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DATE: Monday 2nd September 2019
VENUE: Rebellion in Manchester, UK
Reviews & Photography by Mark Holmes
A little before 8pm, 40 minutes after doors open, the first of tonight's alliteratively named trio of acts take to the stage. This is only Scarlet Aura’s third ever appearance on these shores, following London shows in 2016 and last year. Causing a lot of buzz in the scene since forming in 2014, following some high profile support slots and festival appearances elsewhere in the world, it seems they're ready to make their mark in the UK on this run of SOTO shows. Unfortunately, it seems the UK, or at least Manchester, isn't quite ready for them, as only a small number of punters venture down to the area in front of the stage while they play, with far many more opting to sit at tables and stand around talking and drinking out the back. I'm pretty miffed and confused by this, to be honest, as surely one of the pleasures of gigging is being able to make great new discoveries… or, at the very least, courteously check out other bands on the bill, rather than just those you've travelled to primarily see.

It's a genuine shame these Romanians don't have a larger crowd as, quite simply, they're musically stunning. Retro and derivative, for sure, with a variety of traditional metal idioms colouring their compositions, from the lighter end of the genre, right up to some seriously heavy grooves. But they’ve weaved all those influences into a sound and musical identity that’s very much their own. And vocalist Aura Danciulescu has an incredible voice, flavoured with all kinds of interesting textures, with power and range to boot. Her attempts to gee-up the small gathering pay off with clap-alongs, etc, although her amusing banter seems to fall a tad flat... which she immediately tells people that she needs to work on her jokes... which gets more of a chuckle from the audience than the jokes themselves!

With good vibes in the room, Scarlet Aura work their way through an incredibly entertaining 40 minute set, with a perfect sound through the PA, a jet-lag defying energy (they got up at 5am to begin their journey to Manchester), and an arsenal of rather likeable songs, all bursting with a succulently melodic impetus. Scarlet Aura bring the entertainment and fun factor back to metal and, when a band look like they’re having a ball up on the stage themselves, it’s a joy to behold. If they had a bigger audience here in Rebellion this evening, I’m sure they would’ve easily worked the crowd into a state of mutual metal merriment.
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SOTO at Rebellion in Manchester, UK, 2nd September 2019
Photograph copyright © 2019 Mark Holmes - www.metal-discovery.com
UK-based StOp,sToP! are an ironically named band, as that’s precisely what I wanted to say to them a short while into their set. Unlike Scarlet Aura, their take on classic rock/metal of yore has been unashamedly pastiched in the sense of almost blueprint mimicry and paradigmatic regurgitation. Take any one of their songs and you can immediately think of fifty that sound just like it, all from decades ago. StOp,sToP! are undoubtedly an anachronism in the twenty first century.

BUT… and here’s the crux of it, they’re entertaining as fuck. My initial reaction of “Stop!” transforms into beguilement, as I find myself smiling more and more at the energy and fun they bring to the party tonight. They’re accomplished musicians, so their take on retro rock/metal is fuelled by some fantastic performances and, you know what? Fifteen minutes into their 40 minute set, it’s ensnared me. Is it cheesy? Yeah, but I think that’s part of their aesthetic. I mean, for their opening number, they’re all clad in wigs, frumpy shirts, and novelty glasses… so there’s comedic intent in their act, for sure, which is perpetuated by the between-song banter, too. However, as for Scarlet Aura, StOp,sToP! are stricken by the same sense of audience apathy with many still dwelling out the back of the venue, by the bar.

BUT… and this is StOp,sToP!’s “but” (a night of buts it seems, in a non-arse sense), for their final song of ‘StOp,sToP!’, which has cover snippet interludes, they take their music and themselves directly to the people… those who’ve been bothered enough to watch their show in front of the stage… and the apathetic hordes sat out the back, up a small number of stairs, by the bar. Fantastic! With remote systems attached and activated, they wander around the crowd - drummer Danny Spasov with a snare drum; frontman Jacob A.M. with his bass and Vega with his guitar - playing and singing directly to both the can and can’t be arsed crowds. For the song’s climax, they return to the stage, and all fall over in unison at the final note and drum hit. Teetering on that ever so fine line between Spinal Tap and being entertaining on their own autonomous terms, I lean towards the latter by the end of their set.
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With an 11pm curfew in Rebellion, SOTO don’t take to the stage until 9:50pm, so it seems the night hasn’t gone as smoothly as anticipated, in terms of times, etc. In fact, doors opened twenty minutes late at 7:20pm and Scarlet Aura were still sound checking as punters wandered into the venue. A short while into SOTO’s set, mainman Jeff Scott Soto tells the crowd that everything that could’ve gone wrong today, went wrong. However, that transpired to be a living, breathing statement, as when they start their set with ‘HyperMainia’ from latest album ‘Origami’, everything is far from right with the sound. There’s no real clarity to any of the instruments or vocals, a sonic mess which has been engendered by everything being cranked up way too LOUD through the PA for the size of this venue. I love my music loud - Scarlet Aura and StOp,sToP! actually both had fantastic sounds and mixes, with everything loud enough and perfectly balanced. However, we’re talking ear-shattering levels for SOTO, with the distortion effects on the guitars distorting… a distorted distortion that diminishes the incisiveness of the riffing, and vocals that become uncomfortable to listen to.

Sound problems persist throughout SOTO’s entire set, in terms of the engineer on the desk evidently not fully gauging the venue size with his own sense of levels for the instruments, which mars the evening somewhat. However, the musicians are all on fine form, if a little sluggish in their energy levels. Soto tells the crowd they’ve been awake for 17 hours by this point, which might partially explain their lethargic look. Fortunately, though, the music itself, despite my gripes with its overall lack of clarity, is not sluggish, as tracks from ‘Origami’ and the prior two SOTO albums are performed alongside other random interjections, such as a touch of Madonna’s ‘Frozen’. In fact, Soto amusingly informs the crowd that he wrote tonight’s setlist in his hotel room and, “if you don’t like it, start your own band!”

His banter with the crowd is incessant, actually, including his utterance of the words, three songs into the set, “cunt”, “Trump”, and “fucking”… not necessarily in that order or even the same sentences, but they do form an apt critique of the orange clown when rearranged, no? And, as the venue curfew of 11pm nears, Soto tells the audience that he talks too much, so, coupled with a delayed start, will have to cut the set short… albeit the band still play on until 11:15pm.

After the unmitigated entertainment factor of both opening acts, SOTO feels a little bit of a flat end to the night, a performance abated, of course, by sound issues, and a band evidently not yet fully in their stride on this first day of the tour. I guess some bands can turn it on immediately, and some can’t. An enjoyable set, nonetheless, though. The most surprising thing of the entire night is the relatively poor turnout, with the venue only a quarter full during SOTO’s performance. With a stunning new album released earlier in the year, and Soto’s profile currently booming through his Sons of Apollo venture, I’d have expected more, even on a rainy Monday night. At least those who did turn up seemed to have a good time.
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