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.

Review: Redeemer of Souls – Judas Priest (Epic)

First thing’s first: I did not have particularly high hopes for Judas Priest’s first album post-KK Downing. How could they carry on without such a vital element of their sound? Priest found an answer in relative newcomer Richie Faulkner. Having impressed many with his arrangement on Christopher Lee’s Charlemagne: the Omens of Death, I found myself with a glimmer of hope for the metal titan’s first album in 6 years. I was not disappointed. The relatively lacklustre title track aside (which a friend pointed out to me is essentially a rewrite of Painkiller favourite ‘Hell Patrol’), Redeemer of Souls is easily one of the best heavy metal records of the year. The almighty Priest has made a spectacular return, reminding everyone why they are undisputed legends of the genre.

The album starts strong with ‘Dragonaut’, a typical Priest epic with a distinct Painkiller feel. Since that was their last truly great album, this is far from a bad place to start. In fact, the rest of the album appears to be inspired by all the greatest moments in Priest history, even recalling elements of their much-lauded 70s material (see: ‘Crossfire’). I was worried I would be disappoint by Rob Halford’s vocal performance, having been unmoved by the monotone ‘March of the Damned’, but I was proven wrong in the best possible way. Halford’s phenomenal range is on full display throughout the album; with ‘Halls of Valhalla’ featuring a thunderous ascending vocal scream which defies belief. Richie Faulkner is no mere fill-in either, receiving co-writing credits on all 13 tracks. It shows too, as the band sounds more ferocious than they have in over a decade. ‘Sword of Damocles’ possesses the sort of grandiosity that would make Manowar blush, and deserves a place next to all the greatest Priest classics.

Redeemer of Souls isn’t quite all killer-no filler, with the aforementioned title track proving little more than a passable rewrite. Elsewhere, ‘March of the Damned’ has Halford sounding legitimately old on record, perhaps for the first time ever. The plodding riff is gargantuan, but The Metal God comes off sounding more like latter-day Ozzy Osbourne than the air-raid siren we know and love. ‘Metalizer’, perhaps ironically, is the least convincing song on the album. Attempting to recapture the sheer speed of Painkiller, Priest has come up with a riff which no amount of enthusiasm can save. These are minor nick-picks, though, on an otherwise show-stopping display of fist-pumping heavy metal. If listening to this doesn’t make you feel like a warrior about to go into battle, I’m afraid you have no soul. Closing with the speed metal tenacity of ‘Battle Cry’ and the Epic ballad ‘Beginning of the End’, The Metal God can be assured I stand at the ready.

Album art

Making Metal is ‘Risky’ Business

Last month, I read an opinion piece on Metalsucks about risking-taking in music. Immediately sceptical, given how broad the concept of ‘risk-taking’ is, I read on to have my suspicions confirmed. The author, ‘Vince Neilstein’, struggled to outline what exactly he meant by ‘risk-taking’, nor did he apply the term consistently with his own loose definition. According to Neilstein, we will ‘never see another Metallica’, and the days of sprawling creative statements such as The Beatles’ The White Album and Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti achieving mainstream success are over. He goes further and suggests that these records are examples of ‘oddball’ left turns in the context of their respective careers. From this we can deduce that he means to suggest that mainstream artists no longer make these sort of creatively challenging statements, at least as it pertains to their own musical history.

Whilst I agree that these two albums are brilliant examples of forward thinking music, I disagree with the notion that either of them constitutes an ‘oddball left turn’. Both The White Album and Physical Graffiti are the result of a very clear musical progression through years of fine-tuning their respective craft. In fact, The White Album was directly preceded by Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts’ Club Band, often cited as the first concept album ever written. Likewise, the precursor to Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti is Houses of the Holy, often cited as a turning point in the bands career towards more richly layered, expansive song-writing. I cannot understand, given these facts, how he can possibly assert that either The White Album or Physical Graffiti are in any way surprising. The Beatles in particular had been experimenting with different instruments and more complex song-writing as far back as Rubber Soul (‘Norwegian Wood’ features the use of an Indian sitar). So, the idea that either of these albums came out of nowhere is ridiculous, but we can still analyse his claims as they relate to modern music (specifically, Lamb of God and Mastodon).

In the opinion piece, Neilstein looks at a number of prominent modern metal acts and how their latest releases reflect a tendency to either play it safe or ‘take risks’. The first example he brings to the table is Lamb of God, whom he claims, ‘Have basically written the same album every time since As the Palaces Burn with varying production aesthetics’. Given that the following album, Ashes of the Wake, represents what is often considered their definitive musical statement, I find it hard to agree with this suggestion. It is true that Lamb of God has never thrown us a real curveball, but much like The Beatles and Led Zeppelin, they have matured their sound with each successive release. Ashes of the Wake represents a more conscious move towards groove and thrash metal, whilst also introducing more frequent solos. Wrath introduces more expansive song-writing, highlighted by the slow-burn epic that is ‘Reclamation’, which uses acoustic guitars to contrast with the brutal crescendo. Even the relatively lack-lustre Resolution has ‘Insurrection’ and ‘King Me’, both of which make use of clean vocals. The latter of which, ‘King Me’, even features the use of strings.

Does this equate to ‘risk-taking’, though? Lamb of God has been incredibly influential in the emergence of the ‘New Wave of American Heavy Metal’, with Ashes of the Wake now regarded as a metal classic of the 21st century. Though it is hard to think of Lamb of God as ‘risky’ now, pioneering a movement never assures success; many of their contemporaries have fallen by the wayside, having either stalled or disappeared completely throughout the last decade. Having stayed one step ahead of their many imitators, they have forged a legacy that will surely go down in the history of modern American metal. If The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, or Lamb of God are to be seen as ‘risky’, it is not in relation to their own back-catalogue, but their place in the current musical landscape.

Of course, that is not always the case. Another example Neilstein puts forward in an attempt to illustrate his claim is Mastodon, progressive sludge metal giants known for reshaping their sound with each release. In this sense, Mastodon seem to fit his interpretation of ‘risk-taking’, as their 2012 release, The Hunter, represents a completely about turn from 2009’s Crack the Skye. Not today; Neilstein sees The Hunter as little more than a compact version of their pre-existing sound, and therefore does not constitute ‘risk’. No, what Neilstein wants is an even proggier Crack the Skye. The Hunter may be Mastodon’s version of a pop album, but given that they are Mastodon, it is without a doubt far riskier than simply giving the fans (Neilstein included) what they want: more insane prog-sludge. We seem to have a completely different definition of ‘risk-taking’ for Lamb of God as we do Mastodon, which completely undermines the point of the article. However, since Mastodon decided to release Once More ‘Round the Sun, which is essentially The Hunter Part II: The Rehuntening, perhaps Neilstein could see the horror that was to come. Let’s hope they pick their game up the next time around.

There are many more examples I could pick apart in excruciating detail, including the declaration that Avenged Sevenfold’s Hail the King was risky (only in the sense that Metallica might sue), but I would be here all day. The reality of the matter is that there are many successful 21st century bands with the capacity to make interesting music which pushes the boundaries of the heavy metal genre; Mastodon, despite dropping the ball with Once More…, has shown they really have no limitations when it comes to writing a good tune; Lamb of God are the most important groove metal band since Pantera. These are just two examples of innovative metal bands finding mainstream success today. Whilst they may not be as successful as Metallica, the notion that it may never happen again is stupendous. Heavy metal is young, and more than enough forward-thinking bands are lining up to take their place.

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.

Heavy Metal Hegemony: It’s a Man’s World

Heavy metal is hardly the most feminine genre of music. Large, hairy men stalk the world’s stages, broadcasting the soundtrack to the apocalypse through an unending stack of amplifiers. These champions of the ugly and downtrodden seemingly have little to offer to the fairer of the sexes… but appearances aren’t everything.

More women are making themselves known in the metal world, with bands such as Arch Enemy and Nightwish (two successful female-fronted metal bands) being prime examples. However, whilst the genre is more accessible than ever to women, the culture remains firmly rooted in heterosexual male ideals. Women are still placed on pedestals as objects of beauty and perfection as they sway gracefully before the microphone, whilst an overweight bald man glides across the stage on his belly. Should they choose to reject this notion of femininity, they must adopt an entirely masculine stage persona – even if they adopt this attitude, the plight of sexualisation persists in the heavy metal community.

Sam Barker is a woman who seeks to overcome this plight, having been influenced by heavy metal since she was fourteen. Going to an all-girls high school, she found that very few people shared her passion for hard rock and heavy metal; nonetheless she taught herself how to play guitar and formed a band. After high school, she attended the Australian Institute of Music, where she met the all-female members of local glam-revival outfit Thrüsh. Working at local metal nightclub Venom, she was able to book the band their first gigs, turning heads in the process. Regardless, being a woman in metal has its complications.

“It’s got its ups and its downs. There are a lot of negative connotations with it, but there are a couple of positive things,” Sam enthuses, suggesting that although it has its downsides, it isn’t all bad. “So, for example, being a chick means that I get more recognised ‘cuz there’s not many women. I don’t know the statistics specifically, but there are just…there are no women.” Women are few and far between in the metal scene, which can be both a good and bad thing for prospective musicians. One must yield to a male-dominated culture in order to make the grade (there is no ‘be yourself’), yet there are very few female musicians to challenge you.

Of course, this is only so long as you satisfy the aesthetic criteria. You might be able to shred alongside Eddie Van Halen, but there’s little success to be found if you look like Angus Young. Assuming you do satisfy these arbitrary beauty standards, however, does ability matter as much? “If I was a guy doing the exact same things as what I do, it probably wouldn’t be acknowledged as much,” Sam asserts. Perhaps you might be able to build a name for yourself on looks alone, yet the very crowd which propped you up on these merits will question your integrity as a musician. If you’re like Sam, toiling somewhere in the middle of feminine and masculine, you get a little of both: “I do get judged a lot more, and it’s a lot to do with aesthetic value as well as…it’s not just musical value.”

I can’t argue with her. In 2010, Revolver Magazine published their ‘Hottest Chicks in Metal’ calendar, which featured Angela Gossow of Arch Enemy fame. She slammed the magazine saying, “I don’t like the ‘Hottest Chicks in Metal’ movement at all. I think it’s kind of counterproductive and retro” in an interview with KNAC (an online magazine). She goes on to say, “it’s an embarrassment for female musicians, who actually are musicians,” ramming home the fact that looks have nothing to do with how you play your instrument.

These lofty beauty standards leave men at the door the moment you cross into the heavy metal subculture. Gone is the need for a trim waist and perfect skin, as going to any number of metal shows will illustrate. Instead, you find the sort of people you would normally associate with dirty bars and dark alleyways. Or, as Sam simply puts it, “there are a lot of hairy dudes.” Beauty is totally subjective, though, as Sam herself exemplifies: “I find hairy metal heads exceptionally attractive.” However, it is far more socially acceptable to be attracted to a conventionally unattractive man than a woman of the same calibre – this is only magnified by the distinct lack of women participating in the scene.

She went on to tell me about her experience at a Children of Bodom show in Sydney. Supporting the death metal titans was a local band called Voyager; their lead guitarist, Simone Drow, took the stage as it was time to perform. “A lot of guys around thought she was a roadie,” Sam told me, describing her as ‘”stocky” and “not the most feminine”. Following the realisation that she was actually a part of the band, people started making “derogatory comments… because she wasn’t hot, conventionally.” Afterwards, Sam found the most common reaction was “she’s alright for a girl”. As a guitarist herself, Sam knows exactly how it feels to receive such underhanded praise. Women can never escape their gender in the realm of metal, which mars the expectation put upon them by their peers – even if they do find the recognition they deserve, as Sam and many others have, they are still often met with the tired remark. Sam and Simone are both guitarists, which highlights another issue confronting women in metal; their place in the band.

“It’s sad, but most women are keyboardists or bass players. Guitarists are less common, but the rarest thing is a female drummer. I’ve met four of them in my life.” The most common place women find in bands is that of the vocalist, as Angela Gossow of Arch Enemy and Floor Jansen of Nightwish illustrate. Perhaps this reflects a need for women to be on display to be appreciated. Women might not be able to find recognition if they hide behind an instrument, concealing their aesthetic. Perhaps this is also why female drummers are so rare, along with the stigma attached to drummers as being ‘cavemen of the future’.

With all this focus on beauty, one would be forgiven for thinking that metal isn’t a culture built for outsiders after all. It seems society’s standards for women have persisted despite the declaration of metal as music for the ugly and downtrodden. This can be put down to metal being established from the very beginning of its life as a ‘boys club’. Even the most feminine of the metal genres, glam metal, lacks a solid female talent base to draw on. “The whole glam thing is men wearing spandex and tights in order to appease a primarily male-oriented audience. The whole premise is objectifying women, partying, doing drugs. It’s like this peacocking affair for other guys to admire,” Sam explains. Glam is no refuge for women in metal, as it displays and perpetuates the same misogyny found in other forms of the genre.

Misogyny is everywhere, though. As horrible as it is for women in the metal scene, it is still very much outsider music. The abrasive sound and dark lyrics could never be fully accepted by a mainstream audience. The music rails against everything that defines popular music, even if the culture is still in many ways rooted in larger cultural trends. Sam agrees, “I think Metal is still very much outsider music. I mean that’s the whole theory of metal being for outsiders. But at the same time you’re gonna get the stigmatism with women everywhere. Metal is very misogynistic, but you get that everywhere: in music, in the arts, in media…just anything.”

The rampant objectification and dismissal of women hasn’t gone unnoticed by all, however, as the rise of bands like Steel Panther seek to expose and make fun of this phenomenon. A parody glam metal band, Steel Panther have gained a huge amount of success through their blunt portrayal of eighties hair metal. Although their success has been able to illuminate the sexism in metal for some, there are still many who take the band at face-value. Sam concurs, “Steel Panther have started to poke fun at misogyny in the metal scene… [but] people are still laughing without realising the connotations behind it.”

Sam takes a lot of cues from Steel Panther in her own endeavours with Thrüsh – the five members of the band dress in provocative clothing, including leather, spandex, and fishnets. The band plays a similar style of eighties hard rock, whilst spouting lyrics about using boys and getting trashed; somewhat of a female appropriate of Steel Panther’s own lyrics. “There are five females in the band, and we use that to take the piss out of being objectified,” Sam continues, “a lot of our songs were piss-takes out of the whole glam rock scene, the metal scene, women in metal.” Despite her best intentions, Sam still found that the males in her audience were using that to further legitimize objectifying her and the band: “Some people were saying that, you know, your music parodies that, so therefore it’s okay for us to objectify you because you’re saying so yourself, which wasn’t the case.”

Surely, I thought, being a woman in metal would not only be degrading but also incredibly difficult to crack. After all, if no one takes you seriously, how are you supposed to progress in a world defined by the tastes of your peers? Sam says it isn’t as hard as it might seem – “I’ve been noticed since day one. I started clubbing and it didn’t take me long to get a dent in the local scene.” I assumed this would only last so long, perhaps as a result of merely being a good-looking woman in the right place at the right time, but Sam continues to impress me with the swiftness of her ascent: “Within a year I ended up working at the biggest metal club in Sydney, I had a single come out, I had a lot of recognition from a lot of the local scene. I mean, it’s been two years now, and I’d say I’m definitely a big part of the scene.”

Despite heterosexual male ideology being at the forefront of metal for all of its forty-odd year existence, many women like Sam have made their mark, or began to make their mark. Unfortunately, much of this demands adopting one of two types of personas: one must either embrace their femininity to the fullest, or disregard it entirely. Almost all notably successful women in metal adhere to one of these archetypes in a bid to compete with the men who’ve owned this genre since its beginning. Sam is one of the few women who choose to be entirely themselves on stage, and her success can be attributed not only to her musical prowess, but her cunning ability to navigate the scene.

Making the most of your situation is admirable, but it’s definitely something that needs to change. One can only hope that metal culture will begin to shed its juvenile approach to women, but Sam thinks we still have a while to go; when I asked her if she thought it would change anytime soon, she had this to say: “Maybe. I don’t know – every now and then I see a little glimmer of hope when someone takes me seriously as a musician.” This is hardly fair, but until something changes Sam and others like her will have to put up with being marginalized and objectified. That said, she wishes there was something she could do. “Until I can do something about it, which I don’t know, I might never be able to do something about. As a feminist I want equality within the sexes and the metal scene’s very close to heart – but until then I’m just going to have to take the piss out of it some more.”

This article was published with the express permission of those interviewed