Review by Gary Spiller for MPM
Machines are taking all over
With mankind in their command
In time they’d like to discover
How they can make their demand
Judas Priest – Metal Gods (G.Tipton, R.Halford, K.Downing)
Given the placement of machines and computers in our everyday lives perhaps the foreseeing lyrics of Judas Priest ring ever truer.
Thankfully, the day when humanity is overrun by that which assists is the fantastical stuff of science fiction. Until then I’m more than happy to content myself with the science fact of Metal Gods such as the likes of the ever-chatty affable Blaze Bayley.
Together with the tightknit quartet that comprise Absolva, who as they have done for nearly a decade take on double duties, Blaze has continued to thrill worldwide audiences and despatch a phenomenal punch from the studio. It’s a partnership that works so well both musically and logistically, sharing a similar ethos of articulate metalliferous at the very nucleus.
Blaze, as ever true to his Midland roots, from supporting Iron Maiden with his first band Wolfsbane through to his current solo career, via fronting as he puts it “The largest metal band in the world,” remains an artist with a genuine, sincere connection to his loyal, devoted fans. Little did any of us that attended those early shows on Maiden’s 1990 ‘No Prayer on the Road’ tour realise that the vocalist of the support band would wind up fronting the headliners just a few short years following.
Tonight’s gig is just the fourth date on an expansive set of dates, across a good percentage of Europe, to celebrate Blaze’s critically acclaimed 2021 release ‘War Within Me.’ Deservedly lauded in many quarters, myself included, his eleventh solo album is going to get a good work-out tonight.
First up the ever-industrious Mancunian melodic metallers Absolva clock in for their own shift. In an hour-long set the quartet present eleven tracks from across their six albums. Including, quite incredibly, the title tracks from each of them. Naturally there’s a tilt towards last year’s ‘Fire In The Sky’ long-player with a liberal sprinkling across the board all mixed in with a further peek into their debut album, from 2012 ‘Flames Of Justice.’ Never ones to rest upon previously expressed panegyric salutations and reviews Absolva are always keen to mix it up.
Filing on stage to an uplifting classical piece the band rip right into the first of what will total a quite incredible six headline tracks. Frontman Chris Appleton makes a statement of intent “We are Absolva and we are the flames of justice!” Echoes of Maiden abound with the outfit’s roots steeped in the rites of classic NWOBHM but brought screaming into the 21st Century. With a vehement barrage of riffage and percussive forces this is the absolution to wash away the sins. Alongside, Chris’ brother Luke interchanges fretwork with his sibling in a symbiotic relationship that simply cannot be taught or learned by even the most studious of scholars.
With Chris greeting the Patriot faithful and encouraging all to step closer his sidekicks roll into ‘Anthems To The Dead.’ Second track, second headline track lifted from the band’s second album a pattern develops. Embracing Helloween and Maiden with a ferocious torrent that consumes all in its unrelenting path. Tubthumping hustler Martin ‘The Machine’ McNee’s kit lives and breathes under its master’s forceful cultivation.
The hat-trick of titular tracks from their formative albums is completed with perennial live favourite ‘Never A Good Day To Die’ a raptor seeking its next meal, coasting upon the uprising thermals. The procession of banner tracks continues unabated Luke taking on some lead vox in ‘Side By Side’ before engaging in subliminal exchanges with his brother in a reflection of the number’s subject matter.
Day by day we take the stage.” Spectral horsemen ride clangorously atop the clouds in the never-ending quest seeking the herd. Warriors, beneath, steady themselves for the coming encounter. Bassist Karl ‘The Schramm’ submits an irresistible low-end rumble as we’re invited to ‘Stand Your Ground.’ Coupled with band favourite ‘Historic Year’, with its slight undertones of Radiohead’s seminal arpeggio-pinned ‘Street Spirit (Fade Out)’, we’re taken into our first foray of the night, into last year’s long-player with their nod to the pandemic-ridden events of 2020.
The marauding ‘Defiance’ and the roaring, snarling ‘Fire In the Sky’ completes a full house of album titles ahead of an epic ‘Code Red’ with Chris threatening to launch his six-string steed through the venue’s roof. The wreckful iron spherical is swung as everything, included the metallic version of the kitchen sink, is thrown into action throughout the hi-action ‘Refuse To Die.’
“One more Crumlin” Chris teasingly probes prior to wrapping up their set in the same manner as they began by diving into their debut studio offering. McNee’s buffeting double bass unleashes the beast from within ‘From Beyond The Light’ as the fearful fury of demonic angst lands frenetically. The Appleton brothers revel in trademark six-string commutation, Absolva the insurmountable force that rises and proudly flies.
Building up the atmosphere Blaze Bayley, backed by the ranks of Absolva, rallies the Patriot gathering. This is not a typical Thursday evening no doubt of it. Raising double ‘horns’, to the delight of out front, the indomitable metallurgical entrepreneur questions “Is this wild? Is this Crumlin?” before, with angled mic stand, takes the reigns for the highly infectious ‘18 Flights.’ A track immersed in the band having to pull a gig five tracks in as a geologically induced tsunami warning broke all regs relating to the adage “The show must go on.
With an undercurrent of Simon & Garfunkel’s ‘Hazy Shade Of Winter’, darting in and out, interwoven into the fabric it’s a great way to get things underway. An earthquake comes to Crumlin! Coincidentally, just a fortnight previous, a magnitude 3.8 quake, the largest in South Wales for five years, occurred in nearby Brynmawr.
Firing up their Rolls-Royce Merlin engine the four components of Blaze’s band taxi along the runway in readiness for take-off. Relating the brave doings of the pilots of the Dywizjon Squadron ‘303’ is a track that swoops and rolls. Much in the style of the Hurricanes employed with great effect by these courageous Poles during the Battle Of Britain. This is right alongside Maiden’s ‘Aces High’ and Sabaton’s ‘Aces In Exiles’ for me.
Nudging closer to the milestone of becoming a sexagenarian Blaze displays no sign of slowing down. Why should he? He’s got a keen eye and even sharper pen for a fine tune and equally so he can belt them out as if it were still the 80s or 90s.
Interspersed amongst the complete suite of ‘War Within Me’ are a handful of tracks from the initial chapters of his solo career with ‘Ten Seconds’ craned in from the ‘Blood and Belief’ along with the title track from that album. Blaze exudes sincerity thanking everyone for their support and turning out in fine numbers explaining “This tour is a bit of a dream that started in lockdown” furthering “Once we finished ‘War Within Me’ we knew we had to do something special.”
Packing a heavyweight wallop, the self-prophetic ‘Warrior’ is dedicated to all this evening’s ticket purchasers. “I can be a warrior, with the courage to rise up again” emotes Blaze. ‘Pull Yourself Up’ is a rallying call of an earworm which leads up to a scientific trio.
Blaze takes time to speak of each of the chosen scientists that he casts his eye upon. Stephen Hawking (The Unstoppable), Alan Turing (His Dream) and Nikola Tesla (His Power) are given the mini-concept treatment. Deservingly cast as heroes in their particular fields their stories and achievements are given deserved reverence. These are the sort of skills that make Blaze the individual he is and enable him to stand out from the crowd.
Having recently re-issued 2004’s ‘Blood and Belief’ album Blaze and his compatriots pour every ounce of their energies into ‘Soundtrack Of My Life’ and ‘Blood and Belief.’ The latter with a thundering Helloween spine about which a Gary Moore vibrancy entwines.
The sensitive ballad ‘Every Storm Ends’ features a howling solo from Chris as the evening’s journey through ‘War Within Me’ continues apace. Tyres screech and engines roar as potent metaller ‘Witches Night’ ensures there’s sorcery afoot. Advocating the escapism of music and its restorative powers Blaze encourages “Think of this night, think of here in this moment.”
The opulent tone and expressive lyrics of ‘Stare At The Sun’ are somewhat redolent of Metallica’s ‘The Unforgiven’ in a small part before bursting along a Maiden-esque furrow, a heady combination. An unabashed strength. We are dealt fire-breathing renditions of ‘Man On The Edge’ and ‘Futureal’ as resonant respect is paid to Blaze’s mid 90s chapters with Iron Maiden. Blaze is a captivating and expressive character who transudes sincerity through every last pore; this is arena one in which he is proud to be ring-master.
The set-closing ‘War Within Me’ in which Blaze introduces his band, “I’m fortunate to work with four talented and hard working musicians” he adds, The title track is a metallic exploration of the battles of mental health. The ever-affable Midlander salutes the crowd as he’s given the warmest of receptions at the end of a spellbinding 90 or so minutes.
Relentless energies and a commanding, theatrical presence ensure Blaze’s enduring place within rock royalty. The ability to weave a story or three and an unwavering love of performing live demonstrates, most ably, that this is a tank far, far from running on empty. I’m thankful that his stellar performance at Stonedead 2021 opened the door into his domain.
Photography by Kelly Spiller for MPM