Back in 2013, at the end of their double-headline gig with Touchstone, Mikko Von Hertzen told the crowd at The Duchess that they would be coming back. At the time, after what ended up being one of my favourite gigs of that year, I was happy to hear it but had an inkling it wouldn’t happen – very few international bands have returned to York in the time I been going to gigs here. True to his word, though, the brothers did return and, when I saw the gig listed earlier in the year, I knew I would be there.
Last time it wasn’t clear to me whether the reasonably big crowd had come to see Touchstone or VHB. Personally, I was there for the former and hadn’t even heard of the latter until that night. Tonight, though, with an equivalent crowd it was obvious that VHB have a fair few fans in the area, including me, a relatively new fan. Other prog tour t-shirts abounded – Steve Wilson, Dream Theater, Genesis and one HRH Prog 4, at which VHB played – along with more the more general rock of Europe, The Grateful Dead and Biffy Clyro, but I couldn’t spot any familiar faces from other similar local gigs, unless that was the same Mohican’d guy that had been at Fibbers to see Reef a few days earlier.
I didn’t think I had heard of Messenger, tonight’s support act, before but a quick Google revealed that I must have seen their name in Prog magazine as they had won that publication’s “Limelight” award back in 2014. Promising. They opened with Midnight, the dual vocals and twangy guitar sound at the start giving the track a vaguely Middle-Eastern sound. After a minute or so, though, it changed gear into something much more powerful. Another change of pace followed, then another and now the track was much faster and rockier. There was a brief pause and then yet another change upwards. You don’t see many people change guitars mid-way through a track, but both Khaled Lowe and Barnaby Mallick did during this exceptional and impressive opening. With Dan Knight changing from third guitar to keyboards for the next track, which was quieter and had a more sustained pace. Lowe’s vocals seemed to suffer quite a bit during the louder chorus, a fact attributed later, along with an apology if he had been singing out of tune, to the fact that his monitor wasn’t working. Sound man to the rescue and the issue was soon repaired. Away from the problems, this shorter track featured a nicely subtle guitar line which suddenly exploded into life. Between tracks members of the band seemed to jam out atmospheric, sometimes psychedelic, interludes, filling the whole set with music. Messenger are about to release their second album and during Balearic Blue, a track from it, it wasn’t clear to me whether the feedback, which seemed to be too regular to be accidental was a deliberate part of the track, which had a more subtle sound and didn’t reach the heights of power attained previously in the set. Back to the debut album and The Perpetual Glow Of A Setting Sun opening in a jangly, reverberating fashion. Drummer Jaime Gomez Arellano signalled an upwards change in volume and pace before the track slowed down again and a nice guitar line forced its way through to the end. “Would anybody like to hear another new song?” asked Lowe. Of course we did. Celestial Spheres opened with a light keyboard sound before, you guessed it, bursting with power again, with those keyboards more prominent throughout. For me it was the best track of the set, lively both musically and in its performance. Knight was back on guitar for Dear Departure, which had the gentlest opening so far and turned out to be a slow builder, containing another psychedelic section, Lowe making use of an e-bow in places. A short, almost screamed vocal section led into the by now inevitable more powerful, louder section, shorter this time with the track – and the set – fading away to nothing almost immediately afterwards. Entertaining and varied, this set propelled Messenger onto my watch list.
Glancing across at the merchandise table, where Lowe was chatting to fans between sets, I noticed an unusual piece of tour merchandise. I’ve never seen a band selling elasticated ankle boots before. I wonder how many they have sold? At the table fans seemed to be spending freely, presumably making VHB’s return to York worthwhile.
As Von Hertzen Brothers took to the stage, greeted by loud cheers and applause, leading into a clap-along to the introduction to New Day Rising, I found my line of sight blocked by a person who had decided to film the gig on his phone. I soon forgot about him, though, when a much taller man, moved from the outskirts of the crowd to the centre, standing directly in front of me, with his spinal cord practically touching the end of my nose. Oh the joys of being short… Mikko Kaakkuriniemi’s rat-a-tat drum rhythm heralded You Don’t Know My Name. Kie Von Hertzen wandered around the stage with his guitar before returning to the mic to provide tongue-twisting backing vocals. At the end of the track frontman Mikko (it’s hard enough referring to band members when three of them have the same surname, but when two also share the same first name…) acknowledged how many people had turned out on a Tuesday night, telling us that they (the band) were very pleased. Flowers And Rust – one of my favourite tracks – opened with an almost toy-keyboard sound before bursting into life. Mikko then encouraged an audience sing-along of “Yeah-o” during Sunday Child, which opened nicely with piano and vocals. It’s the tenth anniversary of the band’s second album – Approach – and Mikko explained that Endlessly, from it, contained at least three guitar solos, “So it must be good…” Again it had a gentle opening, leading into a vocal section full of expression from Mikko. Kie changed to bottle-neck style during the first instrumental section before the track became livelier with Mikko and third brother and bassist Jonne eating up the stage space.
This gig took place on the day of the Brussels bombing and Mikko’s speech asking for love, peace, understanding and acceptance was greeted by more applause. He then went on to explain that the next track, didn’t fit that theme. Trouble – about, he explained, an inner struggle – was kicked off with crashing drums and was performed in an incredibly powerful and energetic style. Always Been Right brought a change of scenery (Mikko struggled for the word, eventually getting a translation, or at least suggested replacement, from his Finnish phrase from the audience). It was fast and almost chaotic and briefly saw Mikko leave the stage to join the crowd in clapping the rest of the band. In a band of beards, drummer Kaakkuriniemi’s twin-pronged effort was easily the best. His pounding rhythm signalled the beginning of the next track, which came from Stars Aligned, but I wasn’t able to identify it. Voices In Our Heads had been missing from the live set for two years. “You can leave now if you want,” joked Mikko, already drenched in sweat, before a false start brought laughter from the crowd and band. Once it got going it was a nicely varied track with incredible vocals and brought nods of satisfaction from the band at its close. “Cool stuff, eh?” quipped Mikko, “Should we play that more often?”
As usual Kie took over lead vocals for Coming Home, giving it a deeper sound above the fast-paced drums. The set so far had been energetic but it was during this track that the extraordinary energy I remarked about on first seeing this band was back in evidence. All too soon it was time for the final song of the set. A more pronounced keyboard sound gave The Willing Victim the most traditional prog-rock sound of the set, at places reminiscent of the likes of Genesis behind the harder guitar sound. The track’s quiet mid-section exploded into an extravagant and brilliant instrumental which brought the set to a superb end.
After a brief break in the green room Mikko returned to stage, briefly taking a turn at the drum kit before fielding requests from the audience. “River!” came one shout. “No. Have another guess,” before a fast and furious guitar line that might have been Freedom Fighter (I’m not sure). Then came Prospect For Escape, whose piano and cymbal opening lured the crowd in before the track started properly with a metallic guitar riff which, in turn, made way for the vocals before returning, slowly building to an apex and then coming down again, resulting in a song that came at the audience in waves and ends beautifully. There was no promise of a return at the end of this set, but we can hope.