LIVE: Hard Rock Hell AOR Day 1 – Magna Centre Rotheram 06/04/2013
The manor? Rotherham, South Yorkshire
The stage? A disused steel works reborn as a family friendly science attraction
The event? Hard Rock Hell AOR
Wait, what even is AOR? An effervescent Pure Rawk roving rock-donkey is despatched to investigate…
As titles go, Hard Rock Hell AOR is a bit of a mouthful. Conversely, in its abbreviated form HRHAOR reads more like someone hurling up a chunk or… let’s avoid such pleasantness. Shall we have a history lesson?
For the uninitiated, AOR stands for Album-(or Adult)-Oriented-Rock. A largely American creation, AOR was born out of late 60s licensing regulations prohibiting radio stations from using the established singles format on the new FM frequencies. Fresh ‘progressive’ formats were born with DJs granted license to playlist an album’s longer or more mature tracks.
Listeners to early 70s AOR stations could expect a broad mix of rock, jazz, funk maybe even R&B and soul, but as the fight for audience share increased, programme directors seized back control, and over the next 20 years shook off the more eclectic edges until only the commercial, radio-friendly sheen of 80s corporate arena rock remained. As the 90s blew in new styles like grunge and hip-hop, AOR stations closed the gates and the genre was frozen in carbonite.
Skip to the end…
So if AOR today remains largely unchanged from 31 December 1989, does that mean this is a weekend awash with multi-tracked guitar sounds, bands that come with complimentary MOOG synthesizers and an overall atmosphere that’s pining for super-sized drum risers and dry-ice machines? Well yes. However, thanks to some canny promotion that’s not all on offer here.
Alongside it’s sister festival Hard Rock Hell Prog (taking place simultaneously down o’er end t’ mill), the inaugural Hard Rock Hell AOR festival stays true to the format of its heavy metal forebear – that annual pre-Christmas metalhead invasion of a Pontins holiday camp in North Wales otherwise known as Hard Rock Hell.
The line-up therefore throws together genre veterans, fresh-faced youths and reuniting heroes in an isolated industrial setting. It’s a long way to the shop if you want a sausage roll, but attractively priced hot-dogs are available from the concession stand at the rear of the hall.
Carpet. At a festival. Carpet? Indoors. At a festival. Carpet? No mud? Warmth (sort of)? This could take some getting used to. At one end of a hall large enough to make Gandalf the Grey’s knees knock, a temporary bar is dispensing reasonably priced alcoholic beverages, at the other veterans of the UK melodic rock scene Dante Fox are easing in today’s assembled throng with most atypical AOR pleasantries (yes, they’ve got a keyboard). I make no bones about which end I head to first, but allons-y, beer in hand, it’s time to adult-oriented rock.
The Dante Fox calling card is evidently the soaring vocal prowess of front-lady-face Sue Willets and it raises the band from an otherwise el generico eighties rock chug. As Sue cracks the whip between songs, it’s easy to imagine on another day the tongue-in-cheek snipes towards her male band-mates could carry the matriarchal jest of a dominatrix. Today though, with the crowd yet to find its voice and Sue clearly not feeling 100%, such commands come off a little more like a primary school teacher admonishing naughty schoolboys.
Romeo’s Daughter draw the strongest crowd reaction so far and it’s not really a surprise. Here’s a band whose star shone brightly enough at the time of their debut as to tempt legendary producer of all things multi-platinum Mutt Lange into twiddling knobs on their first album. The evidence available today reveals why. The band are tight and the sound is polished pop-rock with a deep, sultry, Chrissie Hynde vocal. Tracks from 2012’s comeback release ‘Rapture’ sit comfortably with more familiar material, and it’s enough to get the masses moving for the first time this afternoon.
Technical issues delay the opening of the second stage, leaving Danny Vaughn to hold court unchallenged in the Big Hall. Cleveland native Vaughn is unashamedly American; brash, upbeat and owner of the pearliest whites in rock and roll. The voice of Tyketto treats his audience like old friends, and they respond in kind with warmth and adulation to a selection of crowd and personal favourites from a prolific back catalogue. Track after track delivers, and when a slow road crew response to a faulty cable threatens to derail the occasion, you’re able to empathise with Danny’s grumpy snark. He’s a performer coiled to deliver rather than a spoiled child deprived of his toys.
By comparison, FM’s polite mid-tempo pop genesis feels like a step backwards. In search of something livelier, it’s time to seek out the Fire stage. Unlit open-plan science exhibits and the remnants of Magna’s steel mill heritage create a unique poetic ambience during the short walk between stages, as does Ned Kahn’s mesmerising ‘Fire Tornado’ a modern art exhibit that greets you on arrival at the Fire pavilion.
Out to start fires of their own, rising force The Morning After provide anathema to the festival’s maudlin moments – imagine the metallic symphony of Frontiers-era Journey shot into orbit with relentless high-BPM overdrive. Many bands in the last ten years may have claimed to be the modern day answer to 80s stadium rock, but The Morning After could just be the ones who justify it. Rampant and glorious, this Essex quintet must be seen live.
Mia Klose plays it more by the numbers. Think Kiss, Kix and Canadian metal queen Lee Aaron. 5ft nothing she might be, but in drive and determination this Swedish little voice is every inch late-night dynamite. It was rare even in its heyday to hear female fronted glam metal, it’s rarer still in 2013. Therefore it’s reassuring to discover that, along with pushing a strong leather-clad blonde bombshell look, Mia’s vocals are more than up to the task. Her show is upbeat, good-time rock and roll, and worthy of the growing attention.
The biggest draw of the Saturday line-up are headliners Tesla, probably best remembered as the opening act on Def Leppard’s mammoth Hysteria world tour. Like Romeo’s Daughter and FM, Tesla were another band hotly tipped for a level of super stardom that never came. Unlike those acts though, the Californian band ploughed on through the hostile grunge years, and that added experience has clearly paid off. Throughout the set you feel in the presence of a band as comfortable with their identity as say Aerosmith or Cinderella. They might lack for hit singles, but what they do have is a variety of ballads, heavy harmonies and fist in the air bluesy hard rock. Tonight on tracks like ‘Signs’ and ‘Modern Day Cowboy’ they stand toe-to-toe with their peers.
Words by Karl Eisenhauer, photos by Liam Fretwell
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