Melodic rock and AOR is an unlikely addition to the list of things- ergonomic design, environmental awareness, and dark crime dramas- where Scandinavia leads the world. The scene is particularly strong in Sweden, home of many of my favourite bands in the genre over the years- from Europe and Treat (both still going strong) back in the eighties, to the revival this millennium that brought us bands such as H.E.A.T, Eclipse and The Poodles. There is now a fresh generation of young bands coming through, inspired by the music they were too young to have lived through first time around.
It was for this reason that Johan Nylen, well known to UK fans as a crew member at Firefest among other things, used his connections to stage the first ever Swedish AOR convention in Malmo, which built on the success of Melodic Rock Fest Scandinavia last year in the same city. I’d been disappointed to miss that – and its USA counterpart – through a combination of illness and the commitments of a new job. This time I had the opportunity to make amends, albeit on a rather smaller scale, and see some of the rising stars and lesser known bands of a genre I love on their home soil.
PRE-SHOW AND DAY 1- Pretty Wild, Hank Erix, Philip Lindstrand
Four days of music began with a pre-show party at Folk a Rock, located in the heart of the old city, which combines a downstairs cafe with an upstairs record store of the like most Brits can only dream of. If I was disappointed more people did not stick around for some stone cold melodic rock classics that were being played, the two live performances more than compensated.
It was billed as an acoustic event but Philip Lindstrand subverted convention by plugging in his electric guitar and bringing a drummer (and backing vocalist) in Michael Odegarden to make a significantly louder racket. His set mixed choice covers- including a Toto pair in ‘Georgy Porgy’ and ‘Without Your Love’ and Richard Marx’s ‘Angelia’ and songs he was associated with, including by the (count them!) three acts he performed with over the last two years at Rockingham in Find Me (opener ‘Nowhere to Hide’ being particularly impressive), Cruzh and Blanc Faces. He admirably did not shy away from giving everything on numbers originally sung by vocal greats including Robbie LeBlanc, Jim Jidhed and Michael Bolton (on ‘You Wouldn’t Know Love’).
Houston singer, and now sole original member Hank Erix, is unrecognisable from the heady days when they were regular UK visitors, having cut his hair and grown a hipster style beard. However he was able to carry off an acoustic set with some aplomb, combining an engaging, storytelling manner with a voice that has that sibilant quality that makes the Scandi singers so melodic. Initially he mixed songs from Houston 3 and his own solo album ‘Nothing But Trouble’, ‘Fortune Hunter’ from the latter being especially impressive.
He also cleverly mashed up the intro to Skid Row’s ’18 And Life’ into Dakota’s ‘Runway’ which he seems to have turned into a personal tour de force. But it was the closing trio from Houston’s debut so raved about by Classic Rock at the time that delighted most in ‘Hold On’- bravely starting a singalong- ‘1000 Songs’ and ‘Truth Slips’, even if the lack of a female counterpoint made the latter song more challenging.
In theory he had run out of material, but spontaneously Philip and Michael then joined him for fun if rather ramshackle versions of ‘Here I Go Again’, ‘Livin On A Prayer’ and ‘To Be With You’ in a fun end to an evening that whetted the appetite nicely.
On the Friday the action then moved for the rest of the weekend to Kulturbolaget, a very well appointed 750 capacity venue that hosts many of the mid-sized gigs in the city. In contrast to many festivals the first day was essentially an industry day- featuring stalls, meet and greets and a live radio broadcast from the UK’s very own Steve Price- before a solitary band at the end of the evening in Pretty Wild, which doubled as a launch party for their new album ‘Interstate 13’.
Strictly speaking they fell outside the definition of AOR with a more streetwise, sleazier style, pitched somewhere between Motley Crue and Firehouse, like a rawer version of contemporaries like Crazy Lixx.
On the occasions when the stage was not bathed in darkness, singer Ivan Hoglund with his cherubic face contrasted with his glammier looking colleagues. They had good stage presence while songs like ‘Break Down The Walls’, ‘Superman’, ‘Stand My Ground’ and ‘Staring At The Sun’ were basic but enjoyable enough.
But after a token ballad, ‘All I Want’, was excellent, the quality noticeably improved with what seems to be their anthem in ‘Wild Heart’, ‘Meant For Trouble’, with its ‘save me from myself’ chorus, and ‘Come Out Tonight’ where I was reminded of Starz and Cheap Trick. The harmonies that closed the song were the moment of the gig- unfortunately it also brought their show and the day’s proceedings to an abrupt end.
DAY 2- Bad Habit, Coastland Ride, Age of Reflection, Osukaru, Shape of the New Sun
As the festival really gained momentum, Saturday opened to a small crowd, confirming the feedback I’d gleaned during the weekend that the huge flourishing of bands has not been matched by a corresponding fanbase, outside the larger acts. However the global diversity made up for it with several countries represented, mainly from mainland Europe but with visitors from Canada and the Far East.
It also meant a comfortable viewing experience and the chance to meet like-minded fanatics, seeing a manageable number of the same faces day after day. However the international nature of the gathering was perhaps not fully appreciated by those bands who spoke between songs in their native tongue.
First up were Shape Of The New Sun, unfamiliar to me but certainly one of the most mature bands on show in terms of years, and also the one that leant more towards traditional classic rock than pure AOR. That was not a problem for me with openers ‘Rain’, ‘Majestic’ and ‘Live Your Light’ melodic enough for anyone’s taste, and even the odd Lizzy-esque twin guitar harmony.
‘Redemption’ had a very seventies feel to it and when lead singer Thomas Kihlberg strapped on a flying V, somehow the succeeding songs seemed to get heavier. His deep vocals also made a refreshing contrast to many of the other bands. David Coverdale was an obvious comparison, but on the impressive last song ‘End Of The Revolution’ he had the dark, anguished tones of a Chris Cornell.
Osukaru were also a new name to me- despite apparently releasing several albums- and had a more dynamic and glammier look, notably singer Fredrik Werner who came on stage every inch the rockstar in headband and swiftly discarded shades as they opened with ‘You’ve Been Waiting’. He is also the star of the show judging by the way he took nearly all of the lead guitar solos and vocally reminded me somewhat of House of Lords’ James Christian.
‘Change Of Heart’particularly impressed as did closer ‘Tear It Down’. While not the finished article and perhaps lacking the polish of some of the other bands on show, they were nevertheless another impressive addition to the ever growing roster of young Swedish talent.
Next up were one of the few bands I had seen before in Age of Reflection who played Rockingham last year, alongside Creye, more of whom later. It was reassuring to see Jens Rutgeroth playing a real keyboard as some other acts were relying on piped sounds while, deliberately or otherwise, their band acronym summed up openers ‘Borderline’ and ‘Evelyn’ perfectly.
However a two guitar line up, featuring Jonas Nordquist on a battered green strat, gave the likes of ‘Heat Of The Night’ a more muscular feel. Singer Lars Nygren has an authoritative stage presence and even reminded me a little of Vega’s Nick Workman, though initially his voice had seemed a little low in the mix.
We were all invited down the front while two brand new songs were filmed in the smooth ‘Here I Stand’ and ‘Go’ which had an up-tempo and anthemic nature. ‘Everytime’ was a great ballad that built as it went along while ‘Blame it on my Heart’ was superb. The 40 minute set had flown by and had taken their Rockingham performance to the next level.
It was now time for a band I was unfamiliar with in Coastland Ride, to my shame as their three albums date all the way back to 2003. As you would expect from the band name, they peddled the super slick, smooth ‘west coast’ sound associated with Toto, Chicago and their ilk. In particular, crouched studiously over his guitar, Sven Larsson who has a long pedigree with the likes of Street Talk played with exquisite taste and feeling. Songs such as ‘Let Me Let You Go’ and ‘Higher Ground’ were particularly good alongside the slightly heavier ‘Dead For Seven Days’.
However my interest was drawn to singer Markus Nordenberg- straining every sinew of his face as he put heart and soul into his stage act, I wondered if he was regretting going on stage in a jumper. His voice also had a harsher edge to it which contrasted with the nature of the music. Yet to add to this contrast, after the set was in danger of becoming one paced, the last song ‘Nail Me To The Cross’ was unexpectedly aggressive and it was as if they were a different band. All in all a very interesting proposition, providing something a little different to the norm.
Saturday night headliners were Bad Habit, who date back to the first wave, their first album having appeared some 30 years ago, and who brought in a small number of their own fans. I saw them a decade ago at Firefest, but they play rarely these days (though apparently an acoustic set for VIPs stole the show at Melodic Rock Fest last year).
However it was instantly clear they had superior stagecraft to the younger and less experienced pretenders, and rose above a few technical hitches, notably when singer Bax Fehling tried to reach the high notes.
Some criticised them in the past for being too pink and fluffy, yet the set was surely rocky enough even on ballads such as ‘I Wanna Be The One’ with Bax’s huskier tomes complemented by some rich backing vocals. Opening with ‘To Love You’, the set spanned vintage and more recent, or in the case of the mid-tempo, anthemic ‘Love Will Find The Way’, both, being a new song tacked onto a re-recording of the debut ‘After Hours’ album.
‘Alive’ was heavier and reminded me of Bonfire while ‘I Don’t Want You’ was more conventionally melodic. Sven Cirnski was their secret weapon with some outstanding lead guitar work, not to say the appearance of a 1970’s Don Felder.
Oddly after the pomp of ‘Above And Beyond’ with Bax acting out the lyrics with hand gestures, the set seemed to come to a premature end with around 45 minutes on the clock but they returned for no less than five more songs including the sugary chorus of ‘Rowena’ and another old favourite in ‘Another Night’ and the more atmospheric ‘Rainbow’, before ‘Need Somebody’ which apparently dates back to their very earliest days and ‘I Swear’, another on which the Bonfire comparisons were strong.
After a 70 minute set they were ushered off the stage as the venue prepared to be turned into a night club, but in a coda to the evening I headed to the hotel bar where eventually Hank Erix, with help from various Osukaru and Age of Reflection members, treated us to an impromptu acoustic set with Giant’s ‘Stay’, in particular, sending me to bed happy.
Day 3- State Of Salazar, Care Of Night, Creye, Sapphire Eyes
Sadly with efforts to get a higher profile headliner unsuccessful, Sunday featured only four bands. However it was the day I was most looking forward to with two acts in Creye and State of Salazar, whose latest albums I can’t stop playing, and which would have been in my GRTR! 2018 best of, if only it hadn’t taken me so long to review them!
Real keyboards were the order of the day with all four bands in the AOR mainstream, kicking off with Sapphire Eyes. Again they were a new name to me but for their recent second album ‘Breath of Ages’ had been joined by Kimmo Blom, who I remember from Urban Tale, the Finns who enlivened a couple of Gods festivals many years ago, rescuing the 2001 show with a special Journey set as well as their own. He was a confident stage presence and still has that effortless smoothness to his voice, slipping into a higher range with ease.
Songs like ‘My Desire’, ‘You’re My Wings’ and ‘Someone Like You’ impressed, ‘This Love This Time’ was rockier while ‘Chasing Dreams’ was quite superb. However even better was saved to last as a UK friend who has the latest album correctly predicted the arrival of some real stardust as Anette Olzon, former Nightwish singer though better loved in these AOR circles for her band Alyson Avenue, came on stage for a quite superb duet in ‘I Won’t Leave With A Lie’.
Next up was a second chance to see Creye whose debut album is perhaps the best of its kind in the field since HEAT’s first, and which has been on fairly constant rotation since last autumn’s Rockingham. While the impossibly fresh-faced Swedes may have the physical air of a boyband, they have the classic eighties sound off to a tee, starting with a very ‘Burning Heart’-esque intro to ‘Nothing To Lose’, followed by my favourite of all in the huge hooks of ‘Christina’, co-written by Michael Palace who was in the house all weekend.
August Rauer has settled into the frontman role – though I miss the soaring register of the now departed album singer Robin Jidhed – and added acoustic guitar very effectively to ‘Miracle’. ‘Straight To The Top’ and the Signal-esque ‘Still Believe In You’ are anthems in the making, while guitarist Andreas Gullstrand came to the very front of the stage to pull some great shapes during his solos.
Album opener ‘Holding On’, saved to later in the set, had some of us punching the air, while ‘Different State of Mind’ offered a slightly less obvious sound before they closed with ‘Never Too Late’.
The one disappointment was that the set barely tipped 40 minutes and excluded classics such as ‘City Lights’ and ‘Desperately Loving’, not to mention their cover of ‘No Easy Way Out’; hopefully these will be saved for another time as their rise to prominence continues.
Care Of Night have been on the scene a touch longer as I remember them from the inaugural Rockingham in 2015. The band, and singer Calle Schonberg in particular, seemed much more confident on home soil and with the passage of time. They opened with the title track of new album ‘Love Equals War’ and ‘Your Perfection’, with some very Journey-esque keyboards, but these were eclipsed by ‘Contact’ where the hook was strong enough even before a catchy secondary chorus closed out the song.
They previewed another new song in ‘She Leads You On’, while after the ballad ‘Dividing Lines’, ‘Ivory Tower’ had a classic combination between guitar and keyboards. The highlight of the set was ‘Cassandra’ even if the verses did remind me too much of HEAT’s ‘Living On The Run’, then they ended a very satisfying 45 minute set with ‘Heart Belongs’.
After a weekend that had flown by, the festival was closed by my first sight of State Of Salazar, whose retro-tinged sounds reached a peak on their recent sophomore album ‘Superhero’. As on record they opened with ‘If You Wait For Me’ and the tone was set as a bank of four lead and backing vocals gave the music a lush, almost symphonic, feel.
‘My Heart Is At War’ showed how the Styx-like keyboards competed with the guitar as a lead instrument in a manner we had not seen from the other bands. Indeed new boy Kevin Hosford is more than just a keyboardist, singing lead on his own composition ‘She’s A Loaded Gun’, with an uncanny Jackson Browne ‘Running On Empty’ vibe before singer Marcus Nygren kicked in with his rich, soaring voice. It reminded me of how Jim Peterik and Toby Hitchcock’s voices intertwine on the Pride of Lions records.
Keyboards were even more prominent on ‘Marie’ from the first album, while another Kevin lead vocal in ‘To The Wire’ had a real Toto feel, added to which was another great synth solo and the comparison on my lips was the master of AOR keyboards, Mark Mangold.
Things got even more special when in the absence of the singer on the album, Marcus invited his own wife Carolina up to duet on ‘Lie to Me’. As well as the on stage chemistry you would expect the two both sang their hearts out in a theatrical way that suggests the song is crying out to be used as a show tune.
It would be easy for the rest of the set to be an anti-climax but though more mainstream ‘I Believe In You’ and ‘Superhero’ were both fine anthems, as was the closing title track from debut ‘All The Way’ with its secondary chorus of ‘never let go’.
Though only playing for 45 minutes, State of Salazar were my band of the festival, though the competition had been stiff after a weekend of quality performances. The good news was that a repeat is planned for 2020 and indeed Johan Nylen generously took the time to canvass many of us present for ideas for suitable acts. With the fine city of Malmo easily accessible- half an hour by train from Copenhagen- I can thoroughly recommend the experience for the friendly vibe and the chance to spot the next stars on this endless melodic rock conveyor belt.
Review and Photos by Andy Nathan
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