Camden Town, London, England
May 11-12, 2018
In three short years, the Frost and Fire Festival in Ventura, California has become the gold standard of traditional metal festivals in the USA. Given the ambitious attitude and entrepreneurial spirit of that event’s organizers, it seemed both logical and inevitable that the fest would expand to embrace other locales. In truth, though, the sentiment animating Frost and Fire London was far more pragmatic. Cirith Ungol and Night Demon wanted to play a one-off club gig in London. When local promoters’ answers were not to their liking, they decided to organize the gig themselves and invite some of their friends from other British bands to play. Presto: Frost and Fire London was born. Reasonably priced tickets for both nights of the small-capacity festival sold out months in advance, and anticipation levels reached a fevered pitch. Of course I had to be there.
Thursday, May 10, 2018
In keeping with my custom, especially for international shows, I landed at Heathrow Airport one day early to allow for misadventures and airline incompetence. Any concerns about how to spend my “bonus day” on the ground dissipated quickly. Straight off the plane, I hopped the Tube to Piccadilly Circus and proceeded to spend 7 hours in full tourist mode, briskly walking the city and seeing as much as I possibly could. The twist was that I didn’t have a map or a guide book. I just started walking. For as large a city as London is, it’s not difficult to orient oneself. You just pay attention to where you are in relation to the Thames River, and then you’ll always know where you are. Under blue skies and cool breezes, I gazed upon Trafalgar Square, the Cenotaph, Downing Street, Parliament and a heavily-scaffolded Big Ben, St. Paul’s, London Bridge, the Tower of London, Fleet Street, SoHo, and tons of other stuff. Often I didn’t have the foggiest idea what I was looking at, other than it seemed cool, but I kept walking and looking and soaking it all in nonetheless. Somehow I missed seeing Buckingham Palace, even though I was only a block or two away from it, but I guess that’s what happens when you just wander aimlessly with no map or guide book, jetlag be damned.
By late afternoon, I made my way on foot to Camden Town and checked into my modest hotel accommodations about one mile north of the venues. At around this point, I encountered my only two travel glitches of the weekend. First, I realized that I didn’t have a phone charger that worked in England, because my European one wouldn’t plug into the outlets here. Damn. No problem, I found a store in Camden that sold what I needed. Second, when I went to pay for that charger, I came to the unfortunate realization that most of my paper currency was worthless. Let me explain: I was supposed to go to England last year. I wasn’t able to go, but I saved the British Pounds I had purchased ahead of time to use on this trip. Big mistake. In the meanwhile, England switched over to funny new polymer 5 £ and 10 £ notes (which feel like plastic money, cue the Twisted Sister song), as well as funky 16-sided 1 £ coins. The old notes and coins in my possession were no longer legal tender, and neither shops nor banks would accept them. Believe me, I tried. So here I was in England with a pocket full of banknotes that were no more valuable than Monopoly money. To make matters worse, I hadn’t bothered to bring an ATM card because, hey, I had plenty of pounds in cash and I was only going to be here for three days. Yikes! The joys of international travel … So I decided to eliminate my food and merch budgets, and save my very limited spendable currency for beer. Good plan!
For this evening’s entertainment, I walked down to the The Devonshire Arms (known as “The Dev”) to see a gig. No, this show was not connected with or inspired by this weekend’s Frost and Fire festivities in any way. As a matter of sheer coincidence, the young British band FURY just so happened to be playing The Dev tonight. I’m a huge fan of both of Fury’s albums, The Lightning Dream and Lost in Space, both of which are superb epic traditional British metal with astounding vocals, thrash tendencies, and the occasional touch of power metal. Given the band’s relative obscurity, I never imagined I’d get to see them play live. Life is funny, and sometimes shit just works out. The Dev is a tiny venue, with a capacity of perhaps 75. Shows there are free, so just an excuse to get people into the bar to drink. There couldn’t have been more than three dozen punters on hand for the gig, but four of my Frost and Fire friends (two from Belgium, two from Newcastle) turned up at my recommendation even though they’d never heard a note of the band’s music. What a glorious night it was. Before the show, I socialized and drank Guinness with my friends. (It always tastes so much better on that side of the pond.) When I spied Fury frontman Julian Jenkins, I went over and introduced myself. Julian knew who I was (based on my glowing reviews and occasional stalker fanboy messages to him on Messenger, haha – I told you I love Fury), but seemed a bit perplexed that this crazy dude from Alabama was here to see his band play. After the initial shock wore off, however, he became most welcoming, taking the time to introduce me to his bandmates (who were also very kind and warm) and hang out with me both before and after the set.
As for Fury’s gig, it was everything I hoped it would be. I stood right up against the stage, banging my head and singing along as they belted out no fewer than seven songs from the Lost in Space album. When they opened with the title track (one of my favorite songs of 2016 and one that has a deep personal meaning for me), I felt the hair stand up on the back of my neck. I honestly couldn’t believe it was happening. Fury sounded fantastic tonight. The twin guitars of Jenkins and Anthony Difford were in splendid synchronicity all night long, with Difford’s leads just smoking. The newly recruited rhythm section of Becky Baldwin (ex-Triaxis) on bass and Tom Fenn on drums was also excellent. I had been disappointed not to see my friend Mart Trail (who some of you know from Grim Reaper) on bass, as he parted ways with Fury a few months ago, but Becky Baldwin is a headbanging force, not only for her agile bass playing and strong backing vocals but also for her Don’t Break the Oath shirt, knee-high boots, black fingerless gloves, and so on. Yeah, she’s a bad ass. And Jenkins’ vocals were perfect tonight, every bit as powerful and emotive as they are on the records. The guy’s got a really special voice that just tugs at the heartstrings. From “Lost in Space” to “Star Trippin’” to the singalong “When the Hammer Falls” to the stirring semi-ballad “Valhalla” to the epic “Now or Never,” Fury moved effortlessly from strength to strength, with a dynamic and varied set. A special treat came when they aired two new tracks, “Burnout” and “We Shall Sing.” The former was a super-catchy compact burner, with Jenkins and Baldwin accentuating the chorus with hand gestures about taking the wheel and so on. As for the latter, it was also quite memorable and dedicated to Freddy Mercury. Jenkins told me later that these shorter, more stripped-down songs are symptomatic of the direction of the material for Fury’s forthcoming third album. Things will be more concise and to-the-point on the next album, as opposed to the epic and sometimes ponderous proclivities of the first two records, but still sound 100% like Fury. At one point, Jenkins gave me a shout-out from the stage, introducing me as a “chap” who had traveled further than anyone ever has to see Fury. Haha, thank you, my friend. The set ended with a song called “Drunken Sailor,” which the band introduced by saying, “you all know this one.” I didn’t. Time to turn in my fanboy card, I guess. In my defense, the song isn’t on any of their albums, although I guess it showed up as a b-side on a 7” or something. Evidently, it’s a cover of a well-known sea shanty, but I wasn’t familiar with it. Still, it made for a fun and rollicking conclusion to the set. Afterwards, I hung out with the band for a bit. We took a group selfie. Jenkins and Difford gave me their picks. And there were hugs all around from my new friends. What a tremendously fun night at The Dev. I’ve now seen Fury. And they rule. I already can’t wait until next time. Thanks, lads. Setlist: Lost in Space, Star Trippin’, When the Hammer Falls, Dragons Song, Valhalla, Burnout, Sons of War, We Will Sing, Now Or Never, Drunken Sailor.
Friday, May 11, 2018
My plan for the morning was simple but elegant: Regent’s Park. Located within easy walking distance of Camden, Regent’s Park is a massive green space in the heart of London. I strolled for hours through the public gardens, the sporting fields, the lake, and the playgrounds, pausing only to buy a beer and sit and contemplate the peaceful serenity of it all. So beautiful, so tranquil. The weather was ideal, and I had the place almost entirely to myself because it was a weekday morning. I could have spent the entire day there. My only regret was that the hundreds upon hundreds of rose bushes in Queen Mary’s Gardens in the park had not yet bloomed. I bet that would have been something to see. Also, the London Zoo is encapsulated within Regent’s Park, so by peering through a fence, I had a lovely view of the giraffes in their enclosure, without having to pay money that I didn’t have for admission. Lovely.
By mid-afternoon, I made my way back down to the main square in Camden Town, where I was scheduled to meet my dear friend Vince High and his wife for coffee. It was a heavy, emotional meeting for me. You see, tonight was to be Vince’s final performance fronting legendary NWOBHM act Mythra. I met with him for several hours today, long enough to consume two very large coffees and get totally wired on caffeine. It was a wonderful visit, but the topics of conversation touched on many private matters. I will say this: We spoke at length about Mythra and his reasons for bowing out at this time. I am aware that rumors and speculation are running rampant out there, so without betraying any confidences, let me assure you all that Vince is happy, Vince is healthy, and Vince is entirely at peace with his decision to step away from Mythra gracefully at this time. That’s all you need to know. I love the guy and wish him all the best in this next phase of his life.
By 5:00 p.m., I walked over to The Black Heart to help with load-in. Honestly, it’s a curious place. There’s a spacious bar area downstairs, but the music venue is actually located at the top of a steep flight of stairs, adjacent to a unisex bathroom facility that consists of five or six stalls available to patrons on a mixed-gender basis. Weird. The live music room itself is much smaller than I would have expected (I think capacity tops out at about 175), with black walls befitting the Black Heart motif. By now, the Night Demon and Mythra guys had arrived, so I spent the next hour and a half lugging gear up flights of stairs and saying hello to my friends. At around 6:30 p.m., I realized that I’d better eat something (food really hadn’t been on the agenda since I had arrived in London), so I walked over to a Kebab place across the square for a quick meal. Not bad, but damn they make their kebabs much spicier in London than they do in Germany. Live and learn.
The first band of the night was BASHFUL ALLEY, who went onstage promptly at 8:00 p.m. in front of a jam-packed house. One of the more obscure, cult NWOBHM acts, Bashful Alley are best known for their 1982 7” single of “Running Blind” b/w “My My My.” They rarely perform live, so it was a real treat to see the three-piece in action tonight. Their set was heaps of fun. Vocalist/guitarist Rob Tidd still plays great (one of my Spanish friends approached me afterwards with breathless comparisons of Tidd’s playing to the late, great Rory Gallagher) and his voice sounds like it did on those ancient recordings. While Bashful Alley tends more toward the bluesy hard rock end of the NWOBHM spectrum, which isn’t normally my thing, I enjoyed their set immensely, particularly on cuts like the aforementioned “Running Blind” and “Rescue Me.” The crowd definitely dug them, and it felt for me like time was standing still because here I was watching one of the early, cult NWOBHM bands on stage in London, England. Unbelievable. Setlist: Nicotine Kiss, Rescue Me, It’s About Time, Double Cross, Light It Up, Last Supper, My My My, Why Can’t You See, Running Blind, She Only Wants Me for My Body.
Next up was the mighty MYTHRA, a gig I approached with equal measures of excitement and trepidation. Mythra are one of my favorite British bands. Their members are some of my favorite people in the metal scene. But tonight marked the end of an era, as it was singer Vince High’s final gig before retirement from the band. So I tried to hold onto every song, ever minute, every second as tightly as I could from my spot pressed up against the stage in the front row of the sweaty Black Heart. It was a futile effort on my part. As we all know, the more you try to cling to something, the faster it slips through your fingers. So it went tonight. Mythra’s performance got off to a rocky start when they hit the stage and struck the first notes, only to realize that there were no guitars coming through the monitors at all. Guitarist John Roach had an incredulous smile on his face as he shouted into the microphone that the band couldn’t hear any guitars. So they stopped playing and waited for the technical issue to be resolved, their expressions becoming more intense by the moment. Make no mistake: this gig meant a lot to Mythra, and they wanted to hit it as hard as they could and give it everything they had. Eventually they started up again, beginning with a familiar seven-note chord progression: the opening notes to Night Demon’s “Welcome to the Night,” in tribute to the band hosting this festival. What a classy tip of the cap. (Night Demon guitarist Armand John Anthony told me later that when he heard them do it, he had a moment of panic as he thought, “Wait, did we rip off a Mythra song?” Hahahaha.) The band then launched into “The Best is Yet to Come,” and they sounded awesome. It was an emotional moment to see Vince gesturing at me and making eye contact during the chorus of this lyrically powerful song, like he does every time I see them, but knowing this was the last time. The mood quickly changed to a celebratory one with “UFO,” which sports a massive singalong that united 175 voices in The Black Heart as one. The band proceeded through a barn-burner of a set, with high energy levels, great intensity, and spot-on playing, despite the sonic issues that continued to plague their monitor mix on stage. It was an absolute joy to watch John Roach and Alex Perry play guitar, who nailed their parts even as they struggled to hear one another. An unexpected surprise came when Mythra played the semi-ballad “We Belong” off their latest Still Burning album, a song they’d never performed live before. That track gave way to a pair of audience favorites, “You” and “Call to All,” both of which brought the house down. All too soon, it was time for the familiar closer, “Death and Destiny.” Even as I pumped my fist, banged my head, and sang along at the top of my lungs, I could feel the tears welling up, as I knew this moment could never last. Just like that, it was over. Maurice Bates handed me his pick, Vince handed me his sheets of lyric prompts, and the band exited stage left. There were no dramatic speeches, no emotional announcements, nothing to sully the purity and elegance of this performance. Mythra came out, smashed the audience, and then vanished into the night in a typically understated British way. It was just the way it should have been, and worth the long journey to London all by itself. If Vince High had to retire, then he left Mythra at the absolute peak of his powers as a vocalist and frontman, with a fierce, triumphant performance of which he may justifiably be proud forever. As for his bandmates, John, Alex, Maurice and Phil, the flame’s still burning in all of them. I ardently hope to see them onstage again someday soon in a new configuration of Mythra, which is their emphatic intent. Vince can never be replaced, of course, but Mythra can and should evolve into whatever it needs to be so that the other four guys can soldier on. Come what may, I send love and respect to each of these five gentlemen, with enormous gratitude for all the happiness they have brought to my life, both through their music and as true friends. Hail Mythra! Remember to keep the faith and don’t despair, my friends, for the best is yet to come. Setlist: Best Is Yet to Come, UFO, Victory Song, Still Burning, Ride the Storm, Silence in Siren, Killer, We Belong, You, Call to All, Survival, Overlord, Death and Destiny.
As if this night were not already sufficiently historic, the final band on the three-act slate for the Pre-Party Rager was none other than JAGUAR, another seminal British act. Jaguar rarely plays live these days; indeed, tonight marked just the band’s fourth show (three of which I’ve witnessed) since Night Demon frontman Jarvis Leatherby took over lead vocal duties in late 2016. Moreover, the future for the axe-crazy Bristol-based band is murky, indeed. Guitarist/bandleader Garry Pepperd is on the brink of relocating to South America for personal reasons, leaving a host of unanswered questions as to how Jaguar can continue to exist and move forward. So I approached this show under the assumption that it will likely be my final opportunity to see Jaguar onstage. They did not disappoint. Oh, to be sure, it wasn’t the cleanest, most technically precise gig you’ll ever see, and the band was definitely a bit rough around the edges. But the energy was good, the songs were there, and the audience was amazing. It still feels strange seeing vocalist Jarvis Leatherby (also of Night Demon and Cirith Ungol) without a bass guitar strapped around his neck, but the man poured 100% of his heart and soul into the performance. I swear, Jarvis (who was proudly wearing a shirt honoring Cleveland metal DJ Bill Peters’ WCJU Metal on Metal radio program) spent almost the entire gig perched on the monitors at the front of the stage, in your face and drenched in sweat. Every time I see this incarnation of Jaguar, I marvel at how perfectly suited Leatherby’s voice is to the classic Jaguar material. It’s an ideal fit, which isn’t altogether surprising given Leatherby’s acknowledgment that one of his primary vocal influences is Paul Merrell, who sang on Jaguar’s classic Power Games opus. Diminutive lead guitarist Garry Pepperd spent most of the show over on stage right, cranking out the mighty riffs and leads on his low-slung Les Paul, and accompanied by Simon Patel (he of the red-and-black striped trousers) on bass and heavy-hitting Nate Cox on drums. Everything was proceeding brilliantly with Jaguar’s set, as the ecstatic audience lapped up the likes of “Back Street Woman,” “Run For Your Life,” and “Prisoner,” when suddenly the stage manager notified Jaguar they only had one minute left. (This was an early show, subject to an 11:00 p.m. cutoff imposed by The Black Heart.) Jaguar had four songs – all of them quivering classics – remaining on their setlist. So they did the only thing they could: they ripped through a rousing rendition of “Axe Crazy” (omitting “War Machine,” “Dutch Connection,” and “Stormchild”), ably assisted by Martyr guitarist Rick Bouwman (quite literally their Dutch connection) as a special guest, then said their goodnights. There were a few warts on this Jaguar gig, and it ended altogether too early, but it was a special night and a really special performance nonetheless. Here’s hoping it isn’t the end. Setlist: Back Street Woman, Battlecry, Out of Luck, The Fox, Master Game, Run for Your Life, Prisoner, Ain’t No Fantasy, Rawdeal, Axe Crazy.
The live music may have ended, but the evening was actually just getting started with a long, raucous afterparty downstairs. The beers were plentiful, as I discovered a tasty brew (Camden Hells Lager) that became my go-to beverage for the weekend. I was surrounded by friends. DJ Bruno did a spectacular job of playing killer stuff that the room loved to hear and sing along with. Most of it was of the classic variety, you know, songs like Rainbow’s “Kill the King” or what have you. But I was blown away when Bruno played Visigoth “Steel and Silver,” as the entire bar erupted into song in the chorus, fists held high. Wow, those Salt Lake City lads are onto something in Europe. Eventually, the hour grew late and venue staff kicked out everyone who didn’t have a special Sharpie mark on their right hands. My hand bore such a mark, so I and my companions remained, talking and drinking and laughing, until the wee hours of the morning. By the time I walked back alone to my hotel on Camden Road, passing the public housing projects and skateparks, the sky was growing light and the sunrise was glowing on the horizon. What a night, and this was just the warm-up show! Of course, I got back to the room and was so wired that by the time I felt sleepy, the sun was out and the traffic on Camden Road outside my window was super-noisy. So I guess I wasn’t sleeping tonight after all. Thankfully, there was a 24-hour gas station down the street with beer, so that became Plan B. We must improvise, adapt and overcome.
Saturday, May 12, 2018
No tourist stuff this morning. Advil. Black coffee. Lots of both. But I couldn’t sleep the day away. Load-in was early, so at high noon I found myself with Armand on the street outside the Camden Underworld (tonight’s venue). Now, the Underworld is strategically located across the street from last night’s venue, The Black Heart, so you would think it would be a simple matter to haul the gear from one to the other. Not so. As you will recall, the music venue in the Black Heart is up a steep flight of steps. Well, the music venue in the Underworld is below street level (hence the name), so down a steep flight of steps. Between the stairs and the Saturday mid-day traffic (I never know which direction to look when I’m crossing the street in England either, so it’s a miracle I didn’t get run over) and the humidity and the steady rain that had begun to fall, load-in turned into quite a workout. Fortunately, my buddy Paul Maddison (whom I was supposed to meet for drinks at 1:00 p.m.) arrived early, so we put him to work hauling gear as well. Thanks, Paul. Next time you’ll show up late, I’m certain, haha! By the time this project was complete, we’d worked up quite a thirst, so Paul and I headed across the street to the Black Heart for a couple of Camden Hells Lagers. Amazing how different the place looked in the cold light of day, but the Black Heart is a cool pub and I swear if I lived in London, I’d hang out there all the time. The pub activity escalated a short while later, when Paul and I moseyed over to the Brewdog (a local craft brew place) for burgers and beers with our friends Alex Perry and Phil VanDetta Davies from Mythra. At Brewdog, I discovered they have a thing in England called a “half.” I swear I’d never heard of it before. It’s brilliant. Say, hypothetically speaking, you want to drink some beer with your mates. But it’s early in the day, and you have official responsibilities later on, and you’re still really hung over from last night, and you don’t want to get wasted right now. Bingo, you order a half. Perfect solution. It’s half a pint. Why didn’t Americans think of this? Maybe they have, but I just drink at the wrong places? Anyway, the halfs kept me in good stead and assured I’d still be functional when the rubber hit the road later today.
By a little after 4:00 p.m., the four of us returned to the Underworld, where a somewhat chaotic scene awaited. The venue was packed, I mean, packed. Supposedly, capacity is 500, but as I surveyed the hall I couldn’t imagine how you could possibly squeeze that many punters in such a small space. To make matters worse, they kept the lighting at “pitch black” levels in the hall all night, rendering it extraordinarily challenging to find your friends, see where you were going, or navigate the crowd to try to find a good viewing spot. By sheer coincidence, I happened to see Jarvis, so I raced over to him because I’d never picked up my backstage wristband, which I would need in order to perform my official duties as crew tonight. With that sorted, I bought a round of drinks for my friends (nothing for me – I’m working), and settled in to catch the first band.
I guess NWOBHM-worshiping youngsters AMULET have undergone heavy changes since I saw them at Frost and Fire in Ventura seven months ago. With a new frontman in the form of Federico “Mace” Mazza, and a revved-up energetic approach to go along with some peppy new material, it felt like a different band than I’d seen before, somehow more contemporary and less musty 1982, if that makes sense, while retaining their British old-school metal cred. Others around me made similar comments. But Amulet were great, and the crowd loved them. Mace is one hell of a singer, the band has loads of energy, and you can’t lose with songs like “Evil Cathedral” and “Bloody Night.” They even brought out the titular character during final song “The Hangman,” a dude running around the stage with a hood and a noose that he kept putting around audience members’ necks. (Hope your liability insurance is paid up, mates, that’s a deadly accident waiting to happen.) Amulet may have played a very short 30-minute set at Frost and Fire London, but they took maximum advantage of the opportunity to win over this large crowd, and they impressed the hell out of me. Here’s hoping Mace is a permanent fixture in the band, and they record a follow-up to The First in the near future. Based on this performance, I am convinced that Amulet are one of the true shining lights in the next generation of British traditional metal. Setlist: Shockwaves, Running Out of Time, Evil Cathedral, Mark of Evil, Talisman, Siren’s Call, Bloody Night, Gateway to Hell, Sign of the High Priest, The Hangman.
Unfortunately, I missed most of WYTCH HAZEL’s set. Night Demon were up next, so I was backstage helping to get things ready. I did make it to the side of the stage to catch a couple of songs. Definitely more of a hard-rock, almost folky, Thin Lizzy kind of vibe to these guys, but it worked. Guitars and vocals both sounded really good, although I wasn’t sure what to make of the white outfits. The crowd seemed to be taking it all in rather well, although they couldn’t have been familiar with the material because most of the set was drawn from Wytch Hazel’s forthcoming II: Sojourn album, due out this summer. From my vantage point, I got a close look at the band’s drummer, who is visually impaired. I mention this only because he did a hell of a job. It’s remarkable how talented, determined people can overcome their physical limitations by living their lives the way they want and doing the things they love. Nothing is impossible, if you put your heart and your soul into it. Well done. Approximate Setlist: Devil Is Here, Freedom Battle, Save My Life, Still We Fight, He Shall Reign, Victory, Slaves to Righteousness.
The set changeover from Wytch Hazel to Night Demon was only 15 minutes, but everything went smoothly. I was glad I was able to help with some of the minor details. Once the stage was set, I hauled ass out of the back stage area and into the sea of humanity, wending and weaving my way as close to the stage as I possibly could for the first half of the set, and ultimately finding a spot close to my pal Paul Maddison. Promptly at 6:00 p.m., the house lights went down and the familiar intro music played. Unfortunately, the sampler was experiencing a few hiccups tonight, as the intro kept skipping and stalling. But all was forgotten when NIGHT DEMON stormed the stage in a blaze of laser-beam focused energy. This was their third time in London in the last six months (the first being at the miniscule The Dev up the road, and the second opening for Accept at the opulent Koko a few blocks away), and they’ve built a passionate and dedicated fan base here. The audience went nuts as the band tore through “Welcome to the Night” into “Full Speed Ahead.” “Ritual,” “Curse of the Damned,” “Hallowed Ground” … man, everything was sounding massive tonight. Jarvis, Armand and Dustin were totally locked in. With a good stage, good sound, and a killer crowd to work with, these guys are simply unstoppable. “Stranger in the Room” was my cue to stop headbanging and get backstage to change into Rocky. As usual, I spent “Screams in the Night” adjusting the gloves, robe and mask, and psyching myself up in the wings of the stage. Then it was “The Chalice,” and time for Rocky to rock London. My time on the Underworld stage passed without mishap and actually worked out really cool tonight. My only misadventure was that I became disoriented when I left the stage, took a wrong turn, and actually walked through the curtain separating the backstage area from the audience before I realized my mistake. Total darkness plus a low-visibility mask = can’t see a damn thing. Finally made it back to the dressing room, where Tim Baker of Cirith Ungol (one of my first musical heroes as a wee lad 30+ years ago, and now my friend) greeted me with a hearty, “Nice job, Rocky.” Is this my life? Really? Damn, I don’t deserve any of this. Stowed the costume and made it back to the side of the stage to watch most of “Night Demon.” I love that song. I love watching them play that song. I love the guitar/bass interplay where Armand and Jarvis are side by side (and sometimes back to back) at the front of the stage. It’s so triumphant. It’s so metal. It makes my heart happy. Every single time. I love this band. Judging by the thunderous audience response, I wasn’t the only person in the Camden Underworld who felt that way. Setlist: Welcome to the Night, Full Speed Ahead, Ritual, Curse of the Damned, Hallowed Ground, Stranger in the Room, Screams in the Night, The Chalice, Night Demon.
The next two hours or so was a total, fragmented blur. So much was happening, and there was no way to process it all. I wished I could slow down time to really be able to focus in on everything, but that’s not how time works. Let’s see: I helped Night Demon strike their gear and get it all backstage as quickly as possible to make way for Angel Witch. I had a celebratory beer or two with the guys (free London Pride in the backstage fridge – yummmmmm). Then I went out into the crowd to find and visit with my friends, knowing that some of them didn’t plan to stick around until the end of the night so I wanted to make every minute count. I heard a disturbing report that Underworld security wasn’t allowing anyone else into the venue – even ticket holders and guest list VIPs – because it was so badly oversold, and wouldn’t even allow anyone who went outside for a smoke in the rain to come back in. (Security were really unpleasant to deal with at this gig for some reason. I don’t know why. One time, the asshole wouldn’t even let me backstage even though I had the proper wristband and was going back in a crew capacity. What’s up with that?) Worst part about the situation was my friend Dave Watson, who plays guitar in Argus and who I’d arranged to get on the guest list, was standing outside and couldn’t get in, nor could I go out to him. I never did see Dave that night, much to my dismay. I’m so sorry, Dave.
At some point, ANGEL WITCH started playing. I love Angel Witch. (Who doesn’t, right?) And I’d never seen them before. I wanted to catch their set, of course I did. But it simply wasn’t in the cards. There was so much going on that I ended up seeing only dribs and drabs. What I saw was really cool. The opening salvo of “Gorgon” into “Confused” was pretty amazing. Less exciting was “Into the Dark,” but I also saw them do “Atlantis” and “White Witch” a bit later on before getting distracted again. When my ears caught the opening chords of the finale “Angel Witch,” I stopped what I was doing, went over to the wings of the stage in the backstage area, and stood beside my friend Jarvis, just absorbing the moment. We didn’t speak. We didn’t need to. Here we were, in London, England, watching Angel Witch play “Angel Witch” from the side of the stage at a festival that Jarvis and Night Demon were responsible for creating, against all odds and despite a million obstacles. Life is beautiful sometimes. Yeah, in a perfect world I would have seen the whole gig. But that “Angel Witch” moment will stay in my heart for a very long time indeed. Setlist: Gorgon, Confused, Into the Dark, Atlantis, Sorceress, Dead Sea Scrolls, White Witch, Guillotine, Night is Calling, Angel of Death, Baphomet, Angel Witch.
By now, we all know that the CIRITH UNGOL reunion has been a resounding, unqualified success, with major festival headlining shows around the world and a rabid audience response. But tonight was different. Because of a private family matter, guitarist Greg Lindstrom was unable to catch the flight from California to England. Not only is Greg’s playing an integral part of CU’s sound, but his calm demeanor over on stage right is a cornerstone of the Ungol live experience. It was impossible to fathom a Cirith Ungol show without him. Yet the band couldn’t cancel their Frost and Fire London performance. It was too important to the fans and band members alike. What to do? Enter Night Demon guitarist Armand John Anthony. He’d never rehearsed with Cirith Ungol, not once. Until two days ago, he’d never picked up a guitar and even tried to practice their songs. But he’s teched for the band at all of their performances around the world, so he basically knows the material. And he’s something of a musical savant – not to mention a guitar genius – so both Armand and the Ungol guys were confident he could pull it off. He did, man, he really did. I’ve never seen anything like it. The typical audience member at the Underworld witnessing the performance likely assumed that Armand had been rehearsing for this gig for weeks, it went so smoothly. There were only a few iffy patches that I detected, and each of those was navigated quickly and cleanly. Overall, Armand and his CU guitar counterpart Jimmy Barraza did a remarkable job, particularly on some of the trickier harmony parts where they’d stand side by side, watching each other intently to stay on the same page. Truly, Armand saved the day. As Tim Baker said from the stage early on when announcing Armand’s presence, “We’re damn lucky to have him.” Amen to that. The other guys in the band delivered a fantastic gig, clearly pumped for their UK debut, with drummer Robert Garven in fine spirits and playing really well. Tim sounded freaking incredible. The audience went ballistic. And I stood there in the audience right near the front of the stage, flanked by my friends John Roach (guitarist of Mythra) and his wife Alison on one side of me, and my friend Francois (guitarist of French true metallers Hurlement) on the other. What an unbelievable, magical night. Setlist: Atom Smasher, Join the Legion, Blood and Iron, I’m Alive, Fire, Black Machine, Frost and Fire, Chaos Descends, Fallen Idols, Cirith Ungol, Finger of Scorn, Master of the Pit, King of the Dead.
It felt way too early for the festival to be over. It was only 10:00 p.m. But the Underworld had an early curfew for this gig because it wanted to clear out all the riff raff for another event later that night. The festival afterparty was at The Dev, two blocks up the street on Kentish Town Road, where one of my favorite newish British bands TOLEDO STEEL was to take the stage at 10:30. For my part, I stuck around at the Underworld to help with packing up Cirith Ungol’s stuff and load out, plus getting everyone in the bands to their respective hotels to drop off their belongings. All of that took time. By the time I reached The Dev, it was around midnight. Toledo Steel’s set was finished, which was a bummer because I was really looking forward to seeing my friend Matt Dobson play. (By all accounts, Toledo Steel were sensational tonight. People were positively raving about their performance. Do yourself a favor and check out their new album, No Quarter, on Dissonance Productions, for which they had their release party tonight.) But the party was going strong, there were loads of fascinating people around to talk to, and the beer was flowing freely. Eventually things got a bit hazy for me, but I remember walking back up the steps to my hotel sometime after sunrise. I still had two cold beers in my refrigerator, so I worked on those for a while, then napped for an hour or two until it was time to catch the Tube to Heathrow for my flight home. Legendary night, legendary weekend.
Frost and Fire London was a tremendous accomplishment, a smashing success, and one of the most fun festivals I’ve ever attended in my life. As organizers of the event, Night Demon’s mantra is clear: “We didn’t come to compete, we came to inspire.” It’s true. They love this scene, this community, and this music so much. All they ever want to do is build it up, not for selfish reasons but for the good of us all. Well, mission accomplished, my friends. I came away from Frost and Fire London feeling more inspired and alive than I have in a long time. Cheers to that.
~ Review by Kit Ekman ~