Nova Rock 2014 – The Heavy Metal Teenager Returns

A defining moment in my life in music came when I was aged 11 or 12, sometime around 1988-1989. Iron Maiden appeared on Top of the Pops, performing Infinite Dreams from their now classic Prog-Metal album Seventh Son of a Seventh Son. It must have been my first exposure to the music style that would dominate my teenage years, Heavy Metal.

Soon afterwards I was consuming all the Iron Maiden records I could find. Then., as I entered secondary school, I found friends and solace in the Heavy Metal world. It was the perfect foil for all the teenage angst that I couldn’t avoid.

Soon I learnt about Metallica and their magnificent And Justice For All album, this led to Megadeth’s Rust in Peace, Anthrax’s Persistence of Time, Slayer’s Reign in Blood and of course I was led back to the godfathers of the genre, Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin.

As I grew older there was an expectancy amongst my disturbed elders that I’d ‘mature’, heavy metal was just a phase and I’d grow out of it. For a while I actually followed along, even selling on some of my treasured Heavy Metal tapes in the hope that it would signal the dawning of this magnificent mecca called ‘maturity’.

This period also coincided with the decline of the golden era of heavy metal in the 90’s. For me it began with Metallica’s Black Album. Their commercial peak may have made them megastars but I’ll never forget that crushing disappointment after I’d excitedly rushed back to my Mum’s flat from the record store to play the follow up to the great And Justice For All. So much hype surrounded the album and the smash hit Enter Sandman that I expected to be blown away, but I wasn’t, in fact, I think I got angry. This wasn’t Metallica that I’d grown to love. Their new producer, Bob Rock, had turned them into stadium rock sell outs. I should have expected that from the man who produced Bon Jovi! 

Soon after, when Bruce Dickinson announced his departure from Iron Maiden, it truly signalled the end of an era and the dawn of a new era dominated by sub genres of Heavy Metal that really didn’t do much for me. Death Metal, Funk Metal and the worst of them all, Nu-Metal.

So at that point the heavy metal teenager in me went into hibernation and I entered the ‘serious’ world of music academia and contemporary composition where the mere idea of Heavy Metal music is generally treated with disdain. (With the exception of this pioneering Academic!)

Then, in the mid-2000’s things started to change, word came out that Metallica were doing shows dominated by their great 1980’s back catalogue and they’d got a great new bass player to boot in RobertTrujillo. Living in London at the time, I decided to take my fellow composition student Shu Wang to see them. Here we were, two so called ‘serious composers’ rocking out to Metallica. Shu, being from China, had never been to a rock concert before, she almost went crazy with excitement!

Around the same time Iron Maiden had regrouped with Bruce Dickinson and another member who’d left, guitarist Adrian Smith, to herald a spectacular new version of Iron Maiden with 3 lead guitarists. I went to see them at Earls Court, something akin to seeing Thin Lizzy in Croke Park if poor old Philo was still alive. I’ll never forget the energy of the concert, sitting as I was high up near the rafters, the mosh pit below was like a scene from the Lord of The Rings!

At that moment I realised Heavy Metal isn’t just a teenage fad, it’s an addiction that stays with you for life, unless you consciously contrive to get rid of it.

Now, aged 37, I’ve come full circle and have been pleasantly surprised to discover that my youngest sister, just turned 17, is a bit like I was at that age, a devoted heavy metal teenager. (She also likes Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals, but I’ll forgive her that!)

Once I found out that she enjoys Iron Maiden as much as I do I vowed to bring her to see them play. So I checked their tour schedule and found them performing at what I can only describe as the mother of all Heavy Metal festivals, Nova Rock_ in Austria. Not only was there Iron Maiden, there was Anthrax, Slayer, Sepultura, curiously The Prodigy and the Godfather’s of Metal themselves Black Sabbath, amongst a host of newer bands and some Nu-Metal survivors best avoided.

So that was it, I decided to bring her for her birthday. A big risk you might think, bringing a 17 year old to a heavy metal festival. Could I handle the responsibility? Could I keep her away from the inevitable drunken fighting and general mayhem?

Drunken fighting? At an Austrian music festival? You gotta be kidding me. Lyrical content and general loudness of the music aside, it was decidedly civilised!

You see rock music festivals in Europe are a much different proposition to those in Ireland, Britain and the USA. People actually behave themselves and trouble is rare. They go along to have a good time ‘listening’ to music and seeing their favourite bands on stage. So at Nova Rock I saw exactly zero fights, I witnessed perhaps 2 people that were obviously drunk, I saw no lewd sexual behaviour other than a couple of guys harmlessly streaking. 

It was, believe it or not, a friendly, positive, happy family event. YES, a family event. You see there’s now a few generations of Heavy Metal fans. Those original Black Sabbath fans are now grand-parents, those original Iron Maiden fans are now parents and they’ve brought their kids up in the heavy metal lifestyle and, some hideous tattoos and dodgy Death Metal bands aside, the kids appear to be turning out alright.

The only worry I have is for the genre itself. It appears to be in a bit of stagnation. My sister, being a teenager, is naturally attuned to the top younger metal bands of the moment and we got to see some of them. Trivium, Arch Enemy, Avenged Sevenfold, Miss May I.

All the bands sounded to me to be too derivative of other bands I knew when I was a teenager. Originality and imagination seems to be sadly lacking. The prevalence of that grunting Death Metal vocal style that I never warmed to was particularly lamentable. 

Maybe I’m just getting old, but now matter how much any of these bands grunted or wailed none of them could match the power of Slayer, whose original members are all now in their 50’s. Tom Araya may not be able to head-bang anymore due to a back injury, but my God, Slayer put in a powerful performance, perhaps the ‘heaviest’ heavy metal show I’ve ever seen. I never got to see them when I was a teenager, a big mistake given this showing. I should’ve seen them at their peak. However they’re really not far off their peak at the moment. The so-called Godfathers of Speed and Death Metal remain head and shoulders above their followers and produced the standout performance of Nova Rock for me.

The festival was an interesting test to see which of the older bands still endured. Anthrax, performing surprisingly early on the main stage, showed they still have the energy and skill of old, however their music hasn’t dated quite as well, less timeless and more of its time than Slayer. I’d be much less likely to revisit their old records than Slayer’s.

The one act that really didn’t fit the bill was The Prodigy, never a metal band, they did pioneer the use of loud, metal style guitars in Electronic Dance Music. For Nova Rock they noticeably tried very hard to emphasise this rock edge, but it just came across as dated and that they were trying too hard to please the rock-biased audience. The Prodigy is a dance music band, a classic one at that, perhaps they should stick to their strengths or just call it a day.

Iron Maiden is the one metal band I’ve never really lost touch with. I’ve bought most of their albums as they’ve come out, except the nadir that was the Blaze Bayley era, before Bruce returned to vocal duties. I’ve seen them live several times, including last year in Barcelona. So their headline performance on the Saturday night wasn’t a life affirming experience for me like it surely was to my sister. To her, she was seeing true legends of the genre on stage for the first time. They didn’t disappoint the nostalgia seekers in their set, sticking almost entirely to their classic 80’s repertoire, with the exception of their only post 80’s certifiable classic ‘Fear of the Dark’ from 1992. What’s most impressive about them is their continued energy and conviction, the band still play like men possessed, Adrian Smith and Dave Murray play beautifully melodic solos with all the virtuosity of yesteryear whilst Janick Gers is a true showman with all the rock guitar tricks in the book. Drummer Nicko McBrain is still as mad as a brush, pounding away at his kit like Animal from the Muppets and Steve Harris has hardly changed at all from the young, distinctive bassist who stood at the front of the stage in that Infinite Dreams Top of the Pops appearance. Most impressive of all though is Bruce Dickinson, he still runs about the stage with so much energy and is singing better than ever. Whilst some singers lose their range with age, Bruce still hits the high notes, and perhaps hits them with less strain than he used to. 35 year on Iron Maiden still rock, it’s official.

The real festival headliners though were the real legends of the genre without whom the festival and most of the bands wouldn’t exist, Black Sabbath.

When I was a heavy metal teenager Black Sabbath were still around, but they weren’t touring with Lord Ozzy Osbourne, they’d another singer whose name escapes me. Back then the prospect of me ever seeing Ozzy Osbourne, Tony Iommi and Geezer Butler on stage together was practically zero. However, here, at Nova Rock, three of the original Black Sabbath members were back together on stage as part of a triumphant reunion. To a heavy metal fan that’s like seeing Lennon, McCartney and Harrison on stage together again.

The one question mark over it was whether Ozzy could still cut it, after all he seems such a shambles on his dubious ‘Celebrity’ TV appearances. Once they hit the stage though most of the fears were laid to rest, Black Sabbath proved why they are the Godfathers of heavy metal.

The template of their songs is quite simple, Tony Iommi’s timeless, catchy and deeply heavy riffs mostly doubled up by Geezer Butlers powerful, pioneering, dirty bass sound are given a thunderous backing by drummer Bill Ward on the original recordings. Ward is the only original member absent from the 2014 line up however he is ably replaced by Tommy Clufetos who produced an epic, impressive drum solo in the middle of the set. Rock cliché it may be, but it wouldn’t be a Black Sabbath set without at least one drum solo!

The main question mark lay with Ozzy, could he still hold his own as the original heavy metal front man? Well, mostly yes he could, whilst he occasionally fell flat with his vocals and his timing during the slow sections of the bands title song ‘Black Sabbath’ was suspect, he’s still an endearingly crazy front man, he still can get the crowd riled up and he creates a joyous, celebratory atmosphere from the stage that contradicts the doom-laden nature of the songs, yet energises the audience and the band.

The one thing that really struck me though is exactly why the Black Sabbath sound defined the term ‘Heavy Metal’. The sound they create is exactly that, ‘Heavy’ and ‘Metalic’. Interestingly, speed seems to dominate most metal since the late 80’s, however Black Sabbath play a form of music clearly derived from the blues that is rarely very fast. It’s mostly a dark, loud, slow form of blues and that’s what makes it feel so heavy. Sabbath provided a lesson to their proverbial Godchildren, you don’t have to be relentlessly fast and aggressive to make great Heavy Metal Music.

Ozzy, Tony and Geezer may be old men in their 60’s by now, but they still have the energy of much younger men, they’re clearly enjoying this perhaps final phase of the Black Sabbath story.

One of the most telling moments of the show was when the usually stone-faced Tony Iommi hatched a smile. The old masters are clearly enjoying this twilight of their career and how could they not when they have an audience of tens of thousands cheering along and celebrating their legacy.

For me, and numerous other Heavy Metallers no doubt, seeing Black Sabbath live with Ozzy at the helm was akin to seeing The Beatles or Led Zeppelin reforming and actually defying their age by putting on a great show.

If it wasn’t for my sister following in my foot-steps by becoming a heavy metal teenager I may never have caught Black Sabbath live. But now I can tell my heavy metal grand-kids, ‘I saw Black Sabbath’!

No matter how old you get or how ‘serious’ your professional endeavours become, if you become a rock music fan in your youth there’s a rock n’roll flame in your heart that’ll never die out. 

If, like me, you end up composing music for orchestras and string quartets that heavy metal influence might even occasionally crop up in your compositions. Like in this piece

Hey, Hey, My, My, Rock N’ Roll can never die……….