Review and Photos by: Karan Dutta
For metal fans globally, MTV’s Headbangers Ball was a name that was synonymous with showcasing the best of the genre’s talents, showcasing both established and upcoming obscure acts. Popular through the late 80’s and early 90’s, the show provided access to music videos, interviews and special festival coverage for all forms of metal, traditional and extreme.
Earlier in the year, MTV and Continental Concerts announced that MTV Headbangers Ball was going to tour Europe, an announcement that had metalheads jumping with joy at the prospect of seeing their no-nonsense, balls to the wall metal platform being taking to the road and possibly in their backyards. Kicking off the tour in Germany on the 1st of December 2016, the metal train arrived in London on 6th December at London’s Electric Brixton, a date that metal fans in the U.K had awaited eagerly.
The line-up for the show was a special one too. In keeping with the diversity of the 80’s T.V. show, the roster featured Massachusetts-based Unearth, Canadian extreme metalheads Kataklysm, Finnish hippie folk metal act Ensiferum and headliners Iced Earth who need little introduction. The variety of acts for the night were the perfect embodiment of what the organizers wanted to bring back to life –a one-stop shop for all things metal including metalcore, death metal, thrash and so much more.
Opening act Unearth were charged with the ever difficult task of getting the crowd going on a night that had a fair few veteran metal fans in the audience – an extremely discerning and educated fan base to play for. Trevor Phipps’ growling vocals were up for the challenge, with a bloodcurdling growl-scream delivered over Jordan Manchino’s multi-rhythmic drumming to get some of the crowd nodding in appreciation. As Buz McGrath and Ken Susi battled their axes to deliver some classic metalcore shredding and riffs, one could not help feel a little sorry for the lack of crowd reaction which I’m sure would not be the case for their shows in their hometown. Regardless, these guys delivered a tight, extreme and energetic performance that set the stage for Kataklysm.
With the venue filling up, melodic death metal or “Northern Hyperblast” act Kataklysm had the floor and boy did they get the crowd riled up. With their distinctive drumming style (hence the reference to Hyperblast – fast sixteenth beats on the snare coupled with a slow beat on the bass drum), Kataklysm quickly engaged a substantial portion of the audience as was evident from their delivery of “The Black Sheep”. The execution of this track bears particular recognition in that their current drummer, Oli Beaudoin, had big shoes to fill following the groundwork that his predecessors had laid and Oli was most certainly up to the task. These gents clearly love their trade as their energy on stage was clearly influencing proceedings in the pit with the familiar mosh taking shape in various corners of the Electric Brixton. As the band burst into “At the Edge of the World” and “The Serpents Tongue”, the crowd chanted in unison – a clear testament to their fan base this side of the Atlantic. Perhaps most impressive about their performance was how full their metal sounded with just Jean-Francois Dagenais on the guitars. While the rest of the band are phenomenal in what they contribute to the overall sound, it’s particularly difficult to deliver, live, a set that doesn’t seem to have missing bits despite only having one guitar which I believe was in part down to Dagenais’ mastery of his instrument. In all, a fulfilling performance for all those in attendance with people commenting, post gig, on the emotions they felt when Kataklysm played “The World is a Dying Insect”.
As the show reached its halfway mark, one could feel the buzz around the venue with even the most hardened and senior metalheads showing appreciation for the two acts that had finished their sets. As the roadies set up for Ensiferum’s performance, chants in the crowd rang out for popular tracks such as “From Afar” and “Lai Lai Hei” and these Finnish folk metal maniacs didn’t disappoint. Opening with “From Afar”, one of their most iconic tracks and perhaps one that captures Ensiferum’s essence most succinctly, Petri and the gang tore up proceedings with an injection of European classical and folk tones to the sound of the evening. For those who aren’t familiar with Ensiferum’s claim to fame, it has to be their ability to seamlessly integrate elements of Finnish folk music into a metal sound that is ripe with double based drumming, growling vocals and choruses that make one feel like they’re part of a barbaric horde riding to conquer foreign lands. Fitting that they played “Heathen Horde” slightly later in the set which again had screaming fans throwing horns in the air as if to join the band in their quest.
Equally, such was the power with which they delivered “Warrior Without a War” that the crowd, not quite sure of how to headbang to the track, displayed a unique line-dance headbang which may well have been a first at a metal show. To add distinction to an already unique set for the evening, Netta’s performance on the electric accordion was greatly appreciated by the crowd as she effortlessly added another element to Ensiferum’s sound and stage performance by dancing on all corners of the stage whilst belting out harmonic melodies on her instrument. As their set drew to a close, chants for “Lai Lai Hei” built in intensity till the band finally gave in and closed with one of their most recognizable tracks. Including everything metal, “Lai Lai Hei” was definitely a crowd pleaser which, from what one could see on stage, was also a track that Ensiferum loved playing and engaging the crowd in the choruses. A fitting end to the raiding horde’s performance as they exited – off to conquer other venues across the world.
As the lights dimmed one last time while the stage crew set up for Iced Earth to take the stage, the crowd were noticeably eager and anxious for proceedings to kick off with a blast. After all, these guys were the reason why a number of fans made the trek to Brixton that evening and sure enough, Iced Earth delivered to expectation – and then some. Opening with a track from their upcoming 2017 release, Incorruptible, Stu Block and Jon Schaffer greeted the audience with big smiles, some fierce vocals and over the top guitar work to ensure the mosh pits were ready to handle a dynamic set they had planned for the evening. As the band proceeded with delivering classics like “Pure Evil” and “I Died for You” from their 1990’s releases, it was easy to tell the veteran fans apart from the Iced Earth “virgins” though given how solid and consistent their metal has been through the ages, it came as no surprise that all those in the audience were able to appreciate these older tracks.
One of the stand-out tracks in the early part of their set, for me, was “Plagues of Babylon”. The title track on their most recent 2014 release, “Plagues of Babylon” opened with slow progressing melodic guitars which eventually gave way to a metal groove in the verse that had the audience locked in a half tempo headbang, the entire crowd now moving in unison. A key change half way through the track along with an upbeat drum section delivered by Brent Smedley set up nicely for a cracking solo which definitely gives this track an oomph factor and conveys the passion that went into writing this track. A fitting follow-up to the above mentioned mid-tempo track, “Dystopia” was anything but the low tempo and I’m pretty sure some of the audience went home with self-induced cervical spondylosis owing to the ferocity of their headbanging.
Iced Earth are truly the embodiment of a traditional metal act, combining not only the fast paced delivery and intricate composition that forms the backbone any good metal track but also the diversity in vocal style which includes the melodic verses common to the Dio era of metal as well as the quintessential growl so popularized by the likes of Pantera and Slayer. Hats off to Stu Block for a wonderfully executed performance that captured the breadth of what vocals in metal are capable of across the different genres of metal. As proceedings drew to a close with “Watching Over Me”, one could sense the disappointment in the crowd at the prospect of it being the last song for the night yet I feel that the high that people left the venue with would have kept spirits high for the rest of the week. I know I’m still buzzing from that evening!
In all, a great comeback for a once mainstream movement that was MTV Headbangers Ball. I think I speak for every metal fan when I say the world needs more such metal tours and one hopes to see a similarly talented group of bands take the stage when the next one comes around!