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Thursday 22nd October 2015
The Ritz in Manchester, UK
Reviews & Photography by Mark Holmes
It seems that ever since Riverside had the good fortune of replacing Amaran at the eleventh hour on the bill of ProgPower Europe in 2004 (a small but prestigious festival held annually in Baarlo, a village in the south of the Netherlands), which was their first ever live appearance peripheral to Poland and one that kick-started their career in the rest of the world, they've provided the opportunity for wider exposure on each new tour to other bands from their native land. And their 2015 European trek is no exception, with Lion Shepherd in tow as opening support act. Due on stage at 7:15pm, proceedings seem to be running a tad late, with doors not opening until 6:45pm, a quarter of an hour after the advertised time, so it's not until 7:30pm when Lion Shepherd appear. I guess an extended curfew from 11pm until 11:30pm in The Ritz tonight has provided a little leeway and flexibility for stage time revisions... and wisely so, as at least Lion Shepherd play to a decent sized audience when they do appear, with that extra fifteen minutes allowing time for the venue to fill out nicely.

With a half hour set comprised solely of songs from their debut album, 'Hiraeth' (released in Poland at the end of last month, and due in other territories on 20th November), Lion Shepherd shine in every possible way. Fusing prog, rock, metal, psychedelic, ambient, world music, and Middle Eastern motifs into compositions that are as accessible as they are innovative, the strength of this band's music resides in the emotional depths they're able to convey through their seamless fusion of styles and modes, and some beautifully crafted melodies. And their songs translate perfectly in a live environment with the core duo of frontman Kamil Haidar and guitarist Mateusz Owczarek performing everything with both emotional sincerity and dynamic zest. The former's voice is full of so much poignant expression through both tone and delivery, while the latter's fretboard talents are wide and engaging, occasionally showing bursts of perfectly posited virtuosity and switching to a lute at one point. And alongside the equally talented session members, bassist Matteo Bassoli and drummer Piotr Podgórski, Lion Shepherd excel. With their music laid-back in its emotionally stirring ambiance in one instant, then exploding into affectively profound crescendos in another, they offer up a varied musical journey and, judging by the crowd reaction they receive this evening, one where The Ritz's audience are willing and thrilled to be taken on.

Just like Riverside's performance at the 2004 edition of ProgPower Europe, where I was astonished and wowed by the sheer sublimity of their music that moved me in ways most other bands failed to that weekend, I feel the same emotional connection and sense of exultation with Lion Shepherd's songs tonight. This lot are rather special, it must be said, so I can only hope I've witnessed the beginning of a band on the threshold of greater global success, just as I did with Riverside all those years ago.
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Riverside at The Ritz, Manchester, UK, 22nd October 2015
Photograph copyright © 2015 Mark Holmes - www.metal-discovery.com
America's The Sixxis must've double-taked when they arrived at the venue for load-in earlier in the day, for neighbouring The Ritz is a nightclub bearing their name. What are the chances?! Kind of similar to when Riverside performed at the Picturedrome in Holmfirth a few years back, which is next to a shopping mall called Riverside. It's almost like some kind of geographically gravitating fate! Coincidences aside, I must admit that the small amount of The Sixxis' music I'd listened to prior to this evening hadn't particularly impressed me. Sure, it was competently performed and showed a degree of promise, but failed to stir any kind of emotional reaction or attachment in me. Maybe I simply opted to listen to their lesser tracks? Either way, I've always been a believer that a band should never be fully judged until experienced live so I abandoned all preconceptions to experience The Sixxis afresh.

With the evening's delays escalating ever so slightly, they take to the stage at 8:20pm instead of their scheduled time twenty minutes earlier. And, as with Lion Shepherd, it's a rather cramped space they occupy in front of Riverside's drum riser and gear. Somehow, though, they maximise the limited room and deliver a 45 minute set that's bursting with energy, both in music and performance, and notably through frontman Vladdy Iskhakov's untamed dynamism. This man's enthusiasm and stamina seem to be boundless, as he leaps around the space he has, occasionally adding some keys and violin to the music, as well as his powerful and engaging vocals (to which the band's two guitarists harmonise with perfectly when they take to their mics too).

Of all the musicians in The Sixxis, sticksman Dave Ragsdale is an incredibly gifted player, and sweats his arse off through a big-hitting, raw though precise, approach to generally beating the crap out of his kit. He's even afforded a solo spot towards the end of the set, which some might interpret as wasted time in a short support slot, although this man's talents deserve to be centre-stage for at least a couple of minutes. It's marginally unfortunate that his snare sounds a little choked...unless it's been deliberately tuned to attain such a sound, but it just comes across as too flat and tinny to my ears.

Delivering the most sustained bout of heaviness to be heard in The Ritz tonight, as well as the most energetic performance, The Sixxis command the attention of all present through both their music and presence. Their self-proclaimed influences of Led Zeppelin, Rush, Muse, System of a Down, Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Soundgarden and Alice In Chains provides apposite points of comparison, although only through fleeting passages of music that resemble said bands. The Sixxis are their own beast and it becomes more and more apparent throughout their performance tonight that the live environment is where they excel and are, perhaps, best digested. One last thing I will add, though, is that when the band seem to segue songs into each other during the second half of their set, in front of a crowd who are, I presume, predominantly unfamiliar with their music, it leaves everyone a little perplexed in terms of when they should actually applaud. Has a song finished? Is this a new one starting? I guess, ultimately, it matters little, as The Sixxis are a musically dominant force in The Ritz, whether people have been able to fully show their appreciation or not.
The ever-escalating delays of the evening continue as the night's running twenty five minutes behind schedule by the time Riverside appear on stage. When they do walk out, though, it's to ubiquitous loud cheers and applause throughout the venue, so the delay has, seemingly, only served to heighten the audience's anticipation even more. And it's a large audience Riverside have attracted tonight. To be honest, I had wondered whether UK promoters were a little hasty in anticipating the pulling power of this band, who are still on the up across Europe, particularly on these shores, despite their phenomenal achievement of hitting the UK album chart at number 67 with the recently released 'Love, Fear and the Time Machine'. I mean, venues on this tour are significantly bigger than last year's UK trek. Take Manchester alone, and it's a major step up from the Club Academy (600 capacity) in which they appeared in 2014 to tonight's significantly larger Ritz (1500 capacity). Fortunately, there's a healthy turnout that sees little spare floor space, which is a beautiful sight to observe, having watched Riverside's popularity grow over the years, ever since experiencing their very first performance outside of their homeland over a decade ago. It's also refreshing to see the diverse nature of the audience tonight, in terms of both gender and age, which is more akin to a Dutch crowd than a UK one. So often, bands associated with the "prog" tag fall into the trappings of a delimited appeal to an older generation of fan, whether their music is generically associated with "prog" or transcends genre to actually be genuinely progressive. So yes, it's satisfying to see that Riverside's music, which is genuinely, rather than generically, progressive (and beyond any kind of labelling, just very fucking great) has a cross-generation reach within the UK. With the likes of Steven Wilson, Porcupine Tree, Devin Townsend and Opeth all frequenting the Royal Albert Hall during the past few years, I predict it's only a matter of time before Riverside have the opportunity to grace that perennially prestigious venue with their presence.

Anyway, I digress, it's 2015 and tonight is all about Riverside in Manchester where, simply put, they own The Ritz with a flawless performance that's invigoratingly breathtaking, emotionally moving and, most importantly, entertaining. And the Riverside "time machine" is in full flow tonight as they commence with new album opener 'Lost (Why Should I Be Frightened By a Hat?)', before stepping back through their albums for airings of 2013's 'Feel Like Falling', 2009's 'Hyperactive', 2005's 'Conceiving You', and 2007's '02 Panic Room', before edging towards the present with 2013's 'The Depth of Self-Delusion' and then back into the here and now for another new album track, 'Saturate Me'. Everything sounds incredible, every single instrument, both through performance and PA in what is a perfectly balanced mix. And Riverside's proclivity to freshen up some of their intros, such as the funked-up make-over they give the opening of '02 Panic Room', keeps everyone on their toes. Plus it's testament to their genuinely progressive credentials that they opt to keep on progressing established compositions by injecting them with fresh sonic blood.

Whether it's a case of Riverside reciprocating with the crowd's energy and feeding off the incredibly warm reception they receive, I'm unsure, but tonight is, by far, the most animated and buoyant I've seen the band on a stage. In particular, frontman Mariusz Duda (whose voice is as wondrous as it's ever been) and guitarist Piotr Grudzinski (whose fretboard skills and lead guitar tone astonish and captivate in equal measure), frequently bounce around stage right, exchanging smiles with each other as they're clearly enjoying the performance as much as their hordes of fans in attendance. Likewise, Michal Lapaj seems to be constantly smiling behind his keyboards, while sticksman Piotr Kozieradzki is more heard than seen, such is the, at times, rampant smoke machine when combined with the ever-changing lighting (although I gather The Sisters of Mercy performed here a few days previously and the smoke machine merchants that they are, literally could not be seen at all). In fact, a word about the lighting too - just spectacular. Both the venue's lighting and the band's own is combined to potent effect so kudos to whoever resides behind the lighting desk; the stage is a feast for the eyes as much as the ears.

'Egoist Hedonist', 'We Got Used to Us' and 'Discard Your Fear' precede pre-encore set closer 'Escalator Shrine', before the band exit the stage to incredibly loud cheers, and then return a couple of minutes later. Mariusz jokes around with Michal about the similarity of intros on certain Riverside songs of yore, and then fans are treated to a fine rendition of debut album track, 'The Same River', complete with yet another new intro (which works a treat, I must say). New album closer 'Found (The Unexpected Flaw of Searching)' ends the evening, a song that has the crowd singing along when prompted, as well as holding up lighters and phone lights at the request of Riverside's frontman. At just gone 11pm (and, despite delays throughout the evening, well in time of the venue's curfew of 11:30pm), the four men stand proud at the front of the stage to take a few bows before an audience who cheer en masse, as both band and crowd clap in time to the music that plays through the PA. A fittingly jubilant end to a truly spectacular evening. Forget the "Fear", tonight has been all about "Love, the Here (and Now), and the Time Machine".
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