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Shining shine long and hot on a varied, international bill

Shining Caligula's Horse Jack Dalton poster

However much one tries to get to shows promptly, sometimes things get in the way, so for reasons too tedious to go into here, I only manage to get inside the Underworld and down in front of the stage as opening act Jack Dalton are playing literally the final chords of their set. Almost the only thing I can glean is that they are a quartet and not a solo guy with an acoustic guitar – but tonight’s show is a varied affair from a genre perspective, so that would not have been completely out of the question.

Nevertheless, this does mean that I am comfortably settled when the second act in this not only varied, but also international bill – the splendidly named Belgians Raketkanon - begin. The band’s biography had caught my attention, describing themselves as a combination of Melvins, Tomahawk and The Butthole Surfers. In my book, those are big words. I can’t deny a general attitude of “go on then – impress me” as they set up. Fortunately for all involved, this is exactly what they do.

It’s immediately apparent that their sound will be out of left field, simply due to the configuration of musicians taking their places. In place of a bassist, a keyboard player stands side-on in the centre of the stage. Their vocalist positions himself to the right, next to a Patton-esque table of various effects pedals and gizmos. Tantalising.

The band lurch into “Florent“, which I later discover to be the opening track of their fairly recently released second album Rktkn#2. Their sound is filled out considerably by the fuzzy synth tone, and its channelled into a thick, sleazy groove. The effect turns many heads – mine included – almost immediately and it doesn’t take long to see that the auspicious touchstones they name in their bio are both accurate and appropriate.

The description is so accurate, I’m not sure I can do any better as I watch the band leap and lunge their way through a spirited set. The keys player manages to jump high enough to bring his feet level with his keys, even while still playing them. With the band pretty much constantly in motion, the application of effects to contort the vocals over the twisted grooves adds another layer to the madness. Not to be outdone, their drummer is regularly off his stool and running around the venue, at one point leaping into the arms of a punter to be cradled like an oversized baby.

Perhaps, if seminal nineties alt-rock is not really in your frame of reference, another way to describe Raketkanon would be to say they are what Dog Fashion Disco would sound like if they really were as whacky as they tried to be. It’s a tremendous amount of twisted fun, and probably one of my most pleasant surprise support acts of the year. Like many, I head away from the stage at the end of their set with a great big smile on my face and ultimately leave the venue clutching a copy of their latest CD. Mission firmly accomplished.

Caligula’s Horse have come all the way from Brisbane, and provide quite the change of pace from the Europeans sitting either side of them on the bill. Australian progressive metal and is clearly undergoing some kind of renaissance at the moment, and the spotlight shone on the scene by the likes of Karnivool is bringing international attention to other, equally deserving bands in increasing numbers.

Perhaps positioned on the Aussie-prog sonic spectrum somewhere between Karnivool and Voyager – melody driven, but not without some chunkier moments – their set is characterised more by clean precision than the somewhat demented energy of Raketkanon before them. But variety is the spice of life, and the reality of the situation feels a lot less jarring than it might appear on paper. Or pixels. Whatever.

Caligula’s Horse almost methodically work their way through a check list of what prog fans look for; Strong, melodic vocals? Tick. Occasional harmonies? Tick. Obviously exemplary musicianship? Tick. Interesting riffs? Tick. Longer than average songs? Tick. Guitar solos? That’s a big tick.

Standing centre stage, guitarist Sam spends a quite significant proportion of the set with his eyes closed, and his hands in the upper reaches of his fretboard. Perhaps, for my own tastes, a little too much of the set, but prog fans who don’t really get excited by guitar solos are few and far between, so this probably won’t be an often-encountered issue for them.

Vocalist Jim makes a short, heartfelt speech about having played a show the previous night in Paris, which sounds like an extraordinarily experience, before dedicating the song “Firefly” to the city and the lives lost during last week’s attack. Powerful stuff.

It would be fair to say that their latest album Bloom rather passed me by on its release, but there’s definitely enough of interest here for me to resolve to pay it seems to deserve.

Shining don’t mess about. Wasting no time at all, they tear through three fan favourites right at the top of their set. A couple of tracks from 2013′s One One One, and then “Fisheye“. It is perhaps brave, or possibly rash, to put what many would consider their signature tune so early in the running order and I doubt that many would have minded waiting until the end of the set to hear it, but there’s no denying it is a fearsomely good song, and it certainly helps the band firmly stamp their authority on the starkly lit stage.

The remainder of the set is mostly drawn from latest album International Blackjazz Society, resulting in a pretty much relentless assault of high-octane, dirty riffing interspersed with some characteristically bananas saxophone freakouts. The performance is strong – tight and intense – and the crowd reaction equally so. A couple of crowdsurfers pop up, something of a rarity in this venue these days – and Jørgen himself has a bit of a go towards the end of the set.

However, whilst Shining have carved out a distinctive and very well executed niche for themselves, it is also one that is quite narrowly defined. Even taking a short time-out from watching them play to say a quick hello to members of Caligula’s Horse over at their merch table, the songs do tend to blur together. This factor is probably compounded by being less familiar with the new material, but the similarities of pace, tone and feel of the songs is impossible to ignore.

The set is topped off by a caustic rendition of “Madness and the Damage Done“, after Shining have been onstage for a little over an hour. I certainly find myself thinking that their particular brand of mayhem is perhaps best experienced in slightly shorter, sharper bursts. Forty five minutes would probably be the ideal set length. The performance is tremendously enjoyable, but there’s just a bit too much material that the casual listener would have difficulty distinguishing.

It’s an old showbiz cliche, but the best performances leave the audience wanting more, but as we file out of the venue, rather than feeling hungry for one last song, I feel like I’ve had just a bit too much of a good thing. Just with eating a bit too large a proportion of a bag of sweets in one sitting however, there’s every possibility that I’d do it all over again in the future.