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

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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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Metallica at Glastonbury: The Verdict

Metallica Glastonbury Header Image

So after all the rhetoric and bluster of the past couple of months, Metallica finally headlined the Pyramind Stage at Glastonbury on Saturday night. As they took to the stage of the festival that Iron Maiden’s Bruce Dickinson recently called “the most bourgeois thing on the planet”, did the world stop turning? Did the tens of thousands of people who had been enjoying sets from Robert Plant and Jack White leave the field en masse? Did the sky crack, the ground tremor and plagues and pestilence cover the earth?

Well, hardly.

The band did at least acknowledge the furore that had built up around them since the announcement of their booking. 15 minutes later than planned, a video by Julien Temple crackled in to life showing footage of Eli Wallach in The Good The Bad and The Ugly, along with scenes of English fox hunts soundtracked by Colonel Bogey and The Sweet’s “Fox On The Run.” As the film came to its conclusion, four bears popped up out of the undergrowth and shot the hunters, just before taking off their masks and revealing the four members of the band beneath. So far, so tongue in cheek. Check the video out for yourself:

Seconds later, the band burst on to stage for real, ripping straight in to “Creeping Death” from their 1984 thrash metal classic, Ride The Lightning. If there was anything at all surprising about the set’s opening song, it was the number of people in the assembled throng who seemed to know the tune. Albeit they were being aided and abetted by a group of Metalli-fans that had been invited on to the stage, standing behind the band waving flags and singing along, it was clear for all to hear that when James Hetfield indicated he wanted the audience to join in and help him out, the crowd were all too willing and able to do so.

The sheer force and power of the band’s sound seemed to whip pockets of festival-goers into a head-banging frenzy. Impromptu mosh-pits could be seen the audience over, lit by flare light during second song “For Whom The Bell Tolls”, followed in quick succession by “Wherever I May Roam.”

From there, Hetfield took to the microphone for a few words that struck just the right tone, managing to be both humble and headstrong: “We’re very proud to be here and represent the heavier side of music. I know it’s all represented here so why not heavy? This is dedicated not only to the crowd but to all the British heavy metal bands that have been dreaming and still dream of playing this stage here. Do you want heavy? Metallica gives you heavy!”

Some observers noted that the audience didn’t seem to be quite as big as for the previous night’s headliners, Arcade Fire, but the thrash pioneers were still a huge draw. All too aware of what the festival crowd wanted from them, what was essentially a greatest hits set followed, focusing on music from their most well known albums and singles.

The majority of the material (“Wherever I May Roam”, “Sad But True”, “The Unforgiven”, “Nothing Else Matters” and the classic “Enter Sandman”) was drawn from their 1991 monster, the multi-million selling Black Album. The rest was largely taken from either the aforementioned Ride The Lightning, or what many still consider to be the band’s most accomplished work, Master Of Puppets.

Indeed, just one song from their most recent studio album, Death Magnetic, made an appearance in the form of “Cyanide”, and it was perhaps one of the only missteps of the evening; particularly when introduced by Hetfield with some ill-considered questions to the crowd, presumably intended to endear him and the band to the “peace and love” “bourgeois” fraternity out front.

If anything else detracted from the spectacle of the Californian metal titans in full flow, it was a couple of rare slip-ups from this most polished and experienced of hard rock bands. Kirk Hammet’s fingers seemed a little less nimble than some of his ultrasonic solos required, as he occasionally fell behind the beat or hit a couple of bum notes. Equally, Lars Ulrich, one of the most accomplished drummers in rock, seemed to slip out of time on at least one occasion, but quickly recovered his position. Minor quibbles at most, and ones that majority of the audience probably didn’t even notice in their revelry.

Metallica Glastonbury Lars Ulrich

After the rapturously received “Enter Sandman” closed out the main set, the self-styled four horsemen of the apocalypse returned for an encore with their cover of Thin Lizzy’s “Whiskey In The Jar”, and the high octane thrash of “Seek and Destroy” from their 1983 debut album, Kill ‘Em All. Hetfield introduced the latter with the words: “If you’re a fan or not a fan, it’s a song you can get into,” and as the band set about getting into it themselves, a slew of black beach balls were released into the crowd bearing the band’s logo. They looked like the ammunition from Metallica’s proverbial sonic canon as they were beaten into submission by the now noisy and ecstatic Metalli-cised horde.

For a band who have been ridiculed for their challenging artistic choices in recent years, and for a genre that Skin Back Alley has seen very recently be accused of relying on theatrics to make up for the awful music being made, Metallica relied on very little other than their skill, experience, energy and commitment – their best known songs and sheer force of will – to carry the audience with them into heavy metal Mardi Gras.

Naysayers be damned. Far from ruining the most sacred of British music festivals, Metallica reigned supreme, delivering a heavy metal masterclass and, I shouldn’t wonder, adding a few more converts to their already millions strong fanbase across the globe.

A clearly ecstatic Lars Ulrich took to the microphone at the close of Metallica’s set, summing up thus: “I came down here last night and I’ve walked every corner of this festival, and let me tell you, there is no place like this on this fucking earth. Thank you Michael, thank you Emily, thank you Nick. Metallica loves you and we hope to see you another fucking time!”

Watch Metallica’s performance of “One”, from their album …And Justice For All, at Glastonbury below:

Metallica played:
“Creeping Death”
“For Whom The Bell Tolls”
“Wherever I May Roam”
“Sad But True”
“Fade To Black”
“The Unforgiven”
“The Memory Remains”
“Master Of Puppets”
“Nothing Else Matters” (with intro from “Bleeding Me”)
“Enter Sandman”

“Whiskey In The Jar”
“Seek And Destroy”

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Live Review: Nine Inch Nails, Manchester Arena, 25th May 2014

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Nine Inch Nails’ music has always seemed like the soundtrack to a dystopian nightmare world full of pre and post-millenial angst, the ‘sturm und drang’ of a failing global economy based on a model of mass production, and the sinister and quiet creep of the oncoming digital age.

Perhaps with the exception of the original master of Pretty Hate Machine, which has the unmistakable sound of it’s late 80’s inception, all of Trent Reznor’s albums as NIN sound timeless, and every single one of them remains prescient, challenging and highly relevant.

Before this leg of NIN’s tour began, naysayers were being needlessly critical of Reznor’s decision to play the larger arenas of the world. Why would an ‘alternative’ industrial rock band play venues associated with a mindset of corporate capitalism; atmosphere-free domes more suited to sporting events?

Clearly those naysayers have never been to a Nine Inch Nails arena performance.

Reznor had promised that NIN’s aim with these dates was to deliver a more “low key” and “agressive” show with just a four piece band, rather than the more elaborate eight piece band that had been exploring new material from the Hesitation Marks album during previous dates. And that’s precisely what he and his band mates do at the Phones4U Arena in Manchester.

NIN 005From the opening one-two of “Me I’m Not” and “Copy of A”, the 20 song show doesn’t let up across a career spanning set incorporating material from the entirety of the band’s 25 year history. In fact, just four songs from last year’s new album make an appearance.

The sheer size of “1,000,000”, “Letting You”, “March of the Pigs” and “Piggy” carry the show forward on the strength of their enormous shoulders, each and every song filling the cavernous arena and whipping the thousands strong crowd into a frenzy. The songs are accompanied by a spectacular visual installation, including an impressive lighting rig and a rear screen for video projection that lowers and raises at strategic points to meet the demands of each piece of music.

The stage proves to be a dynamic entity then, and one that allows Reznor and his crack team of multi-instrumentalists to navigate it at will as it expands and contracts. Ilan Rubin proves an astonishing and powerful force behind the live acoustic drum kit as it appears for those songs that require it’s presence, and both Alessandro Cortini and Robin Finck seem as adept at keyboards and electronics as they do at their respective six stringers.

Music from the band’s extensive back catalogue continues unabated until mid-way through the set when The Downward Spiral classic “Closer” makes it’s appearance. The assembled throng sing along to the now notorious lyrics, prompting Trent Reznor’s only between-song banter of the hour and three-quarters the band play. “Thank you”, he says succinctly.

Manchester is then treated to a Hesitation Marks trilogy, with “Find My Way”, “Disappointed” and “Came Back Haunted” following each other, one after the other. Despite the new album’s laser focus on electronics over guitars, the new songs are greeted with rapture, feel just as powerful as their predecessors, and don’t seem at all out of place in the running order.

NIN 004It’s clear that the show’s sound engineers have done their job extremely well, too, as the quality of the sound within the arena is remarkably strong, helping the batch of songs that follow build upon the palpable atmosphere of excitement and reverie, and nail shut the coffin on those pre-tour cranks. “How do you take a big place designed for sports shows and find a way to turn it into something intimate and interesting?”, asked Reznor when these tour dates were announced. “That’s a question we’re constantly trying to deal with. And, I think we’re quite successful at it right now.” On this show’s evidence, damn straight they are.

Reznor’s assertion is a view that doesn’t fade as the concert builds to the final song of the main set, debut album Pretty Hate Machine’s colossal “Head Like A Hole.” It’s five minutes of relentless energy assault the crowd in the best possible way, leaving one gig-goer audibly screaming her love for the band and pleading for more. Nine Inch Nails’ logo is now writ large on the stage’s screen, signalling the end of proceedings. But the fact that the house lights don’t yet come up is telling.

Just a few minutes later, the arena is bathed in golden light, the band silhouetted against a firey backdrop projected on to the screen behind them. The brooding menace of “The Day The World Went Away” builds in the arena’s PA, and the audience are once again vocal in their appreciation and applause.

The only question that remains then, is “Will they or won’t they?” The answer is that they will, and against a rear projection of poisonous reptiles, predatory insects and the horrors of war inflicted upon the human race by our own kind, Reznor and Co. work through a quietly tense, powerful and moving rendition of “Hurt.”

If there is a band in the world more capable than Nine Inch Nails of taking a venue the size of the Phones4U Arena, and filling every inch of it with the overwhelming force and emotional power of their music, then we are yet to find them. Their newly stripped back set-up is at once visually arresting, sonically staggering and, as yet, unmatched. The show is another fine example of why Trent Reznor’s music has endured for a quarter of a century, and will no doubt endure for a considerable time to come.

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Nine Inch Nails played:
“Me, I’m Not”
“Copy of A”
“Letting You”
“March of the Pigs”
“Gave Up”
“Sanctified” (with Sunspots riff)
“Find My Way”
“Came Back Haunted”
“The Great Destroyer”
“The Hand That Feeds”
“Head Like a Hole”

“The Day the World Went Away”

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