HRH AOR 3 (12-14 Mar 2015)
Reviewer: Peter Scallan
Photographer: Stephen Brophy
Hard Rock Hell AOR has grown as an event since its launch in 2013 at the Magna Centre in Rotherham. I thought this venue was excellent but it caused a lot of logistical problems for organisers Chic Talent. Therefore, last year they moved it to the spiritual home of HRH at Hafan Y Mor in Pwllheli, North Wales. While maybe not quite having the quirkiness of the Magna, the venue delivers an excellent experience. The festival is in essence a two day festival and day 0 is a party night on the Thursday evening. Unfortunately due to a combination of travelling and some very fine single malt whisky, I only managed to see the last two bands.
I caught Angels or Kings (AOK) set and the guys were running through songs from the debut album Kings of Nowhere. For me what really sets AOK apart from the competition is vocalist Barrie Jackson’s rasping but melodic vocals. The sound out front was poor but the band rocked along and certainly seemed to be enjoying themselves, and deservingly got a good reception.
Headline act for the party night were Serpentine who also played at the inaugural 2013 event. However, they seem to have undergone some lineup changes since then. They now sport vocalist Adam Payne in the place of Matt Black. These guys also suffered a poor out front sound but new singer Payne is certainly impressive and carries some of the mediocre songs. Admittedly I am not overly familiar with Serpentine’s back catalogue but the song quality was a little inconsistent but the performance sound and gain they deserved the reception they got on the night. Both bands I would think will have done themselves little harm with their respective shows.
And so to the festival proper! Due a late breakfast shared with the wonderful Ashcrofts and a brisk walk on the beach being required to shake off the single malt after effects, I didn’t get to the main stage until just before Kingdragon from Greece hit the stage. They certainly came across as polished musically sounding a little progressive in places. They had some decent songs, the best of which for me was ‘Dreams are Broken’ (if my sketchy notes are right).
These guys were followed by Night by Night who had lost their vocalist and seem to be making an unfortunate habit of this! They need to be more careful. New Device vocalist Daniel Leight stepped into the breach and I don’t know how much preparation he had, but I thought he did a sterling job. He proved to not only have a great voice, but also to be a great frontman. The guys ran through a set of great British melodic rock with some great individual guitar contributions and some great harmony guitar work. Not being familiar with the material, most of it was grabbing me on the first listen and I need to check these guys out more.
Although looking forward to Vega, by this time hunger and thirst pangs had got the better of me and I missed these guys (much to my annoyance) and The Poodles, whom I have managed to live without my entire life so far with little impact.
I returned to the main area to catch Starz, more out of AOR curiosity I must admit, as the owner of their 1979 effort Coliseum Rock. More novelty value than anything else, the guys looked like they were having an absolute blast running through material older than some of the audience. They certainly brought something different to the day and live renditions of their material only served to remind more of the Kiss influence! More for AOR geeks, I don’t think they quite fitted the audience and/or event.
Next up were Dare, whom I must confess I have never been a huge fan of. However, the mix Celtic influenced rock and AOR on the night really worked for me with Darren Wharton gently wooing the audience and Vinny Burns smacking them round the head with his guitar playing and even playing the second half of the set with a Flying V. It did get a little too Celtic in the middle but they kicked up a gear with songs from the first album including the awesome Abandon, Into The Fire, The Raindance, and King Of Spades in quick succession. A superb set and lead us quite nicely the next act.
Who were of course Swedish rockers H.E.A.T Having seen these guys three times in the last two years they have got to be one of the most consistent acts on the circuit and you just know what you are getting. These guys just rock and opened with Point of No Return and drew predominantly on the set for the Live in London album. This included mostly songs from albums Address The Nation and Tearing Down The Walls as well as some earlier songs. The sheer energy from these guys is phenomenal, especially singer Erik Gronwall who bounces about like Tigger on acid and never misses a beat or a note in his performance. They provided an accomplished and energetic set and it makes me wonder why these guys aren’t even bigger than they are. My only complaint on the evening was it seemed incredibly loud and distorted, but maybe I am just getting too old for this stuff! Certainly set us up nicely for the Saturday!
By the time this old guy got his act together and got down to the AOR hall, Australian act White Widdow were hitting the stage. Jules Mills seemed to be struggling a little vocally, but when he hit his stride he was good. In addition, I thought he was a pretty awesome frontman and showing some real flashes of humour, especially his comment about the Poodles talking about traveling so far which went along the lines of ‘try coming from Australia’! Guitarist Enzo Almanzi proved to be no slouch either. Add to that for me these guys were the first genuine AOR band I had seen all weekend, I thought they were great. Drawing from their three albums, with some new songs from the Caught in the Crossfire album I thoroughly enjoyed the set and look forward to seeing these guys again the next time the hot these shores.
Next up were hot melodic hard rock sensations Eclipse. Now I totally get just how talented Eric Martenson is in terms of vocals, guitars, songwriting and production, but it just doesn’t work for me I am afraid. Excellently executed by superb musicians, it just leaves me cold and sounds a little fabricated. I know that will make me the odd man out, but music is subjective and not objective and I left after four songs to grab some food.
I returned to catch Houston’s set which I was looking forward to. The band has undergone a line-up shuffle and Hank Erix has come in for some criticism for his live performances. For me the only disappointing aspect was the size of the crowd! These guys were the bona fide AOR band of the weekend and played a superb selection of polished songs from both their original and cover albums. Favourite for me by far was Return My Heart but the guys have superb cache of original songs. They maybe played more covers in the set but the standout cover for me was Carrie from Michael Bolton’s first solo album. It truly showed how accomplished Hank is as a vocalist and the new single Standing on the Moon bodes very well for the next album – just hurry up and get it out Hank!
I ducked out of Romeo’s Daughter to suitably refresh myself before returning for the mighty FM. Having just realised what I consider to be their best album since Indiscreet I was looking forward to this immensely. Like H.E.A.T these guys always deliver and you know what you are getting. However, as if it were even possible, they have got even better live. Steve Overland who is most definitely ‘the Man’ seems to have accepted he is the band frontman and has started putting down his guitar to great effect. Really engaging with the crowd has taken FM’s live performances to another level. I also happen to think that Jim Kirkpatrick presence in the band is now really being felt live. He brings an edgy, blusier feel to live sound and really adds something to the mix. Perhaps the Man’s confidence in his ability is one of the reasons he feels comfortable after all these years being the Man at the front. Absolutely, gob-smackingly marvellous they were! Rumour even has it that Night Ranger closed down the back stage area so they could watch FM!
And as for Night Ranger themselves, well I witnessed possibly the best display from any band at HRH AOR since its inception. Considering how long these guys have been about, the energy from them was amazing. Jack Blades was all over the place and Brad Gillis had such a manic smile on his face he could be the Joker in a Batman movie – and what an awesome player! The band has recently been joined by Keri Kelli from Alice Coopers touring band and he fits in perfectly both musically and personality-wise. And he is no slouch either, giving Brad as good as he got! Kelly Keagy steps from behind the drums to sing a couple of songs and his voice seems to be even better than it was in 80s/90s. Playing mainly songs from the first 4/5 albums and of course the new album, the guys threw in a couple of curve balls covering their other projects including Damn Yankees and Alice Cooper’s Schools Out and Ozzy Osbourne’s Crazy Train. While some might question throwing these in, it all just added to the absolutely awesome party atmosphere the guys created and they give the kind of professional kick-ass display you would expect of a band with 35 years plus experience. And of course, closing with You Can Still Rock in America – how can you fail to be impressed! Superlatives fail me! Night Ranger were indeed fitting closing act for another great HRH AOR weekend.
Well done Chic Talent and I look forward to next year already!