Review: Avatar Ages – ‘Memories’

The one burning question after last week’s ‘Madness’ Livestream concert, was how could Avatar top that? Chatrooms are usually full of disagreements, differing opinions, and all-round “you’re wrong”-isms, but the general chat during and after ‘Madness’ was – Best. Stream. Ever. So how could Avatar top the “best stream ever”? By going all the way back to the very, early beginnings of the band; a fan curated setlist between the first three Avatar albums: ‘Thoughts of No Tomorrow’, ‘Schlacht’ and ‘Avatar’. A setlist that had drummer John Alfredsson “super nervous about the very fast bass-drums…I was 15 years younger…”.

The band teased the show with rare early pics of the band, and were quickly dubbed “baby-Avatar”. A blonde-haired Johannes Eckerström without his greasepaint; Kungen without his trademark dreads; and Alfredsson looking so young that he would have been asked for ID had he tried to buy a lottery ticket. The extra-bonus good news about ‘Memories? Avatar was going to be opening for themselves with a one-time-only chance to see footage from the first Avatar show ever, footage only available on the live broadcast, and not on the repeat viewings. So when “The Royal Department of Link Clicking and Trinket Pushing” send over the all-important reminder, it was time to plug in the speakers and turn the volume dial skywards.

When the screen flickers to life, it’s with grainy, VHS-quality footage of a very young Avatar (or “BABYTAR” as one person in the chatroom comes in with) explodes to life and suddenly it hits home how much of a loss a year without actual, real-life, sweaty gigs is. For 15 minutes or so, the distortion-filled footage of a young band beginning the journey that has brought them to the upper echelons of Metal fills the screen and is utterly enthralling. A cover of Slayer’s ‘Raining Blood’ is sandwiched between ‘Hymn to the Victim’ and ‘Soul Prison’ (Avatar’s first and second songs, ever). With the distortion, it’s nasty, but in the best possible way.

Once the countdown clock reaches zero, the screen opens on a close up of Johannes. He’s waking up on a sofa, in a mocked-up rehearsal room (“a familiar feeling…”) and he talks about how this was very much the norm on a Sunday morning back in the days. He jokes about how the band was called the “underwear rockers” by other bands because the rehearsal room was so stifling that they had to play in their underwear. He also recalls how the band would play in the dark to stop them from looking at the necks of their guitars while they were playing: “we were perfecting our craft”. He sits up, and leaps over the sofa, the band are lined up behind him, and Johannes joins them before letting out a scream of “….total…fucking….SCHLAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAACHT!”. John Alfredsson then brings the band in for a steamroller version of a song not performed live since the early days.

Once the pummeling ends, Johannes offers up a simple question in his stage voice: “…how do you like them apples?”, before leading the headbanging on a riotous run-through of ‘My Shining Star’. This is Avatar harder, faster, rawer, and the chat room is in overdrive as each early track is met with howls of appreciation. The stage set-up is imaginative, the room of doors from previous weeks has been transformed into a “rehearsal room” complete with bare lightbulbs, gig advertisement posters, and equipment everywhere. Alfredsson is behind a small practice kit, and it’s fair to say that he is battering it into submission. The band are all dressed down in street clothes (all black, natch), and the vibe is of one of relaxed chaos, where anything could happen. A killer rendition of ‘Stranger’ leads into the first clean vocals of the evening with ‘Die With Me’, and again it becomes obvious why Johannes Eckerström is one of the rapidly rising stars in today’s Metal scene. In true rehearsal room style, Johannes picks up a pizza box only to discover that it’s empty and drops it to the floor in disgust. After mopping the sweat from Alfredsson’s brow, he rejoins the others in a line of synchronised headbanging. ‘All Hail The Queen’ is met by screams of ‘BOW DOWN!’ in the chat room, as people generally are losing their cookies. Act one ends with ‘War Song’, and the screen fades to black.

During the intermission, images of the early days of the band are shared on screen. The band on tour, relaxing between gigs, goofing around, and in one instance: Johannes in his boxers diving into a lake for a swim. It’s a heart-warming snapshot into the history of the band, especially watching guitarist Jonas Jarlsby grow into his character ‘Kungen’, as well as his dreads, and chances are, most of these images were being aired for the first time.

Once the last images fade, the screen flickers back to life and the band are out of the rehearsal room and onstage in front of the familiar Avatar white-light logo, and John is behind a full kit. A kit which he will play the living shit out of for the next 60 minutes or so. As voted for by the fans online, what follows is a run-through of 2009’s self-titled album, from top to bottom.

When an album is played in its entirety from top to bottom, the element of surprise is lost, but zero fucks are given as Avatar launch into opening track ‘Queen of Blades’ and Johannes hits the high vocals like some sort of bastard offspring of Axl Rose and Rob Halford. The twin-guitar work of Kungen and Tim Öhrström is tremendous, and when they line up side by side to peel off one impressive solo after the other, the chat room is purring with delight, although it is the backbone of the band, bassist Henrik Sandelin and John Alfredsson, that steals the show on ‘The Great Pretender’. The stellar playing from both guitarists continues on ‘Shattered Wings’, especially the melodic intro from Kungen, and his riffage on ‘Reload’ is insanely good. The intro to ‘Out of Our Minds’ features both Kungen and Öhrström front and centre finger-tapping as a bank of bright lights dazzles the viewers almost as much as the playing. Tim Öhrström deserves a special mention; joining the band after these songs were first written, and given the fact that some of them have not been played since, he will have had to learn songs that he was perhaps unfamiliar with, it doesn’t show though as he’s playing out of his skin.

Eckerström has the hardest job of them all. He’s duplicating vocal performances from over 10 years ago, but he’s taking it in good faith, joking with the viewers halfway through ‘Deeper Down’: “Fuck you for making me sing this!”, something he repeats later on after a blistering version of ‘Roadkill’: “Again people, fuck you for making me sing that!”, before adding…”I’m kidding…I like the pain’. His full vocal range is on display tonight, and the lack of touring doesn’t seem to have had any effect on his vocals, if anything, he sounds even more larger-than-life. While catching his breath after ‘Roadkill’ he begins a tale about making friends along the way, and also making enemies. John Alfredsson stands up behind him and flexes his fingers in preparation for the next song, Johannes states “It’s to time oink you motherfuckers…this is PIGFUUUUUUUUCKER!” before adding: “John, you ready?”. And then all hell breaks loose on the shortest, most intense song of the evening: ‘Pigfucker’. The double-bass drum of Motorhead’s ‘Overkill’ ramped up one-thousand fold. Genuinely spinetingling. How could they follow this up? With the extended version of album closer ‘Lullaby of course. An Alice Cooper ‘Halo of Flies’ vibe is quite strong with this one; the melodic guitar intro; the musicality throughout; the changes in pace and tone; the schizophrenic vocals – ‘Halo of Flies’ done Death Metal style. Johannes ends the song at a baby grand piano and provides an atmospheric outro for the band to build into a cool jam. With his bandmates jamming, the frontman leaves the set and the camera follows him outside, he strips off his shirt and the first thought is one of “Is he going to reenact the swim from the home movie footage during the intermission?”, followed by “He’ll catch his death!”. But fear not, he’s not going anywhere near the water, instead, he marches into the Gothenburg night with his arms aloft in triumph, before taking a theatrical bow then strutting off into the darkness.

With the band still playing, the end credits roll, and two questions remain: will Saturday nights ever be the same? And, how long did you sit watching a black screen just in case Johannes came back for a Ferris Bueller end credit scene? “You’re still here? It’s over, go home”…

Avatar Ages ‘Memories’ is available until Tuesday 2nd February, more information, as well as event merchandise, available here.

Review – Oli

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