written by Daniel Leons-Marder
A few weeks ago, the UK metal community was in a gloomy mood following the announcement that the debutant Dominion Festival had been cancelled following an initial postponement from last year due to low ticket sales. Following that cancellation, another newer UK metalfest, ManorFest, was also cancelled having been similarly postponed in 2022. There has been a vague sense of malaise recognising that hosting multi-day festivals seems to only be viable for larger events like Bloodstock, leading to some pessimism about the general health of the scene. Even Germany isn’t immune from this, with Bang Your Head, a festival that has run since 1996, also calling it quits this year.
Enter Byker Grave, who stepped up to salvage the weekend for many fans and bands who were originally destined for Dominion Festival. Byker Grave, spearheaded by Stu Bartlett, took on the mammoth (rider) task of hosting four shows, with bands who were appearing at Dominion, at what they dubbed Northern Darkness II – ‘Brominion’. I had the pleasure of seeing Spartan Warrior, Seven Sisters, Riot City and Visigoth. Fans were divided on who was to blame for the cancellation of Dominion, with some blaming the promoters for their perceived failings and relative inexperience, and others blaming those who failed to purchase tickets for an event they were interested in. However, nobody I spoke to, bands and fans alike, had anything but praise for Byker Grave, who put themselves on the line to ensure that travelling fans had something to look forward to.
I arrived early to find a queue ahead of openers Spartan Warrior, a NWOBHM act from nearby Sunderland, taking the stage. The venue, Anarchy Brew Co, is a craft brewery in the Byker area of Newcastle – made famous by TV show Byker Grove – and makes a genuinely unique setting for gigs, with huge fermentation tanks visible from the concert hall.
Spartan Warrior had announced they would try to play the entirety of their Steel n’ Chains album to mark its 40th anniversary. They arrive on stage with the mic stand draped in the Union flag and launch straight into the “Cold Hearted“. It is immediately noticeable how tight the band are. Whilst the backbone of the band are the brothers Dave and Neil Wilkinson (vocals and guitars respectively), the band has enjoyed a stable lineup for a decade and it shows, with them having great chemistry with each other on the stage.
Their set is replete with excellent, classic riffs – notably “It’s Alright“, which has the whole crowd banging their heads. “Don’t Wanna Be a Loser“ has Spartan Warrior show their versatility, with the dual guitars working well to produce a soulful and melodic performance. The highlights of their set are the last two songs. “Witchfinder“ is a fast paced song that shows off the talent in the rhythm section, and has probably the best received solos of their set and “Hunted“ has some excellent twin guitar work and has the most epic atmosphere. Speaking to the band after, they unfortunately aren’t selling copies of this album at the show, but they are planning a re-release which I look forward to.
There’s a huge buzz before Seven Sisters take the stage and I get myself as close to the front as I can, having popped out after Spartan Warrior to sample the pizza from the food truck that Byker Grave had arranged to have at the show. They open with “Beyond the Black Stars“, the opener from their latest album. Something that has impressed me whenever I’ve seen Seven Sisters live is just how well they translate the songs from the studio into a live setting. It feels like almost nothing is lost, and Kyle manages to sound even better than he does in the studio when delivering what are some quite challenging vocal lines.
Next up is “Blood and Fire“, my favourite track from their second album The Cauldron and the Cross. The harmonised guitars leading up to the solo come across extremely well live and by the time the final chorus comes around, the front of the crowd is all singing along to the best of their ability. Just like Spartan Warrior, Seven Sisters have great rapport on stage, and you can tell how much they love playing together. When commenting on how tight Spartan Warrior were, Graeme gently teases Kyle about the latter having moved to Spain, presumably cutting down on their rehearsal time. On reflection, it is impressive how cohesive a live unit the band are when they are split between countries, and it is a testament to their talent and dedication to their craft.
Going into “Highways of the Night“ from their debut, it is clear how much Seven Sisters have evolved as a band, having developed a distinct sound over the past decade. However, it is refreshing to hear them bring their increasing refinement as musicians into their older material, with Gareth and Sammy delivering imperious performances on the bass and drums in this track in particular. They dive into “Horizon’s Eye“, which is one of the high points of the set, with the bridge being one of the most poignant moments of the night. They move on to two requests: “Truth’s Burden“, with some of the best guitar harmonies of the night, followed by “Lost in Time“, a track that predates even their debut album and with the crowd repeating the word ‘echoes’ in the chorus making for a wonderful live moment. Kyle’s vocal performance is unbelievably strong for both tracks. They close their set with “The Artifice“, one of my favourite songs of the last two years and one which has probably the best singalong with the crowd of their set.
After seeing Seven Sisters, I head to the merch stand to buy some items from each of the bands and I’m lucky enough to bump into Jake at the Visigoth merch stand, rather embarrassingly, I seem to instantly turn into a slightly bashful schoolboy when unexpectedly making conversation with one of my favourite singers, and one who has directly inspired me to make music.
[Part 2 follows tomorrow]