By Ashley Bailey
There are few experiences in my life I would describe as surreal but being stood in the freezing cold rain in a queue of people dressed as pirates and wenches, just ten minutes after interviewing one of my favourite bands, probably qualifies. I was at the Moho for the Manchester leg of Alestorm’s Useless Drunken Bastards tour, with Claim the Throne and Darkest Era. Like most British people, harsh weather is just something we accept with a forced grin (there’s probably some ‘Keep Calm’ meme about it) and soon I would have forgotten about damp clothes and leaky shoe because I was having a fucking ball inside.
Irish Celtic metallers Darkest Era were tasked with opening the evening; and for a band relatively new to the larger world of metal, they were damn impressive. Not many established bands could get away with coming out on stage to the soundtrack of Final Fantasy VIII, but it totally worked with Nobuo Uematsu’s intense masterpiece perfectly complimented Darkest Era’s style and suitably set the mood. Liberi Fatali led nicely to the band’s opener An Ancient Fire Burns, working as a crescendo of sorts. An Ancient Fire Burns was the perfect song to open proceedings with as it best represents Darkest Era’s style; with melodic heavy metal inspired riffs and a powerful but haunting vocal performance from Krum. It also featured some of my favourite solos by Ade.
I was talking to a fellow audience member who compared Darkest Era to fellow Irish band, Primordial. Though I felt a distinct Primordial influence in songs such as Heathen Burial in terms of structure, atmosphere and subject matter it is difficult to compare the two as the former band are more influenced by traditional metal as opposed to the latter who are primarily a black metal band. My favourite song of the set though was definitely On the Cress of Doom. It’s arguably their heaviest track and most progressive. The fills from drummer Lisa are spot on and Krum’s vocals here evoke a sense of ‘epic’, and I don’t mean the “I ate a sandwich in five seconds look at me” kind of epic either.
When I interviewed guitarists Sarah and Ade prior to the show, they came across as laidback and perhaps even understated; but the very instance they stepped onstage they displayed the charismatic authority of the poster child for Max Weber’s theories and performed as a proper unit; as did bassist David. Krum displayed a keen insight into the art of showmanship, even practically climbing over the crowd barrier.
I have to commend Darkest Era for putting on such a fantastic performance, it’s not easy to open proceedings but the band managed to captivate the audience regardless. Such was their rapport with the crowd, that the room became awash with raised lighters during the ballad - The Last Caress of Light Before the Dark. Not only was their set hugely enjoyable, perfectly marrying the harshness of metal with the haunting sounds and pagan themes of Celtic metal, but they were entertaining to boot – especially their celebration of Krum’s birthday; which involved horse masks, pizza and a luxury cake. I’d recommend keeping a close eye (or two) on Darkest Era.
After a brief line check, the melodic death metallers Claim the Throne were ready for action. The most immediate observation is that they are in many ways a Viking equivalent of Alestorm. Songs such as Through the Rage of the Storm and Set Sail on Ale have the Alestorm vibe, especially the keyboard sections (Jesse). It made for a perfect main support, a sort of meta-band who are fantastic in their own right.
Claim the Throne are of a similar vein as bands like Finntroll, singing songs with serious themes such as folklore and battling but it wasn’t entirely played straight. There was a sense of light heartedness premating from the whole experience; and perhaps it was the beer bongs that helped me come to this conclusion too.
Frontman Brendon had a strong, deep voice vocal style and sounded as though he was narrating an epic battle; though I was impressed more by his more subtle performances on the acoustic tracks, which gave the feeling of being sat around a camp fire in days of old and singing of great exploits. There was also a lot of versatility to the vocals, with atypical death metal gutturals and occasionally Jesse provided operatic backing vocals, helping individual songs stand out.
Musically they had everything a melodic death metal should; clean and screamed vocals, harmonic guitar riffs and very fast drums, as well as folk influenced riffs and solos. Each member displayed a fantastic level of skill and the songs themselves were versatile enough to stop the set from becoming samey; the inclusion of acoustic songs not only helped this aim but they were equally as entertaining and enjoyable. The band played a song from their new album Triumph and Beyond, which they had never played live before and gave the audience permission to boo them if they didn’t play it correctly; but one couldn’t fault their musicianship one iota. Claim the Throne may not have had the same impact on the crowd as openers Darkest Era, but they were highly enjoyable and set the atmosphere perfectly for Alestorm. The fact that they could play gratuitously technical songs whilst simultaneously keeping it light-hearted is the best recommendation one could give.
The anticipation erupted into a frenzy of raised appendages and yells as Alestorm’s customary remixed version of Wenches and Mead played, signalling that, like winter, the pirates were coming. Whilst I had managed to hold my position of front-left of the stage for the entire gig, I eventually succumbed to the violent decadence befitting a pirate themed metal gig; pitting, people losing clothes for no adequate reason and mass quantities of beer flying around. Even members of the band rushed off set to join in with the wild pitting happening near the front
When I interviewed frontman Chris before the show, he brought up an interesting point; Alestorm fit their pirate theme around their songs and not the other way around. This allows for a wider variety in songs, so whilst they played the nautical sounding crowd favourites such as the catchy Keelhauled or the pirate anthem Nancy the Tavern Wench; they also played more head-banging inducing songs like Back in Time, which has some great thrash inspired riffage and fast drumming (Pete) that you can’t help but air guitar (or drum) to. This is the second time I’ve seen Alestorm live now, and the tracks that always get the best crowd interaction are Wenches and Mead and Leviathan; due to the simple but extremely addictive choruses. Second encore Rum was another example of this
Christopher’s vocal style perfectly epitomises Alestorm; harsh and packed with the grit one would expect from a grizzled seadog, but at the same time lyrical enough to lend a sea shanty vibe to the experience. For a band with only one guitarist Alestorm had a full sound, due to the prominence of the keyboard (Chris). The inclusion of keyboard helps to complement Dani’s riffs, or even take lead, lending to a uniquely folk/pirate sound; Set Sail and Conquer had an amazing keyboard solo. I should single out guest keyboardist Eliot (from local band Windrider) as it can’t be easy to perform as a secondary keyboardist, but I noticed no faults with his performance even though it was hard to distinguish his sections from Chris’ keyboard guitar.
As I was leaving I overheard a couple of crowd members discussing the fact that other than a bottle of rum Alestorm didn’t really encompass the pirate experience in the same way as Swashbuckle would; who don eye patches and parrots. This may be true, but this is somewhat of a non-issue as myself and the majority of the crowd were too busy screaming along to the vocals and getting carried away by the brutal basslines (Gareth) and keyboard sections. I suppose more of a pirate aesthetic would help to enhance the experience, but it by no means detracts from it.
Alestorm are a perfect example of substance over style. They may not be the most technically proficient band going, but they have more memorable passages than most bands; after the gig I found the solos from Sail and Conquer stuck in my head for several days. Whilst Alestorm were the highlight of the gig for not only their performance but the crowd reaction too, I enjoyed all three bands equally. Hopefully after this Darkest Era will see big things in their future as they were just fantastic. My only real grievance regarding this gig is that I don't really like the layout of venue Moho and the lighting could be a bit much, but really I'm just nitpicking.