Review by Darren Smith for MPM
In my gig going years, which now number almost 34 to the day, there has been more than a few instances where a band I love has toured and I have caught that tour more than once.
I am struggling to remember however the last time a tour caught my eye, ear and imagination so perfectly because of the whole package on offer that I moved heaven and earth to go and see it more than once.
Well that has happened with the three band line up of Mason Hill, Hollowstar and Empyre who have just done a run of 22 dates up and down the length of the UK. Not only was I lucky enough to witness the mind-blowing sets by the former two at this years Nozfest in August, I was at Leo’s Red Lion in Gravesend when this tour made its first stop in Kent back in September.
That night was just off the scale, a real roof raiser with all three bands on top form and the crowd generating one of the best atmospheres I can remember at any gig over all those years. I knew then that I had to, at all costs, get myself to The Booking Hall in Dover to soak up the music and the performances of this triple band bill again and just revel in the glory and fun that they have been taking into each and every venue they have played in.
The stage at The Booking Hall is by no means the smallest, in fact for the venue capacity it is more than a healthy size, but the first thing that struck me was the amount of gear onstage. Two drum kits take up a fair amount of space on even the biggest of stages, then when you add in the necessary guitar racks, it meant that both Empyre and Hollowstar would find space at a premium.
That however did not stop the Northampton rockers delighting the crowd with an engrossing and enchanting five track set tonight. After a very unassuming arrival on stage, the band, all suitably attired in Hollowstar t-shirts to show their love for their touring partners, opened up with ‘My Bad’, the opening track from their debut album ‘Self Aware’. Moody, atmospheric and melancholic, it is full of some wonderful effect laden guitar from Did Coles and absorbing and distinctive vocals from frontman Henrik Steenholdt. It is just a shame that their were not more people inside the venue to witness this incredible opening.
‘Stone’, with its eloquent and intriguing time changes switches from quiet to loud in enthralling fashion. The power that the band generate in the loud parts is almost ear shattering from my position near the PA and I find myself just standing there taking in the marvellous musicianship and songwriting on display in front of me. At the end of the track Henrik asks “How you doing?” There is not much response to which the frontman retorts “subdued then! You feeling quiet? Nervous? We’ve brought the mood down already with our atmospheric music. Don’t expect to dance”.
Haunting, mesmerising and just blissfully beautiful is the best way to describe ‘Only Way Out’. It is a joy to watch the band get totally lost in the majesty of the track. This is the track that really swung me on to Empyre when they released a ravishing piano version of it through lockdown. They had been on my radar before that but that version just hit the spot. Tonight though we get the full band rendition with Henrik and Dids guitar work just adding so much emotion to a real stand out song that builds and builds into a gargantuan beast of epic proportions.
Everything the band play tonight is from their debut album ‘Self Aware’, which is different to the set I saw at Leo’s when they played some new, unreleased material and they continue with that album’s closing track ’Homegrown’. The power in Henrik’s voice is quite phenomenal, he has a unique and imperious tone to it, which is just luscious and as he gives it his all, you can visibly see the veins standing out on his neck like they are about to burst. It is a monster of a tune, with some meaty crunching guitars and a gravelly vocal that really add to the songs power and intensity.
As Henrik said earlier, don’t expect to dance. This is not much music to dance to, this is music to divulge in its entirety, to take on board and take deep within you, to really study and savour and that is exactly what I am doing and boy does it really grip you.
That just leaves one last song and that is ‘New Republic’, one of their biggest. A splendiferous riff from Did over a rolling drum beat from Elliott Bale welcomes the heaviest track of the night so far. This is definitely more prog metal than prog rock and a number you can really bang your head to if you want. Talk about going out on a high and from the response that the band got as they left the stage they had clearly won the crowd over during their set, which was great to see. I hope that Empyre make it back down to these parts again soon as I would love to see them play for more than half an hour, although as a first course goes tonight, that was pretty bloody special.
After a quick break, it was time for Hollowstar who would put in another blistering set for me to relish in and get a real kick out of. It’s great to see a band having fun on stage and Hollowstar visibly do that in abundance. I was half expecting the band to appear in Empyre t-shirts in a mutual appreciation but that didn’t happen, although Joe Bonson did tell me he that he couldn’t believe what Henrik, Dids at al were wearing when he saw them backstage and although he does have an Empyre hat wouldn’t gig in it.
Opening up with a red hot ‘Take It All’, the band are quickly into their stride. Joe is smiling away and there is a wonderful solo from Phil Haines early doors. Each and every time I watch him create sweet, heavenly music from the six strings in his hands I cannot help but think there is a little bit of Eddie Van Halen about him. This is, as I said, my 3rd time seeing Hollowstar since the lockdowns ended and each and every time they have just got better and better. They are now so tight and new guitarist Carl Ledger has clearly bedded in really well. A ballsy, meaty, powerhouse ‘Let You Down’ follows and the muscle with which drummer Jack Bonson beats the skins sends shock waves through your chest.
Crowd participation is to the fore through a monumental run through of ‘Invincible’ that has so much power running through it, it must have drained the national grid somewhat. I ponder to myself as I observe the band during a sizzling twin guitar assault from Haines and Ledger that in Joe Bonson, the band quite simply have one of the best bassist/frontmen around at the moment, if not the best.
Money’ is dedicated to “our friends in No.10”. There are plenty more smiles on stage, there are beaming faces everywhere you look within the crowd, the Dover crowd are loving what they are seeing. There are hips swaying, feet tapping and hands clapping and why the hell not, here is a band who write music that inspire those reactions and they are putting on one hell of a performance.
Joe thanks the crowd, and quite rightly acknowledges that this wouldn’t happen without them and graciously thanks Mason Hill for “choosing these four muppets for the tour, when they could have had anybody”. Straight back to the music though as time is limited and we are treated to a quick dose of The Proclaimers, by way of intro into a feverish version of Free’s ‘Wishing Well’.
I don’t think I will ever ever get tired of watching them do this as they do it so bloody well and with Joe’s velvety vocals just pouring out it almost makes you want to drool. The venue has now filled, the temperature has gone up and so has the volume. Incredible.
A scorching ‘Overrated’ follows with the front three members all lined up, just taking in the reception they are getting and as Joe sings “I’ve got the mind of a warrior” it makes you think about the personal battles he and the band have overcome to get themselves into this position, where they can enjoy each and every premium performance they put on.
There are so many superlatives that could be used to describe ‘Good Man Gone’, a track that tonight is dedicated “to those who aren’t as lucky as us. We have the strength in our immune systems to do this but there are many who two years ago could do this, but can’t now”. Joe goes on to say that 4 months ago, Phil’s Dad Chris passed away. A man that taught him everything he knows on a guitar.
He used to drag the much younger musician in from the park at 6pm and make him take in Joe Satriani’s ‘Surfing With The Alien’. Joe then also dedicated the track to the late Chris Haines who he says “allowed me to do this every day with my best friend”. A really touching moment and one that is not lost on the Dover crowd. The track which has a scintillating riff, a chest destroying drum beat and some of the most heartfelt and emotional lyrics you will hear in a long time is quite rightly savoured by everyone.
When Joe and Carl leave the stage to give the complete spotlight to Phil for another mouth-watering guitar solo, it is a touching moment that is not lost on me, or other members of the audience. You could see the emotion on Phil’s face and eyes as he took that moment fully and with eyes glancing upwards at the end, wiped himself down before a sizzling ‘All I Gotta Say’ brings the bands imperious set to a close.
Man, I wish they had more stage time, that was stunning. Hollowstar are insanely good and they are just getting better and better. I dare say with the amount of people that must have surely appreciated and enjoyed their music on this tour, it may not be long before they are doing the rounds again in these venues, but with themselves as headliners. Quite frankly, if you didn’t enjoy that, then there is something wrong with you.
Mason Hill arrived onstage to their regular backing tape before heading straight into a sensational ‘Reborn’ and then straight into ‘No Regret’. It is a real high energy start from the Glaswegian rockers with singer Scott Taylor at one point crouching at the front of the stage to give the photographers that so sought after ‘money shot’. Taylor has a demeanour and personality that makes you hang on every spoken word between songs and when he says “This is our first time in Dover and just seeing this is a privilege, thank you so much”, you know he means it.
‘DNA’ with its insane drum beat and smoking hot riff inspires lots of sky-bound fist pumps, not least from frontman Taylor as he helps raise the intensity of the set and the atmosphere early on. F**k, f**k, f**k this is off the scale good. Taylor shows his bands appreciation for their touring partners “we think we have a great line-up, do you agree?” From the crowds response, I think they do.
The start of ‘Out Of Reach’ sees a slight drop in tempo but not power and the number then includes a lavish solo from the prodigious James Bird which sees Taylor leaning against the PA, just watching on in admiration before the pace and energy are brought back up to the previous levels. Some banter from bassist Matthew Ward as he gets the crowd to roar and rates their performance. 1st time gets a 5 out of 10, 2nd time they pass and are then called “beautiful sexy bastards”. The band are wowing the venue and doing it with cheekiness as well as first class music.
A pummelling drum beat welcomes ‘Hold On’. The ladies are dancing, the men are nodding to the beat and with the quality of the music and show on offer it is no surprise. It is easy to see why the bands debut album ‘Against The Wall’ went Top 20 and why the tour has been such a huge success. Each and every member of Mason Hill is an equally important cog in this well oiled machine.
We Pray’ which is, we are told, drummer Craig McFetridge’s favourite song is up next. The strength and force he hits the drums with at the start send tremors through the venue that may well have registered on the Richter Scale, It is full of monstrous riffs and drums throughout and has an instantly join-in-able chorus/chant that gives the crowd further chance to test the full velocity of their vocal chords out.
I have loved seeing Mason Hill recently and on this, my 3rd show in as many months it becomes clear to me why they are sticking their heads up and above so many acts out there at the moment, it is not only the music but the electric atmospheres and dynamic shows they are putting on that are starting to separate them from the rest.
Time for a slow one and that is ‘Who We Are’, a track held together beautifully by the rhythm section of McFetridge and Ward, along with 2nd guitarist Marc Montgomery. Another to-die-for Bird solo is a joy to behold and then the way the song builds after is just incredible. The power is the music is so formidable you fear for the foundations of The Booking Hall, which after all is on old building. Did anybody tell the band to take it easy on it?
‘Find My Way’ the 2nd single from the album follows and gives Mason Hill yet another well taken chance to get the crowd actively involved. This interaction is really building a volcanic atmosphere inside the hall and making this yet another night to remember. On this form and with performances like this, Mason Hill are really going places and going there on a modern bullet train, not one of the old locomotives that would have been journeyed on after buying your tickets here in yesteryear.
I can’t help but watch in complete awe of the bundle of energy that is Scott Taylor. Not only is he a wonderful singer but he is an amazing frontman, one that compels you to watch as he takes control of the stage and the audience alike. He is in complete control and seems to have the audience eating from the palm of his hand.
He appears to thrive on the energy from the crowd and with each and every roar of approval headed his way, it just makes him bigger and stronger with every passing minute. Following on from ‘Find My Way’ is ‘Broken Son’, full of even more catchy lyrics and exquisite time changes it is a monster of a tune that you cannot help but sing-a-long to. There is not a single person leaving or taking their eyes off of the stage as maybe they think like me, in that Mason Hill are destined for much bigger things and you may not see them in venues this size for much longer, so you don’t want to miss anything.
The atmosphere, which is already electric, goes stratospheric when the band break into their cover version of the Foo Fighters ‘Best Of You’. If you are going to do a cover from possibly the biggest band on the planet at the moment, then you better do it well and Mason Hill absolutely smash this out of the park. If the building wasn’t built so well, I think it may well have just had its roof taken clean off. It is fantastic to see the glint in the eyes of the crowd and the looks of joy on their faces as they know they are witnessing something very very special here tonight. It may not be the biggest crowd Mason Hill have played to but I bet it’s not far short of being the loudest as every single person sings their hearts out to this unbelievably brilliant cover.
That just leaves three songs to go in the set. First up is ‘Now You See Me’, the first song the band ever released. It is infectious, full of spectacular riffage and soaring guitar moments. The band are clearly loving this tonight! The fun, the interaction and the music is making tonights live extravaganza just completely compelling and mesmerising viewing. What a tune that is, I didn’t think the atmosphere could get any better, but it just has. This place is going crazy and in such a good way.
By the time the band start to play ‘Against The Wall’ there are signs of breaking in Taylor’s voice. Something he is aware of as it is the bands 6th show in a row and with all the effort he puts in to every note and word it is no surprise. He doesn’t ease up though and a rip-roaring play through gets many in the crowd dancing like they have the devil inside them. He has the crowd firmly where he wants them as he prowls and paces the stage, he commands their adulation and focus and gets it. That just leaves us with the final song, ‘Where I Belong’.
It starts with just Taylor and Bird on stage for a beautiful few minutes where the guitarist accompanies the vocalist in a serene intro. Couples are cuddling, holding each other and swaying with the rhythm of James Bird guitar whilst living on every word that comes from Scott Taylor’s lips. It is not long before the rest of the band join the duo onstage and see this party out until the end. Bird does however gets one more chance in the spotlight to show what a stunning guitarist he is and why so many plaudits have been thrown his way and ensures with the help of his band mates that the set finishes on another astral plane.
Just like the night at Leo’s a few weeks ago, that was insanely brilliant. Each band was preposterously glorious and as a whole package, well, it created such a buzz and really genuine feeling of excitement to witness. It left me with a feeling in my stomach that I had not felt for a long time and I really didn’t want it to end. I know that the tour is now over but if you get the chance to see Empyre, Hollowstar or Mason Hill, take it as you will definitely be treated to a night of exceptional live music.
Photography by Matt Hayward