Live Review : SOS Festival, Prestwich on July 13th 2019

Another mad dash up the motorway for me, and much to my delight I managed to catch all bar the first song of openers Hell’s Gazelles. They are a young band from Oxfordshire who play traditional metal – big riffs and soaring vocals abound. There’s been a line-up change since I saw them last but stalwarts Nate (guitar) and Cole (vocal) are still holding the whole thing together nicely. In fact you could rename this band “The Cole Show” as this livewire young man often leaves the stage and runs all over the venue, the very epitome of an excellent frontman. They don’t break any boundaries sound-wise but are very enjoyable to watch and listen to.

First acoustic act Cadence Noir are folk goths with a violin, stand-up double bass, guitar and some seriously gravelly vocals. I love them, they infuse a bit of Irish jigging folk with some really dark metal vibes and they look as good as they sound. Refreshing and different, so do take time to check them out if you can.

Back to the main stage for Beth Blade And The Beautiful Disasters. These are a female-fronted band from South Wales. Their bio describes them as “melodic hard rock” and I can’t argue with that. They have some decent tunes and they play them well.

After another set from Cadence Noir the mood changes considerably for Toledo Steel. As their name suggests they are a Metal band. Very Metal, much hair, many shapes. They have obviously worshipped at the altar of Iron Maiden, but that isn’t a bad thing at all. The sound is 1980, the look is 1980 but hey, 1980 was a pretty good year for rock. I know, I was there! I suspect Toledo Steel are probably too young to have been there too, but their sound takes me right back and that’s a Good Thing.

Over on the acoustic set, we next have Empyre. I’m curious now to see this band do a full electric set, as I have invented a whole new genre of rock for them. Yep. I think they play Doom Country. You kind of had to be there! Powerful vocals, good songs but I’m not sure the stripped-back sound really did them justice.

Next act Tomorrow Is Lost are another one to put on your “Ones To Watch” list. They play bouncy alt.rock and singer Cass is another whirlwind frontperson. There are some very good songs and a huge amount of passion. This band are very young, and if the audience reaction is anything to judge by they will be going places in the future.

After Empyre’s second set, we move on to Samarkind. They are another modern-yet-retro band, think in terms of Led Zeppelin for millennials. They are very competent, and those of you who are familiar with and appreciative of Glenn Hughes’ body of work will feel right at home watching this band. There’s a pretty awesome Dio cover, and I am impressed as not every singer has the chops to pull off a decent Dio. Some of you may be familiar with the facebook group called “New Wave Of Classic Rock” – Samarkind are the absolute epitome of that phrase.

Metaprism take us into the territory of operatic rock, and are treading on the toes of my beloved Scandinavian bands here. They have a hard and heavy sound and both male and female singers. The clean singing is great, but the shouty bits set my teeth on edge a little! I feel that this is a band who are still finding their feet and are a little unsure of themselves in terms of genre and influences, and I’ll be keeping an eye out to see how they develop. Singer Theresa has a terrific voice though, and with her in the band they are sure to do well.

Turns out acoustic band Spires aren’t actually a band at the moment, and not what we are getting. The band are currently not working together so instead of the loud metal I was expecting we got guitarist Paul Sadler with two friends/collaborators – a female singer and a cellist. The songs were mostly Paul’s original compositions and had a rather attractive ethereal feel to them. Well until they finished with a rousing cover of Toto’s “Africa” for a mass singalong anyway! Paul is currently working on a solo project to be released at some point later in the year so keep a look out for that.

Next band Gio are a bit of a hoot. Turns out that Gio himself is an ex X Factor contestant, and has also done considerable work in stage musicals. He’s a great singer who has surrounded himself with a band of very good musicians and he gave us a fun-filled set of catchy pop-rock. From the off, there was a definite hint of early Guns N’ Roses, and I wasn’t at all surprised when a cover of “Welcome To the Jungle” appeared later in the set. It was nice, if a little candyfloss. I’m not sure exactly where Gio is going with this band, personally I enjoyed them but I heard mutters elsewhere that it all seemed a little forced, a little staged, maybe even a little (whispers) fake? I suppose time will tell, but I would probably go and see them again because the entertainment factor (did you see what I did there?) was superb.

Sadly due to needing to take a break and eat I only caught a little bit of Fantasist’s set. They are a band from Manchester who also aren’t actually a band at the moment, and have re-formed especially to play at SOS this year. They describe their sound as odd-rock, and I can’t argue with that. The tracks I did manage to see had a whiff of Red Hot Chilli Peppers and possibly a hint of Primus. They were a definite crowd favourite and had a great response, so I’m now wondering if this one-off jam might lead to them getting back together again, at least on an occasional basis. The NorthWest music scene will be richer if they do.

Acoustic headliner Luke Appleton is probably a name you will recognise. He is part of the Rocksector/SOS “family”, and is usually to be found playing bass for American thrash band Iced Earth or occasional guitar in UK hard rock band Absolva alongside his brother Chris. He’s recently recorded a solo album “Snake Eyes”, and the first set tonight was him and fellow guitarist Rishi Mehta running through a couple of tracks from it. Luke is a man who can make even a solo acoustic set sound fierce, and I always forget how good his voice is until I see him at SOS every year!

His second set sees him team up with brother Chris (who you may know from Fury UK, Absolva and Blaze Bayley’s band) to run through a couple more songs and finish with one that Luke wrote with the late Philippe Beauprez (Wizz Wizzard) who was a mainstay and supporter of this festival for many years and is still sadly missed.

For Luke’s 3rd set (greedy boy!) Rishi steps up on electric guitar and we get an anthemic version of Dio’s “Last In Line”. Is acoustic Metal a Thing? I think it is now! Finally Luke and Rishi are joined by Theresa from Metaprism.  She also guested on a track on his album, and that song is duly aired for the first time live. Is it any good you ask? Well I went straight over and bought the album so yeah, I guess it must be.

In between Luke’s domination of the acoustic stage, we of course had a couple more headline acts. First up are Florence Black, a 3-piece outfit who I really liked. They play melodic rock with a hard edge, it’s gritty and real. I heard a couple of people reference Black Stone Cherry when speaking about them and although I can see the likeness I think I actually prefer Florence Black. They have better songs and better hair!

They were followed by Collibus, a local female-fronted outfit. Long-term SOS attendees will know this band and their singer Gemma Fox very well. I’ve seen them before and not been wildly impressed but tonight I thought their style had matured and improved and Gemma’s voice sounded much better than I remember. They are fast-paced alt.rock. If you like your music to be heading in the direction of Linkin Park or maybe a harder-edged Limp Bizkit then you would be well advised to check Collibus out.

Finally it’s headliner time and this means A Joker’s Rage. Now I have to be honest here and say that I’m not a big fan. I’ve seen them play a couple of SOS Festivals in the past, caught them at other festivals, and always thought that although they had promise and could certainly play well enough, there was just something lacking. Tonight I’m afraid, I will have to eat my words as this performance lacked nothing. This is a band that are at the top of their game, in fact to quote one of their own songs they are truly showing us their #gameface.  They start with guitarist Adam alone on stage, just him, some eerie uplighting, his #gameface technospecs flashing in the darkness and some rather impressive guitar noodling. Then BOOM! The confetti cannons go off, the lights come up and the mayhem begins. Singer Zakk has a great voice and pretty good stage presence too. He knows how to grab the crowd, pull them in and keep them there. The songs are catchy, upbeat and well-crafted. They rock, they roll, they keep your attention and make you feel happy. A Joker’s Rage have matured like a good cheese, and also like a good cheese they are hard and a bit nutty. I might briefly give them the side eye at the use of taped intros to so many songs, but then they segue a bit of “Sweet Child O Mine” or “Back In Black” or even “Beat It” into one of their own songs and I shake my head, laugh and start to nod along again.

Gemma from Collibus guests on a rocked-out version of “Proud Mary”, and I am amused to see many of the crowd doing the Tina Turner rolling hand thing to it. After a runthrough of the next single “Shine On Me” the main set finishes with an original twist on that old Beatles standard “I Am The Walrus”. Of course, that’s not the end, and they come back on to rip through their own song “Bounce” as an encore. The whole room bounces too, and I finally leave feeling a little astonished that a band I used to have barely any time for, have come such a long long way musically in just a few short years.

Words by Jo Crosby
Photography by Johann Wierzbicki