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Thursday, 6 June 2019

A View From The Back Of The Room: M2TM Bristol Semi Final 2 (Live Review By Paul H)

Bristol M2TM Semi-Final 2, The Exchange, Bristol

The word on social media is that this year’s M2TM competitions have seen an increase in competitors and quality at the events around the Country (and of course, abroad). Whilst this is certainly true of the South Wales events, it’s hard to know about other regions. So, having seen impressive alumni Embodiment, Mortishead and last year’s bludgeoning Body Harvest emerge from the event across the estuary in recent years, I travelled to Bristol and one of my favourite venues to see what our brothers and sisters from Avon had to offer.

A couple of observations: The guys from Mortishead and Questionable Life Choices run a tight ship. Arriving quarter of an hour before the first band were due to hit the stage, punters were already sporting their wrist bands and sinking a few beers in the warmth of the early evening. Stage times were posted around the venue, which was useful to keep track, and one of the team provided a helpful five-minute warning before the start of each act, ensuring most bands played to a reasonably full room. The larger venue also helps, with plenty of space to see (wide room and elevated stage) and a crystal-clear sound for most of the night meant that you could really enjoy the bands.

With six bands and a guest headliner, it was to the organisers credit that the event stuck virtually to time, with the inevitable gremlins only surfacing towards the end of the penultimate and then final competing band sets.

Opening proceedings, South Walian progressive metallers Trep (9) who I’d heard a lot of good things about. Having formed in 2017, the band has been working hard around the Welsh and South West area and whilst I don’t know the reason why they entered the Bristol event rather than Cardiff, it was soon apparent that they would likely have made it to any final. A superb 30 minutes raced by thanks to their captivating alternative progressive sound. With harmonies to die for, the band maintained a steel in their sound that kept the audience enthralled. Rhys Evans is a softly spoken frontman, but his vocals are startlingly good, clean and fresh, whilst his guitar work is excellent. Alongside him Sam Green’s thumping and adventurous bass lines and his constant wind milling added visual stimulation. His backing vocals and harmonies were fabulous.

Green locked in tightly with drummer Max Hill who kept the simple things simple. Musically, Trep appeal to me with longer songs, intricate passages, subtle time changes and variation to the pace and ferocity. At times letting rip as hard as any other band on the night, although there is much more to their sound. Songs from the Lucian EP and latest release Silence The Crows were well received from a crowd who were unlikely in general to have been rooting for them. Still, quality showed, and the judges made a fine choice in selecting the band for the final.

First delay to the running order came next as Basingstoke based outfit Knoww (5) took forever to set up. If there is one thing that will cause you to lose points with the judges, it’s tardy change overs. Drummer Radoslaw Wojcik wasn’t happy with his drum sound and spent many precious minutes trying to get it to his liking. As frustration in the crowd started to surface, the band finally kicked into their set. Playing a curious blend of melodic death metal and hard rock, you wondered why there had been all the fuss at the start as the drum patterns were routine. The band are fronted by the diminutive Kasia Olejnik, whose clean vocals were drowned out in the mix. Her death growls slightly better but with no middle ground in her delivery the result was a switching back and fore which soon became predictable. Having been together for nearly a decade, I’d expected the band to be tighter and slicker than they were. Their material whilst solid was unspectacular with New Life the best of their songs. Possibly gripped by nerves, they were uncomfortable from the start and looked relieved when they finally got off the stage despite being roared on by a sizable following; however, it was no surprise when they didn’t get through to the final.

No rest though and with the heat truly on it was Myst (7) who took to the stage next. Drawing the biggest crowd of the evening by a fair margin, the Bristol based band showed nerves of steel as they delivered a set which oozed confidence. Lead singer Andy Squibbs towers over the front rows, his spiralling narrative in scene setting both inspiring and intimidating. Squibbs is the focal point throughout although with four out of five band members adding backing vocals and assorted death growls, Myst certainly do provide entertainment. With a sound heavy as a bag of anvils but with blues influences in their progressive mix, Myst embraced their set with a sinister darkness. Plenty of underlying groove as well, but throughout it was Squibbs who delivered a Morrison-esque performance. I wasn’t overly keen on their style of music, but the audience lapped it up, the band performed with a swagger that was reasonably enjoyable and it was no surprise when they were announced as one of the finalists later in the evening.

Band number 4 for the evening was Helldown (7), a four-piece thrash band from Swansea. Again, I’m curious as to why the band entered the Bristol region competition but that’s not my business. Helldown play uncompromising groove thrash which follows in the Pantera mould. Indeed, drummer Ross Thomas’s Vinnie Paul style set up immediately caught the eye as the band kicked off their set. Singer Ben Evans is the focal point, adding his bass thunder to the mix. Flanked by brother Matthew and lead guitarist Lewis Larkman the Welsh boys certainly gave it a good go, their old school sound greeted like a long-lost family member. However, there was also little originality in their set, and whilst old school thrash doesn’t need to be stripped down and reconstructed, there needs to be something to separate it from the others. More adventure in the bass lines would be a brilliant start, as there was little of the Frank Bello style changes that good thrash bands add to their sound whilst I’d also liked to have seen more movement on the stage; the band were statuesque at times. Despite these criticisms, Helldown produced a solid performance but didn’t quite have the quality to carry them into the next round.

As the evening finally arrived and the nation turned its attention to a game of football in Madrid, it was Blacklist (7) who were the penultimate band on stage. A powerful three-piece from Bristol, Blacklist were content to let their music do the talking and they didn’t fail. With driving dynamic bass lines courtesy of Saul Blease who also handled vocal duties, Blacklist played their industrial/electronica rock with aplomb but finished with their strongest song which really should have been up front in the set to hook in the curious observers. By the time they had completed their allotted time the room had emptied substantially and there were not huge numbers giving a deserved round of applause. This was a shame as the band’s brand of alternative rock was perfectly executed and comfortably delivered. Blacklist completed by guitarist Elliot Tottle and drummer Ollie Searle have been together for less than a year and will surely be back to give it another go in 2020. They should be proud of their efforts. There is plenty of potential here.

I’d heard good things about NO:IR UK (6) before they took up the final position for the night’s competition. A slightly wobbly bass sound which first emerged towards the end of Blacklist’s set soon manifested into a total bass amp breakdown which had the potential to derail the Bristolian outfit’s evening. One song in and no bass – cue chaos and much scratching of heads before the hero arrived in the shape of Knoww’s bassist Patryk Kreja with his own amp to save the day. Some humorous ad-libbing from vocalist Sam ‘Evvi’ Davies kept the atmosphere high but this is something that the band should, and will no doubt develop: a plan B for future events. It needs to be said that this is an event that all bands need to have awareness and plan for and NO:IR appeared rather paralysed by it. With their set cut short, they pushed the boundaries with three massively energetic songs, all demonstrating their energetic alternative style as they fused hip hop with progressive elements, nu metal and djent in one almighty explosive meltdown. Imagine Korn meets Gojira and the Beastie Boys and you’ll not go far wrong. This didn’t float my boat, but their enthusiasm and high octane recovery was sufficient to capture the other final spot and well done to them.

Before the finalists were announced, guest headliners Democratus (9) took to the stage in their last show as reigning South Wales champions. The band have proved themselves to be worthy holders of the crown, pushing their music hard over the past 12 months and have been rewarded with several invitations to showcase events. The work doesn’t stop with loads of events in the 2019 calendar and the soon to be released second EP Damnation. We don’t really need to describe the band in detail to regular readers but suffice to say that once more Democratus aced it. Their pumped-up melodic death metal remains fiery and savage with frontman Steve Jenkins expending every ounce of energy in yet another wild and impressive performance. Behind the kit Zac maintains his rock steady powerhouse approach whilst rhythm guitarist Joey, fresh from his “shower incident” looked on fine form. Bassist Stu ‘Spoon’ Rake grins and gurns like a buffoon as usual but has added some beef to the sound with his death growling backing vocals which have really enhanced the band’s sound. 

Star man of the night however was Rich ‘Chaz’ Rees, filling in on lead for the absent Kerrin with aplomb. Not a note wrong. Alongside some of the more established songs, we were also treated to Damnation which is sounding better than ever and new track Divided They Fall which is going to be a grower but has massive potential on first listen. As ever, the wandering Steve during BTK caused some consternation in the crowd; it just makes me laugh now but the ‘fat man’ is certainly a fearsome sight with his aggressive vocals and focused stare for the uninitiated. Closing with the now staple Life For A Lie Democratus succeeded on obtaining a massive roar and Bristol was once again democratised.

Another night of excellence in the world of M2TM and I’m happy to report that the Bristol scene is buzzing. The final on 6th July will now feature Trep, NO:IR UK, Myst, who will join Trayus, Voluntas and Dies Holocaustum as well as a headline set from 2018 winners, the awesome Body Harvest. Unless there is a seismic shift in the planet, I’ll be back to the Exchange for what promises to be another bloody good night.

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