Gigs are often a bit like buses in the UK. Nothing happens for ages and then two come along at the same time. In recent years, the Bloodstock Festival has built a reputation as the home of heavy metal in England, dragging many a band to these shores that have never been seen here before.
Typical then, that my first ever chance to see Vanden Plas in the UK clashed with the annual Progpower Festival in Holland. The shorter distance and the chance to see the band hopefully play some tracks from their 'Christ 0' masterpiece, won the day.
Despite an awful lot of very boring trad metal, thrash metal, death metal and dull metal, there was the added attraction of seeing promising newcomers To-Mera, along with the debut UK performance from German guitarist Axel Rudi Pell and his band.
With debut album garnering lots of positive press attention, the chance to headline before a packed Darwin Suite at Bloodstock was the perfect platform for this young British band to make a big impression. I just wish someone had told the sound desk that this was supposed to be the storyline. Three muddy and messy sounding songs later and the happy ending had already left the building.
To-mera play very technical, emotive progressive metal with constant bursts of jazz, death-heavy riffing and melancholy. More than almost any other band on the bill, they needed a decent sound. Ill-prepared or just unlucky? I dunno, but from the first note, the mix was appalling. Even for someone who has listened intently to the debut album much of the music was incomprehensible. Despite the mix, you could still pick out the rewards from a few tracks, especially the compelling 'Blood' and 'Born of Ashes', but the applause seemed more out of sympathy than admiration. Something could have been salvaged by winning over the crowd anyway, but vocalist Julie Kiss' connection with the audience was almost non-existent. This was one of their first gigs, so let's be positive and say that things can only get better. The album is very good though!
From the wide array of progressive rock and metal band names printed on the t-shirts queuing outside the Darwin Suite, it was clear that a lot of people had made a special journey to see just one band today. There was certainly little else on the line-up to attract fans of IQ, Pink Floyd, SymphonyX and Threshold! Over the past decade or so Vanden Plas have become a leading purveyor of prog metal with a string of acclaimed albums. Despite this, other than a support slot with Dream Theater in London eight years ago, the band has never played the UK.
The omens were not too good at the start. The band's flight was badly delayed, and finding not even a guitar stand when they arrived onstage with their instruments, they had to ask the audience to wait outside while they got ready in the chaos.
Little surprise then that you could cut the anticipation with a knife as the German quintet finally emerged. 'We've got no intro tape, as there isn't a CD player here, so we'll just start playing' said guitarist Stephan Lil, to a huge roar of approval. To put it simply, what followed for the next 70 minutes was one of the best gigs I've ever been to.
A classic case of a band feeding off the energy of the crowd, they put in a spellbinding performance. A true festival, best-of set was faultless in its song selection. 'I Can See', 'Far Off Grace, 'Iodic Rain', 'Cold Wind' and 'The Healing Tree', which singer Andy Kuntz dedicated to his father, are all guaranteed to please, with their mixture of intense riffing and clever melodies.
Yet it was tracks from the superb, new 'Christ 0' album that I was really looking forward too and the band didn't disappoint on that count either, with 'FireRoses Dance', 'Silently', the absolutely belting title track and my personal favourite, 'Postcard To God'. Helped by a great sound these songs absolutely slayed in a live setting.
With each track, the crowd's roar became louder, the band's performance became more intense and the smiles on everybody's faces grew to bursting point. Some said that the band should have been on the main stage. But for me, a longer set and the intimacy of the smaller stage made it a far better experience. The crowd roared for an encore and got it in the spellbinding shape of 'Rainmaker'.
Complex songs, instrumental workouts and stunning musicianship isn't everyone's thing, but as the Progpower UK Festival has shown, there's clearly a significant demand for this genre in the UK that's currently going unmet. Organisers take note.
Afterwards the band said that they were quite simply stunned by the response, never having realised they had such a following in the UK. The band of the weekend for me and if you're a fan and didn't make the effort to see them, then you missed an absolute blinder. A quick return is compulsory.
I Can See
Far Off Grace
Fire Roses Dance
Postcard To God