For those unfamiliar with the event, Blazefest is an annual fundraising show in aid of the Royal Belfast Hospital for Sick Children. It is inspired by a very brave young man, Blaze Shields-Pettitt, who, in his short life, has endured a lot more than many of us old fogies could put up with in a lifetime. He suffers from Severe Bilateral Hydronephrosis, a condition whereby both of his kidneys are stretched and swollen. It affects one in 600 people. In Blaze’s case, it was diagnosed during ante-natal scans: his condition is complicated by the fact that he also suffers from Vesicoureteral Reflex (VUR), a condition which reverses the flow of urine between the bladder and kidneys. He also is autistic, and has ADHD. But, apart from that, he is just like every other little boy… full of beans and mischief, he loves playing rugby and watching ice hockey, is a studious and intelligent P4 pupil (who apparently can outsmart kids three years above him when it comes to solving top heavy fractions, whatever the fuck they are) – and a shining light who has inspired the rock and metal community in Northern Ireland – and beyond – to throw their weight behind this annual shindig, which to date has raised more than £20,000 for the hospital whose devoted staff have saved the lives of Blaze and countless other youngsters without ever asking for a word of thanks…
The queue of bands lining up to play the event is as long as that of the fans who will be climbing the steps to the city’s historic Empire Music Hall on the afternoon of Saturday 19 March for the sixth instalment of Blazefest. In fact, such is the desire of bands to throw their weight behind this most worthy of causes that this year, alongside three bands from Dublin, one act – Tequila For Breakfast (following in the footsteps of Hungary’s Crossholder, who headlined Blazefest 3 in 2013) – is travelling all the way from Italy to support it. Furthermore, the organisers – husband and wife Darren and Dawn Shields-Pettitt, parents of young Blaze – found themselves having to organize a ‘Battle Of The Bands’ to decide which which of six potential acts should open this year’s proceedings.
With the running order chosen at random, the task of opening these particular proceedings fell to youngsters Korvid, in what was only their second ever gig. They are visibly nervous, especially vocalist Jonny Gault (who, for unfathomable reason, keeps unplugging his mic), but at the same time they are tight and coherent, especially bassist Theo Gordon Boyd and guitarist Alex Keys, who build slabs of doomy sound, which in turn possesses a dark, melancholic groove. They do grow in confidence as their set progresses and they start to enjoy themselves, but Gault does need to work on his stage manner and audience interaction.
The sound switches to melodic hardcore for Lee Harvey Oswald, but they have one major factor working against them: the lead guitar is out of tune. Badly so. Which goes a considerable way towards distracting from their good, strong melodies and equally solid hooks. Apart from that major issue, and bassist Jordan Newell’s consistent problems with his strap, they are earnest and determined, but we probably could have done without the pedestrian (if timely) Biffy Clyro cover as well.
Oracle, on the other hand, are tighter than a coiled spring with their taut, groovy metal and thick, junky riffs. They manage to get a mini moshpit going right at the start of their set, and their big, beefy sound is matched by their huge confidence level. Their sound makes good use of light and shade, such as on the stealth mode opening of ‘The Changing’ and the dense groove of ‘The High Priestess’. They show plenty of passion and commitment – important qualities in a scenario such as this – vocalist Jason Kerr has charisma and the band are genuinely enjoying themselves, judging from the smiles as big as their riffs.
With drummer Stephen McIlroy pulling double duty, Heel Of Achilles induce a mathcore throwdown, which lights up the floor in a whirlwind of flying limbs. They are tight and acerbic, with plenty of twin guitar harmonics, which are also suitably highly technical. Their punchy rhythms are matched by Patrick Scanlon’s acidic vocals. It’s an impressive and hard hitting set which shows why HOA are quickly developing a reputation as one of the most incendiary bands on the Belfast live circuit.
It’s a total change of pace for High Sundays, who “bring da funk” a la Red Hot Chili Peppers. Matt Wilson produces a great groove with his slapping bass style, although Luke Kerr’s guitar is muddy and struggles to cut through the mix. Vocalist Jack Moran has a neat line in James Brown-meets-Michael Jackson-style dance moves, often looking likes he’s bordering on taking a fit, but also shows a good sense of humour as the band clearly know they’re slightly out of their depth on this metal-oriented bill (“we’re not as violent as the rest”). They finish with a decent fist of ‘Californication’, which emphasizes their energy and talent in equal measure.
The task of being the last band to play in a competition such as this can be an onerous one, but if Car Chase City are feeling any pressure then they certainly don’t show it, with their energetic brand of pop punk with its heavy bottom end and equally heavy emphasis on harmony, especially in the three-part vocals. Each of the three frontmen switches easily between lead vocal duties, and their tightness and confidence shows that this most definitely ain’t their first prom dance. Their rowdy, cheeky rambunctiousness gets most of the bodies in the room moving in appreciation, and it’s a suitably high voltage end to the evening.
But, there can only be one winner, and as the house PA cranks out Black Sabbath, the task of counting the votes, cast equally by a panel of judges and the fans, begins… it’s a complicated process but one which is conducted with aplomb and the use of simple brainpower on the part of the Blazefest team. And, as our counterparts across the Irish border prepare to take to the polls just a few short hours later, the victors in this particular electoral battle emerge as Oracle. A huge confidence booster for this young band, from whom yours truly looks forward to hearing more in the not too distant future.
Oracle will open Blazefest VI at Belfast’s Empire Music Hall on Saturday 19 March. The bill is completed by Baleful Creed, Gasoline Outlaws, Selene, Stereo Nasty, Stone Trigger, Tequila For Breakfast and The Dystopian Project. Tickets cost £10 and are available from Ticketmaster, who once again have generously waived all fees and charges.