There are loads of NWOBHM treats to look forward to this year… and wouldn’t it be amazing if Dragonslayer playing together again was one of them?
Go and befriend them, wake the dragon!
As for confirmed NWOBHM gigs there’s plenty, and the first one I want to talk about is exciting because it’s two amazing NWOBHM groups playing alongside non-NWOBHMers in London… Am I wrong in thinking this demonstrates people acknowledging how relevant the era is? Bloody hell, they’ll be taking us seriously next!
I’ve always been adamant that stoner, downer, desert rock is amply represented by lots of bands categorised as NWOBHM. Now, I’m sure that most people would agree that the roots of doom are quite firmly placed in the fertile compost of 70s hard rock like Sabbath and heavy melancholy passages of Zeppelin (like ‘Dazed and Confused’) and I feel that people don’t give the NWOBHM bands enough credit for carrying the flame of this influence… People always mention Witchfinder General, Omega and Pagan Altar, but I think there is so much more doom subtly scattered about the NWOBHM than people are willing to acknowledge. Then recently I noticed on Quartz’s stalkbook page an announcement, not only that they’re booked to play the Metal Hammer stage of Desertfest (Sunday 26th April) but Angel Witch are headlining! I almost shat myself with excitement.
OK, so this could actually be a stage intended to give people a break from Doom, Sludge and Stoner, but I’m convinced they made some pretty good classic NWOBHM choices, who in my opinion reflect the spirit of doom (and Desertfest) in their recordings more than the organisers probably realise…
First let’s talk about Angel Witch. I’ve heard that Carcass/Firebird axe virtuoso Bill Steer won’t be with them this time, which doesn’t make me less excited about the gig, it just makes seeing them with Bill (an avid supporter of NWOBHM) a few times from 2009-2012 even more special. So it would appear the rhythm section chaps playing with Kevin Heybourne have remained consistent since 2008, Andy Prestridge and Will Palmer, formerly of Sloth. The new addition is Tom Draper, previously of Crowning Glory, currently of Primitai. Aren’t personnel lists fascinating?
One thing people bring up when talking about Angel Witch is how much of a tragedy it was that they didn’t keep up the momentum after their trailblazing debut album (1980). I listen to this record loads, and when you’re in the right mood it can really take you by surprise how much it kicks ass. My personal highlight is ‘Free Man’.
OK, calm down, please don’t hit me with your studded leather gloves… ‘Rock ballads’ either work or they sound weird, wimpy and out of place (‘When A Blind Man Cries’ from Deep Purple’s ‘Firebird’ anyone?), however this one shits all over most other examples. I have a soft spot for it because I first bought the Angel Witch album just after I’d finished working as a filing assistant in a prison, which was a tough ‘sentence’ I can tell you… Heybourne’s compositions are heavy and littered with innovative hooks, which I’m convinced have more than a little 70s boogie in them (which the subject matter drags effectively into doom territory), and Kevin Riddles’ bass work really makes each track on this record shine. My least favourite tracks are ‘Confused’ and speedier ‘Sweet Danger’, as I consider them to be less adventurous. However, if these two gems are the least courageous items on offer, this confirms how truly mind-blowing a record it is. It’s one of my all time favourite albums, and every household should own a copy. Especially doom heads!
Another thing that people frequently bring up when talking about Angel Witch is the period following this masterpiece, which for someone trying to chart the history of the band is basically just a suicide inducing Schindler’s list of changing personnel. Lots of people are quite fond of ‘Screamin’ and Bleedin’ (1985) and ‘Frontal Assault’ (1986), the two albums made with David Tattum on vocals with cover art that offends both the eyes and intellect, although I don’t think any of this material is played live anymore. So I’d advise that it’s worth investing in ‘As Above, So Below’ (2012) instead, this album was a fine achievement and more than a little sensitive towards fan’s memories of the band circa 1980. Plus it apparently has Bill Steer on 2nd guitar and features a convincingly photoshopped John Martin painting. You see, the first record is an apocalyptic image previously attributed to this Victorian king of proto-doom imagery. I was delighted when I attended the ‘John Martin: Apocalypse’ show in 2011 and saw that Kevin Heybourne was quoted in one of the booklets to given away by the Tate! I’ll scan that, hang on…
So yeah, get ‘As Above, So Below’, and go and see Angel Witch while they’re still with us…
Further down the bill is a real treat in Quartz. For those who want to be pedantic, yes, they preceded the NWOBHM movement, but their most impressive phase of activity was going on right at the peak of the era, when their records more than fitted in. There has always been something awesome about Quartz, which should appeal to any stoner/doom fan open minded enough to check them out. Each of their albums is a completely different interpretation of Sabbath influences and subtle keyboard laden Purple boogie. The new one, ‘Too Hot To Handle’ (featuring remastered tracks from two demos made over 30 years ago) is a worthy release that has rekindled happy memories. It’s a powerful, authentic relic from the era, which features tracks from the tragically underrated 1983 ‘Against All Odds’ album with the (now returned and ‘current’) vocalist David Garner (who demoed the tracks before being replaced by Geoff Bate for the album that was released). These are backed up with previously unheard demo tracks. Are you keeping up? Good, because after writing about Angel Witch I’m in no mood to discuss personnel!
On the new CD, I prefer the ‘Against All Odds’ tracks to their original album versions. The other tracks are also from between 1981/1982, and the whole shebang’s been remastered by the chap from Skol Records, which has given it an authentic but clear balance. It sounds amazing, not a filler on there.
I’m so pleased the organisers chose Quartz. As the blurb on the Desretfest site screams ‘Quartz, another frontrunner of the early NWOBHM scene will also be playing. Their first album, Quartz, was recorded by stoner rock’s Godfather, Tony Iommi’. So I’m convinced they have been booked specifically to ‘fit in’ with the stoner atmosphere of the rest of the festival. This is great, because it would have been so much more obvious to have booked Pagan Altar, and I find the prospect of seeing Quartz much more exciting! I believe a recognisable stoner element underlines each Quartz album, but the riffs and solos are intricate enough to keep the experience interesting and intense. Take ‘Stand Up And Fight’ (1980) for example, although quite powerful the whole album has an attitude of confrontation, but expressed in a kind of drugged out haze which makes you feel drawn into it’s thumping atmosphere. The deep throbbing keyboard effect they use in ‘Charlie Snow’ has a subliminal dialogue with the audience, and when you recognise it’s there, you see how much structure it adds, inviting the listener to forge an intimate relationship with the song.
Ingenious effects like this are littered throughout their recorded legacy, making the records strangely relaxing to listen to. I don’t think any other NWOBHM band managed to achieve this so effectively. People who criticise Quartz’s sound are generally rummaging in the NWOBHM pool in search of proto thrash, and don’t give their music the time it deserves.
So, a new record featuring some amazing archive material, a stable, authentic line up, a willingness to use social media to reach a wider audience, what could possibly piss on this bonfire? ‘Too Hot To Handle’s’ depressingly unsuitable album cover, that’s what! So instead of the personnel thing I’ll treat you to a bitching session about bad NWOBHM cover art and the effect it can have not only on a band’s chances of being taken seriously, but also on my poor, delicate eyes.
You know, I love a multitude of things about our music that are charmingly twee and campy, the Spinal Tap elements that remind us that it’s all just a bit of fun. For example, I can excuse Battleaxe for their hilariously bad choice of album cover for ‘Burn This Town’ (1983), because it has become an iconic image of what tragedy could occur to a well played, tolerably recorded labour of love in the early 80s if you didn’t have the right management or creative guidance when introducing the product to its intended audience. Which if you ask me sums up the NWOBHM era pretty effectively.
You can excuse the hilarious Battleaxe incident (which is documented in great detail in Mark Gregory’s side-splitting book ‘No Sleep Til Saltburn’).
‘The mighty Battleaxe’ were young and didn’t have a clue what they were doing, so you can easily forgive them for this relic of their poorly judged campaign to take over the world, as well as finding it funny and charming.
Quartz on the other hand aren’t misguided teenagers, are they? They are people who have been involved with the music industry since the mid 70s. These guys are gods, and seeing as they have so many high profile associates in the rock world I am baffled that no one told them how out of place this cover looks! It’s as if they got the designer of the Battleaxe cover out of retirement and begged him to mock up some ideas…
To the artist’s credit I think the colours are lovely, but whereas his other work for death metal covers looks ‘dark and malevolent’, here it looks as though the band has asked him to put a friendly smile on their demon (reworked from the cover art for ‘Satan’s Serenade’ EP (1980)) so it doesn’t scare off its intended audience. Sorry to keep going on about it, but it looks like they’re trying to be power metal. And seeing as they sound like this…
…with a real chugging Sabbath-esque power, they should not be mistaken for power metal. The only way they got away with this kind of imagery on the original ‘Satan’s Serenade’ cover was to put it in stark monochrome. I think it looks pretty amazing. It doesn’t give too much away and has an element of mystery to it… In fact, the shittest thing about the cover is the demon creature who they appear to be utilising as a mascot now!
Heavy metal mascots are always used as evidence for our genre’s ‘good sense of humour’. However, when you consider one of the earliest examples, the laughably ill-advised Johnny the seal mascot used by New York City’s Riot, that laughter you hear is not with us, but against us. And rightly so!
Motorhead’s Snaggletooth first appeared the same year (1977) and was a really effective emblem which they have used ever since. I guess in the late 70s, bands would look at Snaggletooth (or War-pig, whatever you want to call him) and think ‘we could do that!’. A good manager would have then shown them a Riot record and said ‘not on my watch’.
The success Iron Maiden enjoyed with Eddie was just a happy coincidence triggered by manager Rod Smallwood’s dedication to finding suitable artwork, which lead him to stumbling across Derek Riggs’ painting. This strong management decision didn’t come from thinking ‘I want a Snaggletooth’, it came from an original Iron Maiden in-joke that through a series of coincidences coupled with a manager who gave a shit turned into an insanely successful marketing ploy. A disturbing tradition developed as the 80s progressed, with some pretty desperate attempts by bands trying to follow up the success of the Eddie character. I guess the most prominent and frequently used one from the NWOBHM was Blitzkrieg’s strange butterfly beast (this was officially ‘named’ onstage by Brian Ross at this year’s Brofest, and I can’t for the life of me remember what name they gave him, can someone with a more efficient memory help?).
Non NWOBHM attempts include the well rendered but flawed Manowarrior character developed in Manowar’s artwork (remember, muscle bound guys in leather trousers who dedicate the time they don’t spend in the gym to hair care are NOT posers!).
Others in the thrash/ power metal era followed including Megadeth’s Vic Rattlehead, Sodom’s Knarrenheinz, Kreator’s Evil Mind, Helloween’s Jack O Lantern and Hammerfall’s Hammerwarrior, whoops I mean Hector. Although some of them ‘work’, they are all desperate attempts at developing a consistent visual franchise, which generally falls flat on its ass. We’ve got enough bullshit mascots and don’t need any more thanks Quartz!
So, to the guys in Quartz, if (when?) you make a long awaited new album, please ditch the visual clichés and keep things simple. Let the music do the talking! Which brings us back to talking about music, here’s Ouartz in one of my favourite NWOBHM clips…
The sound is magic and the costumes are amazing (shit, I drifted back away from music pretty quickly there)! While Priest were doing the whole S&M thing, Quartz were doing whatever they felt like, and having a great time by the looks of things. As an aside, I have a real soft spot for those videos of Priest before the leather phase actually, with Halford wearing a strange selection of Bowie influenced attire… OK, I can’t resist putting this up…
He changes costumes a number of times throughout this gig if you ever have the chance to sit through it all, I assure you it’s one of the most life-affirming things you could kill time with!
I feel that metal imagery is best when the bands don’t try to all look like each other… Maybe bands became less creative when the denim and leather thing became a standardised uniform? What do you think? At this point I’ve got to mention my favourite example of good recent NWOBHM cover art, Soldier’s ‘Dogs Of War’, which manages to look simultaneously traditional and current, but also had an element of risk to it, there’s loads of colour and a ridiculous amount of stuff going on. Like everything to do with imagery its different strokes for different folks, but it was also a very convincing album, support Soldier everyone!
Quartz album covers have generally been OK in the past. The debut from 1977 didn’t try too hard but at least looked mysterious, with just a logo and red gleaming rocks. The live album had some continuity with the logo, and I guess looks ‘of it’s time’. 1980s ‘Stand Up And Fight’ was a clichéd image, but this battle scene doesn’t show the victim, and places the protagonist in a red tinged mountain landscape, suggesting some kind of drugged out nihilistic isolation?
Whatever it’s going for, in 1980 an image like this didn’t stand out enough to invite criticism. ‘Against All Odds’ appears to have been chosen out of the same catalogue as ‘Turn The Hell On’ by Fist, generic, but everyone knows that outer space rocks! So why did they have to wait for this vital moment in their career to step over that fine ‘bad cover art’ line? The album itself is fucking great by the way, I’m just being honest and realistic… I have lots of time for Quartz and I’m really looking forward to seeing them on the 26th… you should too, so order it now! Also befriend them on stalkbook… https://www.facebook.com/groups/Quartz.rockband.UK.fanpage/
Back to the gig, also look out for Amulet, we should support young chaps who dig the NWOBHM. Sunday 26th April, people!
The Metal Hammer stage is set in the Underworld. If you get tickets for the rest of the festival, Koko, the venue that legendary doom gods and Desertfest headliners Sleep will be playing, was once called the Music Machine, where an important genre defining event occurred. On May 8, 1979, Angel Witch, Iron Maiden and Samson played a show organised by DJ Neal Kay. Journalist Geoff Barton was in the audience, so this show probably triggered the cogs in his brain that inspired him to write his now legendary article, which Sounds editor Alan Lewis coined a name for. And we’ve had to suffer describing that bloody acronym ever since…
That was a time when authentic British heavy metal believed it could take over the world. Of course Iron Maiden did take over the world in quite a spectacular fashion, which makes the fact their surviving contemporaries are spending their twilight years in smaller venues like the Underworld quite surprising to some, but to those who care about this music these gigs are special opportunities to experience authentic rock and roll in an intimate location.
So if you want to enjoy two of the greatest NWOBHM groups being more legitimately doom/stoner than the rest of the Metal Hammer stage, this is the show for you! It claims to have sold out, but I think you can still get tickets for just the Metal Hammer stage here…
Next time I’ll start off talking about the upcoming Garage Dayz Revisited (27th June) gig and see where my lack of focus takes me…
Talking of lack of focus, here’s one that I can’t believe I’ve only recently stumbled upon. Viper, from Hull, ‘Used’, from 1980. The keyboards blow my mind and I just can’t stop listening to it…