Now in its fifth year, the SOS Festival takes place across two days in an indoor venue just outside of Manchester. Organised by the team at Rocksector Records it acts as both a showcase for the labels vast array of talent together with emerging young bands and more established names. Headlined by NWOBHM veterans Tygers Of Pan Tang and formidable metal titans Beholder, the 2012 event saw the audience treated to some top quality performances in a venue that offered excellent facilities. Reporting on a weekend of classic rock, heavy metal and dancing robots were Sea of Tranquillity's Dean Pedley and Mark Davies.
With the English weather having been at the mercy of the rain gods for what seems to have been months what better way to spend two days than at an indoor festival; no mud, no hassle, and great facilities. SOS offers more than twenty bands, most of the action taking place on the main stage but with a small acoustic set up at the opposite end of the hall to keep the live music going during the changeovers. Belgian rockers Wizzard host their own festival in their home country (Wizzfest) and are old school metallers who embrace the era of the NWOBHM with their galloping tempos and razor sharp riffs. Led by the charismatic frontman Mr. Wizz they blaze through the likes of "Reflections from Hell" to an enthusiastic response. On the acoustic stage the duo of Breakdown offer an entertaining interlude that includes some classic Deep Purple with a powerfully sung version of "Mistreated".
South-Wales metallers Triaxis are gearing up for the release of their second album due in October and they pack a real punch with guitarist CJ making an impression with some blazing riffs and Chrissie belting out the vocals with raw energy and passion. A band that looks well set to widen their fan base over the next twelve months or so they are most definitely a name to look out for when they hit the road again in support of Rage & Retribution.
Marking a departure from the traditional rock and metal styles are spiky four-piece Obsessive Compulsive. They mix up grunge heavy riffs with plenty of changes in tempo that together with the often venomous delivery of front woman Kelii sets them apart. With the venom of punk and the showmanship of metal OC go over extremely well and possess the songs and the attitude that should see them make significant progress.
A band that have taken huge strides forward since joining the Rocksector set-up, Exit State are very much on the cusp of genuinely breaking through onto the contemporary metal scene. They launch into a storming "Check out the Crazy" with Roy Bright immediately engaging with the crowd and being rewarded with the biggest response of the day. Rocksector head honcho Mark Appleton claims their next album, due in 2013, will really see Exit State build on the momentum created by Black Veins and deservedly so. Kerrang TV chart topper "Circles" is Exit State at their most insistently catchy but it is with closing anthem "Death of a Rockstar" that they provide one of the stand-out moments of the entire weekend. Dripping with heartfelt sincerity it provides a stirring climax to what is an emotionally-charged performance.
Headliners for the first day are NWOBHM legends Tygers Of Pan Tang, a band with a legacy that spans five decades and who are still very much at the top of their game. The current line-up is now the longest serving in the Tygers distinguished history and the set list spans the length and breadth of their back catalogue up to and including new album Ambush. Tygers remain very much in demand at festivals across mainland Europe and it is time that the UK rediscovered this hugely influential band that had such a major impact in Lars Ulrich's musical education. Italian vocalist Jacopo Meille has a voice and a presence that is right up with David Coverdale in his heyday and memorable anthems such as "Suzi Smiled", "Gangland" and "Hellbound" are guaranteed to deliver.
With the new material showing they still retain a flair for combining melody and power this is a genuine headline set from Robb Weir and co. They encore with the inevitable "Love Potion Number 9" and day one of SOS closes on a real high.
It is always heartening to glimpse metal's future generation and opening day two are young (in fact, very young) melodic death metallers Allaira. It's very early days for this band and we wish them well as they start out on what will hopefully prove to be an exciting journey. The death metal continues with the female fronted My Wooden Pillow, led by vocalist Michelle who looks as if butter wouldn't melt in her mouth until that is she unleashes the most ferocious and guttural of growls. A devastatingly heavy assault that combines hardcore and grindcore MWP certainly provide a wake up call to anyone still nursing the previous evening's hangover.
There is something especially rewarding about having little to no expectations about a band and then they absolutely blow you away. Such is the case with Savage Outlaw who really cause a stir with their Southern-influenced, hard edged, blues rock. Drawing in the crowd from the bar Savage Outlaw storm through a high energy twenty-odd minutes set and are most definitely a name to look out for should they appear on the gig list at your local venue.
Keyboards made their first real impression of the weekend courtesy of melodic power metallers Gone Til Winter. Another band with a new album (Hiding From The Sun) due before the end of the year, the dramatic vocals of Talena Cuthbert are suitably accompanied by the use of haunting keyboards set against the backdrop of muscular riffs and powerhouse drumming. They are followed by the quirky Fantasist who defy classification with their vibrant twist on metal, rock, prog and funk. With each member of the oddball trio looking as if they are having the time of their lives they offer some of the choice cuts from debut album Giggle Juice before a crowd pleasing, pumped up, cover of "The Spirit of Radio".
Representing Belgium on day two are five piece Max Pie, a band that blends a traditional European metal style with some progressive elements thanks to the backdrop of keyboard flourishes. For the most part this is heads down fast, heavy and powerful with the vocals very much from the Geoff Tate and Rob Halford school of screaming.
When parody metal is done badly it really grates on the senses as anyone who remembers the truly awful Bad News from the 1980's will testify. But when it is done well it can be the most fun you can have at a gig, which is precisely what Evil Scarecrow provides in forty-odd minutes of total mayhem. A band that really has to be seen in the flesh for you to appreciate just how good they are, Evil Scarecrow are a black metal carnival of horrors. Song titles such as "Sixty Six Minutes Past Six", "Vampyre Trousers" and "Blacken the Everything" only tell half the story as the whole concept is perfectly executed.
Cover versions of the theme from 80's cartoon classic "Thundercats" and "The Final Countdown" go down a storm before the bands following don home made robot heads for the sheer insanity that is "Robototron". With even your correspondents reportedly seen doing the robot dance this was an experience that will live long in the memory.
More female fronted metal core is provided by Incassum, vocalist Sharleen seemingly shifting from brutal and violent screams to melodic beauty with ease. At times Incassum are crushingly heavy and like Fantasist they also close with a cover version, Iron Maiden's roaring anthem "Fear of the Dark".
Hanging Doll bring some gothic metal to the stage and their often dark, dramatic and yet melodic songs can draw favourable comparison with Within Temptation. Vocalist Sally Holliday is suffering from a severe case of conjunctivitis that makes for an even more sinister stage presence and songs from new album The Sacred & Profane are well received.
The biggest crowd of the whole weekend gathers front and centre for the debut performance from Absolva, the new metal quartet put together by the Fury UK pairing of vocalist / guitarist Chris Appleton and drummer Martin McNee.
Speaking to Chris before the set he described the new material as showcasing his love of the twin guitar assault of Helloween and Accept and that is precisely what Absolva delivers. "Code Red", "Breathe" and "Taste the Blood" suggest that upcoming debut album Flames of Justice will simply be full throttle, classic heavy metal from start to finish and provide the launch pad that will see Absolva make considerable headway over the coming months. They throw in Fury UK favourite "I See Red" but this is very much a band that will soon forge its own identity and they leave with the sonic assault of set closer "Empires, highlighting some supremely executed interplay between Chris and second guitarist Tom Atkinson.
Beholder are the headliners for Sunday night and if the energy levels are sagging then this is one band that is simply guaranteed to grab the crowd by the scruff of the neck and get the fists pumping and the heads banging. Led by the imposing man mountain that is Simon Hall, Beholder is simply no nonsense British heavy metal of aggression and intensity that takes no prisoners.
If you want a festival that aside from excellent music also offers great facilities, a relaxed atmosphere and a very warm welcome then SOS should be immediately added to your annual calendar. The dates for 2013 are already confirmed for the 20th and 21st July and we'll most definitely be back again for more of the same.