October 14, 2023

Friday 13th might have been unlucky for some but not for the music lovers who ventured out in the pouring rain to West London and saw a scintillating show by two of the best progressive metal bands in the business. The venue was the O2 Empire in Shepherd’s Bush, a regal old theatre with a capacity of around 2000 – big enough to create a great atmosphere but small enough to be close to the action on the stage from wherever you are in the theatre. 

Italian act, Terra

With three bands on the bill, time was tight so the first band, Terra, took to the stage with almost unseemly haste, barely fifteen minutes after the doors had opened. Terra certainly took the audience by surprise by opening (and closing) with tribal drumming and vocalising performed by the entire quartet. That certainly got the attention of everyone, as did the effective synchronized flashing lights on the various drums. Once that intro was over, they split into a more regular formation of two guitars, bass and a drummer, Daniele Berretta, who also sang lead vocals. Berretta’s powerful drumming permeated a lot of Terra’s music which to these ears gave a dark neofolk edge to their heavy experimental metal, but there were also more delicate passages when guitarist Paolo Luciani swapped to what looked like antique woodwind instruments, giving a delicious Eastern feel to proceedings. You no longer expect to go to a gig and hear something totally original but that’s exactly what happened with Terra. Surprisingly, they hail from Rome, hardly a hotbed of musical innovation. The theatre was still filling up during Terra’s set, so sadly many missed out, but those present clearly appreciated this very original music.

If the Italians were the antipasto of the evening then French/Irish group Molybaron were a very substantial first course. In many ways, Molybaron are a great pairing with Soen, with both groups sharing a love for high-energy but melodic progressive metal. In fact, you could rather sloppily describe Molybaron as ‘Soen without the quiet bits’.  Molybaron opened their set with the title track of their recently released album, Something Ominous, brilliantly rendered musically with its angular riff and fierce drumming (courtesy of Camile Greneron). But sadly, guitarist Florian Soum’s microphone was way down in the mix so his crucial contribution (singing the hook line ‘It’s something ominous’) was barely audible.  Despite that glitch, Soum, who is new to the band, fitted in seamlessly. He was quite restrained in his mannerisms – no flamboyant ‘I’m the guitar hero’ posing – and yet the speed of some of his fretwork was absolutely dazzling.

Molybaron guitarist Florian Soum

Centre-stage was singer/guitarist Gary Kelly, a natural communicator, who frequently roused the audience to clap or sing along. His broad accent inevitably brought back memories of another Irish showman, Phil Lynott.  Kelly was clearly comfortable on stage and confident of getting the audience on the band’s side – which he did, despite many presumably not being familiar with the material. Molybaron played three further songs from Something Ominous: Set Alight with its insanely catchy, and the heavier (but equally infectious) Vampires and Breakdown worked brilliantly too. There was no space for Reality Show, which surprised me a bit, but with Something Ominous being such a strong album, some good tracks were destined to miss the cut. The new songs were interspersed with four tracks from 2021’s The Mutiny, with ferocious versions of Animals and Something For The Pain being highlights. For a band that has very serious social commentary in their lyrics, it was good to also see a bit of humour when in Lucifer they inserted a false ending. Kelly then hollered ‘Is Everyone OK?’ as if this were inter-song banter, before continuing ‘We’re not done yet!’ and launching once again into the song.  

Molybaron concluded their triumphant set with Incognito from their debut album. Despite having only three albums under their belt, the band had more than enough material for a compelling set. Eight of the nine songs played were written in the last two years, which is a sign of an impressive creative surge. If they continue to build on that base, then Molybaron will surely be doing a headlining tour of their own before long.

Soen of course are much further down the road to stardom and are now considered one of the big hitters in the prog metal arena. That status is shown in different ways, one of which is being able to afford very impressive lighting. Have you ever been reading or watching TV at dusk without realising that it’s been getting dark – until someone switches a light on? Well, that was the impact of Soen coming on stage bathed in a sea of glorious technicolour and behind them a massive backdrop painting of a ruined city.

Joel Ekelöf…. pointing out the fire exit?

All the Soen band members were dressed in black – actually, that was par for the evening with Terra and Molybraon also 100% in black – but singer Joel Ekelöf was particularly striking with an elegant black jacket which he later exchanged for a more typical leather jacket before shedding both and just leaving his shirt for the encores. Tall, slim, and bald (or shaven), and moving around the stage with feline grace, Ekelöf didn’t look anything like the typical barrel-chested heavy metal singer, but you couldn’t fault the power in his voice. Guitarist Cody Lee Ford was stage right, and in contrast to Molybaron’s Soum seemed to enjoy the opportunity to show off a few guitar licks. Kobel on bass was stage left, while the rear part of the stage was raised and hosted López’s drums and Åhlund’s keyboards. When he strapped on his guitar, Åhlund would then come down frontstage next to Kobel. 

Soen in an unusually intimate setting

Soen cleverly mixed styles, sometimes going for broke with the high-energy numbers, but neatly mixing things up with slower material such as the power ballad Illusion or Lotus. The latter group of songs could well have sucked the energy out of fans after the high-octane material but Ekelöf’s stage presence and emotional delivery gripped the audience. At the end of Illusion, a punter behind me shouted out ‘that was f**king beautiful’ and while that’s an unusual comment to hear at a metal gig, he was 100% right!

In terms of song selection, there were five each from Memorial and 2021’s Imperial, three from Lotus (2017) and two older classics, Ideate and Savia from Cognitive (2012). Some of the material from the latest album proved to be highlights. Unbreakable and Violence are both earworms and the latter was chosen as the final encore which shows how much faith the band have in the new material. All of this was accompanied by an extraordinary light show, with spectacular effects. Moments that stood out for me were the circling search lights at the start of Monarch, the first use of smoke bombs as an introduction to Unbreakable, and the culminating everything-but-the-kitchen-sink lights and smoke bombs during the encores. There were less dramatic but equally memorable moments during Soen’s set such as Ekelöf waving a massive black flag during Memorial, or Ekelöf, Ford and Åhlund playing seated in dim light as if in an unplugged session. Time clearly went into putting together that whole package and whoever designed it all deserves a big pat on the back.

Did the fans love it and lap it all up? Yes, of course they did. They certainly looked happy streaming out into the West London night after three hours of fantastic music. After seeing too many concerts by groups that regurgitate old hits from a decade or five ago, it was refreshing to see three young bands playing such powerful and fresh music that was nearly all written in the 2020s. With bands like these, the future of prog metal is secure.

Soen getting the crowd participation going