While circuses may fascinate many – either in terms of the tongue-in-cheek grotesquery of the ‘carny’ or the slapstick farce of clowns chucking water over each other – personally I’ve never quite seen the attraction. They’re often facile and meaningless – and those which inflict needless cruelty on animals just make my stomach churn… so, when the news that the Avatar freakshow was rolling into Belfast for an all ages show at the city’s Oh Yeah Centre, the prospect didn’t exactly set this particular reviewer alight with anticipation!
Family commitments meant that yours truly arrived just as openers Little Miss Stakes (https://www.facebook.com/lmsboo) were finishing their set, but by all reports Belfast’s own resident freaks gave a good account of themselves and served as a tasty enough appetizer for the main course to come later. Veterans Sinocence (https://www.facebook.com/sinocence), however, seemed slightly out of place on this bill, and indeed also over the heads of many of the younger fans present: but, using the philosophy of ‘play anywhere to anyone’, the four lads squeezed themselves onto the small space at the front of the stage (the headliners had apparently insisted they needed half the stage area for their backdrop – although how a black curtain takes up so much room is anyone’s guess) and proceeded to do what they do best…
Opening with the Titanic-sinking riff of ‘Long Way Down’, they slowly and inexorably won the crowd over, and by the time they reached the vitriolic ‘Making A Monster’ horns were appearing and heads nodding in appreciation throughout the diminutive audience, while ‘Perfect Denial’ managed to retain its mean and moody appeal despite both the muddy sound and lack of any real atmosphere.
After a half hour break (during which several older audience members retreated to the neaby Duke Of York pub to catch Croatia’s surprise opening goal against Brazil), the circus finally rolled onto the stage, much to the excitement of the youngsters rammed up against the barriers and the bemused of the adults – several of them parents dragged along by their offspring further forward – at the back of the room.
If it hadn’t been for the actual ability of the musicians – and particularly guitarist Kungen and drummer John Alfredsson – then what followed over the next hour was very much in danger of being a matter of style over substance. There was a solid musical groove lying somewhere underneath the surface of a sound lying somewhere between Rob Zombie and Marilyn Manson, with dubious dollops of HIM thrown in for good measure, with songs like ‘Hail The Apocalypse’ (the title track of the band’s current album) saved by its guitar riff and melody.
However, the focal point of the band is very much the ghoulishly made up Johannes Michael Gustaf Eckerström, whose faux ringmaster antics are passe and derivative, as he cannot make his mind up if he wants to be a third-rate Rob Zombie or a pale Ville Valo or M Shadows imitation – but fails to fills the shoes of any of them.
Musically excellent but substiantially hollow, strip back the make-up and the pastiche histrionics and these guys have the makings of a half-decent heavy metal band: as it is, this particularly cruel circus is as deep as Eckerström’s face paint.
The Avatar circus came to town. Then it left again. As memorable as any circus show: yes, there’s some degree of skill, especially as far as the acrobats are concermed, but at the end of the day its meaningless and insubstantial.
Avatar play the Zippo Encore Stage at Download on Sunday (June 15).
Photographs by Paul Verner.