O2 ABC, 07/04
It’s become commonplace to analyse festival line-ups with a fine-tooth comb in recent years. Once the gender imbalance has been made evident, it’s impossible to ignore. The rock scene is particularly bad for it: 2015’s Slam Dunk Festival had just one female artist on the entire bill (Lynn Gunn of PVRIS), making a genre often touted for its inclusiveness and alternative approach to the mainstream look every bit as flawed as every other music scene.
In the niche symphonic metal corner, things are a little different. All three bands on tonight’s bill are fronted by women. The crowd, too, is more diverse than usual for a metal gig: there’s something approaching a gender balance, and ages range from ‘my first concert’ to ‘hopefully not my last concert.’ For all of the genre’s supposed inaccessibility, the ABC is an impressive venue for such a show. The scene’s breakout stars – Nightwish and Within Temptation – will headline arenas and O2 Academy-sized venues later in the year, hinting at a shy but significant underground support for something a little unconventional.
There’s a progressiveness to Epica’s sound which can be found in openers Oceans of Slumber. The Texans’ new album The Banished Heart is intricate and substantial, with tracks often coming in over eight minutes long. Their doom-laden approach fits alongside Epica because it equally balances grace with riffs, but in lead vocalist Cammie Gilbert they have a more stoic storyteller. This is music to absorb and to hypnotise, and she is its orchestrator. An opening band has little to help them other than talent and presence, yet, centre stage with a voice as powerful as the riffs, Gilbert has presence to spare, carrying Ocean of Slumber’s live show and winning new fans by the minute.
Myrkur is a known entity. As divisive as she is (on Youtube), here she’s welcomed with half the crowd already wearing her t-shirts. Her first time in Scotland, she greets us as fellow Vikings, noting how excited she was for this stop on the tour. There’s a clear affinity between Nordic folk and Scottish traditional music, sharing a love of the land and an impressive amount of folklore. As an artist Myrkur has always identified as a black metal fan, and the dark stage, flower-adorned mic-stand, and a general witch-aesthetic all herald her admiration for the scene. She imbues the genre with something different, respecting its spiritual elements while not feeling limited by its sonic expectations; there are blastbeats and guttural howls, however there’s a diverse arsenal, changing her approach as best suits the song. Ending her set with Norwegian supernatural ballad ‘Villemann og Magnhild’, Myrkur has a obvious love of what she does. With a personal background in other genres of music as well as acting, she understands that a gig can be more than just people playing music to a crowd, and so her overall performance is something to be experienced. Already a force of nature on record, she is something else entirely live. Ethereal, liberating, seductive – this is cinematic music that comes to life in a gig environment.
It’s a tough act to follow, but Epica don’t compete with Myrkur’s atmospheric murkiness. Instead, it’s bright lights, brighter smiles and the sense of something transcendently grand. The band’s latest full-length The Holographic Principle deals with light ideas like “What if the universe is just a hologram?” – it’s far removed from their peers who often stick to gothic fairytales and mythology, but despite the PhD-in-physics concept, Epica are a jovial bunch on stage. Progressive metal structures are combined with tomfoolery from keyboardist Coen Janssen, kitted out with a transportable keyboard so he can swing along the upper level behind the drum kit. Between him and lead guitarist Isaac Delahaye messing around, it’s a nice reminder that even the most technical and chin-stroking of music still knows how to be daft. Simone Simon’s chameleonic voice ties it all together. For the choruses on ‘Edge of the Blade’ and ‘Storm the Sorrow’ she belts out the hook, while in ‘Beyond the Matrix’ she joins the choir in the upper register. It keeps Epica’s albums interesting, her voice capable of spanning styles and deliveries and shining through the significant amount of backing tracks filling in the more symphonic elements.
In some ways it’s a no-thrills show, but by making it to a venue the size of the ABC and leading a tour representing what women are delivering in the rock scene, there’s a sense of achievement. This music is never going to be in vogue, yet there’s enough of a want for it to hit these medium-sized venues around the UK – to be a part of that is a thrill in itself.