Gig review: Stars and Flights w/s Frontline Fire, The Peppermint Hunting Lodge @ The Duke, Neath
The Duke (full name: The Duke of Wellington, though I’ve only ever heard one person utter its full name, causing me to wonder where on earth they were talking about) is a fairly unique venue. Many of those who wander Neath (South Wales, UK) town centre during daylight have been deceived into thinking that the pub is inactive, but – especially musically – this couldn’t be further from the truth, with the venue being a desired ‘rite of passage’ for local bands, and host to an international diversity of usual and unusual acts.
The first time I ventured into The Duke was a fair few years ago, to see Supergene, a band that had been featured on ITV Wales’s ‘Unsigned’ show (which sadly no longer exists). From the minute I heard their music, I knew that I HAD to see them, but nearly didn’t go inside the pub due to being intimidated by its outer appearance. Luckily, I had my cousin for backup, and headed through the doors to a welcoming friendly bunch, some of whom were musicians, and some of whom were good friends who I wasn’t expecting to see…nor were they expecting to see me in The Duke (being of the opinion it wasn’t ‘my kinda place’). It’s yet another cautionary tale to remind us not to always judge a book by its cover, or in this case a pub by its exterior.
Supergene were (and still are) amazing, but this review isn’t about them, of course. Fast forward to 2012, and I (along with mum and dad) have come to see Frontline Fire, a three-piece rock band from Port Talbot (South Wales, UK), who I recently featured on The Unchart on Off The Chart Radio. Perhaps this makes me naturally biased – I do try not to be when writing a review – but in my honest opinion they set the bar at the highest position of the night. The acoustics of The Duke being what they are, the balance wasn’t perfect when they kicked off, but the band demonstrated self-awareness and could be seen adjusting their amps to reach an ‘optimum sound’ fairly quickly. Their set was tight, punchy and enthusiastic, creating a large and rich sound which was more than the sum of its parts. All of the musicians played brilliantly, but it was difficult not to notice some particularly intricate electric guitar work. They also interacted well with the crowd, and this was reciprocated in their response to the music.
Next up were cleverly-named band The Peppermint Hunting Lodge (though it was actually mum who spotted the joke…clue: we think it’s a nod to a certain well known gentleman’s club). They took great care over their soundchecks, spending a significant time setting the volume of the synthesizer, but once they started it was clear this was motivated by a desire to sound ‘just right’. Self-professed pioneers of ‘spacerock’, their music was certainly innovative, and I’ve always had a high regard for performers of fast-paced electronic-heavy music who choose not to rely on pre-programmed rhythms (it’s tricky to pull off the necessary tightness convincingly, especially song after song). The vocal harmonies – I think deliberately – replicated a double-tracking sound that could have been generated by an effects pedal, but the fact that they achieved this in real-time without electronic assistance was a nice touch. The combination of elements certainly bounced, resulting in a no-holds-barred melting pot of bass, guitar, drums and synth. The playing of the electronic and non-electronic instruments complemented each other really well, another quality which is difficult to achieve live, and deserves credit. Sometimes the aforementioned metaphorical melting pot could’ve been said to be overfilled, with a couple of the songs reaching my screamo limit, but additionally – since the quality of the singing was good throughout – I didn’t feel it was artistically necessary to ‘feature’ quite so much of it. Having said that (my screamo prejudice aside), overall I liked it. The crowd response was slightly more muted, and I’m not entirely sure why. Perhaps the fact that this band hailed from the Forest of Dean, whereas the other two bands originated much closer to home (Port Talbot and Neath respectively) had repercussions on the number of fans in attendance.
The proud hometown headliners were Stars & Flights, a band whose name I’ve heard mentioned an enormous number of times over the past few months, which perhaps put them at an unfair disadvantage in terms of my expectations. I was waiting to be blown away by the band with such a reputation preceding them, but instead I received a gentle breeze, in an underwhelming rather than a soothing sense. It’s not at all fair for me to say that they were ‘bad’ – they weren’t – but in context, the running order now felt completely back-to-front, and my opinion remained unchanged to the end. The drummer and bassist looked like they were having fun, but they and the vocalist felt separate somehow, and the resulting sound ended up being lacklustre. I feel horribly harsh for saying so, but especially after being treated by the previous two bands (in very different ways!), I’m afraid I was left wanting. The level of local support was obvious in the crowd response, however, which was the loudest of the night.