12 shows later, and the Underdog heats are over for 2016! We’ll be back for the semi-finals next week with the remaining 12 bands, but in the meantime, let’s have a look back over the last six weeks. It’s been a real mixed bag: all sorts of genres, new bands, established bands, big bands, duos, electric and acoustic. We’ve seen nearly 60 bands perform, so it would obviously be impossible to review every one of them. But here’s my top 10 bands of the heats, in no particular order (no really, I used a random list organiser)…
Tea and Biscuits
I have a lot of admiration for any band with the conviction to write a serious, melancholy song about the woes of running out of sugar when making a cup of tea at 5am. But this acoustic duo are not just a novelty act. They’re highly accomplished guitarists and vocalists, creative and original songwriters, and talented performers. They pack an awful lot of stage presence considering they’re just two seated guys with guitars, and definitely win the award for the most audience laughter of the heats. The mix of different guitar styles – my personal favourite being the use of percussive style to symbolise the wait for the kettle to boil – keeps things interesting, and elevates this way beyond a typical acoustic guitar/vocal duo. These guys are full of surprises, and I can’t recommend going to see them highly enough.
Red Ray and the Reprobates
This four-piece alt-country outfit piqued my interest right from the moment I realised they were fronted by a Geordie hillbilly and possibly the happiest lead guitarist in the world. Technically, there’s really nothing to fault: they’re very well rehearsed and tight, very capable musicians and great singers who have skillfully arranged the perfect vocal harmonies for their genre. But by itself, these factors don’t bring a set to life. My initial impression is that they’re very accomplished, but just a bit too mellow for a good “yee-haw”, and for me, the banjo is not adding as much as it should to music like this. As a result, I’m technically impressed, but not totally engaged. But as the set goes on, the bass is what really makes it for me – groovy, funky, blues-y basslines that give this band a real contemporary edge in their genre. Despite my initial misgivings, I really enjoyed these guys. What I’d really like is to see them again at an outdoors gig, on a sunny day, with a cold beer – context is important.
I’m going to nail my colours to the mast straight away, and say that VantaBlack are one of the best young, up and coming bands I’ve ever seen. Fronted by an incredible vocalist with a confident and mature command of literally every register, these guys totally captivated the audience with a truly killer performance and outstanding musicianship from start to finish. If you closed your eyes, it honestly wouldn’t be much of a leap to imagine you were in a stadium watching a supergroup of members of AC/DC, Black Sabbath and Alice Cooper. VantaBlack are an incredibly polished outfit, and it’s clear that they’ve worked hard to achieve this standard and been unprepared to accept any compromises in quality. Georgi (lead vocals) has the audience eating out of the palm of his hand, but in no way is he carrying all the responsibility – every member of the band is totally committed to this performance. They 100% believe in what they’re doing, and they’re absolutely right to.
Drip Fed Empire
This duo of steampunk goggles and blackout contact lenses were one of the most creative and original acts I saw throughout the heats. They effortlessly bring together a minefield of time signatures, genres influences and instrument changes, creating a sound so massive, it’s difficult to believe there’s only two of them. Jay (lead vocals/guitar/bass) has amazing stage presence and a great command of the audience, and the pit is doing exactly what he says from the word go. He’s also a very accomplished musician and vocalist, although (as is often my gripe with heavy metal that mixes different vocal registers), when he moves from screaming to singing, he does start to shift the genre goalposts in a way I don’t really want. That aside, these guys had me captivated from start to finish, and I’ll definitely be looking out for them in future.
I’ve seen this band a few times before, and they are, without fail, spectacular. I mean, you know a band is going to be great when their entire setlist is about pirates. Combining elements of folk, shanty and rock with a strong nautical theme, the result is a set you can drink and dance your heart out to. These guys have incredible energy on stage – even the drummer looks like he can hardly stay sat down – and the frantic atmosphere they create easily and immediately reaches the back of the room. Technically, they are a seriously well-oiled machine of very accomplished musicians and powerful vocalists, and it seems like nothing could put them off their stride – even when a guitar cable breaks in the last song, the show must go on, and their performance is just as relentless as ever. They made Underdog history in their heat, receiving a perfect judges’ score, and it’s easy to see why. I love everything about them, and can’t wait to see them again in the semi-finals. If you haven’t seen them yet, you’ve got to. Be ready to to jump up and down, get very sweaty, and shout “HEY!” a lot.
The Out Crowd
The Out Crowd pointed out early in their set (much to the crowd’s amusement), that their choice of name has become unfortunate given recent British political developments. However, their bassy, stoner, riffy brand of rock more than makes up for this. I usually find that vocalists who employ both sung and shouted registers are better at the shouting, but the opposite is true of this band. Stu (guitar/vocals) has a powerful voice, Chris Cornell-esque but more falsetto. He’s an impressive vocalist, but an even more impressive guitarist, delivering some sick, grungy riffs. The band as a whole are sharp, tight, and very well practised. I love this kind of rock music, and The Out Crowd are making a seriously good job of it.
From Idols to Ashes
This hardcore four-piece have clearly been practising hard for the competition, and it pays off as they sail through to the semi-finals. The audience is incredibly responsive to them from their first song, and they fully deserve the great reaction. They’ve got great movement on stage, and the old ‘guitarist in the crowd’ trick is somehow a lot more convincing for them than for a lot of other new bands I’ve seen try it. They bring a real mix of influences to the table – I noticed features of metal, indie, and even Brit rock, and in terms of song structure, there were some definite hints of Rage Against the Machine in there. These guys faced stiff competition in their heat and they did really well to see it off. They’ve clearly got some very committed fans already, so their semi-final should be a good night!
These guys were the last to play in their heat, and from the first few bars it was clear they were the most polished act of the night – or at the very least, they had the best gear! Probably their biggest selling point for me is the strength of their vocals, and clever use of vocal harmonies. As their set progresses, they introduce some really interesting post-rock influences, bringing a more atmospheric, darker edge. This culminates in a cover of Faithless’ iconic hit ‘Insomnia’, which was really a genius move – having been fairly lukewarm to the first half of their set, this won me over big time, and the crowd loved it. We’ll see Drogo again in the semi-finals.
Stone Cold Fiction
This is the third time I’ve seen Stone Cold Fiction, and they never fail to impress me. Their sound is becoming progressively more stoner every time I see them, and I love it. They have such a mature, polished sound, and easily pull off massive silences and technically challenging time signature changes. All three of them are incredibly accomplished musicians (scarily so when you realise how young they are), and what really stands out about them is there’s not just one thing holding it all together – it’s the combination of powerful, blues-y vocals, juicy bass riffs and incredibly tight drums that creates their unforgettable sound. They’re all a real joy to watch on stage – their confidence and passion is obvious to see. It was a close call in their heat, but they were very deserving winners, and I’m really looking forward to seeing them again in the semi-finals.
Destroy the Beast, Find the Baby
It’s sunglasses and baseball caps all round in this pop punk five-piece, with the longest name of any Underdog 2016 competitor! By this point of the night (the fourth band to perform), my nostalgic love of pop punk is rapidly fading, but these guys take me right back to being 15 and I love pop punk all over again. ‘Tight’ is not a word you generally associate with pop punk, but it definitely applies to these guys – they’re noticeably well rehearsed. Bringing together perfectly synchronised jumping, some unexpectedly metal breaks, and song themes ranging from pizza to Shark Week, they really get the audience going, especially when Ash (vocals) gets down into the crowd in their absolutely genius cover of Taylor Swift’s “Blank Space”. We’ll see them again in the semi-finals, and I look forward to seeing what other tricks they’ve got up their sleeve.