Posthalle, Würzburg 28th-29th October 2011
Manilla Road. Those two words are enough to send (depending on which era/album you like best) images streaming through your brain of swords, Thor’s Hammer, Edgar Allen Poe or Robert E Howard to name but a few. They are a band with a colossal and varied back catalogue, a whole bunch of rabid fans and iconic album art. And yet they remain a relative rarity on the live front on both sides of the Atlantic. And so, when it was announced that they were playing the 6th edition of Würzburg’s Hammer Of Doom festival, it was clear that I had to go in search of Crystal Logic, to find out what lies in the dungeons of holy men’s fears. In other words, I shat my pants with glee and spent the next few months revisiting their back catalogue in anticipation of the promised 2.5 hour (no, that’s not a typo!) set from the epic metal Gods.
They were, however, the headlining act on the first day (“Epic Metal Night”), which would also feature the truly brilliant Doomsword. The second day (which, if truth be told, contained the kind fare more typically associated with this festival) featured none other than Revelation (Mk III lineup, mostly playing songs off “Yet So Far”, a unique album and a personal favourite), Lord Vicar, Blood Ceremony, Serpent Venom and everyone’s favourite new Sabbath freaks: Orchid. This sort of lineup doesn’t come along every day, especially not in the environs of a small and picturesque historic city like Würzburg. As my coach arrived in town, my heart sank at the thought of spending the next 2-3 days in a typically German shithole of concrete and kebab shops. I thought I’d got off at the wrong stop – I saw no cannons, castles or wizards. Just goes to show you should never judge a city by its central station.
After having checked into my hostel and walked over the “Kreator” bridge, I took a stroll round the city and ended up (as I always seem to) in a record shop. This delightful place (http://www.h2o-records.de/) was stuffed to the gills with gems new and old, and I walked out with records by Popol Vuh, Tangerine Dream and Loop clutched in my sweaty paws. Poverty bedamned, says I!
Straight on to the unassuming venue (with the only bouncers/stewards I’ve ever encountered in my life that haven’t acted like complete arse muppets), it was time for the first band of the day, Mountain Throne. This turned out to be a clear case of “don’t judge a band by crappy low-res samples on the internet”. I walked in expecting to head to the bar post-haste, but instead was met with what was probably the most enthusiastic frontman of the festival! Tearing through a set of fantastic heavy metal that was somewhere between “Hallow’s Victim” era Vitus and the cream of NWOBHM, this German band had riffs and solos aplenty. Immensely enjoyable, all the more remarkable as it’s never easy being the first band on a bill like this. Their set over, it was clearly time to replenish my supply of the amber nectar, and I proceeded to walk around the many stalls and distros selling a variety of ‘eavy metal goodies. I was particularly chuffed to see the good folks of Elektroplasma and Black Widow Records were present (more money gone, this time on a “Jacula” LP).
Next band to catch my ear were Doomsword – I must confess to never having heard of this quite superb band before having seen them on the festival flyer. A few clicks of the mouse later and they had acquired a new fan, and they spent their subsequent set reaffirming my fandom! A truly international band, they consist of an Irish singer (best vocals of the entire festival, bar none!), Italians on guitar, bass and drums, and (for this set) a guest from Greece on second guitar. With a band like Manilla Road on the bill, you’d think that any other band playing “epic” metal would wither into insignificance. Not so Doomsword – with musical and thematic nods to Bathory’s Viking metal period and Cirith Ungol, coupled with powerful, emotive (even operatic!) vocals, they really are a perfect package. The standout tracks for me were “Wrath of The Gods” and “Those Who Died With Sword In Hand”, although I don’t recall there being a single moment throughout their set where I wasn’t headbanging furiously. Plus, any band where the singer takes repeated swigs from a ram’s horn is clearly doing something right.
And so, on to the band of the night – the front row filled up quickly with a bunch of rabid fans (quite a few, unsurprisingly, from Greece). I don’t think in all my years of going to gigs of all kinds that I’ve ever been in such a benevolent and clearly delighted front row. It’s the kind of limitless devotion that Manilla Road inspire, the kind you can’t buy, the kind you have to work at for decades and that is unconditional – Shelton went to great lengths to thank the faithful that have supported and kept his band going throughout the years. Even the sound check was a pleasure to watch, most of all for newcomer Neudi Neudirth’s drumkit – he kept adding cymbal after cymbal, I’ve never seen such an awe-inspiring and ridiculous amount of drums being played by one person. I kept asking myself just how the bloody hell he was going to use all of them – he spent the whole set pounding the ever-loving shit out of the kit (there’s a drumcam video up on youtube from this set that gives you a rough idea of what a killer drummer he is) and was to prove the unparalleled master of the kit throughout the festival.
As for the performance itself… Well… What can I say? It was bliss. Even at two and a half hours I was left wanting more. And the absurd thing is, although you could find no fault with the setlist, it was inevitable that there would be some people in the audience not having had their favourite song played! I would have loved a song or two off “Mark of the Beast”, and “Invasion” wasn’t touched on. But with tracks from classics “Open The Gates” (a lot off this one), “Mystification”, “The Deluge” and of course, a couple off their latest “Playground of The Damned”, there was something for everyone. You couldn’t ask for a more perfect opener though – “Morbid Tabernacle” followed by “Isle of the Dead”. Bryan “Hellroadie” Patrick’s pipes were on full pelt from that legendary first scream at the start of “Isle of the Dead”, and didn’t let up through the entire set. I won’t go through it song by song (see end of article for the full setlist), as it would take forever to go through all 25 of them (!), but of the many highlights of a truly outstanding show, “Queen of the Black Coast” was the point where I totally lost it, an absolute heavy metal anthem if ever there was one (Shelton’s first Robert E. Howard influenced song if memory serves me right) – one of the greatest live moments I’ve ever had the pleasure to witness.
One very welcome surprise was the inclusion of “The Fires of Mars” (another one off “Open The Gates”), which has one of the best riffs ever to come out of Shelton’s fret hand. Also one of my favourite Shark solos, although picking one would be impossible, even at gunpoint. As it turns out, this was the first time this song had been performed live in 25 years! The songs flowed by thick and fast, different fans around me going nuts for different songs (“Witch’s Brew” was constantly being requested by someone in the front row – he got his wish!), with the two songs off the new album sounding as heavy as anything Shelton’s ever written, with added slide (or “metal pinkie” as The Shark calls it!). And of course what Manilla Road set would be complete without a fair few off “Crystal Logic”? It may be an obvious choice, but it’s my favourite, and that includes “Feeling Free Again”, Shelton (it was included on the album at the behest of the producer in an attempt at gaining radio airplay). It’ll take a hell of a band to quite match the heart-stopping magic of hearing the opening two notes of “Crystal Logic” bend in and out that night. Not since Black Sabbath’s debut have two notes been used to such simple but iconic effect. “Flaming Metal Systems”, “The Riddle Master” and “Necropolis” followed in quick succession to the crowd’s delight. Neudi Neudirth was given one last chance to impress us all for the pounding bludgeon of closing number “Heavy Metal to the World”. We were left with a promise that they would return – they can’t do so soon enough judging from this epic performance. Perfect from beginning to end.
The next day, I awoke to a stinking hangover and to find I was sharing my hostel room with three fellow headbangers, two of whom had driven up from Slovenia! Laughs, beers and more beers were had! I heard very good things about the Bathory tribute band “Blood Fire Death” who’d played in a smaller adjoining venue after Manilla Road finished their set. The fact that (due to a combination of incessant headbanging, a 6am start and a 7 hour coach ride) I had missed them is my one regret of the festival.
I entered the hall to be greeted by London stalwarts Serpent Venom. Having lived in London for the past five years, I have seen this jaw-droppingly good band in action many times before, they have never failed to deliver. Their Hammer Of Doom set was similarly flawless (Gaz’s ethereal vocals are always a treat), an interesting contrast seeing them on a large stage with a powerful PA instead of a grotty pub (great though that is!). They hammered out the riffs and doom with consummate professionalism and panache, sadly for fans of their original guitarist – the replacement (pinched from End of Level Boss) filled his shoes with grace and hands of iron. Truly one of the best doom bands to come out of England in recent years, I was very proud to see them there (not least because I think I was the only English punter there! Shame on you all!) and I can only hope that the remaining band members continue to make music together, they’re just too good not to!
So far as I was concerned, things didn’t pick up again until their touring mates Orchid took to the stage. Flares, frilly shirts, tambourines, riffs and fancy footwork (courtesy of the bass player) are the order of the day for a band that clearly love Black Sabbath so much they’ve decided to pretend no music past “Master of Reality” ever happened. Can’t say I blame them! I can positively say that Church of Misery have had their throne for world’s top Sabbath freaks and riff merchants stolen from under them. Orchid’s performance was energetic and note-perfect, full of simple yet punchy melody, and I’m delighted to say that the new song (I forget its name) was the best of the set. If you think this band is just a Sabbath knock off, you wouldn’t be entirely wrong, and I very much doubt the band would deny it (I daresay they’d take it as a compliment), but they are doing their own thing, and as a live force they are utterly astonishing, I defy you to watch this band and not dance. Other highlights of their set included “Eastern Woman” and “He Who Walks Alone”. Great stuff – can’t wait to see them on tour next April!
I must admit that Blood Ceremony are a band that I had never quite “got” up to this evening. Odd, since I’m a huge fan of the 60s/70s folk rock bands they presumably take influence from… However, I dutifully checked them out, and was utterly entranced by their progressive (and very distinctive) brand of heaviness. I am officially converted, and cannot see how I ever didn’t like them – the same cannot be said about the headliner for this night, The Devil’s Blood, who seem to put on a great stage show but just don’t have the songs to back it up in my opinion. Still, they have their fans and they all seemed to very much enjoy their closing set, and that’s what matters. But back to Blood Ceremony – well crafted songs, entrancing stage presence, ethereal vocals (that term again), organ and riffs. I have a lot of catching up to do with this band.
Lord Vicar then took to the stage and delivered a typically rousing performance. Having seen them several times before, I knew to expect the best, and by and large they delivered, although nothing will quite compare to seeing them in the (sadly now defunct) Gaff on Holloway Road. I’ve always had a very soft spot for Chritus’s vocals (and that included the Vitus album he was on!) so it’s always a pleasure to hear his powerful and clear voice belting out over a PA, especially with Peter Vicar’s stellar guitar playing, halfway between Phil Cope and Victor Griffin. I haven’t heard the new album “Signs of Osiris” yet, and from the snippets I heard that night, it’s an essential purchase. Straight up trad doom done RIGHT.
My last band of the night was Yet So Far, aka Revelation MkIII. I have to say that Revelation are a band that have a very special place for me, and it also has to be said that there is no-one quite like them. The way they contrast languid depressive passages with ripping solos and sheer riffs is unusual and not to everyone’s taste. It’s certainly to mine though, and it was the culmination of several years’ wishing to see “Morning Son” played live. Very powerful and a perfect showcase for guitarist Dennis Cornelius’s soaring vocals, which remain a strong point throughout. “Little Faith” is another favourite of mine off “Yet So Far”, the one piece on the album penned by John Brenner, and it was dutifully played to much headbanging. We were even treated to a song off the “Frozen Masque” demo that followed “Yet So Far” – “Finished With You”. It was a performance that almost did its job too well, leaving me feeling empty and hollow when it was over, but then that’s always been the very particular power of this band.
To sum up, this festival comes with the highest possible recommendation – well organized, a good crowd, easy-going town and flawless, loud and clear sound for ALL sets. Seems to still be something of a well-guarded secret, with tickets easily available for €39 (both days) on the door – Just heavy music, beer and laughs. Roll on Hammer of Doom VII.
MANILLA ROAD SETLIST (pinched from Brian “Hellroadie” Patrick)
Intro- Morbid Tabernacle
1-Isle of the Dead
2-Taken by Storm
4-Open the Gates
5-Weavers of the Web
6-Queen of the Black Coast
8-Road of Kings
9-Spirits of the Dead
10-Dig me no Grave
11-The Fires of Mars
14-Playground of the Damned
15-Brethren of the Hammer
16-Masque of the Red Death
17-Death by the Hammer
18-Hammer of the Witches
20-Hour of the Dragon
***Shark Guitar Solo***
21-Flaming Metal Systems
23-The Riddle Master
25-Heavy Metal To The World
Scribed by: Saúl Do Caixão