February 25, 2023

The queue pointing towards Nottingham’s iconic Rock City venue is snaking around the block and for anyone wandering past not in the know may think that the circus had come to town. Of course, they would not be far wrong although the main event this evening is definitely what would be considered the freakshow.

With the queue taking its time, there is only enough to catch a part of Mastiff’s opening set. From Hull and described as a “miserable band from a miserable city”, the sludge/hardcore/grindcore bruisers might be short on smiles but they are big on pummel that loosens even the most attached of ribcages.

Chicago deathcore/metalcore outfit Veil Of Maya is an experience in both power and control and as a band has clearly set their collective sights on sonic evolution. Since vocalist Lucas Magyar joined the band in 2014, clean vocals have slowly been incorporated into the Veil Of Maya’s oeuvre although they are only marginally dotted around the early part of the set. The musicianship of the band is something to behold; guitarist Marc Okubo tearing a blur of rhythm and riffs without barely rising from underneath his hair, Danny Hauser’s bass lines are lush and easily distinguishable amongst the chaos with enough low end to pop light bulbs and Sam Applebaum’s drum work is sharp and on point.

Veil Of Maya does keep it fluid and there is regular bouts of Magyar trying to get the crowd to jump or even start a circle pit, a call to arms that the ultra dedicated rise to creating a bit of a rumpus. Without a doubt, Outsider is a highlight where those clean vocals are a major player and it is a tune that stands out in a set that is intriguing and dazzling in easy measure.

Avatar (Johannes Eckerström) – Photo: Ian Jenkinson

Ready to take a walk on the weird side?

One of the most comments aligned with Sweden’s Avatar is “underrated” and while their early material could be considered melodic death or groove metal, it was obvious from the beginning that there was a real creative vision – check out the story behind Bloody Angel – but it is when the quintet took a more Avant Garde approach that the band really began to test their artistic limits and have gone from strength to strength.

With a toll of bells and to the military beat of drummer John Alfredsson, one by one each of the members of Avatar appears between the lighting rig. Naturally, the last member to arrive is the ringmaster himself, Johannes Eckerström before breaking into the title track from Avatar’s brand spanking new album Dance Devil Dance. With smoke and fireworks, Eckerström struts the stage twirling a cane and wagging his tongue through his painted clown face before removing his hat to bow while saying “Ladies and Gentlemennnnnnnnn” in reference to The Eagle Has Landed from the Feathers And Flesh album. It is the air of familiarity that has the audience moving in unison on Eckerström’s command. The growl of the guitars on Valley Of Disease has Eckerström stood stock still while his bandmates appear to be in another physical universe altogether, all bent double and windmilling like their lives depended on it, Eckerström says “breakdown” and the entire Rock City becomes a violent circus swirling against a monolithic wall of guitar.

What is extraordinary is the power that Eckerström wields and how he interacts with the crowd, it is almost like hypnotism. Eckerström’s demented clown image (which began quite accidentally) has become something of a force of nature; people dress like him, make gifts and wear the image on clothing and every accessory going. It is more than an image though, Eckerström’s formative years saw him lost and disaffected, not fitting in but finding an identity within metal and that will be a familiar feeling among audience members; there is a synergy with Eckerström which amplifies his persona and it has the audience eating out of his hands.

Old favourite Bloody Angel is an early highlight, the jangly guitar intro brings loud cheers and raised arms while For The Swarm has the whole band stood on the drum riser with Eckerström acting as conductor but it is Hail To The Apocalypse bed fellow Puppet Show where things really take an entertaining three ring circus turn. Eckerström disappears from the stage to reappear in a viewing window above a screen high in the venue and proceeds to make balloon animals before playing the trombone sections of the song while leaning against the window like it was a lazy Sunday afternoon. Following When The Snow Lies Red is another new song Do You Feel In Control? before Eckerström leaves the stage to let guitarists Jonas “Kungen” Jarlsby and Tim Öhrström duel it out for a solo spot. Before Black Waltz, a crew member in a gimp mask brings out a boxed gift, sets it on the stage and sure enough out appears Eckerström – neat trick, by the way – holding four balloons giving airs of Stephen King’s nightmarish Pennywise.

While this may all sound like parlour tricks and lowest common denominators, the knitting of the songs and the performance cannot be faulted and Eckerström misses not a single step. Tower is Eckerström’s solo spot and entirely played on piano before Colossus lives up to its name with a riff that threatens to level the Rock City. Let It Burn’s stomp is a riot of a fan favourite and another new song The Dirt I Am Buried In has an almost 1970s disco vibe to it that shows once again Avatar spreading their creative wings and going against their own tide. Closing with the one-two of Smells Like A Freakshow and Hail To The Apocalypse, Nottingham is treated to entertainment with a capital E.

On the face of it, Avatar may sound like Eckerström and a backing band but nothing could be further from the truth. At one point in the show, a smaller drum kit was brought to the front of the stage so the whole band was existing in the same space. Along with sharing elements of the circus image, there is unity and some seriously dedicated musicianship that brings as much to the show as Eckerström does. Bass players and drummers rarely get the acclaim that guitarist and singers do but bassist Henrik Sandelin is a joy to watch and drummer John Alfredsson delivers a suitably intense performance.

If there is one downside, it is the five minute monologues which are clearly planned as the entire band disappears from the stage. Eckerström is an effective speaker and the last bout has the man thanking his audience, without them none of this is possible and there is a real passion in what he says and the audience – the freaks – their devotion is cast right back at him. There is nothing wrong with an impassioned speech and it beats just walking from the stage without a word. There is too many though and with a show as spectacular as this, it seems churlish to throw in a negative but with so many breaks, some momentum does get lost which is caught up and then lost again.

There will be some that will cry style over substance but Avatar proves over and over that this is not the case and with a varied set list, there can be no disappointment with a growing catalogue. The new album Dance Devil Dance has had some mixed response but eclecticism can be a bumpy road and the fans certainly do not care, the album had only been out 48 hours and some were belting lyrics out word for word. With a fervent fan base and performances such this, Avatar’s future may be weird but it shines like the brightest light in the big top. ALL HAIL THE APOCALYPSE!