Live Review: Soundwave

4 March 2013 | 12:37 pm | James O’TooleAtticus BastowSamson McDougall

Metallica may never top their earlier albums, but with a back catalogue this strong they’ll probably never have to.

Having scored a miraculous gap in Melbourne's insane 'summer' weather, a much lusher, greener Flemington Racecourse sets the scene for what is now one of the biggest touring festivals in Australia. At first glance there's a surprising lack of both southern cross tattoo/Cronulla capes and the matching dickheads – it's an excited, dedicated and friendly crowd. The sun is out and the artist roster is an absolute behemoth, so no time is to be wasted on this here day.

Anthrax kick off their early main stage set with Caught In A Mosh, and despite playing with two fill-in members they deliver the goods. Fight 'Em 'Til You Can't is as strong as their earlier songs and Indians sees vocalist Joey Belladonna wearing a headdress passed up from the crowd. The pace slows with In The End, banners depicting Ronnie James Dio and Dimebag Darrell draped either side of the drum riser in a nice show of respect for two of metal's fallen idols. A spirited cover of AC/DC's TNT goes down predictably well with the steadily swelling crowd.

Despite the potentially diminishing late-morning slot, a strong crowd gathers eagerly in front of the rather modest stage for Fozzy. There's plenty of wrestling lingo and WWE buzz-words – one wonders how many punters are actually fans of the music. The band themselves exude a very polished Vegas-style, squeaky-clean showmanship, though seemingly a tad contrived – frontman Chris Jericho play-kicking and striking poses like some kind of shorter, beefier David Lee Roth. The in-between-song wrestling chants of “Y2J” go down a treat.

Lucero are a pleasant surprise, with sweet hammond organ and pedal steel guitar over rich anguished ballads. They launch straight into a slow-dance as the second song and it's a perfect slice of raspy-voiced, crooning southern bluesy pop-rock. A fantastic sense of space, as well as a beautiful control over dynamic contrast (something very rare at festivals like this) really mark these guys as an early highlight of the day. In bold contrast to Lucero, Maryland's anti-heroes of metal, Periphery, take the stage to an impressive sea of two-handed love heart symbols, launching straight into new-release material. For a smaller stage, it's pretty much the biggest, baddest live sound you'll hear all day. 

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What do you get when you combine Jamey Jasta from Hatebreed and riff master Kirk Windstein of Crowbar and Down? Kingdom Of Sorrow are a match up that on paper shouldn't really work this well – a brutal hybrid monster of hardcore vocals and doomy, super-heavy riffs. The small but enthusiastic crowd responds to Jasta's demand for a circle pit and kicks up a dust storm, the first of many to come. This is a strong set from experienced campaigners, but sadly according to Jasta it's probably the last time we'll see the band here.

Regardless of which hat you find him wearing, it's a fucking treat to catch Mike Patton on stage. Tomahawk are probably the closest thing to Faith No More he's been involved with since their demise and his vocal acrobatics are impressive. The first half of the set meanders across too much new material, but the second stanza storms home through sinister numbers like Point & Click, a bruising Captain Midnight from 2003's Mit Gas, and vitriolic closer Laredo. They double back when told to leave the stage to rip out a frenetic cover of Bad Brains' How Low Can A Punk Get.

Immediately ferocious, Gallows explode on stage and into the crowd. Wiry beards front the raw, excitable aggression that drives a fantastic performance; the mist of consequential spit from the tenacity of lead vocalist Wade MacNeil's performance no doubt covers the die-hards up the front. Midway through the set, a guy in a wheelchair manages to make it up onto the palms of the mosh pit, his crowdsurfing efforts sparking a rather impassioned speech from MacNeil shortly thereafter. Certainly a lot less scary than one can recall of Gallows past, but still impacting as all hell.

Kyuss Lives! try to catch the attention of punters right away by opening with One Inch Man. That said, they don't so much ignite the crowd as slow cook them with their fuzz-laden grooves, causing heads to bob, feet to tap and hips to swing. Corrosion Of Conformity bassist Mike Dean shows he has some serious chops as he helps the band play their last run of shows under the Kyuss Lives! banner, and the extended jam between him, guitarist Bruno Fevery and Brant Bjork during Odyssey is some of the best musicianship seen today.

Sometimes the side stages provide unexpected surprises, like While She Sleeps. The British metalcore crew are young, hungry, talented and it shows, big time. They provide one of the most intense sets so far, putting some of the bigger names to shame with their efforts. They inspire the crowd to similar feats, with a pair of lightly built but fearless young ladies and a wheelchair-bound punter jumping into the thick of the action during The North Stands For Nothing. The young Brits have strong songs, boundless energy, a vitriolic sound and the time to develop even further.

Slayer take the stage amid the anti-Christian blare of Darkness Of Christ and rip straight into track two from 2001's God Hates Us All album, Disciple. Singer Tom Araya's vocals falter several times during the opener and we're cringing from another potential larynx blow out as seen on their fucking embarrassing 2009 tour. He comes back though and by halfway he's pretty well hitting every screech in the right place, albeit with facial grimaces. The replacement drummer fucking smashes the double-kick barrage of Angel Of Death as the replacement guitarist does Jeff Hanneman note for note. The worst day watching Slayer is better than the best day at work.

A fairly relaxed and chatty Maynard James Keenan is only the first of many confusing outcomes for this long-awaited set from LA supergroup A Perfect Circle. Relaxed, unaggressive, slow, weird; APC gravitate towards the more mellow end of their back catalogue, a lot of which is eMOTIVe material. The songs' slow-evolutions and penchant for winding journeys see the crowd fairly still and attentive most of the time, while the D-barrier is still packed. It's a strangely dull vibe for such a prolific band, even with such evidently comprehensive musicianship onstage.

Nyan Cat and Simpsons graphics adorning the bass rig, unending sex jokes from Mark Hoppus and Tom DeLonge between songs, a vivid sense of nostalgia about the crowd...did they ever really leave? One could pretty much sum it up right there, the rest of the set playing out exactly as one would expect: a Blink-182 'greatest hits' setlist, the only difference being the substitution of drummer Travis Barker (fear of flying post plane-crash-survival leaving him stipulated to tour pretty much only the USA) with the fantastically competent Brooks Wackerman (Bad Religion).

Killswitch Engage pull a massive crowd under the huge tent at stage three, providing respite from the afternoon sun and an excellent performance. Returning original vocalist Jesse Leach not only handles the Howard Jones-era material well, he improves it. His vocals suit the band better than those of his predecessor, and judging by the rapt response, this reunion seems a winning move. Guitarist Adam Dutkiewicz is his usual irrepressible self as he runs from side to side of the stage and banters with the crowd, announcing: “We have a new album coming out soon, whether you like it or not. Also coming soon – my boner, for all your girlfriends!”

The wind is washing much of Cypress Hill over the train line and into the suburbs. There are a few trees surrounding their stage and greenery of another kind is passed around – a wonder anyone got any weed past the heavy sniffer-dog presence at the gate. The set is lacklustre. They gurgle through of How I Could Just Kill A Man, I Wanna Get High and Hits From The Bong but their hearts aren't there. An extended bongo solo (as in the rest of them leave the stage altogether) and a late “Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, Oi, Oi, Oi” shout out seals their performance as the fizzer of the day.

Cancer Bats frontman Liam Cormier spits razorblade melodies over ever-shifting guitar riffs and constantly thrashes and head bangs his way around the stage, keeping the energy sky high. Though these Canadians aren't widely known here, this set of hardcore, metal and punk with skilfully phrased lyrics, interesting riffs and a frenzied rhythm section should change that. Bricks And Mortar and Drunken Physics go down a storm. Their turbocharged cover of Beastie Boys' Sabotage keeps the pit moving and there's no doubt they win a lot of new fans.

One of the theatrical standouts of the day's proceedings, Swedish (almost symphonic) metal band Ghost really draw a gaze. The entire band (bar the extra spectacular detail of frontman Papa Emeritus' 'death pope' clergy robes) are dressed head to toe in half long coat/half grim robes. The stage backdrop is some variety of Medieval stone church. The music directly follows suit, Papa Emeritus' vocal performance is much how one would assume a man of the cloth's transition into metal vocals would sound, though much more on the mellifluous side of things.

The Sword are the surprise package of the afternoon. Occupying one of the small stages, basically in the food court, they grind through some '70s-inspired heavy metal in the afternoon sun. Their grooves are heavy, tight and super long and as you can't really hear the cringey Dungeons & Dragons-iness of the lyrics, the thing reverberates as one of the more honest performances of the day – devoid of ego and all about the music. These dudes play with heart and for the briefest of moments they inject a little slice of soul into the barren surrounds.

The debt that many of today's acts owe to New York hardcore veterans Sick Of It All should not be underestimated. Vocalist Lou Koller isn't exaggerating when he says “You may have seen this before, but we invented this shit!” as he calls for the pit to split in two and run at each other in a wall of death near the end of their set. The hardcore legends show no signs of slowing and although the mix is a bit bottom-heavy, the strength of their performance and their evergreen stage presence overcomes all.

It's getting late in the day and choices are now crucial: the Garbage option is rubbish. They go through the motions of attempting to recapture something of what it was that made them hot commodities in the mid-'90s but it's just a bit sad. Sure, they're an incongruous inclusion on the bill and their stage is the worst wind-affected of the lot, but it's all just a bit low, slow and old to spark much interest. Fucked Up also fail to hit potential on a smaller stage. The newer David Comes To Life material sags as Damien 'Pink Eyes' Abraham, the only visually interesting constituent of the band (the rest of 'em look like accountants), loses himself in the audience. Days Of Last is smashed out with venom but it's a case of too little too late to be waiting around for occasional gems.

Metallica appear 20 minutes late, but the D-barrier had filled to capacity at least an hour and a half before their scheduled start time. The massive video screen the band use as a backdrop isn't so much a feature as a necessity, as the huge crowd makes it impossible for most to get anywhere near the stage. Metallica tailor their set for old-school fans, focusing on their first five albums. Hit The Lights and Master Of Puppets get things moving, and rare inclusion My Friend Of Misery is a welcome surprise. It's hard to fault them, though Lars Ulrich's bass drum work is often sloppy on the faster numbers, highlighted by the thunderous bottom end in the mix. Bassist Rob Trujillo picks up the slack, however, and James Hetfield is still the master, his right hand smashing down crushing riffs one after another as he belts out an equally strong vocal performance. After Enter Sandman and the encore of Creeping Death and Damage Inc, Hetfield toys with the crowd, checking the time, shaking his head and unslinging his guitar before they finally finish with Seek And Destroy, a fitting end to a mammoth set of metal classics. Metallica may never top their earlier albums, but with a back catalogue this strong they'll probably never have to.