Dragon Attack

I’ve just got home from 24 hours in London, seeing two bands that I’d never seen play live before, despite being a long-standing fan of them both: Dutch rockers Within Temptation and sister band Delain.

Yesterday seemed to be a long time coming. My mate Howard had dropped me a line last summer, asking if I would be interested in coming to see Within Temptation when they hit the UK. Well aware that Steen wouldn’t be particularly bothered, I thought it’d be nice to make a blokey weekend of it. My curiosity was piqued still further by the fact that Delain – a band I’ve wanted to see live for quite some time now – were playing support, and that the two bands were playing Wembley Arena, which seemed fairly ambitious for Within Temptation, who have long struggled to garner the same kind of attention in the UK as they did in mainland Europe. Enthused by the idea, I tipped Howard the nod, and he obtained tickets for the show, only for the date to be changed from late last year to this April. I’m still not 100% sure why the band elected to delay the date quite so long: I can only imagine that they hadn’t really given themselves sufficient time to put together a touring plan or that the final throes of getting their new album Hydra together were taking longer than anticipated. Whatever the reason, it was a relief to know that I would still be able to make the re-arranged date, so I put it on the calendar and settled back to wait.

Yesterday, though, the fated day finally arrived, so I piled myself into a train down to London and thence to Harpenden to Howard’s family’s gaff. The trip down was utterly hassle-free which was nice – even if it did cost an arm and a leg – and Howard and his folks were the perfect hosts as always. It’d been quite a while since I’d seen him – and his folks, come to that – and it was good to reconnect. After sucking down some tea and biscuits and shooting the breeze for a couple of hours, we ventured into town for some pizza and wandered back to the train station to voyage back into London for the evening.

I’ve been trying to remember the last time I went to Wembley Arena. I have a horrible thinking that I may not have been there for a gig since Marillion‘s 10th anniversary show in 1992(!). Where the hell does the time go? Either way I was pleased to see the old place has had a bit of a facelift, and was much reassured by the sound, too, which I have to say was a lot better than I remembered it being Back In The Day. Technology has come a long way since, then, mind. On the way in, I got a text from my mate Ian saying that he’d grabbed a ticket only that morning and was coming along – we did actually spot him taking his seat, but as we were down in the crowd that were standing, we sensed it’d be futile to try and attract his attention. A pity, but that’s one of the prices of these larger gigs – unless you all buy tickets together, or arrange a rendezvous way in advance, it’s never going to be as easy to meet up with friends and like-minded souls. Whatever, I was well pleased to hear afterwards that he’d had a good time: I pretty much introduced Ian to the joys of Within Temptation, a band that he’s now very fond of, so it was nice be there for his first WT gig too, even if I wasn’t on hand to hold his beer whilst he blew a huge wad of cash at the merch stall ;-).

Delain – being a sort of spin-off of Within Temptation (they were founded by WT’s ex-keyboard player) – are well-known to the WT crowd, and received a rapturous welcome. They were every bit as great as I imagined they would be: they’re a touch more metal than WT but retain WT’s knack for a hooky chorus and orchestral flourish. Front-woman Charlotte Wessels is a force of nature: relentlessly enthusiastic and energetic, she also possesses an incredibly powerful voice. It’s less ‘clean’ than Within Temptation’s front-woman Sharon den Adel‘s voice, but has a comparable range and an odd ‘catch’ that makes the hairs on my neck stand up. It’s a voice that conveys emotion very well, and you never get the feeling that Charlotte censors herself or ever goes through the motions of singing; she always gives 100% and it was notable how quickly even the previously muted areas of the audience warmed to her. By the time their set came to a close 40-odd minutes later, I don’t think there’d have been many people who wouldn’t have been quite happy to see them stay on-stage for another 40 minutes or more. We got a raft of Delain favourites (I was especially happy to see two of my all-time Delain favourites, Electricity and We Are The Others, both get an airing) alongside a couple of numbers from their excellent new album The Human Contradiction, which has been the biggest-selling metal album on Amazon.co.uk for several weeks now, which is a very encouraging sign. They deserve the attention, and I hope I get to see them again soon, this time as a headliner.

The Arena had been virtually full for Delain’s set – another indication of how beloved they are to Within Temptation’s fanbase – but more people arrived inside the venue ahead of Within Temptation’s set, and I was surprised and delighted to see that they had very nearly filled the Arena, something I thought they would have found more difficult to do – their albums have sold quite well for a while, but they rarely seem to play UK shows and never seem to get a large amount of press, so it was great to see so many people at their biggest UK show to date. Howard remarked that it was rewarding to see a band we’d known and loved for some time steadily increase its audience until a show like this was possible for them, and indeed that was the mood, on and off-stage: celebratory.

As the enormous stage-sized drape with the Hydra logo on it was dropped in front of the stage, a cheer went up, and even though it was some 20 minutes or more until the band took to the stage, the sense of anticipation was tangible. When they did arrive on-stage, it was with all the bells and whistles: a suitably dragon-themed intro film, enormous stylised dragon heads either side of the stage as part of the backdrop, an extravagant lighting rig and plenty of pyro. Opening with Let Us Burn from the new album, they served up a barnstormer of a set: thanks to Sharon’s powerful voice and a fine sense of drama, they seem to have become known more for their ballads than for their heads-down rockers, and this felt like a set calculated to try and reverse the trend: with only two or three ballads, the majority of the set was comprised of high-energy rock numbers, and even as a fan I have to admit I was astonished at the intensity of their set: after five full-tilt rockers in a row to open the show, I started to wilt slightly, and I have to take my hat off to the whole band, but Sharon in particular, for maintaining that kind of energy with seemingly very little effort. That said, the show was expertly paced: just as I started to wilt, they served up a ballad, which gave us all a chance to catch our breath before the next onslaught. If anyone ever tries to tell you that Within Temptation are a band more geared towards ballads or are in any way a soft option, don’t listen to ’em: they melted my face good and proper yesterday.

There are quite a few guest vocalists on Hydra, and I had been a bit concerned about how the band were going to deal with this in a live environment. Would Sharon simply sing their parts as well? Would other band members try to cover them? Would the guest performances be reproduced by tapes? The answer came in the second song of the set, where Tarja Turunen‘s vocal for Paradise (What About Us?) was provided by video of Tarja performing on the back projection screen; this was the approach that the band took for the other guest vocals too, and despite my misgivings about all the guest vocals on the album, I have to admit that it worked very well. The guest appearances all went over well, but rapper Xzibit‘s turn on And We Run totally brought the house down, getting one of the loudest cheers of the evening. Rap and rock have undergone some real cross-pollination over the years, but I was pleased to see a partisan crowd so refreshingly unfussed about genre distinctions. I can’t help thinking that Xzibit himself would have been touched at the response :-).

The show blasted past in a blaze of highlights, sonic and visual, and by the time the band arrived at the encore (a crowd-pleasing What Have You Done?, followed by a pretty acoustic The Whole World Is Watching – the only time that a song that featured a guest appearance was played without re-creating the guest performance – and the now-traditional show-stopping performance old favourite Ice Queen), energy levels were flagging all through the arena. The band sound feistier, leaner and meaner than ever – one can’t help wondering if this has anything to do with chief songwriter (and Sharon’s partner) Robert Westerholt‘s decision to retire from touring, handing his guitar-wielding duties to new touring band member Stefan Helleblad; Stefan’s presence seems to have given them a swagger that they didn’t previously have to such a degree. Whatever the reason for this change, it’s welcome and I’m sure they’ll continue to make plenty of new fans as they continue to tour Hydra. For my part, having waited so long for my chance to see them, I won’t leave it so long next time around.

Drained, we headed home, and I struggled to switch my post-gig buzz off long enough to get a few hours sleep before heading back today. Now for a proper night’s sleep before heading to Leamington tomorrow for another great, if entirely different, double-bill: new KScope records signings Se Delan and Norway’s finest sons, the awesome Gazpacho.

More on that soon :-).

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