Metal is all about volume and intensity. Which is exactly what Of Mice And Men supply as they kick off a night of guttural vocals, guitar riffs of sledgehammer subtlety, soul-shaking drum fills, chest thumping, and sweaty, screaming, moshing fans at Wembley Arena.
Led by Aaron Pauley, who sings and assaults his bass with equal ferocity, the quartet from Orange County, California play a tight six-song set that balances the old and the brand new. The fittingly named Unbreakable, which opens the show, and guaranteed future live staple Warzone are both from the forthcoming Defy (out in January), while thunderous set closer The Depths harks back to 2011’s The Flood.
Restoring Force from 2014 gets a good look-in with the raw You Make Me Sick and in-your-face Public Service Announcement (which has guitarists Phil Manansala and Alan Ashby headbanging in tandem on either side of the stage).
The cataclysmic Pain, from last year’s Cold World, rounds out a storming set that certainly delivers on the volume and intensity fronts.
But metal is also about spectacle and a sense of community. First In Flames and then Five Finger Death Punch supply both, in excess.
The Swedish quartet have spared no expense in creating a stage every bit as audacious as their songs. Singer Anders Fridén, guitarists Björn Gelotte and Niclas Engelin, and touring bass player Bryce Paul are backed by a high wall of screens that run the length of the stage and double as a raised platform for the keyboards and drums.
Behind drummer Joe Rickard is a second, even larger, screen showing the same striking imagery (stark black and white animations, panels from a bright graphic novel, moody Silent Hill-type visuals). Oh, and there’s also a giant version of band mascot Jester Head hanging from the ceiling, his red eyes permanently glowing.
It’s a setup that would dwarf a lesser band, but there’s very little that could distract from the gutsy Gothenburg group and their arsenal of scorched earth anthems. Their most recent offering, 2016’s Battles, is well represented, with songs like Save Me and Here Until Forever especially revealing the more melodic side of Fridén’s voice. Of course he gets the chance to unleash his abrasive growl on earlier tracks like Darker Times (off 2011’s Sounds Of A Playground Fading), Take This Life (from 2006’s Come Clarity), and the oldest inclusion, 2002’s ball-breaking Drifter.
But irrespective of the song’s age, it’s played with the same never say die attitude. The two guitarists in particular perform with the energy of men in their 20s, perpetually swapping places on either side of a front man who, in turn, frequently checks in with the fans (or makes declarations like “All we know how to do is drink beer and play heavy metal”).
With the gargantuan rig lighting up the arena, Fridén goes beyond the standard “scream for me, London”, asking the crowd to “go analogue”, put down their phones, and “get in the circle pit to make new friends” instead. Even the obligatory thank you’s are substantial. “We’ve been doing this for a long time, and it’s really boring to rehearse,” he says during one interaction. “But we live for this sh*t, and it’s because of people like you that we can carry on doing it.”
Five Finger Death Punch front man Ivan Moody is even more gregarious. He wishes someone happy birthday after spotting their sign. He urges the security staff and the audience (who he refers to as “family”) to treat each other with respect.
He apologises sincerely to his band mates and the amassed faithful for what he describes as a “breakdown”, alluding to a series of incidents earlier this year that raised doubts about his future in the band.
He puts on a Santa hat that’s hurled on stage and belts out a few ad-libbed lines of Jingle Bells. He tries (and laughs when he fails) to spark an impromptu singalong of Champagne Supernova.
He even stops the encore to sign merch fans have lobbed up. And with a casual “You just became the most expensive show of the tour”, he brushes off the news that the band are about to break curfew. “Merry Christmas,” he adds cheerfully, before getting the audience to hold up their phones and leading them through an unhurried rendition of The Bleeding.
The resultant feeling of inclusion means each song, regardless of whether it’s the big, dumb rocker Burn MF or the trio of acoustic ballads (I Apologize, Wrong Side of Heaven, and Remember Everything) performed unplugged-style with lead guitarist Jason Hook, is greeted with unbridled excitement.
Hook, Moody, and the rest of the Las Vegas quintet seem pretty excited themselves, for that matter. Jeremy Spencer is a heavy hitter from the Dave Grohl school of drumming, rhythm guitarist Zoltan Bathory is as adept at whipping his long dreadlocks back and forth as laying down chunky riffs (i.e., very), and live-wire bassist Chris Kael is such an accomplished vocalist that he and Moody trade lines on sonic wrecking ball Got Your Six.
As the five musicians rip up songs like Lift Me Up and their brutal rendition of Bad Company, flames and fireballs light up the stage at regular intervals. Fog blasters go off in front of them. Lasers, matching the LEDs on one of Hook’s less flamboyant guitars, pierce the darkened arena.
And although there are no video screens, in their place is something just as spectacular: a colossal 3D skull and two titanic baseball bats (in cross bone formation). Short of creating a life-size replica of Stonehenge on stage, you couldn’t really get more metal than that.
Review of Five Finger Death Punch, In Flames, and Of Mice And Men @ Wembley Arena by Nils van der Linden on 21st December 2017. Photos by Simon Reed.