LIVE: Dragonforce / LoveBites / McRocklin & Hutch @ The Welly, Hull

By James Lee

Despite being geographically one of the bigger cities in the country – not to mention current holder of the prestigious UK ‘City Of Culture’ title – Kingston Upon Hull is not a regular stop for most touring bands’ itineraries. Stuck at the end of the motorway on the banks of the River Humber, it’s not the easiest place to get to on the way to anywhere else, and so more often than not finds itself skipped by the majority of road warriors. So when a band of stature does visit Hull, the locals consider it to be kind of a big deal. Such was the case at the start of November when world-conquering power metal titans Dragonforce brought their lightning-speed brand of shred to a packed house at The Welly, the huddled masses hungry to witness one of the most unarguably fun metal acts on the planet.

Before The ‘Force hit the stage, however, the crowd were treated to two very different opening acts – yet both felt perfectly suited to the headliners in their own unique way. Up first were rising UK synthwave duo McRocklin & Hutch. Thomas McRocklin rose to fame in the 80’s as a child shred prodigy, having been taken under the wing of virtuoso legend Steve Vai before he even hit 10 years old. Having spent many years on the convention circuit, McRocklin recently teamed up with rising synthwave producer Hutch, and their pairing has already produced some of the coolest shredwave going. This was only the second show of the first tour McRocklin & Hutch have ever been on, though based on the slick performance by the pair, you wouldn’t know it. Dropping cuts from their recently released debut album ‘Riding Out’, the pulsing synths and ripping guitars were matched with a well-produced video backing that dripped with 80’s-inspired iconography – glowing neon suns, palm trees, sleek sports cars and Tron-esque grids, all of which created the perfect retrowave atmosphere. Though the duo put on a wonderful show, a lack of volume lessened their impact somewhat, and the crowd response was by far the most muted of the night, though still warm and appreciative. The ever rising profile of synthwave in the mainstream is encouraging, though, and McRocklin & Hutch’s appearance on this tour was another step in the right direction for this achingly cool genre getting its day in the (neon) sun.

Next up, Japanese power-metal quintet LoveBites immediately lifted the energy levels in the room with a polished and professional showcase of their particular brand of anthemic thrash. Though it feels somewhat reductive to draw too much attention to the fact that, yes, LoveBites are an all-female band, it’s impossible to comment on them fully without acknowledging the fact, and there was an expected yet still marginally disappointing shift in the atmosphere in the room when these five young women walked out on stage. It would be amazing to think we lived in a world where a band’s gender wouldn’t have any bearing on how they’re judged as musicians, but the reality is that the idea of an entirely female band playing this kind of ripping metal is still considered a novelty, and the number of wolf-whistles filling the air throughout their set only doubled-down on this feeling. Which was a shame, because the band brought a vibrant and engaging energy to their set of Avenged Sevenfold-meets-Arch Enemy-inspired riff-a-thons, and though there was a little bit of a language barrier between them and the crowd, they remained upbeat and welcoming, winning over more than a few new fans by the end of their half-hour set.

Following a gloriously cheesy intro – featuring the kind of smoke-and-laser display you’d normally expect to accompany a prog rock planetarium show – guitar heroes Dragonforce finally exploded onto the stage and the party truly began. Ripping into their set with ‘Highway To Oblivion’, the opening track and lead single from the band’s latest opus ‘Extreme Power Metal’, Dragonforce put the pedal on the floor and refused to let it up for 90 exhilarating minutes. On record, it sometimes seems that the sheer blistering speed that guitarists Sam Totman and Herman Li play at should not be physically possible in the hands of mortal human beings, so it’s always astonishing witnessing these feats of axe wizardry in person. Both men were on top form throughout, not only playing each and every song with unfathomable precision, but simultaneously with their obnoxious and hilarious stage antics in full-force – at times playing one-handed, and even playing each other’s guitars. The band’s music is pure entertainment to begin with, but the effort Dragonforce put into their performance is what truly elevates them beyond the hundreds of other power metal acts struggling to break into the mainstream.

Commanding the crowd with ease, frontman Marc Hudson carried the band through tracks both old (‘Fury Of The Storm’, ‘Black Fire’, ‘Valley Of The Damned’) and new (‘Heart Demolition’, ‘Razorblade Meltdown’), hitting every high note comfortably. Hudson stepped into Dragonforce’s vacant lead spot back in 2010, but honestly it’s impossible to believe he wasn’t always at the helm based on this performance, his charisma and skill with a microphone a natural fit for the band. Halfway through the set, Hudson even strapped on a guitar and showed himself to be just as skilled a musician as his bandmates, leading a short video game-inspired interlude with cuts from Castlevania and Final Fantasy VII given the shred treatment.

Following ‘Valley’…, the band left briefly before coming back and delivering a predictable but powerful encore. Launching into their recent (but already legendary) cover of Celine Dion’s ‘My Heart Will Go On’, the crowd erupted for the first time that night into a furious and somewhat unruly circle pit – and though it was funny to see hundreds of metalheads going nuts to the Titanic theme song, some people got visibly hurt by thoughtless moshers, which put something of a sour taste in the mouth so close to the end of the show. Thankfully, Dragonforce still managed to finish strong with their ubiquitous anthem ‘Through The Fire And Flames’, a track that the band themselves acknowledged was “probably the only reason some people were there in the first place”.

Though it was disappointing the band couldn’t bring out their giant neon-lit arcade machine stage props (The Welly’s relatively small stage and low ceiling being unable to accommodate them), the stage show was otherwise excellent, each song having its own video accompaniment that synced perfectly, and despite Dragonforce not really needing any additional visual flair thanks to their own antics, it was a welcome addition to the show. All in all, Dragonforce did themselves proud and, thanks to a generally strong and positive crowd response, promised that this would not be their last trip to little old Hull. Let’s hope they make good on that promise.