Blazefest V – Belfast, Empire Music Hall 21/03/2015

Blazefest V posterThe rock and metal community, perhaps more than any other in the field of music, always has been known for its generosity of spirit and support for worthy causes.  For the community in Northern Ireland, few are more special or better supported than Blaze’s Appeal, which raises funds for the Royal Belfast Hospital For Sick Children, via the annual Blazefest.

The inspiration behind the event is young Blaze Shields-Pettitt, an otherwise lively, rugby-playing and heavy metal-loving little boy who suffers from Severe Bilateral Hydronephrosis, a condition whereby both of his kidneys are stretched and swollen, and which affects one in 600 people. In Blaze’s case, it was diagnosed during ante-natal scans: his condition is complicated by the fact that he also suffers from Vesicoureteral Reflex (VUR), a condition which reverses the flow of urine between the bladder and kidneys.  After numerous operations – all of which Blaze faced with a bravery and humour which would be envied by many adults – five years ago his parents, Darren and Dawn, came up with the idea of combining their own lifelong passion for heavy metal with their desire to show their thanks to the nursing teams at the hospital by raising invaluable funds.  To date, the couple, together with NI’s ever generous metallians, have raised almost £15,000 – an amount swollen by yet another successful collaboration between the bands and fans (despite the counter-attraction of nu metal legends Papa Roach playing just a few hundred yards down the street, which had something of an impact on the numbers attending).

Selene at Blazefest, Belfast, March 2015The task of opening this year’s titanic eight-band bill fell to newcomers Selene, playing only their second ever gig!  PlanetMosh had been present at their debut show a few weeks’ early and, to be honest, it was a performance destroyed by a combination of (understandable) nerves and sound/technical difficulties.  But, the difference between then and now is almost chasmic in its immensity… This time around the band are confident and assured, For a start, the sound mix is the total antithesis of that which decimated their Metal 2 The Masses chances exactly one month earlier;  on this occasion, it brings out frontwoman Shonagh Lyons’ rich vocal delivery and produces a sound which is as huge as this young band have the potential to be.  Yes, the singer is still a bit static and “mic-clingy” (as one of Team PM’s companions so eloquently described it!), but, with the band behind her as tight as you would wish and a canon of promisingly elegant songs, her confidence will grow with experience.

“Experience” is certainly something which The Irontown Diehards don’t lack – and they certainly win the award for the best dressed band on the bill, with their waistcoats, ties and trilbies!  But that doesn’t mean that they’re not afraid to get dirty, as they rattle through a set that combines hard-edged stoner blues with a classic rock vibe.  It’s good to see that Andy Baxter has eased off a bit on the OTT guitar wankery which somewhat bespoiled their initial shows, but has integrated his innate showmanship more into the infectious grunt of the overall sound.  It’s hard to pigeonhole the Diehards’ sound, as it draws on all of the elements referenced above and then some, but there is no doubt that they are bringing something new and interesting to a Northern Ireland scene in which it can sometimes be difficult to find something that fits that description.

Donum Dei at Blazefest, Belfast, March 2015Having been drafted in at very short notice to open last year’s proceedings, Donum Dei quite rightly found themselves bumped up to a higher position on this year’s bill.  On the day on which Ireland stormed to another Six Nations victory, this mid-Ulster quartet prove yet again why this little island is also producing some of the most powerful and enervating music around.  They also once again demonstrate their constant evolution and progression, as their sets just get tighter and tighter.  The four lads seem to have massive amounts of pure energy captured within their wiry frames, just waiting to explode and nucleate the world with their infectious riffs and contagious choruses, while Thomas has moulded himself into a solid, strong frontman with a will and determination to lead his band to the forefront of the Norn Iron heavy metal assault – and take no prisoners in the process.

Dublin’s Xerosun not only come from south of the border but also somewhat out of left field with their groove-fuelled death metal vibe.  Martyna Halas’ mix of harsh and clean vocals is as acerbic as it is challenging:  one second she is summoning demons from the depths of hell, the next she is cavorting with angels in a mead-induced metallic frenzy, with the total contrast between her death growls and dark alto ironically seemless in their collective integration.  Behind her, massive melodies and huge hooks combine with brutal backbeats and crunching, grinding riffs; the sound deceives with the evil simplicity of its dense groove, with the surprisingly sparse drum patterns all the more effective for being so, while the twin guitar harmonies are faultless.  The only previous occasion on which Xerosun appeared in Belfast, they played to three people:  when they next return (to Voodoo on Friday May 29) no doubt they will pack the place to the rafters!

Conjuring Fate at Blazefest, Belfast, March 2015“Are you ready to party?” asks vocalist Tommy Daly as Conjuring Fate launch into their well-practised and well-rehearsed set – but not one that is played to within an inch of its life, but rather is delivered with commitment, passion… and an innate sense of enjoyment.  This latter aspect is reflect by Daly when he references the band’s last appearance at Blazefest – “I can’t remember it… let’s leave it at that!” – while his bandmates toss inflatable guitars into the crowd.  ‘House On Haunted Hill’ is one of the best set openers you will hear from any band, while ‘Chasing Shadows’ is one of those songs that just gets better and better every time you hear it – just as the band themselves do!

On this evening of contrasting musical styles, Screaming Eagles bring it on with their bumping, grinding rawk ‘n’f’n’ roll characterized by deep-throated bluesy vocals and beautiful winding melodies.  The guys have been off the scene for a while, recording their second album, but, while they are initially a little ring rusty, they soon shake off the cobwebs and show that they have not lost any of their fire, grit and determination.  They premier a couple of songs from the aforesaid new album – but, ironically, it is the rapturous reception given to their brief cover of ‘It’s A Long Way To The Top…’ which epitomizes the spirit and message of this band, who know that it takes hard graft and an iron will to make it in this hoary old music game:  fortunately, the Screagles possess both qualities in spadeloads, and the potential to achieve the latter.

Sinocence at Blazefest, Belfast, March 2015Sinocence open with a true declaration of intent in ‘Long Way Down’ – a song which, I’ve said many times before (and probably will do many times again), possesses one of the heaviest riff ever laid down.  Like their predecessors on the stage, the Sins have been off the live scene for a while, recording their new EP – the second part of their epic ‘No Gods No Masters’ triptych – but that process seems to have made them tighter and more homogenous than ever, producing a sound which mere adjectives such as “huge” do not do justice!  The two new songs premiered – ‘Ascension Code’ and ‘In Kymatica’ – see Moro’s more relaxed vocal style translating well to the live environment:  the songs still have their impact – ‘Making A Monster’ is the behemothic beast it deserves to be – with the less forced vocal style counterpointing perfectly the renewed ferocity of the band’s instrumental approach.  Before the show, the Sins had promised us a surprise, and they certainly deliver in that department, with Screagles vocalist Chris Fry taking to the stage again for an unrehearsed and fun version of ‘Evenflow’.  Unfortunately, due to the overall over-run, the quartet have to cut their set short, but this doesn’t lessen the impact of the renascent Sins.

Maverick at Blazefest, Belfast, March 2015Undoubtedly one of Northern Ireland’s hardest working hard rock combos, Maverick fully deserve their headline status as they slip and slide their way onto the stage with the nice ‘n’ easy sleaziness of ‘Snakeskin Sinner’ and the sweaty groove of debut single ‘Paint By Numbers’.  Just like the band, everyone in the audience has ‘Got It Bad’ when it comes to the classic rock vibe which the lads deliver, appealing both to those of us to remember the likes of Ratt, Warrant et al first time around as well as younger fans being turned on by the band’s honest, no excuses and no frills approach which pays homage to the era of big hair and big tunes while at the same time sounding fresh, modern and vibrant.  ‘Rock N Roll Lady’, for example, snaps and snarls in the glam-meets-punk-meets metal mould, while ‘Shackled’ just oozes classic, sleazy charm, once again showing why this band should be an essential addition to the line-up of any classic rock festival this summer – and beyond!

With the venue obviously keen to ensure that the event wrapped up as quickly as possible – over-zealous staff had started minesweeping drinks from tables before the band even went on stage – Maverick punch the looming curfew full in the face with an affectionate and energetic version of ‘You Give Love A Bad Name’, before proving its ‘In Our Blood’, their latest single and an archetypal anthem for old and new generations alike, while ‘Top Heavy’ is the ultimate cheeky, cheesy finale, with the audience once again singing themselves hoarse.

And so we came to the end of another fantastic Blazefest.  The audience may have been slightly smaller than last year, but the enthusiasm of everyone present was as unbridled as ever – and the Sunday morning hangover was definitely made all the more bearable by the news that the event had raised a magnificent £3145.21 for the Royal Belfast Hospital for Sick Children.  Well done Darren, Dawn and everyone concerned:  here’s to you all… and to next year!

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Photographs by The Dark Queen.

About Mark Ashby

no longer planetmosh staff