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Z Rock 2011
The Asylum, Birmingham 15 May 2011

After a chequered history, it's amazing to report that Z Rock is now 12 years old, albeit less well attended than it was in the early 2000's when for a few years the Z records label boasted a stellar roster of some of melodic hard rock's better known acts.

This year, beleaguered Z supremo Mark Alger took a different approach to crafting a line-up, booking It Bites, an established name but from a different genre, to headline and pull in a different group of punters in addition to us melodic rock diehards.

A purpose built rock venue in a Birmingham industrial estate with the air of a giant barn, The Asylum was sadly sparsely filled as local band Daylight Robbery opened proceedings and were a pleasant surprise.

For a new band, they were very musically polished, if at times melodramatic, with the slightly progressive, pompy air of a Shotgun Symphony. With songs like Cross My Heart and Real Love is the Answer with some spot on harmonies, I marked them down as a band to watch.

Sacred Heart, photo by Andy Nathan

Next up were two of the UK's hardest working melodic rock bands, making the most of increasingly rare gig opportunities. First up were Sacred Heart, noticeably heavier than when I last saw them about five years ago.

The band were solid and tight with some surprisingly metallic riffing from impressive lead guitarist Mark Stephenson and singer and guitarist Paul Stead - however I found my attention to songs like Lay it On the Line and Rock n Roll Away distracted by the way his Bluetooth-like headset gave him the air of a nightclub bouncer.

Tara's Secret, photo by Andy Nathan

I had been looking forward to Tara's Secret, but was personally disappointed that they had forsaken the keyboards that are a big part of their recorded sound, with Craig Chapman switching to guitar.

The sound appeared a bit cluttered, and I later discovered they had been unable to hear what was coming out of their monitors, but they plugged on enthusiastically with songs such as the title track form the last album Vertigo and Homeland.

Coldspell, photo by Andy Nathan

The bar was raised, as to be honest was the sound from the mixing desk, when Swedes Coldspell took the stage, and having heard others rave about them I was full of anticipation. Opener Heroes got their set off to a fine start, but for a while I was disappointed in the relative lack of hooks while singer Niklas Swedentorp (sic) lacked stage presence.

Perhaps I had been wrongly been expecting the fluff of fellow countrymen such as Heat and Houston, whereas they are serious musicians steeped in classic hard rock.

Things slowly came together for me with the likes of the more accessible One in a Million and the title track from their current sophomore release, Out From the Cold. An ultimately triumphant set finished with Keep on Believing, with keyboards straight out of Deep Purple's Perfect Strangers, and Straight Things Out.

Mad Max, photo by Andy Nathan

After an hour long break and sharing a giant pizza dripping with grease, it was back to find proceedings running late and next on were Germans Mad Max, led by the prolific Michael Voss, now also MSG's new singer. To my shame, until seeing a lone fan at the front in a 1985/86 tour T-shirt, I was only vaguely aware they had been going on and off for so long.

They were archetypally German in the mould of Bonfire and Fair Warning, with solid riffing topped off by Michael's raspy vocals and the occasional high pitched scream. As so many Teutonic bands do - against the national stereotype! - their sense of fun on stage also won over the audience.

The early songs seemed to be taken from their earlier albums and sounded a touch dated with an air of early 80's Saxon. But as the set progressed the likes of Family of Rock and Little Princess were much more convincing, as was Hollywood Angels from one of Michael's' other bands Casanova. They closed with a rather cheesy cover of Fox on the Run but it had me singing along to close a thoroughly enjoyable set.

Arabia, photo by Andy Nathan

Next up were Arabia, who I had found no more than average at Z Rock back in 2002 so expectations were not high. But from the moment charismatic frontman and sole original member John Blaze came on stage, looking like David Coverdale right down to the mike stand twirling, and sounding not unlike him, they were a revelation.

Whether the rich ballads 1001 Nights and No Place like Home, rockers like Love Love Me Do or the bluesy So Tired, nearly every song hit me between the eyes.

Full marks to the band of UK melodic rock stalwarts - guitarist Vince O'Regan, keyboardist Irvine Parratt, bassist Steve McKenna and drummer Lee Morris - who formed a truly outstanding band but it was the keyboard driven, catchy Till the Day I Die that was my personal highlight. That was until they surprisingly ended with a cover of Hot Chocolate's Brother Louie, which got the Asylum's barmaids, dressed in nurse's uniforms, dancing on top of the bar!

Legion, photo by Andy Nathan

After a long changeover, Legion, who have released two albums on Z, took the stage with Vince O'Regan and Irvine Parratt doing a double shift. Unfortunately singer Phil Vincent, despite being a well respected name in the AOR world and with a solid voice reminding me of Triumph's Gil Moore, looked ill at ease out front, standing stiffly in his baseball cap and shades.

At times this uncertainly transmitted itself to the band and, for all Vince's rapid guitar shredding, I must admit the songs did not leap out at me either and appeared a tad samey.

It Bites, photo by Andy Nathan

Having been surrounded by the same faces all day, it was slightly unnerving that around 70 It Bites fans had changed the nature of the crowd. However they also brought in their own sound man and equipment, with the result that after an hour's changeover they hit the stage at 11, over an hour and a quarter later than billed. I was surprised to hear them open with their massive hit Calling All the Heroes, which was probably a good idea to hook in those such as myself less familiar with their catalogue.

With some imaginative keyboard passages from the rather miserable looking John Beck, and arrangements and harmonies that at times reminded me of the cleverness of 10cc, they were very listenable.

It Bites, photo by Andy Nathan

Singer and lead guitarist John Mitchell wears the mantle of the departed Francis Dunnery lightly and also had a dry sense of humour which helped quell some of the discontent at them coming on late and having their set curtailed.

A solitary new song was aired alongside material from their last album The Tall Ships, and oldies like Old Man and the Angel, but as the curfew fell they ended with the very catchy Kiss Like Judas, and I was taken by surprise to see so many of their fans pogo-ing up and down.

There is no getting away from the fact this was a disappointingly attended show. And yet, with eight acts covering a range of bases, all playing their hearts out, and the likes of Arabia and Mad Max a revelation, it was a thoroughly enjoyable and rewarding 11 hours for those of us who did make the effort. Former Kerrang favourite Paul Sabu is promised for 2012 - lets hope he pulls the punters back in.

Review and photos by Andy Nathan

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