Crisscrossing its way through Europe, the Epic Apocalypse tour is one of those rescheduled from the pandemic. Tonight, Apocalyptica, Epica and Wheel roll into Bristol for the first of five UK shows. Thankfully it’s not too cold in the queue outside the venue, which will warm up considerably as the evening progresses.
Apocalyptica / Epica / Wheel
O2 Academy, Bristol. 30 January 2023
Words: Paul Hutchings
Photography: Georgia Brittain
They have been swapping headline slots as they’ve travelled, and tonight it’s the Cello-wielding Finns who get top billing. It’s a co-headline show, but I’d have preferred a bit more of the Dutch outfit. The crew work frantically to dismantle Epica’s set, transforming the stage from platforms to a simpler layout, although the size of Mikko Sirén’s drum kit brings back memories of Neil Peart’s enormous set-up, albeit not on the same scale.
Moveable lighting units positioned, and pedal boards in the correct place, Apocalyptica run on to a huge cheer. Over the next 75 minutes, they demonstrate why they are so loved with a virtuoso display. There’s no doubting the talent of Eicca Toppinen, Paavo Lötjönen, and Perttu Kivilaakso. They play with astonishing flair, growing into the set as it progresses, treating us to flashes of genuine rock star with every pose in the catalogue.
The lighting is decent, at times a little retina scorching, and the huge video screen at the rear of the stage plays videos and artistic clips that enhance the classical Metal unfolding before us.
Preceding the inevitable Metallica covers, the band play through tracks from their albums Cell-o, Worlds Collide and the title track from Shadowmaker. Several feature singer Franky Perez, also guitarist in Scars on Broadway (and no mean drummer, it turns out), who joins the band on stage. He’s got a stunning voice, but the music is much more lightweight, almost nu-Metal in style. It’s not my bag, and my attention drifts slightly.
It’s when the quartet lets loose that things really get exciting. Inquisition Symphony, their take on the Sepultura classic is as close as they get to really letting loose, with the intensity sufficient to encourage some youngsters to open the pit, much to the disdain of some more mature members of the audience. The band roll around, throw more shapes and generally rock out. It’s endearing if nothing else.
A rousing if predictable Seek And Destroy closes the main set – the crowd enjoying the familiarity amidst more obscure music. Apocalyptica’s version of Nothing Else Matters, on the other hand, is dull, unsurprising, and demonstrates that sadly, despite their unique take on things, they can’t hold a candle to the earlier writing quality of the San Francisco legends.
Still, for a band who started as a classical Metallica covers outfit, they have grasped the mettle, and for most of the audience, it’s a win. Would I see them again? Possibly, although their slightly over-pleased style became a little irritating as the set wore on. When the band are having more fun than the crowd, you do wonder.
If you want a headline set and a band that wears the biggest smiles, then Dutch outfit Epica are surely the band to take that job. Formed by Mark Jansen back in 2003, Epica have moved from their symphonic Power Metal shape to a more aggressive, even Death Metal approach in recent years.
This show is no exception, with some of the most punishing riffage the Academy will see this year, some feat when Lamb Of God, Cannibal Corpse and Napalm Death are all due to play here in the next few months.
With an elevated stage, an ever-changing stream of videos and electronic shapes and a blinding light show behind the band (which was so bright I had to clean my glasses twice to appreciate it!), Epica are assured, professional, and, above all, performers. There is comedy, mainly from the hyperactive keyboardist Coen Janssen, plenty of gurning and playing to the audience, and the typical European enthusiasm that surges through this type of band.
“We’re so pleased to be back in Bristol,” says singer Simone Simons. The crowd whoops. It’s easy, low-hanging fruit, but it’s what people want to hear. Simons possesses quite an astonishing voice. Her soprano never falters, from the opening Abyss Of Time – Countdown To Singularity through to the grand finale of Consign To Oblivion. She’s not dominating, content to let Jansen do much of the talking. It’s traditional fare, but the crowd lap it up. Jansen’s punishing death growls shouldn’t work against Simons, but they do and provide Epica with the hard edge that sets them aside from most symphonic outfits.
In my opinion, Nightwish are the gold standard, but Epica have crafted a stage show that works in smaller venues. They don’t stop moving, with no little choreography to their moves and positioning. Janssen is more clown than keyboardist at times, but it brings a smile to the face. Bassist Rob Van Der Loo, who was surely in TV series Vikings, such is his hirsute appearance, is a blur of hair and headbanging, pulverising the low end.
Jansen and Belgian Isaac Delahaye trade some searingly good guitar work throughout the nine-song set, which draws from the band’s discography. Unsurprisingly it’s Omega that provides a third of the setlist, it being the album that Epica were unable to tour.
It’s Beyond The Matrix that really sets the place on fire, with an extended and heavy workout showing that Epica live can really flex their Metal muscles. They finish with Consign To Oblivion before taking an inordinate amount of time to depart, their backing music and a huge ‘thank you!’ on the main screen complementing the broad smiles of both band and audience. It’s a job well done.
If I’m honest, it was Wheel that attracted me most to this show. I’ve got a huge amount of time for the Finnish/English hybrid outfit. Having seen them play across the road at the 200-capacity Exchange almost exactly three years ago, as well as festival shows at Bloodstock, Damnation and Arctangent, I know their music.
Their progressive style of Metal was certainly the odd one out on this tour, their angular, jarring and unorthodox time signatures taking time to effect and influence the slowly filling venue.
A five-track set didn’t give them much time to get into their stride, but between Blood Drinkers and the epic ten-minute Wheel that closed their segment, James Lascelles and band gave it everything. They’ve been afforded a generous amount of space, and they utilise the platforms and steps to the max. Whilst they may not have found favour with everyone, the words “that last song was amazing” from the gent next to me on the balcony was proof that Wheel are slowly making inroads.