Friday, 17 June 2011

Review: Sonisphere, Warsaw, 10th June 2011

As part of my series of features on cultural life in Poland here is my review of the concert last week in Warsaw, which brought the universe's finest as part of the Sonisphere festival.

Years ago I read in an article in The Observer magazine that heavy metal in Poland serves as a form of anti-MTVism (MTVism: The dumbing down of musical tastes to a bland corporate-dominated, music-by-numbers, universality-by-shiteness, style-over-content, singers-who-can't-sing-and-reliant-on-technology personified in the piss-poor prozac-lite primitive shite that is pop; though, sadly, rock is also used).  While I do hear a fair amount of the soul-sapping, mediocre- (OK, you get the message) that is pop made in Poland, there does appear to be a fair amount of Polish heavy metals bands.  I have to say, dear reader, that I don't know many of them; and those I do know I don't really like (with one exception) and I am reliant on you to tell me of them.

In any case, the health of heavy metal in a country is an indicator of the health of the people there, so let's look at the concert.

First up was Killing Joke.

I am a recent convert to Killing Joke.  They have been going since 1978 and due to the kindness of a Liverpool fan in Ireland I now possess all their albums.  They are a very interesting band, comprising of synthy-music to full-blown rock occasionally bordering on industrial metal.  I would call them legends, in fact.

Scandalously, they were only given half an hour to play.  Equally scandalously, most people who bought tickets for the concert didn't turn up to see them.  I would put the attendance (from the around 60,000 fans who bought tickets) at less than a thousand.  Despite this, they played with energy and Gaz (the singer) was on form, full of drive.

Before one song he spoke to the crowd, saying that he noticed that the President of the USA had been in Poland and because of this we shall have US troops in Poland.  'When WWIII starts it will start in Poland', he said.  He's an interesting one, that Gaz.

Then came The Devlin Townsend Project and after that, Volbeat.

I hadn't heard of either bands before this concert and I was annoyed that they and the next band were put on after Killing Joke and my research into them before the concert showed that I didn't like them and therefore I watched them only from afar.  The Devlin Townsend Project were the better of the two bands.  I would describe them as progressive-metal (with an emphasis on the progressive), kind of like Queensryche but with more headbangy moments and occasional WOOAGH vocals.  Devlin Townsend's frontman abilities were impressive, I found.

Volbeat started off with an energy that impressed me, but after a while I got bored with them and wandered off.  In the end their bland music annoyed me.  Only a brief cover of 'Raining Blood' by Slayer at the end got my head moving.

A better band was on the second stage afterwards, Leash Eye.  They're a band from Poland and quite decent, and their singer's got a good pair of lungs, as one says.  Check out them here.

Afterwards, the mighty Mastodon.

As soon as they came on stage they showed themselves to be a band with calibre.  The art of being onstage and coming across and naturally cool is a difficult one, but they managed it tremendously.  Standing there watching them was like hearing a juggernaut rolling towards me, a juggernaut however with complex melodies (OK, maybe that metaphor doesn't work too well) and outstanding musicianship.  It appeared that they didn't have many fans at the concert, but plenty heads were banging to their music; a sign that they have gained new fans.

Something that I appreciated were the shapes they made.  Heavy metals fans know what I mean; how they stand, how they move around the stage, how they play the guitar.  They looked, I have to say, as cool as fuck.

They were followed by Motörhead.

They need no introduction, proved by the fact that the tens of thousands of fans had finally appeared.  You don't need me to tell you that they're a classic band.  When they're on stage playing you know you're in for a party-time.  Despite hardly moving, Lemmy managed to exude charisma and inspire bopping and many bangs of the head.

Finally, Iron Maiden came on stage.

Iron Maiden and me go back a long time.  It was hearing 'The evil that men do' on the radio on 1988 that turned me to heavy metal, thus rejecting pop, sin, the world, the devil and all evil desires.  It's difficult to put words to just how good they are.  To see them ahead of you playing, say, 'The Trooper', seeing Steve Harris galloping across the stage stirring up the crowd, seeing the three amigos of Adrian Smith, Janick Gers and Dave Murray intertwining their melodies; with Nicko McBrain battering the drums  almost jazzstyle while Bruce Dickinson's air-raid siren vocals does their stuff; all this while you and everyone around you is jumping up and down belting out the words to the can only say, 'This is how things should be'.

I find it incredible how a band who is only slightly younger than I am, having first released an album in 1980 are not only still playing well, but also producing the best music of their career.  Wine getting better with age is a metaphor often used with the Maiden; I would go beyond that, I would say that it's like the universe itself is becoming more intelligent, more diverse, more moving, more spiritual through the development of each new Iron Maiden album.

I mean, just look at the song list: Satellite 15...The Final Frontier, El Dorado, 2 Minutes to Midnight, The Talisman, Coming Home, Dance of Death, The Trooper, The Wicker Man, Blood Brothers, The Evil That Men Do, Fear of the Dark, Iron Maiden, The Number of the Beast, Hallowed Be Thy Name, Running Free. 

Every song there is a classic.

The highlights?  Well, during The Trooper there was BEDLAM in the crowd (I was right at the front of the crowd, but from the fact that there was a surge forward I can say that people behind were going mental as well).  The Talisman: FUCK, what a song!  New songs from old bands don't always inspire the kind of reaction that that song inspired.  Not a still head in the place.  Hallowed be they name: The BEST SONG OF ALL TIME, of course.  I am shaking my head at how good that song was.

'When the wind blows' was another highlight for me, all 11 minutes of it; another new song.  From the slow and quiet beginning to a jump-for-your-life riff via melodic interplays that inspire jealously even in Mr Melodious Lark who learned to sing and compose melody in the University of Melody and then, following sell-out concerts throughout the world became a Professor of Melody, teaching young larks the art of melody before dying and being known as the Bach of the lark world; together with lyrics and a tune that are eminently singable.

As well as a musical and spiritual experience, watching the Maiden is a visual experience.  A lot of effort is put into proving a show, and the stage-design, the stars behind the band, the backdrops and of course Eddie himself certainly give the eyes a lot to take in.

Right, enough about them.  What about the health of heavy metal in Poland?

The good

The crowd went mad for Motörhead and Iron Maiden.  Especially for the latter, people were signing throughout the whole concert.  People knew the songs well (which didn't happen last year even when Metallica played).  They were real fans.  I was able to stand/jump/mosh/headbang there in the knowledge that I was surrounded by people who love the Maiden, and there was no posing involved with that.  Respect to Iron Maiden fans in Poland!

The bad

Apart from potatoes all cooked food sold at the festival was meat.  Bastards.

Fuck's sake, Killing Joke are a classic band and hardly anyone turned up for them!  That's an embarrassment for Poland.  In fact, I have come to a conclusion about metal fans in Poland that I don't really like making: Poland is dominated by wools.

The word 'wool' comes from Liverpool and means a Liverpool FC fan who doesn't get  what it means to be a Liverpool fan; they sing songs that Liverpool fans don't sing, they hold views that show them to know nothing about Liverpool FC or its footballers, they are Liverpool fans in name only, but not culturally speaking.  I know this in Poland in Chelsea fans.  They walk through Wrocław wearing Chelsea tops being all enthusiastic about Chelsea, but sing songs that Chelsea fans who actually go to games don't sing; they know nothing about, say, the likes of Kerry Dixon or John Hollins, or even Peter Osgood.  They like Chelsea because they are a big and relatively successful team; they take the glory but haven't earned any of it.

In Poland I have met a lot of Polish people who say that they are big Chelsea, Arsenal, Man Utd or, sadly, Liverpool fans (man, once while watching Man Utd Howard Webbing their way to a win over us a load of Poles in Liverpool tops were chatting and laughing while the mancs were given a dodgy penalty and our captain was sent off); and also Barcelona.  They like them because they are big teams.

It is similar with metal.  Only the biggest bands were liked by the majority of the crowd.  Of course, bigger bands are liked by more people everywhere, but I have been to festivals in GB and the place was already full for the first band who came on at 3pm, and thousands were headbanging and moshing and singing already to the first band.  A performance by the same bands in other countries would certainly have more fans actually turning up.  Now, the concert took place on a working day, but even then, last year the Big Four performance took place on a Wednesday and even then thousands turned up to the first bands and reacted appropriately (though again, scandalously, thousands also only turned up for Metallica, thus missing the first time in history that the Big Four played).

It is difficult to escape the view that heavy metal in Poland is not a developed scene (not only with metal, I have heard of techno-'musicans' complaining about the lack of a good techno-scene in Poland).  Well, this is with regard to non-Polish heavy metal, anyway.  The Polish heavy metal bands who played that day on the second stage went down well.  Like with Polish football teams, there is a strong support for heavy metal bands from Poland.  Just that this support is not very broad.

The ugly

One goes to a concert to see a band and sing, dance, mosh, bang ones head, that kind of thing.  One doesn't go there to see someone blocking my view with their cameras.  One guy in front of me during Motörhead was very busy taking blurry photos of Lemmy and not once did he so much as raise a half-hearted fist to their music.  Fucking wool.

Don't take photos of bands.  They'll be shit photos and you're blocking the view of people behind you.

I also don't buy tickets in order to see the back of a girl sitting on her boyfriend.  Now, on various live videos you can see girls (and it is always girls) doing this and they are certainly proper metal fans, knowing the lyrics and all that.  Often, however, I get the impression that they don't actually know the songs and are pretending to be a big fan of the band.  You ever notice in videos that they are sitting there doing nothing but only raising a limp-hand to the air when they notice a camera is on them?

Flags are also a pain the arse.  Only saw one at Warsaw, a Ukrainian flag, that was greeted with a chant of 'Fuck off'.

Despite all this, my overwhelming impression of the concert was positive.  Not only due to the Maiden, but also due to the frenetic support given to them, and one more detail: More or less everyone around me was about 19 years old.  They knew all the words to the songs, including the old songs; songs I learned 23 years ago.

With such lads and lasses, the future of heavy metal in Poland could get a lot healthier.

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