Ah, nostalgia. Bristol Archive Records’ splendid Bristol Heavy Rock Explosion compilation charting the city’s overlooked rock and metal scene proved such a success that volume two is already in the works. Tonight, the Exchange is packed with Rockers of a Certain Age – plus plenty of young ‘uns, who are possibly their children or grandchildren – for a celebratory charity show MC’d by veteran radio DJ and champion of Bristol rock Andy Fox. These are not, to be frank, bands that achieved any real commercial success in their day. But each has a small, fiercely loyal following who rarely get the opportunity to see them play live. One bloke has travelled from Belgium to be here tonight. Two others made the journey from the Netherlands.
Openers Stormtrooper‘s reputation rests on just one single, their Pride Before a Fall album eventually receiving a very belated release on Bristol Archive Records last August. This is their first Bristol show in 36 years, so they could be forgiven for being a bit rusty. Instead, they prove to be impressively well-rehearsed. For those of us who never saw them back in the day, the surprise is how proggy they are for a band that was routinely lumped in with the New Wave of British Heavy Metal. Bob Starling is certainly an excellent guitarist, but the key to Stormtrooper’s sound is bassist Colin Bond, whose skilful use of pedals begs comparison with Geddy Lee of Rush. They even play the full 12-minute Battle of the Eve, which is perhaps just a bit too fiddly for its own good and could not have been less welcome in the prescriptive musical climate of the late 1970s. Needless to say, the yoof who lap up today’s epic and ambitious prog-metal wouldn’t bat an eyelid.
There are clearly some people here who’ve waited decades to see Laurence Archer strap on his Flying V again. They’re not to be disappointed. Later, he’ll even break out the vintage yellow one. A brief four song set by short-lived heavy melodic rockers Lautrec sees him joined by his stepfather Reuben, who’s in remarkably good vocal and physical shape for a fella in his seventies. The least likely band to enjoy a tangential connection to the Bristol Sound, they once featured a certain Clive Deamer on drums. Reuben also reminisces about recording in Cave Studios with producer Andy Allen, who went on to shape the early Massive Attack. Shoot Out the Lights provokes wild over-excitement among punters who never expected to hear it played live again. Affable Reuben then reveals that Mean Gasoline was written after touring with Saxon, when the band concluded that they needed some heavier material to hold their own against the NWOBHM onslaught. So that’s why it sounds like Wheels of Steel with different lyrics…
After a short break, Reuben and Colin Bond (who’s now packed away most of his pedals) are back with classy UFO-esque headliners Stampede, who reunited in 2009 and whose current incarnation benefits from two talented, hirsute young bucks on guitar and drums. Their career-spanning set underlines the consistency of the Archers’ songwriting all the way back to Days of Wine and Roses, which won the band a deal with Polydor in 1981. But it’s the material from 1983’s Hurricane Town, notably the magnificent title track, that justifies their claim to have been real contenders, albeit dogged by typical Bristolian bad luck. Laurence returns with that yellow Flying V (“I thought you’d sold it,” quips Reuben) from Missing You onwards, whereupon things take a turn for the Iron Maiden, with three guitarists squeezed on to the Exchange’s stage. Concluding with a big, atypical blues jam proves a bit of an ill-judged anti-climax, but this is a rare mis-step in a very welcome return.
Read more: Metal & Prog Picks: March 2017