Review: Avatar/Veil of Maya/ Mastiff – SWX, Bristol

SWX, Bristol
23rd Feb 2023

Review and photos – Rob Wilkins

Night three of three gigs in a row and if there was any chance of exhaustion I can think of no band better than the theatrical and exuberant Avatar to shake the synapses and provide musical Red Bull.

This was my first visit to SWX, now reopened after a fire. The queue snaking around the block suggested a sell-out and once inside my eyes were drawn to the encircling balcony, shut off from the main auditorium and a possible great vantage point for a photo or two. Little did I know how great!

Opening the evening were Mastiff, from Kingston on Hull. I have to be honest and say that the brutal, crushing variety of metal they play is not remotely my thing. So, you have to look to the audience to gauge a reaction, and a seething pit for almost every song suggested they were great at what they did! Led by Jim Hodges, a man who doesn’t so much deliver the lyrics as assault you with them, the quintet surged through a set of songs where each seemed to be over before it had even really begun. Breakneck and with the subtlety of a machine gun, there is barely a chance for those in the pit to breathe before the next wave of the assault hits. The set is over seemingly in minutes with shouts of “Fuck the Tories” echoing along with the brutal guitars.

Another band that fall outside of my musical taste but getting an even bigger reaction were Illinois’ Veil of Maya. I found their metal core-based sound to be more accessible, with more tuneful guitars and vocals interspersed with the rip-your-throat-out attack that balanced the sound. For some reason both bands spent the entire set bathed in washes of one colour, making them incredibly difficult to photograph, so for most of their set, I gave up and just enjoyed something new. Lucas Magyar on vocals has a raw screaming growl and a contrastingly lyrical style. The sound is thick and almost angry with the guitar of Marc Okubo, bass of Danny Mauser, and the crushing drums of Sam Applebaum. The pits rise in intensity, whipped to a frenzy and the hole in the audience grows to almost pin those not partaking against the wall. All too quickly the final scream echoes and the dripping and battered crowd head to the bar to top up on fluids before the act we have all come to see.

Now, I first saw Avatar supporting Halestorm a few years back and have been waiting for this moment for some time since! The stage is industrial and metallic with levels and ramps. The lights go down and John Alfredsson stands, robot-like, behind his drum kit, beating out a single blow to a staccato rhythm. The rest of the band appears and stands, stock still before the lights explode into life and we are off with the title track of the new album ‘Dance Devil Dance’. Vocalist Johannes Eckerström marches puppet-like to the mic, smiles his joker smile and the place goes nuts. God, what a way to start a gig!

We get fireworks of both the musical and incendiary kind before we career into ‘The Eagle Has Landed’ and ‘Valley of Disease’ and the first synchronised windmilling of all that hair. We leave the photo pit and I hang back for the intro of ‘Chimp Mosh Pit’ as Johannes eggs the crowd on to a mosh to put those preceding in the shade. It looks like most of the crowd are involved whether they like it or not! We career on through ‘Scream Until You Wake’ and ‘Bloody Angel’ as I find my way up to that balcony and enjoy a great helicopter view of the chaos below.

‘For the Swarm’ certainly doesn’t let the energy drop for a second. Following the spoken introduction to ‘Puppet Show’ Johannes disappears through the back of the stage, and to my amazement appears next to me on the balcony where he proceeds to delight those who can actually see him with the vaudeville of a balloon animal, dropped to the crowd below, and then, as at most metal shows, a trombone solo!

‘When the Snow Lies Red’ and ‘Do You Feel in Control’ follow, and the latter features a stunning guitar duel between Jonas “Kungen” Jarlsby and Tim Öhrström which is both amusing and technically superb. ‘Black Waltz’ follows before one of the most sublime moments I have experienced at a gig. Johannes appears on the balcony again and this time sits at a piano just feet away from where I am standing. I then get to watch the most close-up of close-up views as he delivers the stunning ‘Tower’. He then sprints back to the stage for ‘Colossus’. To be this close (and get a fist bump afterward) was a real highlight of my time shooting gigs.

More theatre as a second drum kit is placed at the front of the stage for ‘Let it Burn’ which ends with Alfredsson taking a bazooka and shooting streamers into the crowd. As each is fired a huge sheet featuring a picture of Jarlsby drops from the ceiling, obscuring the stage. They drop and he is behind them wearing a crown for ‘A Statue of the King’. Encore territory now with ‘The Dirt I’m Buried In’, ‘Smells Like a Freakshow’ and finally ‘Hail the Apocalypse’ as the crowd is blasted with confetti which sticks immovably to their sweat-soaked bodies.

A night of true theatre, and musical excellence, and a great way to end my three-night binge on great music!

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