The first heat of the 2016 round of the Metal 2 The Masses competition’s Northern Ireland leg was so tight it squeaked. Just four points separated all four bands. It couldn’t have been any closer. Well, that’s what we thought until the second heat, when, at the end of the night, there was literally nothing between the top two acts. Nada. Zilch. Sweet FA. Not a single percentage point. Not even a milli-fraction of a point. A dead fucking heat. So, what led to this scenario?
Skypilot got things off to a suitably rowdy start with the appropriately titled ‘Stomper’. The most experienced of the bands on tonight’s bill – they’ve been kicking around the Irish scene since 2002, so hardly fit the description of “New Blood” – their sound is characterized by thick, crunching bass lines, deep, guttural guitar and sharp, snappy drums. The Doagh trio tear through their tight set with aplomb and not a little humour – “we must be in first place at the minute,” comes the quip at around the halfway point – delivering their thumping grooves with plenty of grind, grist and grunt, setting down a strong marker.
Things don’t start well for youngsters Mosmo Strange, as the quartet from the heart of God’s Own Country kick off their allotted half hour with a cover of Edwin Collins’ ‘Girl Like You’. And things don’t get much better for them, as their confused style – a mixture of psychedelia, funk and even indie-dance-pop – quickly loses the attention of the majority of the audience. Although the guitarist and bassist (sorry, I don’t know their names as their sparse Facebook page doesn’t provide such important information) do show occasional signs of rocking out, and they are extremely tight – as evidenced when the guitarist breaks not just one but two strings mid-song – and proficient at what they do, quite honestly these boys are in the wrong competition and would be better suited to the likes of Sunflower or Electric Picnic that Bloodstock.
So Long Until The Séance (I’ll leave you to work out the acronym) are a totally different proposition – and a lot more like it, as they invite us to ‘Dance With The Devil’. Their style of sleazy gothic horror is far from new or unique, and they have a very Wednesday 13/Black Veil Brides feel to them, but its extremely tight and suitably dramatic. They’re also the first band of the night to draw a sizeable proportion of the crowd to the front of the stage. Songs such as debut single ‘Dead Boys’ and newbie ‘A Stake Through My Heart’ (yes, they’re brave enough to play a new song in a competition, for which they deserve added kudos) are jammed with plenty of melody and harmony, mixed with gritty riffs, plenty of humour and beats that make it hard to resist the old feet tapping along. Frontman Mike Van D has plenty of charisma, as well as a terrific voice, and knows how to work a crowd, especially when he casts aside his keytar, and interacts well with his bandmates, especially bassist Bones, who in turn know their jobs and do them with aplomb.
Erosion, another of the more experienced bands on the bill, know that, as the last band, they are under pressure, but they look relaxed and comfortable. But, at the same time, they’re as taut as a coiled spring with a hand grenade attached to its topmost coil. The last (and only previous) time I saw Erosion, the fact the drummer Mark Stewart also does lead vocals made it hard to find a vocal point, with a gaping hole in the middle of the stage; tonight, however, bassist Gavin Burnside steps forward to the front of the stage, filling that visual crevice with a confident presence. The songs are characterized by dense, dynamic bass lines and punchy guitar riffs, and guitarist Martin Donaghy produces some extremely neat, winding solos which complement the classic rock feel of the tunes.
And so, after a suitable gap to count the votes, promoter James Loveday climbs on to the stage to announce the results – and reveal that, for the first time in the NI competition, we have a tie for first place, meaning that Erosion and SLUTS progress to the semi-finals in April. The competition is definitely heating up, and we’ve two more qualifying heats still to come…