One of the biggest frustrations for many bands over the enforced period of lockdown was their inability to tour new material, and this is exactly the situation that Steve Harris’ troop, British Lion, found themselves in following the release of their highly acclaimed sophomore album The Burning.
British Lion / Airforce. The Underworld, Camden.
Words: Paul Monkhouse
Photography: Bradley Beck-Hill
With a planned tour opening for Lowestoft rockers The Darkness lined up, it seemed like all systems were go until certain logistical issues arose, curtailing plans. Fortunately, this led to the band organising their own headline tour in lightning speed, the pubs and clubs of the UK their hunting ground as they brought their full length set up close and in your face.
Making the tour even sweeter was the presence of NWOBHM stalwarts Airforce, the band featuring former Iron Maiden drummer Doug Sampson and armed with a whole battery of old school Metal juggernauts. Filled with prime headbanging material and the Bruce Dickinson-like vocals of frontman Flavio Lino, this was a display of style and class that brought the best of that original era bang up to fire breathing life.
From the furiously fast guitar riffs and a solo by Chop Pitman that Brian Tatler would have been proud of, opener Fight nailed their colours to the mast, Lino whipping up the crowd as Sampson and Tony Hatton lay down the rock-solid rhythm. Life Turns to Dust is a prime chugger, relentless in its drive and Son Of The Damned has all the galloping bass and imperial guitar lines of the drummer’s former outfit. The gloriously melodic verses of The Reaper are juxtaposed with the sort of riffs and structure that Priest have made a career on, Airforce adding their distinct flavour with Lino hitting some extraordinary notes.
The rampaging Heroes and the jittering, crawling, and then heroic Band Of Brothers are like a forearm smash, the dancing patterns mixing muscle with an explosion of colours, the frontman leading the audience like a conductor with an orchestra. It was just down to Finest Hour and Sniper to mop up any resistance that was left, the band proving that the love for this most venerable of Metal for muthas is still as rampant as when it first emerged, some four decades ago.
The atmosphere is electric as all wait for the headliners. Tonight proves once and for all that British Lion are serious contenders for the crown. Originally envisioned as a solo project for the Maiden leader and bass player, subsequent tours and last year’s second album have proven that the band are a mighty force in their own right. Whilst Maiden dip their toes into the historic and epic, the heavy-duty material still very much anchored in the core of what has made them so huge, it has been acknowledged that British Lion look more to the classic hard rock of the ’70s. It’s something they do extraordinarily well, and lyrically, the band write from an intensely personal world view, the subjects both from the soul and universal, giving them an intimacy that few bands truly have.
It’s a thrilling dichotomy as British Lion revel in these intimate venues, their in-your-face approach being one that sees a real connection between band and audience, but at the same time, their fan base is growing rapidly, necessitating that they will have to again move out of the pub and club venues to theatres to fulfil demand. Irrespective of this, it’s a treat to see them up close, and for some, the chance to witness the founding and driving member of the world’s biggest Metal band in such small rooms is irresistible.
Whilst Steve Harris is doubtless the fulcrum around which British Lion revolves, he has surrounded himself with some stellar musicians and each very much have their own identity and part to play in the band’s success. In Richard Taylor, the band have a quietly charismatic frontman, his vocals a mix of soul and power and his moves part nimble boxer and part actor. David Hawkins and Grahame Leslie provide the fire and razor-sharp riffs, each having their time in the spotlight and also providing perfect twin harmony work. At the back, drummer Simon Dawson is the powerhouse behind everything, his punishing yet seemingly effortlessly flowing playing meshing perfectly with the driving bass of Harris, and it’s a treat to see just how fine a four stringer the Maiden legend is up close, his fingers a blur.
The driving power of This Is My God is a rapturously received opener, the band a tightly wound coil as its insistent guitar pattern and muscular bass and drums punch hard, Taylor’s vocals caressing and soaring. The brilliantly looping rhythm of City Of Fallen Angels shoots out of the blocks like Usain Bolt, the rush of adrenaline total and the chorus a joyous maelstrom of instantly insistent melody, Hawkins bobbing around before firing off a particularly scorching solo. The heart-wrenching pain of Judas is brought to visceral life, the vocalist seemingly living every word. The mystic East flavour and air-punching audience participation of Father Lucifer provide another layer to the songwriting and show a good translation from the album to become a live favourite.
Both The Burning and Legend are anthemic triumphs, the galloping bass on the former and the swelling optimism of the latter lifting things into the stratosphere, the themes and dreams as big as anything U2 have ever produced, and the feel of Springsteen charging through their chrome-plated hearts. Equally warming, These Are The Hands shows how deft British Lion are in knocking out stadium filling tracks that could light up whole cities whilst Spit Fire sees Taylor recounting brimming with pride when he heard it on the radio for the first time, its prog rock opening then launching into the Celtic passion that was part of the core DNA of Thin Lizzy as Harris, Hawkins and Leslie stand at the front of the stage, feet on monitors.
Delving into Harris’s love for UFO, The Chosen Ones and Land Of The Perfect People have the same class shot right through them in both the melodies and continent straddling appeal, the chiming guitars and infectious chorus hitting the sweet spot. What really strikes here hardest, though, is the connection that Taylor has with the words he’s singing, the songs a record of all he’s been through or been inspired by. There’s a sense that this is so much more than a damn fine gig for the frontman. It seems a catharsis with every moment he’s on stage, his spinning and weaving body displaying both the joy and the need to fight. This is obviously a band who genuinely love what they do, and this commitment is shot through all five members of British Lion, not just their constantly moving, constantly singing and always 110% giving bass player.
The frantic drumming and Maiden like open riff of Bible Black threaten to tear the roof off The Underworld, the audience going into hyperdrive as they become a sea of moving bodies, its licks the nearest thing to Maiden all evening. Lightning is like being strapped to a rocket, the surge of power almost overwhelming and Us Against The World a defiant stand against overwhelming odds that you know will see British Lion victorious. The set closes officially with the muscular hard rock of Last Chance, distilling all that’s best with the band, the quintet coming together in their last gang in town hunger.
Eschewing the usual walking off stage only to walk back on ego-fest, Taylor announces they’re just going to head straight into the last two songs and the triumphant pairing of a dramatic World Without Heaven, and the Who-like Eyes Of The Young knocks things out of the park, all there knowing that this was something special.
With an incredible atmosphere and a sense that this rolling history is being made, British Lion may not be aimed to knock Iron Maiden off their stadium-filling top slot, but they are continually growing and have more than proven their worth. No longer seen as Steve Harris’ solo project, the band have definitely created their own powerful identity, and the world is a better place with them in it. The sky is, most certainly, the limit.