Living Colour and Massive, The Metro Theatre, 13.5.17

Living Colour is one of the most important bands of the last 30 years. They are at once overtly political, preposterously dextrous musicians, and at a glance, relatively accessible. This is exemplified in the 1988 break out hit, ‘Cult of Personality,’ a song which skewers celebrity politics with a chunky metallic riff and a huge chorus. In 2017, the tune couldn’t be more relevant. Donald Trump is the President of the United States, whilst Pauline Hanson’s One Nation has found a rebirth in Australia. The ‘alt-right,’ as they call themselves, has risen on a platform of white supremacy and cultural isolationism. It is apt that the first single for Living Colour’s upcoming new album, Shade, is a reinterpretation of the Notorious BIG’s ‘Who Shot Ya.’ Their version – a blunt criticism of police gun violence – reflects an issue which overwhelmingly affects black youth. I went into the Metro Theatre with one question: how does this translate to an older, white audience?

Before I could find an answer to that question, we were treated to a set from Melbourne hard rockers, Massive. I couldn’t help but feel proud to see them perform before a close-to-capacity Metro, having witnessed them a few years earlier before a paltry crowd at the Erskineville Hotel. 2 albums and an Earache record deal later, they’ve started to hit their stride. The band wasted no time with pleasantries, ripping straight into a raucous slab of bluesy hard rock – the kind you only get from the bowels of Australia’s dingiest pubs. In many ways their fist-pumping ACDC worship is the complete antithesis of Living Colour’s funkier flavours. And yet, it makes perfect sense. Australian pub rock is simply a colloquial permutation of the early blues rock popularised by the likes of Chuck Berry; just add VB and extra distortion. Massive brought both aplenty, chugging beer in between their odes to the riff-rock of yore. Their new single, ‘Calm before the Storm,’ even got a spin on Triple M. As they say, it’s a long way to the top if you wanna rock ‘n’ roll.

The crowd fills out to capacity during sound-check whilst Rage Against The Machine’s ‘Bulls on Parade’ blasts through the PA – a fitting choice. House lights come down. I’m struck by the audience’s reluctance to push forward, an understandable but strange product of the average age in the room. Living Colour emerge from the shadows and slide into an off-kilter cover of Robert Johnson’s ‘Preachin’ Blues,’ before setting the tone for the evening with politically charged Stained cut, ‘Wall.’ One couldn’t help but think of the Trump administration’s border wall, if it should eventuate, and what follows. The song itself is vague enough to resonate in a much broader context, but for many the prospect is all too real. We are then treated to rollicking renditions of Vivid favourites, ‘Middle Man’ and ‘Desperate People.’ It is at this point that I can’t help but move forward, in a bid to get closer to the action

…Which is when I’m bluntly reminded that this isn’t a mosh-friendly pit. Bizarre. This is the only time I’ve been actively disparaged for daring to move forward in a standing only venue, and I couldn’t help but turn around and ask, “do you know where you are?” There is nothing quite so surreal as watching a sea of rigid white people receive Corey Glover belting out ‘Mind Your Own Business’ with the enthusiasm of a wet blanket. I can’t help but feel the significance of Time’s Up cut, (black) ‘Pride,’ was lost on the (white) crowd. Likewise, Doug Wimbish’s declaration of solidarity with aboriginal Australia led me to ponder the sincerity of the rapturous applause he received. Wimbish regaled us with Living Colour’s 1993 headline tour of Australia, during which he visited The Block in Redfern. Even today, the future of The Block is uncertain, with many doubting the Aboriginal Housing Company’s commitment to affordable accommodation. Support for genuine change across party lines remains thin. It is for this reason I find myself treating the cheering crowd with suspicion – are we not simply patting ourselves on the back for showing Australia’s first people the bare minimum respect?

Whatever the answer, the band was unfazed, tearing through their explosive set of funk-laden rock jams with aplomb. I even came away with a greater appreciation for ‘Behind the Sun,’ a standout from the largely inessential Chair in the Doorway. This is followed with 2 new songs – the aforementioned ‘Who Shot Ya’ and previously unreleased ‘Who’s That.’ An ethereal performance of ‘Nothingness’ created an air of solemn introspection before we were abruptly pulled back into reality with Time’s Up classic, ‘Love Rears its Ugly Head.’ Living Colour’s swagger has no equal. They are at once loose and groovy, whilst also being impossibly tight. This is a band of soloists coming together to create something greater than the sum of their parts. Corey Glover weaves in and out of the kaleidoscopic soundscape with ease, his pipes as versatile as they are powerful. Oh no, please, not that again.

It was at this moment we bore witness to the first of two unique solo spots this evening. Bassist Doug Wimbish used a loop pedal to create a rhythm track, over which he played an emotive and dynamic solo, his fingers dancing up and down the fretboard with ease. In the hands of a lesser musician, this may have been indulgent and underwhelming, but this was no concern for Wimbish. By the end of the extended solo spot, he had the audience eating out of his hand, stopping and starting in between cheers. When the magic finally concluded the band returned to the stage and ad libbed an extended version of the introduction to ‘Elvis is Dead,’ winking to the audience as they mashed the Time’s Up cut with Big Mama Thornton’s ‘Hound Dog,’ which Presley famously covered. ‘Type’ is then followed by drummer Will Calhoun’s drum solo, which makes surprising use of an electronic beat pad. The stage becomes a pop-up light installation thanks to Calhoun’s glow-in-the-dark drumsticks, bright neon tracing his every move. Take note, drummers – this is how you solo.

‘Cult of Personality’ closes out Living Colour’s main set, the prescience of which is not lost on Vernon Reid – “Seriously, fuck Donald Trump.” Over the next 5 minutes I almost lost my voice screaming every damn word. One would’ve forgiven them entirely for finishing up then and there, but after a brief respite they came back on for a fiery 3 song encore. The ticking of a clock leads us into a ferocious version of ‘Time’s Up,’ spliced masterfully with Rage Against the Machine’s ‘Wake Up,’ and James Brown’s ‘Get Up (I Feel like Being) a Sex Machine.’ Their musical quotations are both poignant and gloriously fun. ‘Glamour Boys’ is an absolute riot, before closing their encore with a mash up of ‘What’s Your Favourite Colour?’ and ‘Should I Stay or Should I Go.’ Not everyone in the Metro may really understand, but the answer to the first question is very simple – Living Colour.

Live: Motley Crue, Alice Cooper and Red Hook 16/5/15

The legacy of Motley Crue as the bad boys of 80s rock ‘n’ roll is unquestionable. After a decade of blowing up the world’s stages, drinking themselves silly, and mainlining anything they could get their hands on, only the grunge explosion could stop their debauched crusade. Like so many other hair metal bands, the Crue tried in vain to adapt in their new environment, losing Vince Neil (and later Tommy Lee) in the process. If only they knew when to throw in the towel.

Fast forward to 2015 and Motley Crue are in the middle of their final world tour, which is 15 years too late. Not all is lost, however, as Alice Cooper is booked to play direct support for the duration of the tour. The father of modern shock rock made the most of his disappointingly short set, leaving many wishing that he had the headline slot. Local support for the evening came from Sydney’s Red Hook (formally Smokin’ Mirrors), performing under their new moniker for the first time, rounding out one of the most conflicting rock ‘n’ roll spectacles of 2015.

The opening notes of ACDC’s For Those About to Rock fill the stadium as Red Hook march onto the stage, setting the tone perfectly for the next 3 hours of distorted debauchery. Supporting legacy acts such as Motley and Alice is a rough job, but someone has to fill the first half hour while people shoot the shit and find a good spot to stand. Red Hook approach performing with a youthful aplomb that is commendable, but which ultimately falls flat on such a big stage. The band’s sonic palate is a confusing muddle of competing influences which lands them somewhere between Guns N’ Roses and Five Finger Death Punch. Technically proficient but creatively conflicting, Red Hook could make a name for themselves if they refine their sound.

Alice Cooper’s arrival immediately lifted the atmosphere, and kick-started the most exciting part of the evening. He may be 67, but the elder statesman of rock made the Crue look old and tired. Alice jumps from hit to hit with clinical precision and vaudevillian flair. Opening his set with Department of Youth and No More Mr. Nice Guy, he’s keenly aware of the unfortunate time restraints. Pleasantries are minimal, leaving as much room as possible for bangin’ tunes and increasing bombast. Under My Wheels, I’m Eighteen and Billion Dollar Babies set the stage for an epic rendition of mega hit, Poison. Dirty Diamonds provides the only moment for prolonged indulgence with a drum and guitar solo. Alice makes a point of showcasing his touring band at every show, stepping out of the spotlight for one brief moment.

Alice still makes time for all the stage theatrics he’s famous for, decapitating himself with a guillotine mid set, as well as prowling the stage with a live snake on his shoulders. Age hasn’t hindered the man’s ability to put on one of the greatest live shows on the planet, playing his slew of classics to a whole new generation of rabid fans as well as the old faithful. He finishes his explosive set with an extended version of School’s Out, which bleeds into a cover of Pink Floyd’s Another Brick in the Wall Pt. 2 before reverting to one final stadium sized sing along of School’s Out.

Motley Crue took the stage to say goodbye to Sydney for the last time. An emotional affair, it’s tempting for one to overlook the lacklustre performance in the name of sentimentality.The Crue have suffered from a poor live sound the last two times they’ve toured Australia and tonight was no different. The mix was muddy, further obscured by the industrial amount of pyrotechnics, which made it difficult to identify each song without a few bars of intense listening. Couple this with the chronically lazy Vince Neil failing to stay in key, even with the band playing down a half-step, and the awe one might have otherwise felt is overshadowed almost entirely by disappointment.

The band lumber through their tried and true set of classics and fan favourites, perhaps the only surprise being Motherfucker of the Year. Sixx, Mick and Tom are tight enough, but there’s a distinct lack of urgency – truly, this is a band just doing their job. Tommy Lee is the only one who looks as though he’s actually having fun. Nikki is trudging around the stage with the authority of a substitute teacher, Mick is trying not to die on stage (that said, it’s commendable he can even still play), and Vince can only be bothered to sing half the lyrics. If the songs weren’t so memorable, many a fan would be left wondering when and what to sing. That is their saving grace – as terrible as Vince is, and as tired as the band may be, the songs still kick fucking ass. Tommy Lee’s drum coaster is an incredible feat of engineering, too, even if the solo and backing music is bland and tedious.

Fittingly, the band finished with Home Sweet Home, and Vince actually remembered the lyrics. In one brief moment, the Crue reached something approaching sentiment. For many this was a sad day for rock n roll, seeing one of the 80s defining bands finally throw in the towel. The band talked at ends in the lead up to the ‘final tour’ about finishing ‘on top’, but it’s clear from tonight’s display they hadn’t been on top for a long, long time. Perhaps they did retire 15 years too late – arguably longer – but their legacy will live on. The tired bones of rock’s baddest band can finally be laid to rest. Motley fucking Crue.

Live: High on Fire set the Factory ablaze (20/7/14)

Matt Pike is the best all around metal guitarist since Tony Iommi. The man is a certified riff factory, a blistering soloist, and an absolute technician. Pike has set the standard for smoke-laden sermons for the past two decades, preaching the holy virtues of the green leaf. Now that Sleep has reunited, the man is conquering the world on two fronts, with no sign of slowing down. Tonight, Sydney’s Factory Theatre was bludgeoned into submission by Pike’s sludge machine, High on Fire. This is the second time High on Fire have graced Australian shores in support of 2012’s excellent De Vermis Mysteriis, and their distortion soaked attack hasn’t dulled in the slightest. With local metallic hardcore outfit Gvrrls and sludge heroes I Exist in tow, tonight could go down as one of the heaviest gigs of the year.

The evening began with an ambient instrumental passage courtesy of Gvrrls, before they ripped into a short set of doom-flavoured metallic hardcore. Competent though they were, I couldn’t shake the feeling they were out of place opening a night of riff-driven sludge. As is often the case, though, there was one dedicated hardcore kid up the front flailing about like he’s trying to bat away a wasp. I found myself watching the vocalist for long periods of time, simply because he didn’t do much of anything in between screaming into the microphone, his eyes pinned to the floor. A support band’s job is to get the crowd riled up for the headliner, yet Gvrrls seemed content to merely play their set and get out of there. I’m struggling to remember if the front-man addressed the crowd even once between songs, which either speaks to my poor memory, or this band’s astonishing inability to leave any kind of impression. Gvrrls have the potential to make a mark in the emerging ‘hardcore-goes-doom’ trend in the Sydney scene, but they’ll need to learn how to command a stage first.

Exist upped the anti with their three-way guitar attack, pummelling the audience with their Palm Desert indebted doom. Employing a more traditional variety of sludge metal, I Exist interpret the art of heavy in much the same way as High on Fire, albeit with a hardcore vocalist at the helm. Despite having injured my sternum the day before, I found myself up the front headbanging along with a number of similarly impressed punters, who would no doubt be visiting the merch desk afterwards to buy a CD and shirt. The band are fast and tight, and their use of three guitars creates a wall of distortion rivalling the headliner. Unlike Gvvrls, I Exist are clearly seasoned performers, commanding the stage and engaging the audience both during and in between songs. I went into this having heard nothing but positives about the band, and my expectations were not only met, but completely destroyed. If you’re a fan of sludge metal, I heartily recommend checking out I Exist, who should soon see themselves the flag-bearers for Australian doom on the world stage.

I have long considered Gojira the heaviest band on the planet, but after having seen High on Fire live I am left with no choice but to revisit this question. Nothing could’ve prepared me for how earth-shatteringly heavy High on Fire are live. Shirtless as ever, Matt Pike and co. walked onstage with little fanfare, the band launching straight into ‘Fury Whip’ and kick-starting an hour and a half of unrelenting riff savagery. I could not have picked a worse time to be without earplugs, High on Fire being rivalled only by Motorhead in terms of sheer volume. Impending deafness wasn’t about to stop me from screaming the title straight back at Pike as the song reached its devastatingly distorted crescendo, though. Wasting no time, the band moved straight into Surrounded by Thieves’ favourite, ‘Eyes and Teeth’, satiating long-time fans before the onslaught of new material began.

‘Smooooooke weed!’ growls Pike, as De Vermis Mysteriis favourite, ‘Fertile Green’, kicks into high gear. The relentless velocity of the track is a sharp reminder that High on Fire has not, and likely will not, slow down with age. The band cleverly replicate the album sequencing by following up with the plodding epic (and personal favourite), ‘Madness of an Architect’. This is undoubtedly a highlight of the evening, the crawling loudness seeping into every wall of the room. Through this song, Pike has perfected the art of the dirty blues lick, slowly bulldozing the mesmerized mass before him. The band then tore through Blessed Black Wings cut ‘Cometh Down Hessian’, before wheeling out a blistering rendition of Snakes for the Divine highlight, ‘Frost Hammer’. Having been taken out of the set-list in recent times, the latter was an awesome addition to what must surely be the best set-list of the tour. High on Fire pulled out all stops, playing The Art of Self Defense favourite, ‘Baghdad’, Blessed Black Wings’ ‘Devilution’, and De Vermis Mysteriis opener, ‘Serums of Liao’.

The evening was not without its hiccups, however, with sound issues persisting throughout the evening. Matt Pike politely addressed the sound technician on several occasions, searching in vain for an even mix. As is usually the case in small venues across Sydney, the closer one got to the stage, the harder it was to hear the vocals. One day someone will find a solution to this epidemic, but for the time being its best to set up near the soundboard. Any complaints fell away at the show’s close, however, as Pike and co. surprised everyone with a colossal rendition of The Art of Self Defense epic, ’10 000 Years’, before the standard finishing number, ‘Snakes for the Divine’. If there is a more punishing one-two punch in encore history, I’ve not heard it (if you have, email me at msturtridge@gmail.com). Seeing High on Fire is the closest you can get to musical orgasm without your eardrums spontaneously combusting – and I can’t wait until next time.

Live: Blacksmith at Spectrum – Hard Rock Lives! (4/7/14)

You’d be forgiven for thinking that hard rock is dead. It is a genre that survives almost entirely on the continued success of its elder statesmen. Slash is putting out a new album this year, and last year saw the release of Black Star Rider’s (ex-Thin Lizzy) fantastic All Hell Breaks Loose, but looking for younger hard rock bands worth talking about is a tough job. Those that have found mainstream success in the new millennium are more indebted to garage rock and psychedelia than the guitar heroism of Jimmy Page and Tony Iommi. A small glimmer of hope for the future can be found in the sleaze-soaked glory of Black Stone Cherry, The Answer, Rattlesnake, and now Blacksmith. Based in Sydney, Blacksmith employ blistering fretwork and soaring vocal acrobatics not seen since the heyday of Guns N’ Roses. Tonight, the small crowd gathered at Spectrum were treated to a short, powerful burst of great hard rock. With a little more practice and on-stage flare, they might just make a name for themselves.

Blacksmith’s modus operandi became abundantly clear with set opener, ‘Elysium Planes’, paving the way for a monstrous cover of Rolling Stones’ favourite ‘Brown Sugar’. The Stones have often flirted with hard rock, and Blacksmith took this tendency to its logical conclusion, injecting new life into a piece of classic rock history. The band then ploughed through the remainder of their set with originals both old and new, proving they need not rely on covers to put on a show. Highlights of the high voltage performance include the Sam Barker-penned ‘Iron Halo’, a HIM flavoured hard rocker punctuated by epic leads channelling New Wave of British Heavy Metal legends Iron Maiden, and ‘Robot Werewolves’, a catchy sci-fi themed romp sounding not all too dissimilar to Perth’s Psychonaut. The best was saved for last, however, as they returned to the stage after an 8-song set to perform an encore of Black Sabbath’s ‘Snowblind’. If you weren’t headbanging up until this point, you definitely were now.

With that, it must be said – Blacksmith are a well oiled unit of practised musicians, but they lack the stage presence to truly engage with the audience. Vocalist Jono Palmer stands meekly at centre stage, sipping wine in between wails, which blunts the edge of his impressive range. Likewise, lead guitarist Felix Short’s technical proficiency is undermined by his rigid stage movements and unwavering focus on the fret board. Self-described ‘assault and battery’, drummer Nick Spellicy proved serviceable if not terribly original, providing a solid grounding for the rapid fire guitar. Rhythm and sometimes lead guitarist Sam Barker and bassist Cameron Cooper were definitely the most entertaining, striking poses, making faces, and providing playful banter throughout the set. Having arrived with modest expectations, I was pleasantly surprised to know that amongst the sea of ill-advised cock rock revival bands populating the scene, there are some genuinely promising newcomers. I’m also partial to any band that gives away free stubby holders.