GWAR at O2 Academy Islington

Support: Spirit Adrift
June 14, 2023 at O2 Academy Islington

Islington thrums tonight as the warp drives and jet engines of the interstellar barbarian crew known only as GWAR land on its sun-drenched streets. Before the extra-terrestrial parody ensues, we get some good, old-fashioned Heavy Metal from Texans Spirit Adrift, still hungry from their recent Download show. They may not exactly be breaking new ground, but Spirit give us chunky proto-doom riffs, powerful macho wail, and precision dual-lead by the bucket load. And it’s all utterly glorious. ‘Harmony of the Spheres’ shreds and pummels, like early Mastodon or High on Fire at their most melodic, while ‘Barn Burner – a new song debuted tonigh – is a real belter with a catchy pull-off guitar melody and fist-punching chorus: “Go ahead and light your torches/just remember/you’ll be the next to burn.” Teasing Spinal Tap’s ‘Stonehenge’, Spirit launches into ‘Ride into the Light’, the most anthemic track of their set. “Bang your head like it’s 1984, man,” requests main-man Nate, and banging doth indeed ensue. Spirit have that uncanny talent to turn a classic sound into something fresh, vibrant and full of energy: a band you’ll never get tired of.

Somewhere underneath that ominous thrumming sound lies some intro music, and – if our ears aren’t mistaken – it’s a delightful playlist of 90;s pop hits. No really: we’re ‘Livin’ the Vida Loco’ here; after all, us ‘Girls Just Wanna Have Fun’. This all works surprisingly well at getting everyone psyched up for a big old metal party. The most controversial addition seems to be an obligatory Oasis song; still, at least it’s ‘Champagne Supernova’ and not that other one. Tonight’s show is nothing less than a commiseration of Britishness. The National anthem rings out (the real one, not ‘Wonderwall’). The crowd becomes solemn as a Spitting Image-style puppet of King Charles III addresses the crowd, referencing GWAR’s 2022 Bloodstock appearance where the band interfered with Her Majesty: “Ladies, commoners, peons and loyal subjects of the commonwealth. It is with heavy heart and mild disgust that I come to you today for I bear news of a nature most horrible and titillating. The terrible scourge of humanity who last year robbed the British people of their queen and sovereign has once again returned to British soil.”

And suddenly the invasion begins: “This is the first line of the mother fucking song!” GWAR launch into one of the strongest tracks from latest album The New Dark Ages, ‘The Cutter’, while an honest British Bobby is brutalised by those wicked alien monsters. The band are as tight and slick as a cuttlefish’s ear, and it’s important to remember that – beneath all the theatricality – they’ve been doing this since 1984. This ain’t just a good gimmick. The most important advice for a GWAR show?: “Wear black or stand at the black”. Absolutely godamn right. One minute you’ve never been splattered with fresh human blood, the next you’re wearing the vital fluids of several world leaders, monarchs, members of the British royal guard, and some weird blue stuff it’s best not to ask about. The Islington Academy stage is barely big enough to contain the costumes and the madness tonight. (How many scumdogs are there in GWAR? I keep losing count. And who’s the almost naked guy in the leather hood that just seems to dance around brandishing a big hammer?) The King and the policeman become dismembered, spurting blood almost the full length of the crowd. Blothar the Berserker hates ‘Mother Fucking Liars’, like a lot, especially when they’re politicians and/or dictators; so it’s particularly satisfying to get slaked in Putin’s blood tonight, to such a catchy new ditty.

‘Ratcatcher’ is another standout from The New Dark Ages, making for a nice singalong tonight with its cowbell, crisp radio-rock riff, and catchy chorus. I think it was here that King Charlie reappears unexpectedly in the sound booth, announcing that GWAR have resurrected Her Majesty, only for Her zombie form to be brutally murdered once again. But first Blothar welcomes her to a bout of – wait for it – Union Jack Off and, if you’ve never seen an alien warrior ejaculating something blue onto a member of an esteemed aristocratic family, then. . . well you’ve never seen GWAR live clearly. Then they launch straight into the whirlwind thrash of ‘Krosstika’ from War Party, which can only mean one thing: the (Nazi) Pope is with us tonight, his holy robes emblazoned with swastikas, intoning something about getting us to kneel before him like the little children do. Evidently there’s something about all the silly costumes that allows for an especially nuanced critical analysis of contemporary power dynamics, right? For no-one is safe from GWAR’s nuanced satirical commentary tonight. For an audience of metalheads, the decapitation and defilement of Iron Maiden’s beloved mascot Eddie seems the most controversial element of tonight’s show: “This one’s for Paul Di’Anno,” Blothar announces during ‘Let Us Slay’, presumably out of protest for Maiden firing him in the 80’s.

A GWAR show is indeed a hugely fun metal party, in the most ridiculous, theatrical manner. But it would fall seriously flat if they couldn’t smash through new tracks like ‘Berserker Mode’, cementing their creds as a bone fide 80’s thrash band. Briefly leaving the stage for an encore/loo break – what a hassle in those suits! – they’re back and entirely ‘Sick of You’. But there’s only one way to end this: no one sings ‘If You Want Blood (You Got It)’ like Blothar, because Angus and co. could never take it so literally. And when the lights go up, it’s time to appreciate what a glorious gory mess we have all become, whilst crooning to the tune of Seal’s ‘Kiss From A Rose’, none the less. Who said extra-terrestrials don’t understand irony? (Clearly, had the band joined me on the tube ride back home through West London, they’d have also appreciated the ironic contrast produced by the confluence of blood-drenched GWAR weirdos and sequin-coated, feather-boa-draped Harry Styles fans at Wembley Park station.)

Come for the tunes; stay for the glorious gore of GWAR!





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