WWE United Kingdom Championship Tournament – Empress Ballroom, Blackpool – 14-15/01/17

WWE United Kingdom Championship TournamentWith WWE’s mainstream programming featuring a stronger wrestling element than in a long time, the development of NXT and last summer’s Cruiserweight Classic tournament, along with a genuinely stellar line up at NJPW’s Wrestle Kingdom 11 and the boom in the British wrestling scene (from Progress and ICW to the return of World of Sport to TV), it’s fair to say that in some ways professional wrestling is in something of a peak period, at least in terms of quality available and accessibility to it.

Within this WWE have now responded to the British wrestling boom in particular with the first ever United Kingdom Championship Tournament, held over two nights at the Empress Ballroom in Blackpool.

I will say that going in to this my expectations and hopes were high, particularly following the disappointment of World of Sport, so when Triple H emerged to kick off the show with his customary ‘Are you ready?’ things certainly seemed to be in the right track.

Night 1

Nigel McGuinness

Nigel McGuinness

The introduction to the show by commentators Michael Cole (on the best form I’ve possibly ever heard) and newcomer, modern Brit-wrestling legend, Nigel McGuinness only helped to develop that before, without much further ado, we cut to the introductions of the first two competitors.

Before each match we were treated to short videos about each wrestler that told us just enough to let us know who they were but not so much to dictate everything we would expect to see, leaving it up to the performers to tell the story in the ring.

First round
Trent Seven vs H.C. Dyer

Being one of the most recognisable competitors Trent Seven entered to a strong reaction backed up by comparisons on commentary to legends like Fit Finlay and Marty Jones and the fact Seven holds the Progress Wrestling tag team championships (with fellow competitor Tyler Bate).

Trent Seven hits the Seven Stars Lariat

Trent Seven hits the Seven Stars Lariat

The match itself was solid stuff from both men but it never felt anything but Seven’s show with the crowd chanting ‘Moustache Mountain’ for him and he being the centre of attention throughout.

The pair told a nice story around a hand injury to Seven and Dyer hit a nice pop-up spinebuster for a near fall, but it was the Seven Stars Lariat (a close relative of Kazuchika Okada’s Rainmaker) that secured the win for Seven who came across as true star with huge charisma and great in-ring skills.

Being in the Empress Ballroom gave the event a genuinely impressive feel and this was backed up by exterior shots of the Blackpool tower bringing a real sense of authentic grandeur to things. Something of a big WWE show but with a twist, helped by an English ring announcer and the presence of McGuinness of commentary.

Jordan Devlin vs Danny Burch

Danny Burch is a face familiar as something of a jobber on NXT TV shows who has never really shown a great deal of character beyond being a generic British hard man. While that was still present here his overall presentation built on this before the match even started and he felt like a legitimate contender.

Devlin with a superkick on Burch

Devlin with a superkick on Burch

Equally legitimate was the much younger Irishman Jordan Devlin, however even before the match started the comparisons and references to fellow Bray native Finn Balor were becoming a bit tiresome.

The match itself was slower getting going than I expected with a more ‘sport’ feel than many. As it went on though Devlin’s reaction to the crowd saw him grow into the match’s heel and the pace picked up as Burch made a comeback with speed, strikes and an impactful lariat.

A spinning enziguri roundhouse-kick busted Burch’s head open leading to a controversial pinfall win for Devlin that didn’t impress the crowd and was confusing as a TV viewer as well. While this was probably the weakest moment of the whole tournament a swift superkick after the match from Devlin did a great job of getting him firmly across as the villain while I would hope his performance here will see Burch elevated back in NXT.

While this match wasn’t the best it could have been it began to inject a little story into the tournament that was much-needed, while not at the expense of the wrestling. I can only think this is something WWE have learnt after the near total lack of story in the CWC that has made it hard for some the wrestlers to establish characters as they have moved on.

‘Muscle Cat’ Saxon Huxley vs Sam Gradwell

Huxley and Gradwell

Huxley and Gradwell

Being the first competitor to not be wearing black trunks made Saxon Huxley stand out from the pack though the mish-mash of appearance and character didn’t gel well and it wasn’t long before the crowd leapt on his long hair and beard with a fine range of Jesus related chants that were hilarious and showed exactly what British fans are good at (even if they caused a bit of controversy across the pond).

Gradwell on the other hand looks like a legit young hooligan and with more comparisons to legends like Marty Jones and Johnny Saint he came with a pedigree.

While the pair put on a solid match this one was all about the fan interaction with Gradwell certainly getting the better of it and getting the win with a Dynamite Kid style flying headbutt.

‘The Bruiserweight’ Pete Dunne vs Roy Johnson

Since the announcement of the tournament one name and face has stood out from the pack across all the promotion, that of Progress Wrestling world champion ‘The Brusierweight’ Pete Dunne and, as he made his entrance here looking like a pissed off pit bull ready to tear his opponent apart, it was obvious why.

Pete Dunne stretches Roy Johnson

Pete Dunne stretches Roy Johnson

Roy Johnson on the other hand was a far flashier looking performer and rare in this contest for being a sportsman before becoming a wrestler as a former power lifter.

Both men played their parts here very well but it was, of course, Dunne who was the highlight as he gradually picked apart the tenacious Johnson in a way reminiscent of the men whose colours he wore, Daniel Bryan and Blackpool’s own William Regal. This culminated in Dunne’s trademark pair of moves the X-Plex release vertical suplex and The Bitter End pump-handle flatliner that got him an unsurprising but emphatic win.

Having not seem a lot of Dunne before but being aware of his reputation, even at this early stage of the tournament he surpassed my expectations as he came across like a legitimate star and genuinely terrifying grappler.

Across the show as a whole it was very encouraging to hear WWE promoting some of the smaller independent British promotions and this was highlighted by the owners of both Progress Wrestling and ICW getting some screen time on the show. This points to good things for the future of WWE’s presence in the UK and relationship with both wrestlers and fans alike as it’s fair to say the fans of Progress and ICW support their ‘team’ just as much as the individual competitors.

‘The Last King of Scotland’ Wolfgang vs Tyson T-Bone

Wolfgang delivers The Howling

Wolfgang delivers The Howling

After quite a number of matches featuring smaller competitors, this one had the makings of a classic big man brawl and it didn’t disappoint. T-Bone came across as an impactful fighter from the start hitting a headbutt over the handshake before the pair went back and forth.

As the match went on it was ICW World Heavyweight Champion Wolfgang who really stood out with an incredible turn of speed for a big man giving the match a good dynamic of flashy stuff mixed in with the brawling.

Wolfgang though never looked like he was going to lose and sealed his win with The Howling Swanton Bomb.

Joseph Connors vs James Drake

While these two guys seemed to have a fairly similar look and style, it was Connors who stood out thanks to a partially missing ear that was used really well to tell his tough man story as he was reportedly left for dead after a fight in a night club leading to the disfigurement and he played up to it well – a bit like a modern Mankind.

Connors receives and enziguri kick

Connors receives and enziguri kick

After a great strong collar and elbow tie up opening, the match was very even and the ear came into play from both sides with Drake trying to attack Connors’ ‘injury’ and Connors looking to inflict similar brutality on his opponent.

After a very equal match it was Connors who got in his finishing combination of a reverse-elbow backbreaker (a very slick move I’ve not seen before) and his Don’t Look Down uranagi DDT to move on to the next round.

Mark Andrews vs Dan Moloney

Having had quite a storied career already, including a foray into US wrestling company TNA, Cardiff’s Mark Andrews (aka Mandrews) was something of a known commodity as a top-level high flyer. His opponent on the other hand, while perfectly fine left little impression and really that was the story of the match.

Mark Andrews

Mark Andrews

Throughout there was probably the clearest face/heel dynamic of the first round and Mandrews certainly looked like a star from the moment he stepped through the curtain. Getting in some nice high-flying action he got the win with his Stundog Millionaire counter (transforming his opponents’ suplex into a Stunner in slightly over convoluted fashion) and a very slick Shooting Star Press.

Tyler Bate vs Tucker

At just 19 years old it was very impressive to see Tyler Bate, the third member of British Strong Style with Dunne and Seven, headlining this first night – though he was playing the out-and-out babyface here.

Tyler Driver 97

Tyler Driver 97

Tucker was also playing face and the crowd loved both of them, but Bate just a little more as they put on a great show. The duo delivered a good back and forth but it was Bate’s slightly old school stylings that stood out with an airplane spin particularly marking this.

Tucker connected with a brutal super kick that looked like it would get him the win but Bate fought through and connected with his Tyler Driver 97 (a high angle Tiger Driver) to round of an excellent opening show of the tournament with real feeling wrestling matches accompanied by great character work and an amazing atmosphere.

The show concluded with the matches for the quarter finals being announced with the competitors on the stage and it was Pete Dunne who confirmed his impact with an attack on Sam Gradwell culminating in an X-Plex on the ramp and William Regal calling for his disqualification as the show went off the air.

Night 2

After the close of the previous night’s show it wasn’t too surprising that Pete Dunne featured strongly in the intro for night two and we didn’t have long to wait as, after recap from Cole and McGuinness, the first match got underway.

Quarter Finals
Pete Dunne vs Sam Gradwell

Gradwell and Dunne

Gradwell and Dunne

With his back taped up due to the previous night’s injury Gradwell was in fine angry form and he and Dunne kicked the night off with an intense brawl both inside and outside the ring leading to Gradwell getting a modicum of revenge with a butterfly suplex on the ramp.

Things turned soon after though with Dunne sending Gradwell tumbling to the floor further injuring his back before hitting a nasty looking slam into the turnbuckles, landing Gradwell on his head, for the win in a short, sharp, stiff and effective match.

After a post match Bitter End, Dunne cut a short promo on the stage and proved that he was a complete all round package of a pro-wrestler and at this stage was my pick to win the championship at the end of the night.

Mark Andrews vs Joseph Connors

Andrews hits a Shooting Star Press

Andrews hits a Shooting Star Press

In contrast to the last match Andrews kicked this off with a fast and athletic back and forth with Connors before the bigger man slowed it down and got the upper hand.

With more action outside the ring Andrews hit a nice cannonball off the barricade before being on the receiving end of a slingshot flatliner as the crowd cheered both men on.

Much like the first round though it was Mandrews who reversed a suplex and hit his top rope dive to progress. While I and the crowd would have been happy with either man winning Mandrews really feels like he deserves this, though maybe he didn’t deserve to have to face off with ‘The Bruiserweight’ later.

Wolfgang vs Trent Seven

Wolfgang absorbs the Seven Stars

Wolfgang absorbs the Seven Stars

With the two biggest remaining competitors facing off this one promised to be a hard-hitting affair and it certainly was.

Both guys come with big characters the crowd loved and that seemed to fuel them through a brawl outside the ring, including a moonsault off the barricade from the 250lb Wolfgang and low-level suicide dive from Seven.

Back in the ring Seven called for his ‘Lariatooo!’ but was revered leading to Wolfgang’s Wasteland and a missed moonsault followed by a nasty dragon suplex. With his nose streaming blood and possibly broken Wolfgang shocked everyone by surviving the Seven Stars and hitting The Howling to progress after a match that, at this stage, was a sure-fire highlight.

Jordan Devlin vs Tyler Bate

Another Tyler Driver 97

Another Tyler Driver 97

With more comparisons to Finn Balor, Devlin really played up his antics from last night as the crowd chanted ‘Your just a shit Finn Balor!’ in their typically unsubtle fashion while Bate was clearly the tournament’s fan favourite.

Despite this all becoming a bit too heavy on suicide dives the technical stuff here between the two was spot on as it built to a great airplane spin spot, developing on last night’s, before Devlin used the ropes on Bate’s eyes to regain the advantage and hit his spinning kick.

Surviving that though Bate hit his Bop And Bang sucker punch to set up the Tyler Driver 97 and win, showing himself to be a fine technical performer with even more excellent character work.

Mark Andrews vs Pete Dunne

Heading into the semi-finals this was the second match of the night for both men and it was clear that Andrews had the tougher path here, but the duo went at it at a pace from the off with Dunne showing another side keeping up with Andrews speedy high-flying.

Andrews and Dunne fight on the top rope

Andrews and Dunne fight on the top rope

With arm drag reversals and big moves galore, including a huricanrana from the ring steps, Andrews had many close falls before Dunne turned the tide with a modified X-Plex onto the ring apron.

Dunne’s strong style attack continued with some vicious looking stomps to Andrews head and neck building on a nice little neck injury story that developed across the match but Andrews still managed to counter an X-Plex into the Stundog and go for the Shooting Star.

Driving his knee’s to Andrew’s gut, Dunne countered and sealed his place in the final with a German Suplex into the turnbuckle another X-Plex and The Bitter End to round off what was arguably the match of the tournament.

Wolfgang vs Tyler Bate

On paper this was a huge mismatch with the biggest guy in the tournament squaring off against one of the smallest, but, thanks to a shoulder injury and broken nose, things were more even and a swift jab to Wolfgang’s face only helped Bate’s cause.

Wolfgang and Bate trade strikes

Wolfgang and Bate trade strikes

Despite the injuries Wolfgang put on a power display against his smaller opponent and even missing an early attempt at The Howling didn’t seem to slow him down.

As the crowd reached a crescendo that would barely let up for the rest of the night it was Bate who shocked everyone by hitting his Tyler Driver 97 on the big man to win a shorter but still sweet contest and earn his place in the final.

The celebration was short-lived though as Pete Dunne continued his tear across the tourney by attacking Bate from behind and twice driving him shoulder first into the ring post before being run off again by William Regal and setting up a final with great heat and a great story between these two superb performers.

Exhibition match
Adrian Neville vs ?

Having been missed out of the Cruiserweight Classic last summer and now not in this tournament, Newcastle born grappler Adrian Neville was on hand to continue his very successful heel turn in front of this comparatively local crowd, and turn well he did.

Of course having this match gave Dunne and Bate a chance to have a break but also worked well to further establish Neville’s new bitter bad guy persona which is far better than his past bland baby face superhero and the crowd ate it up as he claimed no one could beat him, not just in the UK but all of Europe.

Tommy End with a bridging German Suplex on Adrian Neville

Tommy End with a bridging German Suplex on Adrian Neville

At this challenge new WWE signee and regular performer on the UK scene, Amsterdam born fighter, Tommy End appeared making his on-screen WWE debut (before becoming Aleister Black in NXT full-time).

The pair put on a great little exhibition that, even if not at full pace was still hugely entertaining and seemed to merely hint at End’s capabilities. After some amazing strikes from End, Neville got the upper hand with a standing top rope hurricanrana that set up for The Red Arrow giving the Englishman the win to a rain of boos.

Following an appearance at a Progress show in Birmingham earlier in the day Finn Balor was on back in Blackpool ahead of the final and, while the ‘We deserve this’ chant from the crowd was a little grating it was hard to argue that the UK really has deserved something special for a long time being such a hotbed of wrestling action over the years.

WWE United Kingdom Championship
Tyler Bate vs Pete Dunne

Pete Dunne and Tyler Bate

Bate works on the arm of Dunne

With Bate selling the shoulder injury and Dunne the confident and vicious heel the scene was well set for a British Strong Style final that didn’t disappoint.

The crowd was chanting ‘British Wrestling’ early, clearly still split over who they wanted to win of these two rather different (here at least) grapplers.

Soon though the story took over and they got behind Bate as the pair delivered some stiff work that built and built to a crescendo for the whole weekend.

Once again Bate’s airplane spin grew into a back to back to back trio of them and a 450 double stomp looked set to finish off Dunne, but it didn’t.

Tyler Bate and Pete Dunne

Bate eats a forearms from Dunne

Dunne came back with a Bitter End before locking in a Kimura double wrist lock that Bate reversed into a nasty looking brainbuster that still didn’t get him the win.

With things hitting their peak another stiff striking exchange came to an end with a pair of rolling wheel kicks from Bate setting up a Tyler Driver 97 for the three count making him the first ever WWE United Kingdom Champion.

With Balor, Regal, Fit Finlay and Triple H all on hand Bate looked brilliantly shocked, and I don’t think it was entirely an act, as the crowd gave the performers a standing ovation to close off an amazing two nights of properly structured professional wrestling that built to a raging climax of passion and power.

Triple H, Tyler Bate and William Regal

Triple H, Tyler Bate and William Regal

If this is a sign of things to come I can only be incredibly happy and I hope WWE take some of this into their other regular programming as it is some of the best I have seen from that company in some time, of course a lot of the credit for that is down to the excellent wrestlers coming out of the UK and Ireland right now.

Now to investigate more Progress, Rev Pro, ICW, etc…

All photos from WWE.com

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Nessi Gomes – Diamonds and Demons

Nessi Gomes - Diamonds & Demons album artHaving first made her presence known playing highly regarded sets of acoustic cover versions around Guernsey over the last decade, 2016 saw Nessi Gomes refocus her attention to her own music and, following a wildly successful crowd funding campaign through IndieGoGo, release her first collection of original music, Diamonds & Demons.

While Gomes’ live performances have generally focussed on her solo vocal and guitar work, such as in her mesmerising set at the 2016 Sark Folk Festival, on record that sound is expanded with a host of guest musicians and the work of producer and arranger Duncan Bridgeman.

This expansion gives the album a strangely electronic feel, combined with a development of the folk and world elements of Gomes’ original writing. We are introduced to this through the oddly hypnotic Into The Earth that drifts its way from the speakers to become firmly lodged in the listeners head.

From there the record meanders from the slightly more commercial likes of These Walls through songs in Gomes’ native Portuguese to moments reminiscent of Sigur Ros’ vast soundscapes.

Nessi Gomes at Sark Folk Festival

Nessi Gomes at Sark Folk Festival

While all the production serves to develop the songs very well the strongest feature of the whole album remains the core of Gomes’ singing and playing. This has something of the style of many current female vocalists but Gomes adds to that an extra soulfulness combined with a strong streak of thoughtfulness and meaning in the lyrics all of which is captured here.

The highlight of all of this is the title track, Diamonds & Demons, that combines everything that makes the album what it is with the addition of Mercury Music Prize nominee Sam Lee on extra vocals, contrasting and complimenting Gomes’ voice excellently.

Though it is a more developed sound than I’ve heard from Nessi Gomes in the past what Diamonds & Demons does as an album is capture the essence of her work and develop it to create something that washes over the listener in the same way as her live performances, but with many extras that could only come from the studio all in a highly enjoyable package.

This review was also posted in The Guernsey Press on Saturday 14th January 2017:

Nessi Gomes - Diamonds and Demons review scan

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David Bowie – Blackstar

David Bowie - Blackstar album coverA little over a year the world lost a musician who had an unarguably massive effect on popular culture in the last third of the 20th century, David Robert Jones, far better known as David Bowie. Two days before his death, on his 69th birthday, he released his 25th full length album, Blackstar.

Following comparatively hot on the heels of the far poppier The Next Day (released three years previously following a hiatus of a decade) even a year later its hard to escape the sense of farewell and eulogy that runs through Blackstar.

I’ll freely admit that my favourite Bowie period is his far more accessible early 1970s material when he morphed from the dress wearing ‘hippie’ of Hunky Dory into the hyper sexualised alien glam rock god Ziggy Stardust, though other moments throughout his long career have also stood out and if I’m honest even then his work could be exploratory, experimental and against the grain of majority of pop.

Blackstar then is something of a shift of tone as it weaves it way through a dark and rhythmic set of art heavy pop-rock containing hints of jazz and industrial along with surprisingly danceable rhythms and a strong electronic side in the arrangement and production (on which Bowie worked with long time collaborator Tony Visconti).

David Bowie

David Bowie

The title track of the album kicks things off in the style of an epic sci-fi funeral ritual that, over its length, segues into a kind of eulogy then a mortal self-justification and this sets the tone for the album as a whole.

Tis Pity She’s A Whore shows Bowie’s sense of sexuality hasn’t vanished but has changed and his sense of vaudevillian archness that marked his early work (and arguably his whole career) remains strongly intact before Lazarus brings back the autobiographical and prophetic feel.

For me the album’s most enjoyable track comes with the wilful nonsense and linguistic overtones of A Clockwork Orange on Girl Loves Me.

We then get a closing duo that feels like its referencing the past with Dollar Days’ acoustic guitars and saxophones going back to that 70s populist heyday before I Can’t Give Everything Away closes the surprisingly brief record on something of an intentionally incomplete note as it slips away into silence.

David Bowie in BlackstarAs a whole Blackstar is not an album that will be blasting from speakers on a regular basis like Bowie’s more pop oriented material but it is regardless an impressive work of art that I got the feeling was formed exactly as Bowie intended.

All of this, combined with the aforementioned knowledge that Bowie knew this would be his final record, gives Blackstar an odd atmosphere. This combined with a hypnotic quality makes it linger in the back of the mind rather than stand boldly at the forefront, but I can’t help but feel this was exactly the point as like Bowie himself I get the feeling this will never leave my consciousness.

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Star Trek: First Contact

Star Trek First Contact posterBack when JJ Abrams and Paramount Studios partially rebooted the Star Trek franchise in 2009 I embarked on my own now considerably more than five-year mission to rewatch the entirety of Trek.

That’s taken me to peaks (Start Trek II: The a Wrath of Kahn, the climax of Star Trek: The Next Generation) and troughs (Season 3 of The Original Series, Star Trek V: The Final Frontier) but now I’ve reached probably the highlight of my cinematic Trek viewing (I was too young for Kahn first time round), Star Trek: First Contact.

As this movie was something of a highlight of my teenage cinema going I’m pleased to report it stands up pretty well, enjoyment-wise. Taking the most popular villainous alien race from The Next Generation TV series, The Borg, and reuniting the cast last seen together in Star Trek: Generations it contains many of the standard tropes of Trek with much talking and debate, time travel and moral dilemmas aplenty.

In this it manages to be one of the most action packed of the original run of the Star Trek films with a spectacular space battle in the first act that sees a decimated Federation fleet going up against a single Borg cube and kick starting the story of the Enterprise crew heading back in time to save the future.

Picard, Data and some less fortunate crew members

Picard, Data and some less fortunate crew members

While it’s all very enjoyable for a Trek fan like myself, it’s hard to avoid the fact that, once the main story really kicks in, the movie does revert into feeling a bit too much like a longer, bigger budget, version of a TV episode.

It’s hard to put a finger on exactly what causes this but part of it is the way director Jonathan Frakes (also Cdr. William Riker) has the film shot.

I get the feeling much of this was to try to create a claustrophobic feeling on board the invaded ship, but it serves to make it look far cheaper and smaller in scale than it could be.

Along with this the scenes in the mountains of Montana on Earth come with very few establishing shots or cinematically impressive views of the bunker complex which continue the TV budget feel and Frakes doesn’t really come with a great pedigree in cinema before or since.

Thankfully many of the performances keep it enjoyable and lively.

Borg cube battle

The battle with the Borg

Patrick Stewart as Captain Jean-Luc Picard does exactly what he does best throughout while the continuing story of Commander Data’s ‘becoming more human’ gives Brent Spiner the chance to continue his always mesmerisingly eccentric turn as the android officer.

Beyond that the guest stars feel like they’re going through the motions with James Cromwell’s Zephram Cochrane being rather one-dimensional, but fun, and Alice Krige’s Borg Queen doing little but giving a physical form to an antagonist previously notable for its lack of individual physical form, so somewhat spoiling the effect.

All this, if I’m totally honest, makes for a bit of a rough ride of a movie in many ways as it’s probably a bit too self-referencing, but comes with a certain extra joie de vivre often missing from Star Trek that makes it an entertaining couple of hours, even if it does feel like it could have been a TV special rather than a full-blown movie.

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Metallica – Hardwired… To Self-Destruct

Metallica - Hardwired... To Self-Destruct cover artWhen Metallica released Hardwired, the lead single from their 10th studio album, things were looking good. That track felt like a reenergised band, harking back to their prime but with a newly rediscovered power and intensity.

Now the album itself, Hardwired… to Self-Destruct has been released on the world, it appears things aren’t quite as straightforward.

Once you’ve got past the album cover which looks like it may have had a good idea behind it, even if the execution doesn’t quite live up to that, the double album (going by the CD version) starts well with the aforementioned titular single and the inventively heavy Atlas Rise!

Now That We’re Dead and Moth Into The Flame aren’t too bad either with some nice groovy passages reminiscent of the band’s mid-90s era, but it is around here that a few problems start to present themselves.

Other than Hardwired every track clocks in at over five minutes and, while this has been a trademark of the band throughout their career, that trademark used to include an inventiveness that saw the songs evolve and transition.

Metallica 2016This was most notably heard on …And Justice For All, but here they just seem to repeat the same passages without development making it feel like many of these songs could be cut in half and remain just as, if not more, effective.

In the same way as Ride The Lightning & Master of Puppets in the mid 1980s and Load & Reload in the mid 1990s, Hardwired… To Self-Destruct very much feels like a partner to Metallica’s last studio album Death Magnetic.

Unfortunately while Ride and Master were the band hitting their creative peak and Load and Reload saw them trying something new, what this pair of albums seems to do is hark back to the past, particularly that mid-80s heyday, which unfortunately demonstrates a once highly innovative band treading water and, potentially, falling foul of too high a level of fan service than really is required.

The second disc of the album continues this largely forgettable feeling that sadly, while not actually bad, simply isn’t very good either. For a band as historically divisive as Metallica this is a real shame – in many ways I’d rather hate this record than simply feel largely ambivalent to it.

Metallica live in 2016

Metallica live in 2016

A highlight of a sort of the second disc is Murder One, a tribute to long time friend of the band Motorhead’s Lemmy Kilmister, but even this feels a bit too forced and passionless in its rendering here.

In the end then Hardwired… to Self-Destruct is, for the most part, an overlong set of songs that feel like Metallica are repeating themselves and stuck in some kind of loop of searching to relive past glories and keep fans happy while essentially failing to do either – at least St. Anger got people talking…

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Mutation – Dark Black (Mutation III)

Mutation - Dark Black artworkA couple of years ago Ginger Wildheart unleashed two albums, The Frankenstein Effect and Error 500, featuring an assortment of guest musicians under the name Mutation exploring more extreme elements of the Wildhearts frontman’s song writing.

Now in the first weekend of 2017, hot on the heels of the unconnected Fuck You Brain single, at the now customary time of 5:55 on a Friday evening, Mutation III aka Dark Black was released into the world through the Round Records campaign on crowd funding site PledgeMusic.

From the off Dark Black doesn’t mess around with Ginger and his co-conspirator here, Exit International/Jaws Of Deaf’s Scott Lee Andrews, hitting us with jagged extreme metal guitars and brutal blast beats from the off.

The line up for this album is slightly less broad than the previous efforts which gives it a more singular feel, but it still features Devin Townsend and Phil Campbell along with regular Ginger collaborators Givvi Flynn and ‘Random’ Jon Poole. The presence of Townsend is certainly noticeable as throughout there is something of a Strapping Young Lad feel to the noise.

Ginger Wildheart

Ginger Wildheart

The opening three tracks, Authenticity, Toxins and Devolution, merge together without a pause for breath in their shredding guitars and multilayered, barked vocals which render it nearly unintelligible but packed with the kind of spirit and energy that still makes it clear what’s being said.

Irritant gives us the nearest thing Mutation are ever likely to produce to a single, though I doubt this will ever be finding its way anyway near the pop charts, with strong hints of what has made Ginger’s poppier stuff so catchy added into the mix – along with a barrage of expletives.

The rest of the album continues this kind of dense tech-death, indie-punk noise that sounds like the aforementioned SYL and British rockers Reuben having a knife fight in a vat of flesh melting acid, while some moments clearly share DNA with The Wildheart’s Endless, Nameless and lyrically there are points that brought to mind John Cooper Clarke.

Scott Lee Andrews

Scott Lee Andrews

All that said for me it is the most accessible of the three Mutation albums to date, though that may say more about me than the record.

Dogs feels like a rousing climax to the album before Deterioration rounds off half an hour or so of unremitting intensity with a truly thunderous driller-killer-chainsaw-massacre climax of a track.

This horror movie comparison seems particularly fitting for the album as a whole as Dark Black feels like a Nightmare In A Damaged Brain of a record that gives the listener a view into a place they may not want to visit but that is strangely satisfying with it.

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Vale Earth Fair New Years Eve Party – The Fermain Tavern – 31/12/16

The Recks

The Recks

2016 was a landmark year for Guernsey’s longest running music festival, the Vale Earth Fair, as it marked 40 years since the first fair took place.

To celebrate that they organised a series of special events from their unplugged night to a return visit from recent favourites Pussycat & The Dirty Johnsons to the main festival itself and, to round of the year, a new year’s party like no other with The Recks, Vienna Ditto and Gay Army.

My review of the show was published in the Guernsey Press on Saturday 7th January 2017 and you can see a full set of my photos from the show on the BBC Introducing Guernsey Facebook page.

The Recks, Vienna Ditto and Gay Army review scan - 07/01/17

New Years Eve can often be an odd night for events as people look to do rather different and specific things to ‘ring in’ the new year, so a regular live music show may not be much of a draw. Thankfully the Vale Earth Fair Collective were on hand at The Fermain Tavern to round off their 40th Anniversary celebrations with a selection of bands chosen to make this feel like something special, and in that they certainly delivered.

DJs St. Ace and Vauvert Underground kicked things off (as well as filling in between the bands throughout the night) and set the scene with a suitably varied selection of tracks ranging everything from Faith No More to The Jam to Grace Jones to Motorhead and as the night wore on they kept people on the dance floor until the bitter end.

Gay Army

Gay Army

First on stage though were Gay Army. Having been absent for the last year or so it was good to see and hear them back and they launched into things with their usual wall of nicely un-festive noise and darkness.

Jo Reeve’s guitar filled the Tav with with a swirling mix of distortion and delay while Ian Allsopp and Jay Allen’s rhythms added a groovy, dance-y, underlay that got a few moving early on (albeit at a polite distance from the stage).

That distance was filled by vocalist Rolls who prowled in front of the stage like a man possessed and, though he was at times an intimidating presence, it is he that tops off Gay Army’s sound to make it the dark, rhythmic beast it is.

Even if a few seemed slightly put off by the constant intensity as the set wore on, closer Cracked Amerika ended it on a high point that felt perfectly suitable for the transition from 2016 to 2017.

As Reading based duo Vienna Ditto set up on stage I was curious. They played the Vale Earth Fair itself in 2015 and though I missed them I had heard very good reports from many and, what with this seemingly being the year of the two piece band, I was hopeful.

Vienna Ditto

Vienna Ditto

Unfortunately what followed was 45 minutes of a largely disjointed, glitchy, mess of sounds combining synths, sharply distorted guitars and vocals in a way that rarely seemed to structurally coalesce into any kind of sustained groove and a total absence of any hook.

Confusing ‘chat’ between the tracks and an insistence of telling people to dance didn’t help and while the projections on the back of the stage looked nice they didn’t add anything either or even seem to connect to the songs.

Certainly the two members of the band were good at what they were doing, particularly the vocals stood out strongly, and towards the end of the set there were a couple of moments where it seemed to come together a little more but it was too little too late for me.

Despite my misgivings a fair few headed onto the dance floor and looked to be enjoying it and I was left thinking I could see how this could be as impressive as I was told, it just didn’t get there tonight.

Richey Powers and Mox of The Recks

Richey and Mox of The Recks

Having reformed back in October this was only the second appearance from the new line up of The Recks and once again there was something of a sense of anticipation for it and the dance floor filled as they got themselves set up on stage.

Kicking off with the historically highly energetic Lipstick & High Heels and latest single Low Life it soon became clear that once again, while the band are tighter than they’ve ever been, it all felt a bit slow and the sense of excitement and danger that once made them so compelling was yet to be re-found or replaced. This made for a very odd set that certainly was not by any stretch unenjoyable as both the songs and the performance were great, but just missed something.

Just before midnight they launched into old favourite She Wants That Too and the whole band seemed to get a new energy reminiscent of old that I hoped would carry the rest of the set. Unfortunately midnight meant a break for bagpipes, kisses (for the lucky ones), hugs and general auld lang syne mumbling.

Ash Jarman and Richey Powers of The Recks

Ash and Richey of The Recks

Following that we got something an encore from The Recks with Valentine getting some of the previous energy back and Papa Leworthy closing the show and leaving many calling for more.

While this was certainly a mixed bag of a night it was a great way of seeing in the new year and closed off a highlight year for the Vale Earth Fair in exactly the way they have always done things; with varied, interesting and different sounds showcasing just what Guernsey and the islands have to offer alongside visitors you may not otherwise get to experience – and here’s to more of it in 2017 and beyond.

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Wrestle Kingdom 11 – Tokyo Dome – 04/01/17

Wrestle Kingdom 11 posterFor as long as I have been a fan of pro-wrestling (coming up to 25 years later in 2017) the idea of Japanese wrestling and of New Japan Pro-Wrestling (NJPW) in particular has been present in the background.

In recent years I’ve sought out matches featuring specific performers, usually those making a mark in WWE such as Shinsuke Nakamura, AJ Styles, Kota Ibushi and Prince Devitt (aka Finn Balor). Now though I have watched my first complete NJPW show, the 25th edition of their ‘equivalent to WrestleMania‘ the 2017 ‘January 4th show’, Wrestle Kingdom 11 in Tokyo Dome.

The more than five-hour event started with a pre-show featuring a warm up match, the New Japan Rumble, in much the same way as its American alternative starts to build hype and warm up the crowd to encourage more to purchase the main programme.

Staring off with ‘Unbreakable’ Michael Elgin (returning from injury) and veteran Billy Gunn, the match loosely took the format of WWE’s Royal Rumble but with the addition of elimination by pinfall and submission and with less of a serious, high stakes tone.

Across the match young performers and legends squared off in mostly scrappy action with Elgin really looking like the only serious contender.

Michael Elgin

Michael Elgin

Nostalgia was served with appearances from many legends including WCW main stay Scott Norton, a former headliner here, Tiger Mask (IV) and Jushin ‘Thunder’ Liger. Most of the action was unspectacular though Tiger Mask and Liger had a few nice moments while the climax came with a nice sequence seeing the monstrous Elgin going against the minuscule Cheeseburger culminating in a nice powerbomb from Elgin giving him a solid return victory.

From there we got an excellent intro package to the main show hyping all 10 matches and, even though I don’t speak a word of Japanese, I got the general idea and it certainly worked to get me excited as English language commentators Kevin Kelly and a particular ECW favourite of mine, ‘The King of Old School’ Steve Corino welcomed us to the Tokyo Dome along with the 40,000 or so people in the cavernous arena.

The wide shot of the arena was the first place where it really struck me that while a near equivalent to WrestleMania this was going to be a very different show. Most of the set up looked like it could have come for anytime since the 1970s with the ring central and well-lit while the audience were in comparative darkness. The only exception to this was the spectacular stage that did live up to the US comparison though in a very different way that comes into play more as the show goes on and things get more spectacular.

Tiger Mask W vs Tiger The Dark

While the general tone of NJPW is more serious and sporty than the ‘sports entertainment’ of WWE the opener looked, on paper, like it could be straight from the mecca of pro-wrestling commerciality as two cartoon characters faced off in a match as much designed to plug the new series of the Tiger Mask anime series as be a match.

Tiger Mask W with a German Suplex

Tiger Mask W with a German Suplex

Once the action focussed on the ring though it was clear though that what happened between the ropes was the most important thing with both characters being portrayed by legitimate competitors and the commentary making the point that regardless of the ‘gimmick’ both men were trying to make a point with their performance here.

As the match went on it became clear that the heroic masked tiger was, in fact, Kota Ibushi as he hit a range of his signature spots across the serious and fairly stiff junior heavyweight (NJPW’s version of Cruiserweight) contest. There was some good back and forth but it was clear both men weren’t quite firing on all cylinders, no doubt down to the masks and the early slot, and the end came with Ibushi’s excellent sit-out Last Ride powerbomb so, while not spectacular this was a nice warm up match and scene setter for what was to come.

IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Championship
Roppongi Vice (Rocky Romero & Beretta) representing Chaos vs The Young Bucks (Matt and Nick Jackson) representing Bullet Club (C)

The junior heavyweight action continued next, demonstrating as I’d heard that this is a mainstay of NJPW’s undercard, with a match for the junior tag team titles.

Before they even got to the ring The Young Bucks magic was working on me as I at once hated their cocky attitudes but was loving their work – there is clearly a reason they were carrying multiple championships belt with them.

Roppongi Vice and The Young Bucks

Roppongi Vice and The Young Bucks

This was a nice touch and the first time that NJPW’s willingness to cross promote was noticeable tonight really making this feel like an international showcase far more than WrestleMania ever has.

Roppongi Vice on the other hand were more understated but still great in the ring.

In the 10 minutes they had, both teams showed a great range of their skills with great tag team and high-flying moments and some spectacular trash talking from the Jackson brothers. The Bucks had the upper hand for the most part but both teams had their moments and a lot of super kicks (the Bucks trademark) before a well executed last-minute turn around saw the bad guys get their comeuppance as Rocky Romero got the roll up pin in counter to the Bucks high-flying finisher.

This felt like a great shock win given the brashness of The Young Bucks but Roppongi Vice are certainly not a team to ever over look both being veterans of this division. As well as being the first title change of the night, something that was to become part of the show’s full story, it was also the first of the gang warfare type matches between the various factions that vie for control of New Japan.

NEVER Openweight 6-Man Tag Team Championship Gauntlet

The idea of gang warfare grew even more next as the NEVER 6-man tag belts were on the line in a four team gauntlet that kicked off with…

Bullet Club (Bad Luck Fale, Hangman Page & Yujiro Takahashi) vs Chaos (Jado, Will Ospreay & Yoshi-Hashi)

Will Ospreay and Chaos make their entrance

Will Ospreay and Chaos make their entrance

If the opening match had felt a bit PG with the cartoon characters as soon as Bullet Club’s resident pimp Yujiro Takahashi made his way to the ring with a bevy of scantily clad young ladies that thought was put aside for good, although the sheer number of lesser members of Bullet Club couldn’t help but remind me of later NWO in WCW, which isn’t a great thing.

That said as soon as the match got going that was forgotten as both teams put on a great show. The highlight of this section of the match came when ‘The Ariel Assassin’, Essex-boy, Will Ospreay came up against Hangman Page and the duo’s contrasting styles really made for a good match up. It was also great seeing and hearing Ospreay get a lot of respect from both the older performers in the match and the commentators before veteran Chaos member Jado lost the first fall to Takahashi seeing them eliminated from the match.

Bullet Club vs Los Ingobernables de Japon (Bushi, EVIL and Sanada)

With what appeared to be two heel teams facing off this match continued the trend of absorbing competition playing up the gang element though much of it didn’t stick with me right away.

EVIL takes a chair to Takahashi

EVIL takes a chair to Takahashi

That said LIJ’s characters definitely did and Bushi was impressively fast. The win came for LIJ in a nice heel tactics moment with the help of a chair and, one of my favourite moves, a dragon suplex.

Los Ingobernables de Japon vs David Finlay, Ricochet and Satoshi Kojima (C)

Again a more varied match up like the first part of the gauntlet the veteran Kojima was the first to really get the crowd properly alive with his classic trademark moments. That said he wasn’t my highlight of the match as Ricochet’s high flying work was simply astonishing to behold and LIJ had some excellent three-way offence often missing from WWE’s version of 6-man tag team wrestling.

Bushi’s classic mist blinding Kojima spelt his doom as EVIL connected with Evil (his finishing move) to get the win and claim the championships for the LIJ.

As a whole the match as expectedly very much spot-to-spot but was entertaining none-the-less and the warring gangs story built as it went on as we saw another set of belts change hands.

‘The American Nightmare’ Cody vs Juice Robinson

Making his in-ring debut for NJPW the artist formerly known as Stardust, the son of ‘The American Dream’ Dusty Rhodes, Cody was a standout reason for a WWE fan like me tuning in to Wrestle Kingdom 11 and from the moment he stepped through the curtain it was clear this wasn’t quite the same guy who’d been getting bored on the other side of the Pacific.

'The American Nightmare' Cody Rhodes

‘The American Nightmare’ Cody Rhodes

That said Juice Robinson (NXT’s CJ Parker in a past life) also seem more energised than when I’d last seen him, but there was no way this was going to be anything but Cody’s match.

Throughout Corino on commentary hyped Cody having feuded with the Dream back in ECW and this, along with Cody’s heel attitude as part of Bullet Club, set him up excellently.

The match itself was far more in the American heavyweight style with Cody focussing on Robinson’s knee as the main story, though Cody still found room for some nice athletic moments only hinted at in WWE.

Some highlights of the match were a very nice inverted figure-four leg lock/Indian Deathlock type hold (apparently dubbed The American Nightmare) and a wink to Randy Orton with a top rope draping DDT that looks particularly nasty before Cody countered Juice’s Pulp Friction finisher into the Cross Rhodes for an emphatic debut win in a match that was a nice change of pace to the openers.

Ring Of Honour World Championship
Adam Cole vs Kyle O’Reilly (C)

Once more this match had a more American feel to the story with former partners who have been battling over the Ring of Honour (ROH) gold for the last few months facing off.

This also continued the international and cross-promotional flavour of the show with this being a championship from one of (if not the) top independent wrestling company in the USA, and it came complete with its own ROH referee.

Cole with a thrust kick to O'Reilly

Cole with a thrust kick to O’Reilly

Cole and O’Reilly met in the centre of the ring to shake hands, apparently observing the ‘code of honour’, until Cole spat in the face in O’Reilly and so it went from there.

O’Reilly came across like an American Dragon for a new era with a great mix of strong strikes and tight holds before Cole hit his Last Shot neck breaker early but only garnered a two count.

If it hadn’t been a heated fight before it was from there and the pair put on a very strong showing highlighted by a powerful ‘hockey fight’, a brutal looking standing ankle lock and many thrust kick and shining wizard variations.

A third Last Shot sealed the deal for Cole to become the first ever three-time ROH World Champion and his shocked reaction was great for a cocky heel of the Bullet Club. The inclusion of the ring attendants rushing in to aid O’Reilly after the match also helped to sell this as the powerful affair it was and if it hadn’t been obvious before the ‘sport’ element of pro-wrestling here was clearly much stronger than I’ve seen in many other promotions.

IWGP Tag Team Championship
Chaos (Tomohiro Ishii & Toru Yano) vs G.B.H. (Togi Makabe & Tomoaki Honma) vs Guerillas of Destiny (Tama Tonga and Tanga Roa) representing Bullet Club (C)

With Toru Yano having stolen both the Guerrillas of Destiny’s (GoD) title belts and G.B.H.’s tag team trophies there was a strong story to this from the start with both teams out for revenge on the comparatively humorous looking grappler.

Toru Yano

Toru Yano

Before we get to the match though its worth noting how intimidating GoD look on their way to the ring and during the match with them channeling the reputation of their forebear Meng (aka Haku) and adding to it genuinely scary war paint – Uso’s take note, this is how this gimmick is done.

Anyway back to action GoD were far and away the highlight of this match and it being a three-way did seem hamper the action at a few points. That said all three teams had their moments; Ishii is a beast of a man and his stiff shots were impressive while G.B.H.’s slightly more old-school looking approach was a nice contrast.

Another thing worth noting here was the language coming from the ring with some many f-bombs and more dropped Corino lost it to laughter on commentary but it really helped to sell how much these guys were going for each other.

The climax of the match felt like a disappointment but served to develop the story with Chaos getting the win after some rule breaking though it was GoD I came away from this as a big new fan of and I will be investigating them more that’s for sure.

IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship
Hiromu Takahashi representing LIJ vs Kushida (C)

It was at this point in the show that the competitors entrances really started to escalate so Takahashi’s ‘Ticking Time Bomb’ gimmick really came across strong in the visuals while Kushida’s Back To The Future referencing was excellent before they kicked off with some high-flying action before the bell even rang.

Kushida goes for the Hoverboard Lock on Takahashi

Kushida goes for the Hoverboard Lock on Takahashi

After a bit of more ground based work Takahashi hit a sunset flip powerbomb to the floor on Kushida and real jeopardy came into play as this was sold as an almost match ending spot with the referee and doctors checking on the champ.

From here he was clearly the injured underdog but fought valiantly with the crowd behind him strongly. As well as a crazy top rope senton spot from Takahashi the pair put on a great fast match with some real fighting over holds that is something often missing in WWE and sells how painful and damaging some of these MMA style holds can be, particularly Kushida’s ‘Hoverboard Lock’ Kimura style arm bar.

As the match went on the crowd really became lively and a straight punch spot really added to this before Takahashi hit a spectacular spinning victory roll driver from the top rope (I can’t think of any other way to describe it) for the win and to become the new Junior Heavyweight Champ in the fifth title change of the night.

NEVER Openweight Championship
Hirooki Goto vs ‘The Wrestler’ Katsuyori Shibata (C)

Even before he got the ring I was impressed with Shibata’s no gimmick gimmick as ‘The Wrestler’ in basic black gear and carrying not only the contested NEVER championship but also the RevPro Championship from the UK-based promotion (yet more international representation).

Shibata and Goto

Shibata and Goto

As the match got going both men impressed hugely with a match that I could only describe as being exactly what sprang into my mind when I first heard the words ‘strong style’.

Excellent mat work, stiff striking and a sense that this isn’t entertainment anymore, this is sport through and through – though with it remaining hugely absorbing and entertaining.

The drama culminated in a GTR from Goto to Shibata giving him the championship after a flat-out excellent, hard-hitting, contest that could easily have been the highlight of the show if there wasn’t more to come.

IWGP Intercontinental Championship
Hiroshi Tanahashi vs Tetsuya Naito representing LIJ (C)

With IWGP Intercontinental Championship having gained a reputation putting it on a par with the Heavyweight belt this really felt like the start of a main event and the feeling of the stakes involved and the spectacular entrances really added to that.

Tanahashi flies at Naito

Tanahashi flies at Naito

Naito in particular brought something of what Nakamura brought to this with his entrance coming across as a kind of manga character underworld mob boss as leader of Los Ingobernables de Japon and while the production isn’t quite as slick as WWE it feels the better and more realistic for it.

The match itself was an excellent example of an all out good guy facing off against and anti-hero with the crowd divided between the two fighters throughout just adding to the drama and action that was both technical and hard-hitting if a bit more mainstream feeling than the preceding NEVER championship bout.

There were too many highlights to mention but a slingblade from Tanahashi on the apron followed by a top rope ‘frog style’ plancha was quite a moment. Both men delivered in fantastic ways at least equaling the previous contest before a series of Destino from Naito saw him buck the night’s trend for title changes by keeping his grip on the IGWP Intercontinental Championship and further confirming his position and reputation while Tanahashi’s place was being called into question.

IWGP Heavyweight Championship
‘The Cleaner’ Kenny Omega representing Bullet Club vs ‘The Rainmaker’ Kazuchika Okada representing Chaos (C)

Okada and Omega

Okada and Omega

If the previous two matches hadn’t stolen the show the promo package that aired here upped the stakes further as it was made clear this match wasn’t just for a championship and the individual competitors but the very future of New Japan could hinge on the outcome.

It genuinely felt like it from not only the competitors but the commentators and the crowd as well – something I’ve not felt in a long time on other wrestling shows.

Aping The Terminator (and WWE”s Triple H), Kenny Omega made his way to the ring in genuinely spectacular style before a more traditional but still impressive entrance from the champion Okada which set the scene for what was to come.

Starting with some smooth and flawless chain wrestling both quickly went for their respective finishers, for Omega the One Winged Angel and for Okada The Rainmaker, before breaking off. Both displayed great story work early on that continued and the throughout the wrestling was back and forth and nothing but excellent.

Omega with a springboard moonsault on Okada

Omega with a springboard moonsault on Okada

The contrast of Omega’s cockiness and speed with Okada’s confidence and more traditional but still dangerous approach was great to see and as the match went on both men stuck with their styles and characters excellently.

At 46 minutes it would be impossible to pick out everything worthy of note in this match but a terminator riffing senton dive, a draping DDT on the floor, a brutal missile dropkick and a huge springboard moonsault to the floor were a few.

As the match seemed to be nearing its a climax Omega hit a top rope dragon suplex that could easily have ended not just the match by Okada’s career before an extended signature counter sequence with both men struggling to get the upper hand before a final Rainmaker folded Omega up giving Okada the win.

It sounds like hyperbole and enough people have already said as much before me, but this is one of the best and most consistent wrestling matches I have ever witnessed and I could be picky about the amount of finisher kick outs that happened but that would be churlish as both men did something I would never have though possible, especially in a match of this length and I urge anyone with a passing interesting in pro-wrestling to check this out.

Kazuchika Okada

Kazuchika Okada

In the end Wrestle Kingdom 11 did get off to a slightly shaky start but it built throughout its duration with both the title changes and the gang warfare element to a real climax that all came together far more than I would have thought at the half way mark.

Also as my first experience of a full NJPW show I was happy to see it treat wrestling more seriously and maintain the sport feel often lost elsewhere (and it was a thankful antidote to ITV’s recent World of Sport special). The production was more basic than WWE but this gave it a more real and organic feeling and with a climax like that I defy anyone to not enjoy this show – and in Los Ingobernables de Japon I think I have a new favourite wrestling stable.

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The Beatles: Eight Days A Week – The Touring Years

The Beatles: Eight Days A Week - The Touring Years posterThe story of The Beatles is one that has been told, to reference one of John Lennon’s famous quotes, as many times as Christmas, so sitting down to watch Ron Howard’s new documentary feature on them I wondered just how much it could add.

Well thankfully Eight Days A Week – The Touring Years adds a lot to the tale, particularly when it comes to the context of quite how and why they became the phenomenon that they did.

Tracing their career as a live band from the Cavern Club and the Reeperbahn to Shea Stadium and the roof of the Apple Corps offices, it focusses on a side of the band that is generally less explored in favour of their more artistically credible time holed up in Abbey Road Studios.

Howard has constructed the film in a relatively conventional way with talking head interviews (including new interviews with Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr), archive clips of John Lennon and George Harrison as well as Brian Epstein, George Martin and other behind the scenes people and contemporary concert footage.

Paul McCartney and John Lennon

Paul McCartney and John Lennon

The interviews help set this apart by giving The Beatles a context often missing from other documentaries. While the band members tell us what it was like being in the eye of the Beatlemania storm, which gets more interesting as the touring and press attention take their toll, it is the ‘celebrity’ fans who really help give it a context.

One of the most notable of these early on is Whoopi Goldberg who recounts seeing the Fab Four on The Ed Sullivan Show which leads into a fascinating thread demonstrating how the band fell, somewhat accidentally, into the civil rights movement and had a fairly major effect on segregation of at their, and other musical acts, concerts as well as in the minds of their fans, whatever their skin colour was.

While tours of the UK, Europe, Australia and New Zealand are discussed, it’s not surprising given it is Howard’s film that the main focus is on the band’s presence in the USA. With this comes a fascinating section on their first major tour there with news reporter Larry Kane who followed the band on that and later tours.

The Beatles

The Beatles

He adds the context of the ‘baby boomers’ and the real confirmation of the teenage generation that had begun with the rock ’n’ roll of the late 1950s.

It’s interesting to see how The Beatles developed the rock ’n’ roll template into what has become pop but while being so counter to the mainstream of the time they almost feel like the punk rock of their day (though without the politicised music). This impression was probably confirmed in my mind by seeing how much Ringo’s drumming is like that of The Ramones a decade and a bit later.

While all this and the usual praise about quite how good and prolific the band were (an album every six months in this period as well as the touring) it is the concert footage that is the film’s real crown jewel.

Paul McCartney, John Lennon and George Harrison on the Apple Corps roof

McCartney, Lennon and George Harrison on the Apple Corps roof

While much of the footage, from early gigs in Liverpool and Manchester to Shea Stadium shows is at least familiar Howard and his team have done an amazing job of restoring it to as close as high-definition as could be possible and, with the sound treated similarly, the effect is startling.

Seeing these pictures, now more 50 years old, in such clarity lifts this above all other films I’ve seen on the band and really shows how they pioneered the size of shows they were playing.

Added to this, the music nerd in me loves hearing them talk about how the total lack of monitors meant they couldn’t hear one another or themselves in the face of the screaming audiences who seemingly never let up for the duration of their performances, and how Vox created new (then high-powered) 100 watt versions of their AC-30s for the band to use which even at full volume were next to useless in front of tens of thousands of fans and no dedicated PA system.

Ron Howard, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr

Ron Howard, McCartney and Ringo Starr

As the film heads to its end we take a glimpse inside Abbey Road and the effect the likes of Rubber Soul, Revolver and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band had on the band and their fanbase (Elvis Costello is a particularly good contributor at this stage), before the film rounds off with that iconic performance on the roof of Apple Corps in London by an almost unrecognisable band compared to the previous footage.

All this comes together to create something I’ve not seen properly captured on film before, that being the mania, power and presence these four young men from Liverpool created, lost control of and rode for four years in the mid-60s that changed the face of popular culture forever.

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World Of Sport Wrestling – 31/12/16

World Of Sport WOS Wrestling logoBefore Vince McMahon and Hulkamania swept away the old world of professional wrestling in the 1980s and became a world-wide phenomenon if you were a grapple fan looking for a fix of a soap opera in spandex living in the UK, World of Sport was where you looked.

Between the 1960s and late 1980s Saturday afternoons on ITV meant wrestling, with the likes of Mick McManus, Adrian Street, Johnny Saint and Jim Breaks (amongst others) providing wrestling action while Big Daddy and Giant Haystacks provided notoriety and spectacle. Then in the late 80’s the ‘British style’ fell out of favour for the big budget, glossy American product and wrestling in the UK headed to the holiday camps.

Over the last couple of years professional wrestling in the UK has had something of a resurgence thanks to the likes of ICW, RPW, Progress and others and, with the announcement last summer that they were bringing back World Of Sport (WOS) Wrestling with Jim Ross on commentary and a selection of indie stars lined up, it looked like ITV were looking to cash in on this, 30 years after last airing British grappling.

I had been looking forward to WOS Wrestling since the announcement, but tried to maintain a sensible level of anticipation. This was after all going out early evening on ITV so I wasn’t going in expecting ‘strong style’ or ‘hardcore’ wrestling, but more family friendly fun stuff, with some good action built-in. From the opening music and styling though I was dubious as it had the ring of everything that makes ITV’s output problematic – shiny and cheap with a lowest common denominator audience in mind.

Grado and Dave Mastiff

Grado and Dave Mastiff

The first bout was announced as being for the World Of Sport Championship with two contenders chosen by an unknown ‘committee’, so far ok, this is an old trope of the NWA and WCW, and even the choice of Grado, a perennial good time babyface (blue-eye, fan favourite) seemed to suit the show, even if comparisons to ‘The American Dream’ Dusty Rhodes felt a bit laboured.

His opponent was Dave Mastiff, a terrifying looking 300 pounder who is every part the pro-wrestling heel (bad guy, villain) to counter Grado’s fun loving persona. On his way to the ring, accompanied by Sha Samuels and Johnny Moss as a very imposing team, he cut a promo interrupting one from Grado, both of which felt over simplified and over scripted leading into a short match that felt the same.

The pairing and references on commentary felt self-consciously reverential to the Big Daddy/Giant Haystacks feud but its fair to say pro-wrestling has moved on since then and this was a problem across the show as a whole, along with the fact that the crowd reactions felt false. With such a short match and no real story to it until an interference ending, this didn’t start things off well despite the best efforts of the performers.

After the match we cut backstage to a brief interview with the ‘general manager’, the mysterious Mr Beasley, which felt like an attempt to emulate WWE’s similar backstage segments but fell down on almost all aspects, including the announcement of a Battle Royale at which point the smell of the low-budget mid-90s wrestling shows I remember seeing touring began to get a bit too strong.

WOS Wrestling ladder matchAfter an ad break we heard from some of the genuine British Wrestling legends further hyping the appalling work of Big Daddy and Giant Haystacks and ignoring their own great grappling, before a ladder match in some ways akin to WWE’s Money In The Bank gimmick.

The match itself was too short to really get into with four men fighting to reach a briefcase hanging from the ceiling. While I got the feeling at least some of the wrestlers had talent it was lost here as neither character nor any real action got across, largely thanks to some appalling camera work and editing. Anyway the winner, Kenny Williams, advanced to the Battle Royale.

Next up was a women’s match, hyped as the first of its kind on World Of Sport as in the past female wrestlers like Klondike Kate would compete against men, pitting Alexis Rose against Viper. At first I worried this may veer too far into the ‘titillation’ side of women’s wrestling but once they started this wasn’t the case as they put on the hardest hitting contest so far.

Viper and Alexis Rose

Viper and Alexis Rose

Both women’s characters came across and the story was simple but effective with the smaller baby face against the bigger heel. The bigger Viper won and after the opening pair of matches this started to bring me back on board (though the presentation was still all wrong).

Another qualifying match for the Battle Royale came in the form of a tag team match as Mark & Joe Coffey squared off against Rampage and Ashton Smith.

Like the women’s match this was a solid bout with both teams getting across characters and a range of hard-hitting looking action telling a fairly typical but well executed tag match story.

The Coffeys may have looked like they were aping WWE’s The Ascension at first, but I soon got over that and all four men impressed with the brother team getting the win with a nice double team strike combo.

Coffey flies at Rampage

Coffey flies at Rampage

While I was new to most of the wrestlers appearing here Zack Gibson and El Ligero came with something of a reputation that had me excited to see them in action and, once again despite the production, they didn’t disappoint.

Mixing styles of ‘lucha libre’ (Ligero) and a more submission style reminiscent of classic British grappling (Gibson) instantly made for a good story with Ligero looking for his highflying spring-board DDT finisher and Gibson working on Ligero’s arms to set up for his Shankly Gates finishing hold.

Ligero seemed to be slightly hampered by the looseness of the ropes a few times but worked through it like a pro (he wasn’t the only wrestler dealing with an unfamiliar ring, the 20ft WWE sized  ‘squared-circle’ seemed far too big for most of them) and the duo told a fine story with real pace and psychology.

Ligero picked up the win with his DDT and really came across as a true fan favourite character that the small audience actually seemed to genuinely get behind while Gibson’s throwback heel character clearly also got to the crowd in the way he should.

After three matches that seemed to be getting things together we got the Battle Royale that instantly switched back to the poor booking that had marked the start of the night.

Davey Boy Smith Jr

Davey Boy Smith Jr (while wrestling in Japan)

The initial section was set up to get over Sha Samuels and Johnny Moss, both of whom look like great heels, before surprise entrant ‘The British Bulldog’ Davey Boy Smith Jr (aka Harry Smith) came down to sort out the heels.

Smith has a genuine heritage here as son of the original Bulldog and nephew of Bret ‘Hitman’ Hart, but he was oddly soon eliminated by the heel duo after a few big signature spots, leaving them open for Grado to eliminate destroying any sense of threat they’d built.

After the win Grado suffered a hugely unconvincing knee injury thanks to a beat down from the heels supposedly calling the return match with Mastiff into question…

…of course there was never any real question as Mastiff returned to the ring before Grado made his third entrance of the show and they proceeded to have less a match, more an angle, that saw Mastiff attack Grado’s injured knee before Grado came back to hit his ‘Grado Cutter’ neck breaker for the win and a feel good ending.

Grado is awarded the WOS Championship

Grado is awarded the WOS Championship

In the show’s favour it had three good (one particularly so) matches in the middle with Gibson, Ligero, Rampage and the Coffey brothers coming out looking particularly good and it had Jim Ross on commentary as it’s always good to hear ‘Good Old JR’ back on the mic.

Unfortunately an inconsistent tone and terrible production work meant it looked cheap and above all silly, and when you’re dealing with a product that can already look inherently silly, emphasising this is never a good idea.

Pro-wrestling should suspend disbelief as we invest in characters we love or love-to-hate but all this seemed to do was poke fun at the formula and set back the cause of British pro-wresting 20 years to the dark days of the mid 1990s.

Much like then there are some good performers doing their best who I will investigate elsewhere where their work is respected, but with WOS Wrestling, ITV have created a product that, while it was never intended to appeal to die-hard wrestling fans, I can’t see appealing to anyone else either.

Lets just hope WWE’s United Kingdom Championship Tournament in a few weeks does a better job (I’m confident it will)…

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