Notodden, Norway, Thursday, August 16, 2007

Far out in the middle of an icebox called Norway, you find a remote city called Notodden. Apart from exporting the usual goods from the Norwegian woods, a band named Emperor hails from this place, so there is in fact a local music store to visit in the city’s main street, a street mostly known for 18-year olds driving aimlessly up and down in cars that have dice and “Wonderbaum” hanging from the rear view mirror.

More importantly, though, Notodden has a small (yes, small) club named Tapperiet, with a mere 1200 capacity, and who would have thought that bands like Queensrÿche, Blind Guardian, Candlemass, Therion, Nevermore, Dimmu Borgir, and Testament could find their way to this little stage to play for such a small crowd? The secret, boys and girls, is the festival’s – named Metal Heart – price structure. The organizer has decided to sell a limited number of 3-day passes, and then tickets for individual bulks of the event – making Notodden’s Metal Heart Festival the smallest festival with the biggest bands – and even hands down the best European festival of the summer(!)

Brazilian Prog Metallers Mindflow started it all, but due to the slow, narrow and curvy roads leading to this Godforsaken village, Sirenia is the first band reviewed here. Led by Morten Veland, former member of Tristania, the band released a strong CD, Nine Destinies And A Downfall, not too long ago, with a new singer, Danish Monika Pedersen. Live, the band – or whatever you can call this – comes across as tight as a squirrel’s ass, but the main reason for this is the fact that Sirenia is one of the so-called “minidisc bands.” Where is the bass player? Where is the keyboard player, and what about the back-up vocals? No wonder why they have such a great sound when this is the way they perform … but anyway, the band manages to win over the crowd because they have a great light show, musicians who look like they are in a band – no roadie looks here – and most importantly, they deliver a set focused around their latest release. Monika Pedersen might need to spend a little more time with the band, and her headbanging is not convincing (more than Tarja’s though), but Sirenia puts on a cool show nevertheless. Add a few more “real” musicians and next time will be even more convincing.

Next up is the new star in this Progpower heaven; Circus Maximus. Not brand new as their debut came out a few years ago, but for those of you privileged to have heard the band’s new effort Isolate, you know damn well that this band can please the most demanding Progsters as well as the ones seeking incredible and haunting melodies, all topped with musicianship on the same level as Dream Theater and Symphony X. Singer Michael Eriksen is the Geoff Tate of the 2000s, and he can go in the ring with a young Roy Khan any hour of the day. His voice is not only distinct, but his range has more octaves than you care to count. Backed up by the finest Prog Metal musicians out there today – a band where every member sings backups and together wipe the floor with Toto – they can do nothing wrong.

Being driven by drummer and multi-instrumentalist Truls Haugen and guitarist extraordinaire Mads Haugen (yup, they are brothers), the band doesn’t escape the Dream Theater comparisons, though they are nowadays more capable of shooting an Images And Words from the hip than the Americans ever will be. Circus Maximus present a show focused around future classics like “Wither,” “Abyss,” and “Darkened Mind,” but also find time for “Alive” and “The Prophecy” from their The 1st Chapter. The best song off Isolate – an album you all should check out – a track called “Mouth Of Madness,” is not performed this night, but will no doubt be the highlight in the band’s future shows. The drum sound was little poor at times, and the keyboards were not highlighted as they should be – this is a festival, right – but everyone who saw this show knows for a fact that they witnessed the second coming of what now is known as Progpower Metal. And yes, for those who understand; Michael Eriksen has dropped his UDO image …

Metal’s premier sing-a-long band follows, and it’s obvious that a good percentage of the crowd has showed up to witness Blind Guardian’s second visit to Norway. Singer Hansi makes it known that this is their “Black Metal Show” because of the country and its musical legacy, and he cracks a joke or two to what is possibly the band’s smallest crowd in a long long time. Someone asked recently on a forum: Who’s gonna sing on the next Blind Guardian tour? The answer: All of us in the crowd. Good point there, but it’s tempting to add: When is a Blind Guardian show successful? Answer: When the crowd is louder than the band.

This was unfortunately not the case at Notodden, and the band put in a hard day’s work. “The Bard Song” worked ok, and “Valhalla” is always a winner, and supposedly not supposed to be played (!!!) – while “And Then There Was Silence” and the newer stuff didn’t seem to be very pleasant to the crowd. “I’m Alive” from the masterpiece Imaginations From The Other Side is one of the band’s strongest cards, but with Hansi not quite having the same vocal range as he used to, it’s not the best choice in a live setting. Also, though having a charismatic look, Hansi is such a slow mover on stage – even today’s Andi Deris seems like a marathon runner in comparison. Blind Guardian are pros indeed, but like mentioned above, they need their own crowd to prove it, and in a festival setting jammed between two Prog Metal bands, it just didn’t work to its fullest potential.

Rabbit don’t come easy, anyone? Well, (one of) Seattle’s finest (because Nevermore plays two days later) still knows how to pull the rabbit out of the hat. Last year the band focused on their brainwashing Mindcrime-catalog, but the Godfathers of Progressive Metal can mix up their set with their other releases as well, and still stand as strong as ever. This was indeed the case as Metal Heart’s first festival day was to be closed. When Michael Wilton and Mike Stone take the stage shoulder to shoulder, the most rabid ones out there – and yes, there are a few – know that “The Whisper” gives the show a flying (Boeing) start. Tate had technical problems to start with, but this was solved before the first chorus – not a perfect start, but this could maybe explain why the band was 20 minutes late on stage. Anyway, check this; the band goes on with “Damaged,” “Speak,” the new “I’m American” – which proves that Queensrÿche still can come up with classics nowadays – “NM 156,” “Screaming In Digital,” (and yes, Tate finished off by screaming in digital, optical, and coaxal), “Breaking The Silence,” “I Don’t Believe In Love,” before going way back to the time where the band first started, with “The Lady Wore Black.” All Prog nerds were “suddenly twice their size” (quote from Alice Cooper’s “Nurse Rozetta”), even if “Lady …” was performed at half speed and Geoff Tate likes to change the vocal lines a little too much. The show reached a small anticlimax with a song off Q2K and “One Foot In Hell” from last year’s Mindcrime sequel, before the main set culminated in “Another Rainy Night,” “Needle Lies,” “Eyes Of A Stranger,” and a short version of “Empire.”

Ok, this wasn’t all about the setlist – there were fine gentlemen on stage building this empire, with everyone’s favorite bass player Eddie Jackson driving the band together with a hardworking Scott Rockenfield behind the kit (no longer behind the chains), and Mike Stone seems now to be the best fit for a band that now (finally) has overcome the loss of one of its key members, Chris DeGarmo. He still doesn’t play DeGarmo’s stuff note for note, but what he does simply fits as he shows a great understanding and respect for the material, as well as adding a great guitar tone to the band. Strangely enough, the Chicago guy is given the lead spot in “Jet City Woman,” a song about the band’s hometown.

Called back for more encores, the band started off with “Walk In The Shadows” in a rearranged way, but the song is indeed encore material, as well as this band is nothing but headliner material – proven with its last song for the night, “Take Hold Of The Flame,” labelling Queensrÿche not just Thinking Man’s Metal or Progressive Metal – but Positive Metal. Hats off to Queensrÿche (and reach for the rabbit – it’s still there!).


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