Live Review: SOS Festival 30 June – 2 July 2023



SOS Festival returned for the 14th instalment to its new home of Whittles At Tokyo in Oldham over the first weekend in July. A safe bet for sunny weather and the opportunity to top up your suntan during the sets on the outdoor Viking Stage, you might think. Well, the British summer had other plans!  Friday was miserable, and as a result the crowd were drenched outside and then came in to gently steam for the sets held on the indoor Skull Stage. Such are the joys of summer festivals.

But enough of the weather report; you’re reading this to find out about the bands so let’s kick off with festival openers Shape of Water (NA). Described as art rock, they are certainly not your run of the mill rock band. I have to say that it took me a little while to get into their sound when I first heard them a few years back; but I am now a total convert to their weirdness. Soundscapes flow from gentle, almost spoken word vocals, to swirling synths and crushing guitars; the experience is immersive and one that comes highly recommended. Heading outside the pace changes as we are greeted by Yesterday’s Gone’s (NA) no nonsense, straightforward Southern-fried vibes. Vocalist Rob Walker can’t keep the smile off his face as he belts out their brand of good time rock and roll to a willing and receptive audience. This is just what you need to get the party started on the first night of a festival and I’m loving every minute. Back inside, power metallers Battle Born (NA) are marauding across the stage engaged in epic combat against the forces of darkness. As they clash with their enemies, mighty swords crash and riffs are hurled out like potent spells to ward off the forces of evil. Stirring stuff indeed.

Twister (NA) are well known to many readers of ERB magazine, so you will already know that we are in safe hands when they arrive on stage and that familiar intro tape starts up. Combining catchy riffs and memorable melodies, Twister’s music is feel good rock for the masses. After taking a breather, Stevie (vocals/guitar) explains that they only just made it on time, arriving with 5 minutes to spare. The relief is short lived, though, as one song later bassist Ryan Lee breaks a string and departs the stage hurriedly to get another one from the van. Except that he doesn’t know where the van is parked! Fortunately, someone lends him a bass and they can get back on with the business of entertaining the crowd. No such technical problems befall Fahran (NA), who deal in modern rock with a hint of metal. Despite this being their first gig for 12 months, the band are tight and clearly hungry to be back on stage again. They have been writing new material ahead of an upcoming tour and promise to deliver a new album this year. On the basis of their catchy, riff driven set tonight, this will be well worth waiting for. Heading outside for the last time tonight, the honour of headlining Friday night at SOS falls to Gorilla Riot (NA). Having grown up locally, vocalist/guitarist Arjun Bhishma is especially pleased to be able to close out the Viking Stage. Undeterred by the now awful weather, the band deliver a set of laid back, blues-infused rock and roll goodness that encourages the crowd to stay the distance. This weekend is particularly emotional, as tonight’s gig and the following night at Rüti Fäscht in Switzerland are to be the last with the band for drummer Will Lewis. There is the odd tear among the rain drops as Will dedicates a song to his partner in the audience; but then it is back to the business of delivery groove-laden, dirty rock tunes.

Saturday arrives with the promise of a packed day of fun ahead and, to the relief of everyone, it’s not raining. First up with the task of blowing away hangovers are Crowley (TT), a 5-piece band from Newcastle who treat the crowd to a set of occult inspired heavy rock delivered at maximum volume. Singer Lidya Balabon’s powerful vocals are impressive and rise above the wall of sound created by dual guitars and an accomplished rhythm section. There’s much to like about their music: The Witching Hour, with its fabulous solo, being a particular highlight and well worth checking out. Sin Savage (NA) have travelled from Belgium to entertain us with their brand of NWOBHM style riffs borrowed from the Iron Maiden song book. No prisoners are taken as they rattle through a set of classic heavy metal that certainly livens up the proceedings. Back outside, it is the first outing for Welsh alt-rock band Scarsun’s (TT) new line up with Melody Shads on vocals. With only a few weeks of rehearsals under her belt she could be forgiven for being a bit nervous but within a couple of songs she’s in full flow, belting out fan favourites like Chains and In The Night and feeding off the positive reaction of the crowd. According to the running order Edenthorn should be the next band on the indoor stage; but instead we are treated to The Event (NA) who are worthy replacements. A new band for me, their infectious groove and catchy riffs soon have toes tapping. Latest single Lay It Down is certainly worth checking out, although be warned it is a real earworm and will keep popping back into your head.

One of the rapidly rising stars of the NWOCR scene, The Hot One Two (TT), are up next. They’re one of the bands I’ve been particularly looking forward to seeing and, judging by the number of people rushing outside to get a good spot in front of the Viking Stage, I’m not alone. From the moment they start playing, the energy levels go up a notch and I know we’re in for a treat. Announcing that they’re “all about having fun”, singer Simon West covers every inch (or should that be centimetre?) of the stage to work the crowd and succeeds in getting everyone joining in with the choruses, their fists in the air, yelling at the top of their voices. Their blistering set of riff-laden modern rock songs including Bleed on Me, The Fray, God Forsaken Blues and soon to be re-released single Tie Me Down, is over far too soon. I make a mental note to add them to my “must see again” list and to get a copy of their new album when it comes out in November.

White Tygër (NA) have the look and sound of Swedish exiles camped out in the gutter of Hollywood’s Sunset Strip in the late ‘80s, so it comes as something of a shock to learn that they actually hail from Dudley. Not that there is anything wrong with Dudley, you understand! They specialise in guitar histrionics and big choruses that certainly go down well with the ladies, if the clamour at the front of the stage is anything to go by. However, these guys are no mere mimics: they have the tunes to match the look and 2022’s debut album This is the Life is the real deal. Next on the Viking Stage is Blue Nation (TT), a blues-based 3-piece from Birmingham blessed with a natural frontman in singer/guitarist Neil Murdoch, whose sense of humour and easy charm has the audience eating out of his hand. Playing a mix of old and new songs including the fabulous Echoes (which has an upbeat vibe despite its serious subject matter) and the latest singles Strangers and Every Single Time, the band exudes class and professionalism. Neil’s vocals are impressive: rich, powerful, soulful, and he’s ably supported by Luke Weston (bass and backing vocals) and Nick Sharman (drums) who between them create a sound which is much greater than the sum of the parts. There’s something of a feel-good factor about both their music and their live performance which makes me want to go see them again, and soon: another band to add to my list!

In complete contrast to the bluesy vibe of Blue Nation, Belgian power metallers Thorium (NA) launch full throttle into galloping Maidenesque riffage accompanied by vocals that would give Rob Halford a run for his money. They excel at high energy NWOBHM-inspired heavy metal with a touch of Bay-area thrash thrown in for good measure. Judging by the appreciative crowd, they have a growing fan base over here in the UK. Old Glory & The Black Riviera (TT) take us back to blues-rock, but this time with a southern/country tinge and plenty of slide guitar from Jay Meehan. They’re a band I’ve seen a few times now, but this is definitely one of their best performances. Jord Davies (vocals/guitar) is in his element, making full use of the outdoor stage, engaging with the audience and gradually ratcheting up the energy level as they move through the set until it culminates in a rollicking version of Where Did I Go Wrong which gets everyone bouncing. Great fun! Singer Annabelle Zaychenko also knows how to work a crowd, and she soon has the audience in the palm of her hand as Circus 66 (NA) explode onto the stage. She has a powerful voice that can switch from seduction to full on nuclear assault in a heartbeat, so it takes some big tunes to accommodate such a big personality. Fortunately, the rest of the band are no slouches either and are more than up to the task of delivering some dirty riffs and driving rhythms. Their set passes in a blur and ends with a shower of confetti, which sums up their approach perfectly.

Time now for some heavy melodic metal with Metaprism (TT), a 6-piece band from Bournemouth, who deliver a fast paced, high intensity, riff-laden set courtesy of their twin guitar attack, a thunderous rhythm section and the powerhouse vocal harmonies of Theresa Smith and Adam Chambers who also provides most of the metal growls which are a hallmark of their sound. As it’s the 10th anniversary of the release of their debut EP, they play tracks from across their career including Lost in the Dark, Reload, Illogical Era and From the Earth, much to the delight of the enthusiastic crowd who are joined by members of today’s headline act clearly taking time out from getting ready for their own show to headbang along with everyone else.

The Appleton family are the heart and soul of SOS, being responsible for the inception and organisation of the event since the outset, so it is now traditional for brothers Luke and Chris to perform in one form or another each year. This time round Chris can’t be present, so the honour falls to the Luke Appleton Power Trio (NA) to represent the family name. Unsurprisingly, the room is full, and the crowd is appreciative as Luke, accompanied by Rishi Mehta on guitar and Adam Harris on drums, delivers a rousing set of heavy metal in the finest tradition of the genre. Featuring songs from his back catalogue as well as new release Forever Viking there is a lot of love in the room for these guys. We are also treated to a rare live performance of First Star from Luke’s album Snakes Eyes when the Trio are joined on stage by Theresa Smith from Metaprism. As Luke explains, he will only ever play this song when Theresa is available to recreate the original duet, so it doesn’t often get an airing.

With the light fading, everyone makes their way outside for the final time today to await the arrival of headliners, Ward XVI (TT). The stage is strewn with an array of black and white props including a giant toy box and a bed standing upright in the centre which, for anyone who hasn’t seen their show before, might raise an eyebrow or two. There’s a hint of what’s to come when fake bloodstained inflatable chainsaws are thrown into the crowd before proceedings get underway. What we are served up is a totally immersive theatrical experience where the lead character, Psychoberrie, is transformed from an innocent child into a murdering psychopath. There’s a sinister collection of demons and monsters who prowl the stage and blood and gore almost everywhere we look – definitely not for the fainthearted! The audience (or inmates as the band prefers to call us) even get to participate in a circus pit towards the end of the show when one of the most memorable songs, Toy Box, is played. With so much going on visually, including a blood soaked Psychoberrie going walkabout amongst the inmates, there’s a risk we might forget we’re watching a live band, especially as Doktor Von Stottenstein (guitars/vocals), Wolfy Huntsman (bass/vocals) and Bam Bam Bedlam (drums) are deliberately positioned at the edges of the stage so as to be unobtrusive for most of the show, but that trap is avoided. The songs are more than just an accompaniment to the drama; they are an integral and vital part of the storytelling, and we are left in no doubt as to the quality of the musicianship and the vocal proficiency on display. We inmates are taken on a sonic journey from lullabies and ballads to rock, metal, and prog with elements of ska thrown in for good measure (my personal favourite being the progressive metal number, Burn the Witch), which goes some way to explaining why they are not a band that’s easy to pigeonhole. I’ve seen Ward XVI several times before but this might be their best performance so far, possibly because as headliners they’ve had more time to tell Psychoberrie’s story. Given the huge cheers and roars of approval at the end of the show, my fellow inmates might just agree.

Sunday afternoon kicks off on the Viking Stage with Square Wild (TT) who begin by announcing that they’ve come straight from another festival and have had very little sleep but that doesn’t stop them from delivering an energetic and wholehearted performance which goes down well with the crowd. Singer/guitarist, Lucy Shevchuk, never stops smiling as the band work their way through a fun 30-minute set mixing elements of blues, jazz, folk and rock with ‘60s/’70s style prog. A great way to start the day. Fresh from their acclaimed performance at Wildfire Festival and their success in the recent Leaf Promotions Battle of the Bands competition which secured them a spot at this year’s Firevolt Festival, Thieves of Liberty (TT) take to the stage full of confidence. Launching straight into Ain’t Going Home (the first track on their excellent debut EP Back Again), James Boak’s raw, powerful vocals and commanding presence demand we pay attention from the outset. The songs that follow showcase the variety of their material and include Family Man (also on the EP); their most recent single, Calypso, with its opportunity for audience participation; and a new song, Sweet as Today, which has a more upbeat feel to it. There’s so much to like about this band and their brand of blues-tinged modern rock: catchy melodies, earworm choruses, heavy riffs, hugely impressive solos (provided by the twin guitars of Kieran Wilson and Liam Lindsley) and driving rhythms, all of which are present in abundance in their final song, Smoke In The Air. Based on the buzz of conversation around at the end of their set, they’ve picked up more than a few new fans today. There is an abrupt change of pace on the indoor stage with the arrival of symphonic power metal quartet Dakesis (NA). Specialising in epic tales set to ferocious guitars and driving drums, the soaring vocals of Gemma Lawler shine through bringing melody to the controlled chaos underneath. The band think nothing of stretching out, breaking the constraints of the 3 minute radio-friendly format when the song demands a more expansive approach.

If Gin Annie’s Dave Foster and Byron Garbett had a love child, it would look like Spyder Byte’s (NA) Dan Lawrence; a man who can rock the fedora and leopard print shirt look to the max. His band mates are none too shy either when it comes to a sleazy, back-combed style that matches a sound so dirty that you need a long cold shower after their set. With tunes such as Black Velvet Love and Strip Club Blues, this is full on neon-tinted rock n roll from the wrong side of the tracks, baby. Full of passion and emotion of a different kind, Muddibrooke’s (TT) brand of grungy alt-rock is next up on the Skull Stage and attracts an enthusiastic crowd. The Derby-based 3-piece’s music explores what it means to be human and flawed. Singer/guitarist Brooke’s vocals give an intensity to the lyrics which are both reflective and introspective and clearly very personal, particularly in the song Devil. The varied set includes some of their heavier numbers which give Anna Melidone (bass/vocals) and Morgan Pettigrew (drums) the opportunity to really show their skills, and quieter songs like Turn to Dust which is the standout for me. Loz Campbell (NA) and her band have a confident swagger to match their groove rock sounds. Despite cutting a petite figure on stage, Loz has a big personality and voice to match. She’s no slouch on the guitar either, offering up some tasty riffs on Beautiful Liar andBad Girl, as well as a rousing cover of Cherry Bomb. Bassist Steve Pickles takes care of the low end, exuding a hint of menace in a Misfits kinda way, while drummer Tom Kirby keeps the pace up at the back.

Somehow King Kraken (TT) manage to combine a mean hard rock performance with a great sense of fun. Much of that is down to lead singer Mark Donoghue’s ability to joke with the crowd at his own expense (“Please buy the merch ‘cos I’m clearly fucking starving!”) and with his fellow band members (even conducting their playing at one point), whilst also roaming the stage like a caged tiger. Their set is predominantly songs from their debut album, MCLXXX, and is packed full of chugging riffs, superb solos, rumbling bass lines and kick ass drums. Mark’s vocals are something else though: powerful and heavy, there’s an intensity about the delivery that is mesmerising, particularly in Green Terror (a personal favourite) which goes down a storm.

There is palpable excitement as the day reaches the final three bands of the festival. Each has made the step up to a bigger fan base and bigger stages recently on the back of strong releases and exciting live performances. The first of these is Black Lakes (NA) whose powerful modern take on the intersection between rock and metal makes a compelling argument for the future of rock music. Combining crushing riffs with melody, clean and harsh vocals, and driving rhythms this is a band that demands your attention. Vocalist Will Preston prowls the stage constantly, putting his heart and soul into every song. Bassist Lee Harris and guitarist Scott Bradshaw are riff machines, laying down the foundations on top of Dafydd Fuller’s multi-rhythmic drumming. The only one who appears to have missed the email which said that metal bands have to be mean and moody is guitarist James Rowlands who grins constantly, clearly enjoying every minute. Despite sporting a kilt, he even leaps off stage and takes a trip across the tables at one point, risking his modesty and bringing a flush to the cheeks of some unsuspecting members of the audience. The set is built around debut album For All We’ve Left Behind, but we are treated to a new song, White Cliffs, which argues that the country has bigger problems than small boats. If this is any indication of the quality of album 2, then it won’t be long before Black Lakes are gracing far bigger stages.

Despite being horribly delayed on their way to the venue and only just making it in time, She Burns Red (TT) succeed in giving us a full throttle, high energy blast of modern rock ’n’ roll tinged with elements of punk, pop and grunge in a set containing songs from their forthcoming album, Out of Darkness, interspersed with all four tracks from their brilliant debut EP. As well as those already released as singles, they showcase several other new songs from the album: Touch, Run and Crack the Sky, all of which go down well with the crowd. One of the most striking things about tonight’s performance though (apart from the imposing figure of 6’ 7” kilt wearing, face painted James McCulloch tearing across the stage of course) is how tight the band is. They hardly put a foot wrong all night. Particularly impressive is how seamlessly lead vocals are shared between bassist James and guitarist Andy Moore, sometimes even within songs (Rise and Fall being a notable example), and how their sound is augmented by slick vocal harmonies and the backing vocals of drummer, Scott Hanlon. Add into the mix Scott’s intense drum beats and the formidable skills of lead guitarist Naz Scanferato, whose solos are genuinely awe-inspiring, it’s clear why She Burns Red are making waves. On this evidence, they’re definitely a band to keep an eye on.

Headliners South of Salem (NA) are the draw of the festival, with easily the biggest crowd of the weekend. They have grown in stature since the release of debut album The Sinner Takes It All in 2020 which showcases their hook-laden, modern approach to rock. Their USP is schlock horror, B movie lyrics about ghouls, demons and all things goth. The joke might wear thin were it not for the quality of the songs themselves which are just a riot of earworm riffs and singalong choruses. And it turns out that many (including me!) wish that it could be Hallowe’en every day so there are plenty of people more than willing to eschew sunshine and bright colours for all things black and creepy. Tonight’s set is the longest that the band has played to date, and features the debut album in full so we get each and every one of those magnificently spooky songs. There is even a taster of the next album, in the form of new song Take It To Your Grave which continues the ghoulish theme. We also get a cover of Rebel Yell thrown in for good measure before the band leave the stage to return for an encore of No Plague Like Home and Cold Day In Hell. If this doesn’t bring a flicker of life to your cold, dead heart then there really is no hope.

This year’s SOS has been two festivals in one, in many ways. The indoor and outdoor stages make it feel like you are in two very different venues, with the atmosphere and intimacy changing as you move from one space to another. Musically, it feels as though the event was aimed at two different audiences too. Reflecting the origins of the festival and the current bands in which brothers Luke and Chris Appleton play there is a strong contingent of traditional heavy metal bands, with the odd diversion into power metal and Viking metal. On the other hand, there are bands with a more modern approach to hard rock and metal, coupled with a few sleazy gutter snipes. It was interesting to observe that some parts of the audience set up camp at one stage or the other, depending on where the prevailing musical trait was based, reinforcing the two events in one feel. SOS XV returns next year across the weekend of 5-7 July 2024, so we will have to wait and see what the mix looks like next time.

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