularly impresses.

Cleft describe themselves as making 2-piece turbonoise speed-prog. The description is spot-on. Theirs is an electric brand of high energy, mind-bending rock n’ roll, featuring judicious use of loops and samples to flesh out their sound and sustain atmospheric interludes in amongst the calliope-tech-rock. Importantly, the duo’s set is also cut through with massive amounts of humour. Taking their music seriously, the pair never take themselves seriously, and it’s a joy to behold.

And so to tonight’s headliners, Iceland’s Agent Fresco.

Following the band’s critically lauded 2010 LP, A Long Time Listening, and the release of this year’s stunning follow up, Destrier – described by an enamoured fan in the front row of the Belgrave crowd, entirely accurately, as ‘outrageously good’ – it’s difficult to understand how Agent Fresco don’t have a higher profile in the UK. This show is, in fact, their UK headline debut following a stripped back acoustic set at this year’s TechFest.

Nevertheless, on a freezing cold Sunday evening in Yorkshire, the band have enough good-standing to draw a couple of hundred people out in to the winter night to witness a consummate performance of some of the most fearless, defiant and emotionally cathartic rock music you’re likely to hear all year.

Agent Fresco really are a band that defy categorisation, the ‘progressive’ tag somehow not truly managing to encompass the elements of pop, rock, metal, electronic and classical music that they successfully incorporate into their inspired and inspiring music.

However you label them, frontman Arnór Dan Arnarson is quickly able to simultaneously lose himself in his committed and emotional performance and yet still manage to take the rest of us with him. Stalking the stage with an excitable and nervous energy, he switches almost effortlessly between passages of delicate vocal prowess and a full on metallic scream as the mix of material from A Long Time Listening and Destrier demand.

His bandmates are equally impressive, Vignir Rafn Hilmarsson at times throwing his bass around like a trident, thrusting and slashing as if at an imaginary adversary that he plans to strike down with the power of music, and Hrafnkell Örn Guðjónsson beats on his drums as if his very life depended upon it. Only Þórarinn Guðnason gives a less immediately kinetic performance, and yet somehow is no less powerful for it, his relative stillness managing to convey a preternatural strength, like a still pond that nevertheless runs spectacularly deep.

Arnór Dan frequently takes time between performances to help the audience understand the context of key songs such as “A Long Time Listening”, “Wait For Me”, “See Hell”, and “Dark Water”, recalling his state of mind at the time of each song’s writing with eloquence, insight and good humour. It adds an additional layer of connection and understanding between band and gig-goer alike.

After an extraordinary, solid hour and a half of this spellbinding spectacle, the vocalist and songwriter takes time out to thank the crowd profusely and namecheck some of the key members of crew who have finally managed to bring Agent Fresco to the UK. He and the band’s gratitude are palpable, and the sweaty, smiling crowd – some of whom have been singing and screaming every syllable back to the stage – seem equally appreciative.

That recent album Destrier is essentially the sound of a man navigating his emotional response to being the victim of an act of physical violence (the album draws specifically upon Arnór Dan Arnarson’s assault that left him bloodied, battered and with a broken eye socket) seems entirely fitting in these troubled times. That the experience of witnessing this incredible band live should prove to be as powerful and cathartic for the audience as it might have been for Agent Fresco in making said album seems only just. It may be the band’s first real foray in to the UK, but based on this remarkably fine performance, it certainly won’t be their last.

Agent Fresco continue on their UK tour:
Nov 23rd: Glasgow, Ivory Blacks
Nov 24th: Milton Keynes, Craufurd Arms
Nov 25th: London, Dingwalls

Read our recent interview with Agent Fresco’s frontman Arnór Dan Arnarson here.

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Live Review: Jon Gomm, The Jazz Cafe, 21st October 2015

Jon Gomm vid cap
Image from Jon Gomm, “What’s Left For You?”, filmed by Owen Plummer and Danielle Millea

“Last night I watched a man nearly kill a guitar, and a guitar nearly kill a man.” Sadly not the words of this scribe, as they are so eloquent and accurate, but the words of a good and close friend who was also in the audience to witness the compelling emotional candour of two of the UK’s foremost guitarists playing at Camden’s renowned venue, The Jazz Cafe, last week.

In support, Matt Stevens, one of the progressive music scene’s finest proponents of six or more strings, both in his solo work and that of his band The Fierce And The Dead. A gentle, excitable giant, Stevens’ joy at playing this venue in support of Gomm (the two musicians have been friends for many years) radiates from the stage in demonstrative, impulsive waves. What Stevens can’t do with some well placed loops, distinct and singular soloing and some seriously off-kilter time signatures is nobody’s business to know.

The first death of the night nearly comes when Stevens’ guitar throws not one, but two strings as a result of the incandescent fury of his playing. A spontaneous bout of audience participation ensues as we are all invited to keep the interrupted song’s beat through clapping, whilst in the background The World’s Fastest On-Stage String Change takes place. As soon as Stevens starts playing again, a third string snaps and a second guitar is quickly sourced to bring the set to it’s climax. It’s an heroic 20 minutes of live music, made all the more compelling for the added drama and the triumph wrought from potential disaster.

Jon Gomm is a very different prospect altogether. His physical presence on stage in Camden is one of outward calm, containing an intense inner-fire. When he speaks from his bare-footed frame to explain a playing technique, give context to a song or even chasten less attentive members of the audience, he does so in considered tones that make his points directly and with warm, dry, occasionally dark humour. It’s not long before pin-drop silence envelopes the room as all become lost in this most compelling of performers and performances.

If you’re not familiar with Gomm’s style and technique, he is a musician and songwriter of unparalleled power and capacity, using his instrument to conjure a whole orchestra with the touch of just two hands. Percussion, rhythm, bass and lead are all present at any one time, leaving you wondering how the man doesn’t physically resemble an eight-armed Indian goddess.

All of which would be extraordinary in itself, but Gomm’s compositions are lyrical, electrifying and heart-rending in and of themselves. Never mind the guitar-wrangling, the man also has another instrument of exquisite pulchritude in his singing voice, which he controls throughout the night to mesmeric effect.

From the deeply personal to the broadly political, Gomm’s set list at The Jazz Cafe moves sublimely between the progressive 10-minute excursion of “Everything”, the Rastafarian-on-a-train inspired “What’s Left For You?”, perhaps Gomm’s most well known pieces in his cover of Chaka Khan’s “Ain’t Nobody” and the Stephen Fry endorsed “Passionflower”, and on through new song “Deep Sea Fishes” and the piece that specifically draws on his experiences of living with bi-polar disorder, “Telepathy.” The latter in particular draws attention to how deeply invested in his art Gomm is, requiring some deep breaths post-performance and a brief explanation in a choked voice that it is hard to play without returning to the crushing lows of his emotional state at the time of its writing.

A moment of levity comes as the night draws to a close, Gomm requesting that the house lights be brought up to commemorate the occasion with a performer-audience group-selfie. He then proceeds to leave the lights on, unplug his guitar and stand at the front of the Jazz Cafe’s small stage, leaning in to the audience for an intimate, amplification-free rendition of “Gloria.”

Touching, angry, passionate, poignant: at The Jazz Cafe Gomm proves to be the living embodiment of the musician making sense of the world through his instrument, his art and the tensions that lie therein. In doing so he helps his audience immeasurably along the way. Catch him as soon as you can.

Jon Gomm played:

“Stupid Blues”
“What’s Left For You?”
“Ain’t Nobody”
“Wukan Motorcycle Kid”
“Deep Sea Fishes”
“The Weather Machine”
“Gloria” (Encore – Unplugged)

Connect with Jon Gomm at:

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Live Review: FISH, Holmfirth Picturedrome, 18th December 2014

Fish - Holmfirth Picturedrome - 18Dec14
Photo (C) Graeme Blackwell/Skin Back Alley

“Holmfirth! Sorry we’re late!” quips Fish on this cold, wet December evening in the heart of Yorkshire. He is of course referring to the fact that this date was originally meant to be played much earlier in the year, but had to be postponed. It became a recurring theme during the aptly named “Moveable Feast Tour” as illness struck during the course of 2014. The Holmfirth crowd certainly don’t seem to mind though, as they stand rapt through an opening trilogy of “Perfume River”, “Feast Of Consequences” and “Manchmal.”

Accomplished musicians all, Fish’s band immediately impress in the intimate confines of the Picturedrome. Tight knit, yet always flexible and fluid, Robin Boult’s guitar playing sends shivers down the spine on more than one occasion. Steve Vantsis’ bass is perfectly pitched and brilliantly unfussy. These men have the warm and calm air of people who know their craft intimately and have nothing to prove, yet never take their audience for granted. The big man himself’s voice is in equally fine fettle, showing no obvious signs of the surgeries and illnesses that have kept him off the road and out of the studio in the recent past.

There is something to be said for music of an epic scale being played in a smaller setting. Occasionally during Fish’s set, and in its more synth-heavy moments, one is minded to think of cosmically minded musicians such as Pink Floyd. But where it would be possible to argue that Floyd’s brilliance is occasionally lost in the cavernous enormo-domes of the world, Fish and Co’s compositions are never swamped by their surroundings.

A perfect example would be the central section of tonight’s gig, ostensibly a showcase of the ‘High Wood’ suite at the heart of Fish’s most recent album, A Feast Of Consequences. “Don’t worry,” he says, “I won’t speak much for a while after this” as he tells the story of his grandfathers’ involvement in the 1914-18 war and some of the extraordinary coincidences that have since echoed through his own life and inspired the music and lyrics.

What follows is simply breathtaking, the band making their way through “High Wood”, “Crucifix Corner”, “The Gathering”, “Thistle Alley” and “The Leaving” with the sort of effortless simplicity that only comes from years of hard graft and the development of finely honed skills. Gavin Griffiths on drums and John Beck on keys come in to their own during the suite, providing both subtle texture and explosive power as the songs demand. It feels like some of Fish’s most inspired and brilliant music, and it’s delivered by a peerless band of musical brothers.

Fish himself made known before this tour began that he had every intention of mixing up new material with some old favourites, acknowledging: “There’s no point in playing the entire new album live on a night as the fans want to enjoy themselves as well as discover what I have been up to for the last few years… I think it’s going to be really refreshing and I know we will be kept on our toes on the stage every night!”

Always true to his word, Fish and his fellow colleagues then power through renditions of Marillion’s “Slàinte Mhath” and solo track “Big Wedge”, bringing a welcome change of pace and keeping the audience enthralled. Arguably the evening’s most intimate highlight then follows as, introducing the track with thoughts on public disenfranchisement and political engagement, the opening bars of “Vigil” ring out through the old theatre building. As the music develops, Fish comes to the front of the stage, clambers over the barrier and walks in to the crowd, shaking the hands of everyone he passes and greeting them with warm smiles. He keeps on until he is standing in the middle of the hall and delivers the song just inches from his crowd’s faces, this reviewer included.

A spontaneous moment or carefully crafted with military precision? It really doesn’t matter. The physical proximity and warm intimacy chime perfectly with the song’s lyric: “Just quieten down for a voice in the crowd / I get so confused and I don’t understand / I know you feel the same way / You’ve always wanted to say / But you don’t get the chance / Just a voice in the crowd.” Live rock music simply doesn’t get any better.

“Heart Of Lothian” and encores of “Incubus”, “Blind To The Beautiful” and “The Company” later, and the Yorkshire faithful shuffle out in to the rain soaked night, grins fixed firmly on faces and chatter rising high in to the air. This is one Fish that it’s been well worth waiting to catch.

Fish played:

“Perfume River”
“Feast of Consequences”
“Arc of the Curve”
“High Wood”
“Crucifix Corner”
“The Gathering”
“Thistle Alley”
“The Leaving”
“Slàinte Mhath” (Marillion)
“Big Wedge”
“Heart of Lothian” (Marillion)
Encore: “Incubus” (Marillion)
Encore 2: “Blind to the Beautiful”, “The Company”

Find out more about Fish’s current work and live dates at the official Fishheads Club website.

You can watch Fish’s performance of “Thistle Alley” recorded live in Paris below:

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Live Review: SERVERS, Barnsley Rock & Blues, 13th December 2014

SERVERS - Barnsley - 13Dec14
Photo (C) Graeme Blackwell, Skin Back Alley

Over the last 12 months SERVERS have very carefully crafted a style all of their own. It permeates all that they do. The music, their videos, their live shows. It is all enveloping and fully captivating; a beautifully melancholic air, tinged with doom and destruction, occasionally shot through with chinks of light.

If it all sounds a little gloomy though, on this cold winter night at the Barnsley Rock & Blues venue, SERVERS Xmas Party – billed as a celebration of all that has transpired over the last year – aims to put that straight.

As SERVERS take to the stage bathed in the glow of a dim string of lights that echo the band’s video for “Claustrophobia”, decked out in their now familiar black hoodies, the tension in the room begins to ramp up. The sound of debut album Leave With Us’ spoken word samples emanate from the PA, and the assembled throng await the first rush of music.

Proving that they have a healthy capacity for humour in amongst the serious-minded nature of their music, the sample deliberately falters and cuts to the immortal line from Home Alone 2’s parody gangster film, Angels With Filthy Souls. “Merry Christmas ya’ filthy animals!” shouts actor Ralph Foody, as the band launch out of the starting blocks with a blistering rendition of “Run With Foxes.”

The pace doesn’t let up as the opening gambit is swiftly followed up with “King Things” and the first live airing of new track “Bodies In The Ground”, both of which sound superb in the confines of the intimate room.

“Save Me From Myself” slows things down and yet builds things up with its rumbling, rolling riff, and then the epic “Dangerous Devotion” simply blows the place apart and has us wondering how good it would sound in a large venue backed by an orchestra. But let’s not go all Metallica on everybody just yet, hey.

Another inspired, genial seasonal surprise follows as frontman Lee Storrar takes us back to our childhoods and reminds us how to play pass the parcel. “When the music stops you take a layer off, yeah?” And without further ado SERVERS set sail with “Mega High” and launch said parcel in to the audience. The band stop dead in strategic places, paper flying (along with the gifts hidden within), and sooner or later there’s little left but grinning faces. “Is it done? Have you finished?” asks Storrar. “Good, ’cause this song is killing me!”

Scorching takes on “Claustrophobia”, “Once I Started”, “Mother’s Grave – Leave With Us” and then SERVERS’ debut single “Universes & Supernovas (The Ride)” follow, the latter a more than fitting ending to the band’s live shows in 2014, coming – as it does – almost a year to the day since its original release.

A tight, joyous and incendiary blast, delivered with style by one of Yorkshire’s finest rock bands, SERVERS host an Xmas Party to remember and – wisely – leave us wanting more.

Here’s to what SERVERS have in store for 2015. For now, 2014, consider yourself served.

SERVERS played:

“Run With The Foxes”
“King Things”
“Bodies In The Ground”
“Save Me From Myself”
“Dangerous Devotion”
“Mega High”
“Once I Started”
“Mother’s Grave – Leave With Us”
“Universes & Supernovas (The Ride)”

Check out Servers’ official video for track “Claustrophobia” below:

Read Skin Back Alley’s exclusive year end interview with the band here.

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Live Review: Tonight Alive, Manchester Academy, 29th Nov 2014

Tonight Alive - Manchester Academy - 29th November 002
Photo (C) Graeme Blackwell/Skin Back Alley

I’m going to be completely honest with you, as I am sure you would want me to be.

I had no idea who Tonight Alive were before this summer.

Somehow, despite their growing stature, relentless touring, a song on the soundtrack of this year’s new Spiderman film and a Sony Music marketing budget, they simply hadn’t appeared on my radar. Their core fan base seemingly skewing towards a younger generation, perhaps I’m just too old.

Nevertheless, at the behest of a computer algorithm’s “…you might like…’ suggestion of all things, I streamed their most recent album, 2013’s The Other Side, whilst staring at the ceiling one hot summer night, unable to sleep.

The album made a significant impression and became a staple of my listening over the next few weeks. In a sea of ‘pop-punk’ bands and their teenage advocates, Tonight Alive’s sound seemed to be more accomplished, more sophisticated. Importantly for my tastes, it also had a distinctly metal edge. And lyrically, there were meaty themes documented in poetic ways. This was more than just, “he loves me, he loves me not.”

And so it is that I find myself at Manchester Academy on a relatively mild winter’s evening, shuffling along in the queue to get in to a sold out show with a crowd set to be 2,500 strong. I do feel a little aged when, having made it in to the building, and despite the capacity crowd, the bars are empty and the merch booths rammed. I could easily pass myself off as nearly every one of these kids’ parents.

But when the headline set starts, I simply couldn’t care less.

Opening with some well-staged back-lighting and a helpfully placed curtain, the first bars of the aforementioned Spidey song “The Edge” ring out. Bursts of light show the band poised behind the curtain ready to let rip. The tension grows, the audience scream and, just at the right moment, the curtain drops and the show sets course for the stratosphere.

From the get-go, the band’s energy and stagecraft impress. Jenna McDougall struts, moshes, throws convincing shapes AND manages to deliver a vocal performance that any singer would be hugely proud of. Her relatively small frame is capable of producing an enormous sound that doesn’t waver or fade despite the on-stage athletics.

The rest of the band is entirely on-point, too. The music sounds tight, practiced, HUGE and thrilling in a live setting. Whakaio Taahi’s and Jake Hardy’s guitar interplay delivers seamless sonic power, with Cam Adler’s bass and drummer Matt Best bringing the big beats – particularly when the sound crew make Best’s snare sound like the impact of an Exocet missile at just the right moments.

The band barely pause for breath as they whip through just as up-beat renditions of “The Fire”, “Don’t Wish”, “Hell and Back” and “The Ocean.” Jenna chats for just long enough between songs to let the Mancunian crowd know that they are acknowledged and loved. Carefully considered or not, the sentiments feel truthful and authentic, and have the audience baying for more.

After the belting blast of The Other Side’s “Bathwater”, the lights go down and the band walks off stage. A few of the audience look around in alarm, but they needn’t worry. In just a few moments Jenna is back with just an acoustic guitar and a mic, perching herself on the edge of the stage and communing with the superfans in the front row.

Not just a chance to usher in a more intimate moment in the show, this central section of the gig also allows Jenna the opportunity to revisit a time in her life prior to joining Tonight Alive when she was writing for herself and her acoustic six-string. She lets it be known that this show is Tonight Alive’s biggest headline show ever, anywhere in the world, before asking the audience to put away their phones and enjoy the moment with her. They oblige with little fuss as she sings beautifully stripped back versions of “Let It Land” and then “Amelia”, the latter of which she says she wants us to think of as a celebration of life, not a reminder of death. And it feels just that.

The tempo ramps up again for a confident, triumphant run through more material from The Other Side and select tracks from earlier LP What Are You So Scared Of? The set is punctuated by a delightful surprise in a mean rendition of Rage Against The Machine classic “Killing In The Name Of” that bristles with urgent anger, but falls short of that song’s most infamous refrain. It’s a shame that it gets pulled up without that particular punch, but Jenna clearly knows her crowd.

In the second biggest “will they, won’t they” moment of the night, Tonight Alive bring things to a close with a rousing version of hit song and fan favourite “Lonely Girl”, which looked in danger of being overlooked, before stalking off stage to rapturous applause. Within seconds thousands of voices are chanting “We want more!”, and the TA crew oblige with a three-song encore. The small matter of a band and crowd selfie dealt with, Jenna and Co. seem reluctant to make the final bow, but they do, blowing kisses as they go.

Seeing Tonight Alive in a live setting is almost akin to the contemporary pop-rock equivalent of The Boss. Here is a band that work their proverbial butts off, seemingly take nothing for granted, ooze an air of positivity and radiate gratitude, warmth, compassion and concern towards their fans. More cynical or hardened hearts could point towards the shows big moments as being well rehearsed rather than spontaneously off-the-cuff, but it’s only in being so well drilled that Tonight Alive can deliver spur of the moment surprises when they come.

As the fans leave the Academy and disappear in to the night, it’s apparent that these Aussie rockers have stepped up to their biggest hour with a fine performance. They’ve delivered and it’s true: tonight we feel alive.

Tonight Alive - Manchester Academy - 29th November 005
Photo (C) Graeme Blackwell/Skin Back Alley

Tonight Alive played:

“The Edge”
“The Fire”
“Don’t Wish”
“Hell and Back”
“The Ocean”
“Wasting Away”
“Let It Land” (acoustic)
“Amelia” (acoustic)
“No Different”
“Killing In The Name Of” (Rage Against the Machine cover)
“What Are You So Scared Of?”
“Lonely Girl”

“Eject, Eject, Eject!”
“Breaking & Entering”
“The Other Side”

You can watch fan-shot footage of the band performing “Listening” at the Manchester Academy show below:

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