Helloween (Sydney, NSW)

16 October 2015 at Metro Theatre
It's six o clock on a Friday evening, and I'm out the front of the Metro theatre in the Sydney CBD, having a chat with local legend Mick Bourke about touring bands. It's an hour or two before the doors open for Helloween, Lord and Darker Half, and George Street seems a little quiet, despite the plethora of metalheads who have saturated the city. The line-up for the evening: the touring Helloween, German power metal legends who are visiting Australia for the second time in their thirty year career, alongside two pinnacle Sydney power metal acts, Darker Half and Lord (ex-Dungeon). A fairly conservative support selection, but stylistically sound. I pay for a few cheeky beers with a position in the entrance line well back from the doors. Loads of punters are garbed out in Lord shirts, some of which appear to have been made for the occasion: "I saw Lord support Helloween and they fucking slayed". Make of that what you will, but I was quite content with having my job as a reviewer performed for me with such prescience. It's at this moment where I begin to wonder whether the Press Pass scratched into the slot at the ticket booth is somewhat of a poisoned chalice: the adamant and unerring support of the Sydney crowd for some of their favourite local acts is unlikely to take kindly to even well-meaning criticism from an upstart youngster.

Darker Half and Lord are seasoned travellers, and their supporters have built up a repartee with them over a number of years. The sound of these two bands, one could argue, has become characteristic of the Sydney Power Metal flavour, and with a combined 8 full-length albums between the two with their distinct high-vocals, guitar-vocalists and anthemic compositions are truly a powerful force in the Australian Heavy Metal scene.

Helloween are touring off the back of their latest release, My God-Given Right. The music video is an absolute treat, skirting the line between powerful anthem and tongue-in-cheek jollity, with laser fights and Star-Wars-esque Helloween Storm Troopers, the tone perfectly matches that of the band on stage. Famous for their Keeper of the Seven Keys albums, they have been a staple of the Power Metal community for decades.

Metalheads are herded up the stairs and into the Metro Theatre: the tiered standing areas provide perfect viewing points for a metal act, and despite some experience in the past with sound (unfortunately the sound booth is within grasp of any dickhead who wants to fiddle with some nobs), and a smaller standing area, gigs at the Metro generally go down well. Perching myself on one of the forward tiers, I watch as the show starts to take shape. Oddly, there is little noise from the punters – screaming and shouting, chanting and bellowing is strangely subdued. A punter in a wheelchair, complete with neck and leg brace nudges his way towards the front left hand corner of the stage as a crowd coalesces to his right.

Darker Half take the stage. There's no denying it, their music is tight and catchy, and they have the air of seasoned performers about them on stage: comfortable and capable. The crowd responds heartily – there are many raised fists and the callout sections with Vo's characteristic contour are never without support. Each song ends with a cacophony of cheers and yells, and many of the crowd have come prepared – memorising the lyrics to many of the songs to sing along with the musicians on stage. Darker Half never miss a beat, play tight and have all the moves and postures. The crowd enthusiastically take up an 'oi' as Darker Half rattle through their setlist, never relenting in their performance of song after song.

But there is an odd feeling which I cannot shake throughout the performance. Halfway through I curiously move throughout the crowd to figure out just where Vo is looking when he sings. Turns out it's upward at a 45 degree angle, but focussing into the middle distance. The solos are often played with eyes turned heavenwards, dual guitars are played side by side in well-worn stances, Vo hunches up to the microphone, gazing into another plane throughout his set. Although the crowd are lapping it up, I can't shake the impression of artifice to the performance on stage. That we are being performed at rather than performed to. Bassist Simon is the one on stage, despite not running around the most or taking up classic metal stances, the one I gravitate towards watching, simply because he's the most likely to actually look back. As he chugs away at his instrument, I feel reminded that stage presence isn't just about doing shit on stage, it's playing with your audience and involving them in a musical experience. Amidst cheers, Darker Half finish their set: clearly the crowd has been sated and like what they see.

As Lord takes the stage, bassist Andy monkeys around through the microphones as a check, injecting a little humour into the occasion. After giving some synth tracks a whirl through the speakers, the band explodes into their first track. The sound is incredibly tight, well-honed and precise, as one would expect of a band with such a pedigree as Lord. Tim Grose (vox) seems more involved with his crowd than Vo had been, and the band seem to be having fun on stage; Andy in particular darts about cheekily and causes shenanigans with other members. The band brings just enough structural variety to the table to maintain my interest through the first few songs, and the anthemic callout sections are a treat with a crowd who really know their pieces. We have some headbanging starting, which is always a good sign, and the crowd absolutely love what they hear. Lord leave the stage with a cacophony of fan support.

It's at this moment I would like to go straight to Helloween, to talk about the fantastic performance that followed, and give an all-round balanced (maybe not entirely) review of a good show at the Metro Theatre, with some of the best Sydney bands about and one of the best Power Metal acts in the world. We all go home happy.

But unfortunately, I'm not so convinced my job here is to do this. The Sydney Trad Metal scene, and all those involved in running shows, performing with bands, coming to see performances and catching up for a few beers is incredibly supportive of one another. This is an undeniable strength to the scene, and it is something I truly feel proud to be a part of, even if my presence and contribution is incredibly trivial. But this supportive nature also terrifies me as a member. Implicit in this overwhelming support is a condemnation of dissidence and criticism. In many cases, that's perfectly warranted: criticism has this stigma of being a tool with which we hobble and attack other people; that we bring down those we don't like, often for trifling faults. But criticism in the broader sense is also incredibly important, not only as a tool for discerning music we do and do not like, but also to improve ourselves as musicians. If a band doesn't know that their rhythm guitarist is constantly slightly out of time, they can't fix that. If a singer can't hear from where he/she is standing that the microphone isn't picking up their voice, they can't assess their microphone technique and figure out how to sound better. If we're constantly blaming sound technicians and acoustics for poor sound, how can we see to change the tone of our amps? This doesn't mean that as an audience member you have license to be a prick, but perhaps everyone need be more open to the idea of helping each other improve by targeted feedback. I recall being absolutely wasted at a party and talking to Vo about microphone and sound: he was telling me that my head-mounted microphone wasn't getting a clear sound and it meant people in the crowd couldn't hear what I was singing. My angle was that the head-mounted microphone was the only way I could consistently pull sound out of my flute without contorting my body to play into a standing mic. Despite the fact that Vo and I have two very different approaches towards performance, and considering a few others have approached me after gigs and told me the same thing, I now sing through a standing mic, and I think this has actually been easier on my voice and produced better performances.

In a scene which is showing worrying signs of stress, where the average punter is getting older and older and young blood and young bands are slow to enter the system, where shows are often seeing less than expected fans despite international acts pulling crowds in their hundreds, and where the places where metal can be played is constantly shrinking, I think it is high time for some sober reflection on the expectations that we have on metal musicians and the way in which we talk about their performances. And I can already see some of the responses, perhaps enflamed by offended parties, and although I have put on my Kevlar vest, and messengers don't usually fare so well, I just want reiterate at this point that I'm not saying the show was poor, or that the musicians in it are sub-par, quite to the contrary, the style of Lord and Darker Half is inspirational to me and to a large swathe of the Heavy Metal crowd, and I think you can learn a lot by looking at their music and watching them play. But performances aren't just categorisable as 'good' or 'bad' – although I would say that this one was definitely good – shows have a mixture of great qualities and areas which could be great if we're constructive about our approach and I think this dialogue is only going to make better musicians, better bands and better shows. If I have the choice between trying to help out those who play and support the music I love, simultaneously shattering my reputation, or staying silent and not helping out, well I'd rather put the music before me.

TL,DR: Fuck propriety, how could this have been better?

I couldn't help but feel slightly disappointed watching Darker Half and Lord for several reasons.

I can't help but feel as though I watched two bands who had ceased pushing their limits, both as songwriters and as instrumentalists/vocalists. Whilst recognising that not all music is about snobbish virtuosity, guitar-wankery and incomprehensible time-signatures, I felt as though Lord and Darker Half had more in their armouries than they were showing us.

Firstly as instrumentalists, I don't think it's enough to rip out a sweeping solo, punctuated by ascending vibrato chord tones to a final climax a couple of times a song. When we hear about what makes a great guitarist, I think too often the John Petrucci's and the Malmsteen's, with their archaic sonic spells and superhuman speed come to mind, but I don't think that's what we really mean when we talk about what metal virtuosity is all about. I have in mind something like Megadeth's Good Mourning/Black Friday where the joltingly syncopated Locrian run, whilst not a Malmsteen-esque (thank god) extended guitar solo is thrilling enough to enthral me as a listener, or Deathrider on Fistful of Metal, where you can hear the guitarists at the edge of their technique but going on anyway; true to Anthrax's sarcastically cavalier manner. When you hear these quirks in playing, one can't help but appreciate the time and effort that went into getting those parts written and hammered out in rehearsal, and the balls that it takes to try and play them on stage. But it makes you feel a part of the music, knowing that the band on stage has practised and practised and practised in the studio and at home to bring out their best music for you, the guy or girl in the front row looking on in awe. I think metal in this way is incredibly unique, that such obvious effort has conspired to make the music as captivating, intimidating and otherworldly as that Lovecraftian aesthetic which resonates so strongly inside all of us, that the experience of a live performance, where singers belt out high notes with such strain, constantly pushing the upper echelons of their range, where guitarists throw caution to the wind and when their drummer plays a song 20bpm fast than they rehearsed and just plays for his life is an eddying testament to the spirit of metal which laughs in the face of adversity. A music where players sweat. A music where musicians bleed. For their fans, for their art. I think that's something we should all aspire to, and that's why Lord and Darker Half, who clearly have the chops to riddle out some exhilarating playing fell a bit short for me. Let's take the sweeping from the solos and cram it in some riffs!

Secondly as songwriters, while the Power Metal goal and style is so empowering, uplifting and epic, it definitely has a lot more to offer in a songwriting sense. Think of Fiddler on the Green of Demons and Wizards, or Miracle Machine by Blind Guardian, anything by Rhapsody of Fire which speaks of darkness, of misery, of loss. After watching song after song of middle-tempo, 4/4, strophic, power-chord dominated, same-key, anthemic chorus, callout-rich (admittedly there was some variation amongst the pieces – some nice 6/8 sections, a couple of racier pieces by both bands – I'm open to criticism of my memory here) tracks, I was left hungry for something else. Slow songs are hard, super fucking hard: they're taxing on singers, mistakes are much more obvious, intonation issues are often brought out and it's hard to keep an audience entertained in a slow piece, not to mention how one approaches softer lyrics. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't have a crack. I don't recall any slower tracks from either bands, or anything softer, with un-distorted guitars (excluding pre-recorded track). Or to that matter, anything in which the speed blew me away. I will acknowledge here I don't have the best working knowledge of DH's and Lord's discographies, and I'm only talking about my impressions on the evening. And it leaves me a little unsatisfied and perhaps a little bloated: steak's awesome, I love me some steak, but nine-courses of steak with gravy in champagne flutes gets a little heavy after a while.

Finally, it would have been great to have some more banter. A little back and forth between the crowd and the singer, a little joke here and there outside of buggering around during a song. The great thing about being part of a metal gig is getting to know the guys on stage, and the guys on stage getting to know you. Also I think some banter gives some space between songs to stop them running into each other and keep them all separate in the minds of the listeners. This is just me I suppose: perhaps the main goal is simply just to play great music, and that talk and banter is a diversion from that. I'm willing to have a discussion on this.

Anyway, for those skimming over the boring bits HELLOWEEN STARTS HERE.

And what a start! We're treated to the fanfare beginning of Keeper of the Seven Keys, and explosively, Helloween rocket out on stage. They're clearly a band who has spent many decades honing their craft, and the music and the showmanship shows it. Here is a band who feel that the crowd is just as important to the performance as the musicians on the stage, where singer Andi Deris can't rip his enthralled eyes from those screaming for the band, the lights are on the crowd for half the show and Deris personally high-fives any crowd-surfer who makes their way to the front of the pit before security closes in on them. And the crowd reciprocates this enthusiasm with energy of their own – all callouts are answered, there is never a silent moment in the set, and a small two-man mosh pit has opened up in the standing area. There is this insoluble connection between crowd and performers, where this concert has become a shared experience, the naturalness of Helloween and their tongue-in-cheek performing style creating an atmosphere just as much jolly as metal. It just seems as though the band is having so much fun, and it's impossible not to get swept up in the atmosphere. There's no pretence, just a bunch of guys who are enjoying themselves on stage.

"My God-Given Right", the title track of their latest album is an absolute blast, and while the lights and band come low, the audience roars high as Deris half-encourages, half-taunts his captive audience to raise themselves even louder. At this point Sascha on guitars is giving concerned glances off stage, and guitar techs begin scurrying underfoot, tweaking pedals and shifting leads.

Across on the other side of the stage, Michael Weikath lights up a durry and puffs away. At this point I don't know how Sascha is still standing considering he's wearing a black leather jacket on a warm Sydney spring night, but he still plugs away.

Unfortunately the time comes in every show when security guards pop up like goblinoid meerkats at the first sign of a moshpit. It's become a sorry story for Sydney gigs that guards can't seem to help themselves but manhandle anyone who looks like they're actually having fun – a week before at MUDU, the security guard had a special pair of gloves with padded knuckles, just for punching patrons; what a swell fellow. Any surfer who cuts it too close to the bone is immediately roughed up and dumped in the intervening space between stage and crowd, although a couple of cheeky bastards set up a game to see who can high-five singer Deris the most times without getting caught by the orcs who have positioned themselves on the fence. It's like watching salmon rolling down a waterfall and managing to wriggle out of the jaws of a couple of bears. One of them even gets caught, but his mate and a few others grab him by the pants and managed to pull him back out of the clutches of the ogre and back into the pit. Brilliant.

Unfortunately, Sascha's guitar becomes a serious problem, and by the time Helloween are blasting through "Straight out of Hell" guitars are being thrown about the stage in an absolute flurry by darting guitar techs. I'm only glad that it wasn't Mustaine on the stage having these issues, it'd be a shame to see a whole guitar crew and a couple of guitars fired on the spot. We drop into a drum solo, punctuated by gunfire and engine noises, and while it's nothing particularly flashy, Dani Loble gets the crowd fired up. Deris' storytelling follows, where he divulges to us the origins of "Lost in America" whilst Sascha is off stage trying to sort his equipment out. The next three songs go by with one guitar, Russian Roulet is explained to us through Deris' French heritage, and we're treated to a whole host of MIDI-esque guitar tones before the stars align and Sascha can join us again. Some of the Keeper era songs flash by, and the pit intensifies – hearing Helloween play Helloween, with the whole crowd joining in with the highs is awesome.

Helloween leave the stage, but of course they're not gone. Encores come back and finally the crowd is sated.

As someone who doesn't have the greatest working knowledge of Helloween, and having never seen them before, it was refreshing to see a band on stage simply enjoying themselves and a crowd willing to join in with them. Pick yourself up a copy of "My God-Given Right" it's a corker of an album, and if you haven't yet, grab yourself "Keeper of the Seven Keys". It's smashing.

Line-up: Helloween, Lord, Darker Half

Reviewer: Duncan Therkildsen Jones
Photocredits: Mira Live Photography