Gig Review by Lydia Fitzer with Photography by Chris Bowley

“Welcome to this evening’s medley of metalcore! Ready to mosh? Marvellous.” On Wednesday night the metalheads of Birmingham turned out in force. They welcomed Of Mice & Men with arms wide, whiskey in hand – an army of long-haired lusciousness. Damn, it felt good to be back among my people! The metal community tends to make amazing crowds, and this night was certainly no exception. Both the main band and the support acts were embraced with the fiercest love. If this gig was anything to go by, the final stint of OM&M’s Defy Tour is going to be legendary.

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The venue buzzed with expectation. The light went out. The crowd squealed. Thrumming bass… Suddenly a great smash of noise as Sylar burst from the shadows, crashing into ‘Assume’, throwing their whole bodies to the music. The crowd instantly boiled into a mosh pit. It was a hell of an introduction!

I am really, really, really excited about Sylar. They may not be perfect (yet!), but their more recent work is thrilling. I can’t wait to see how they continue to develop. Their sound is somewhat reminiscent of a young Limp Bizkit, but with an infusion of Linkin Park. Despite these comparisons, there’s no denying that they are their own creature.

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Jayden Panesso brought charismatic rap and scream vocals. He has a massive amount of aggression and charisma. He’s a proper showman, working the crowd like a wind-up doll. Miguel Cardona performed guitar and clean vocals. Cardona’s voice is naturally mellow and smooth, but delivered with power. While he didn’t give nearly as much movement as Panesso, he has a natural stage charm which draws the eye. The five members of Sylar come together to form a pentagon of iron rage.

‘Assume’ and ‘Dark Daze’, two of the most popular songs from their 2016 album ‘Help!’, went down beautifully. Don’t be deceived, though. Sylar were just getting warmed up. Panesso cried, “When this beat kicks in, everybody jump!” The beat crashed, the crowd was bouncing, but then, “Stop, stop! Is that all you got? […] EVERYBODY JUMP!” All bodies shot into the air like bullets for ‘Soul Addiction’. The stage flashed like lightning, and the thunder of sound sent tremors through the floor.

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For their final song, Sylar bust out an older and especially aggressive track; ‘Golden Retreat’. “I need everybody here to make some f*cking noise”, screamed Panesso. You better believe they did! The crowd lost their minds as the first riffs dropped. Panesso conducted the room in a symphony of raising the middle finger. As the final drums rolled, the crowd lifted their hands.

After Sylar’s set we waited… and waited… and we were rewarded. Wage War opened their set with probably their best-known song; ‘Alive’ from their 2015 album ‘Blueprints’. The whole crowd bounded into the air for this massive track. Talk about starting strong! Briton Bond’s gorgeous rich growl was showcased to perfection. I’m gonna sound sentimental, but I find such good-quality screams quite heartwarming! Cody Quistad provided clean vocals as well as guitar. Quistad’s light, boyish voice offers a sharp contrast to Bond’s scream which is nothing short of aspirational. Listening to them perform together is like hearing two sides of one contradictory human soul.

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The audience only needed the slightest gap between songs to show their appreciation, chanting “Wage War! Wage War! Wage War!” Bond asked the room to split in half. The crowd parted like the Red Sea. As the drums crashed into ‘Deadweight’, they closed the gap like a living tsunami. The storm continued. Human bodies were raging waves, and sweat fell as drops of rain. Bond tossed his mane and roared, prowling the stage like a lion.

I was pleased to hear them play ‘Gravity’, as it has a softer tone and more particularly displays Quistad’s vocal skills. It’s more of an arm-waver than a headbanger, if you know what I mean. Historically Quistad has sometimes placed too much stress on his consonants. Thankfully his style seems to be improving – I struggled to fault his performance throughout the set. Wage War as a whole are definitely developing as artists.

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During ‘Gravity’, the lights drew the eye towards Quistad as he mournfully sang “all alone, on my own”. The effect was endearingly counteracted by Bond’s enthusiasm – he mouthed the lyrics along with Quistad, beside him at every moment.

Wage War brought the energy of the room soaring up again with ‘Don’t Let Me Fade Away’, giving an injection of pure adrenalin to the crowd. In this song the depth and layers of their music are especially apparent. The different textures take you on a journey. I can’t do justice to how well the sound comes across hearing them live. Bond promised, “We will always come back here. We feel the love!” I get the feeling that Wage War will always be welcome in the home of metal.

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They supposedly finished with ‘Johnny Cash’, a testament to their ranging influences, but of course the crowd couldn’t let them leave without an encore. At long last it was time for ‘Stitch’, their most furious and beloved track yet. The mosh pit thrashed with new life. The whole band headbanged using their full bodies. Bond knelt as he headbanged, bowing his back as if he were praying to the gods of metal.

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It was time for Of Mice & Men to take the stage. The lights went down and the crowd freaked out. As much as they’d enjoyed the previous acts, this is what they’d been waiting for. The stage lights flashed, blinding. I blinked, disoriented – the band had appeared in the light, as if from another world. They broke into the noise of ‘Defy’, and I was HYPED. I was so involved that I almost forgot I was supposed to be writing a review. (Imagine, if you will, a small crazy person yelling “I DEFYYY this hopelessness” at the top of her voice, pen flailing, sheets of paper exploding from her notepad as she cast it into the air. Mm-hm.)

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The title track of the album ‘Defy’ (2018) encapsulates the feeling of the album as a whole; unadulterated metal happiness. It gives you bubbles in your tummy, and it makes you feel all-powerful. It’s the first album with Aaron Pauley as lead vocalist since Austin Carlile’s departure, and it makes a statement. Their previous album ‘Cold World’ (2016), spearheaded by Carlile and inspired by his health issues, was incredibly dark. For example, the lead single ‘Pain’ is every bit as dark as the name would suggest. ‘Defy’ is the antithesis of ‘Cold World’. With ‘Defy’, OM&M are making a clear statement that they can move forward without Carlile. They’re proving that, while their sound will be different, they will not crumble under the weight of change. They obviously respect Carlile’s influence as founder and did justice to him in their performance of ‘Pain’. However, as Pauley sang, their new album “takes the pain away”. This has seemingly been a popular move – the crowd weren’t complaining!

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During their performance of ‘Defy’, Pauley, Ashby, and Manansala each had a leg on a table in a powerstance. They created a wall of guitar awesomeness. It was impossible to overlook the drummer too. Valentino Arteaga glowed from behind his kit, crowned with studs and mohawk like a king. The crowd parted ready for the smash, and the most intense mosh pit of the night so far ensued. I was staring into the black fires of hell, and I liked it.

They played ‘Unbreakable’, one of their most popular and empowering tracks. I screamed along like a woman possessed. You would too, I promise! The band gave their all to the performance, but they hardly needed to. The music alone, without any of the stage action, was enough to boil the blood in your brain. Pauley’s vocals were immaculately pure, both in the clean and unclean sections. I have nothing to criticise.

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“There are two things I need before I start this next song”, said Pauley. “One is a circle pit. One is a shot of whiskey. Let’s go!” He knocked back his shot and fired into ‘Instincts’ as the room became a searing cauldron at his command. Through the night Ashby had climbed onto his table to gesture to enthusiastic members of the crowd. In ‘Instincts’ he stepped up once more and showed off a really sleek guitar solo. Pauley went on to congratulate the crowd for being the “rowdiest UK show we’ve had so far!” Yeah! That’s the mental metal Brum I love!

It was time for the final song of the encore. The crowd crouched as one on the floor, lurking impatiently. The intro for ‘The Depths’ began – gigantic, clashing, resonant. The audience, staying low, vibrated with expectation. Without warning, Pauley screamed “GET UP!” The room leapt as a single entity and lost its sh*t. Jumping, moshing, six crowdsurfers in a row. Seven! Eight! Nine! The crowd surged forwards, writhing, fists and elbows bared. Arteaga finished with drums like a mountain avalanche. Afterwards – was there a moment of stunned silence? Had I gone deaf? The crowd howled.

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See the complete photoset from tonight’s gig here.

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