Hard Rock Hell run the annual Highway To Hell competition throughout the year to find the very best unsigned acts to perform at their various festivals and for the second year in succession, the final was held at the Classic Grand in Glasgow over the weekend of Saturday 5th and Sunday 6th October.
For those unaware of the competition, each band gets twenty minutes to perform in front of a live audience of Hard Rock Hell Black Circle members (a community of like minded people who believe in everything Hard Rock Hell represents) and other industry judges who then vote on the acts that they want to appear at the festivals - the band with the most votes wins - simple.
The rules of performance at the competition are simple too - each band has twenty minutes to perform and are judge on songwriting, performance, technique and showmanship but each band has to include at least one cover song in their set.
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A line up of nearly twenty unsigned rock and metal bands from around the UK were whittled down from hundreds of heats held around the UK and with the prospect of appearance slots at festivals like Hard Rock Hell, Hammerfest and Road Trip Ibiza up for grabs, only the very best would survive.
National Winners were Northern Ireland based rockers Screaming Eagles and their prize included a worldwide record deal (both physical and digital) as well as the opening slot on main stage at this year's Hard Rock Hell Festival in November alongside Airbourne, Black Star Riders, The Answer, Blaze Bayley, Tracer and many many more.
The four piece put on a commanding performance so it's easy to see why they won the big prize. One of the best songs in their set was 'Rock N Roll Soul' which has a mid-paced groove which benefits from vocalist Chris Fry's strong voice. He's been compared to ex-Free/Bad Company vocalist Paul Rodgers in the past and with this being the first time I've seen them, I can understand why.
Kudos too, for the guitar solo from Adrian McAleenan which just adds an extra dimension to the track. I'm sure that the band will do well at Hard Rock Hell, and I will certainly keep an eye on their career.
It was Welsh rockers Fireroad who were runners up and their prize is also a slot at Hard Rock Hell. Singer/guitarist Richard Jones is quite confident performing on stage as well he should be since he formed the Stereophonics with Kelly Jones back in 1986. Of the numbers performed here, it was 'Before The Matinee' that I thought was one of the best tracks. Jones produces a great vocal here and Gavin Davies puts a good performance in on guitar before unleashing a great solo.
'Knock It Away' is their last roll of the dice and they come out with this great slower tempo number that is pretty good. Drummer Matthew Whitney comes across well and there's a great bit of slide guitar from Gavin Davies before the catchy chorus which has the crowd singing away at. All in all, though, a very good set.
Winners of a slot at Hammerfest were Northern Ireland rockers Sinocence who will be joining bands like Overkill, Kreator and Grand Magus at the festival in March 2014. Hailing from Belfast, it's clear from their short performance here that they know what they're doing and will go far. From start to finish it was a flawless performance and streets ahead of some of the other bands - and the audience know it.
'Perfect Denial' was amongst the best here with the track slowly building up with bass player, Jim Seymour getting the crowd interacting with the band. The song itself is heavy in epic proportions and frantic in pace as both Seymour and rhythm guitarist Anthony McCaughley patrols the stage like a men possessed. Unfortunately the sound man appeared to be conspiring against them when it came to the guitar solo but still a great overall performance from the band.
Defy All Reason
Also winning a runner up prize was Wrexham based four piece, Defy All Reason who will get a spot at the Hammerfest festival. There's two words to describe these guys - "Good" and "Loud".
As I mentioned earlier, it was up to each band to play a cover songs and Defy All Reason pulled something special out of the bag - a surprising version of the Bon Jovi classic 'Wanted Dead Or Alive'. Now, I'm no fan of Bon Jovi by any stretch of the imagination, but Defy All Reason took the song and beefed it up turning the whole song into something completely different. Since seeing Defy All Reason live, I went back to listen to the original - and I know which version I prefer!
The Welsh and Northern Irish bands did well this weekend as it and it was South Wales trio Crowsaw were runners up, and won a place at the HRH Blues Festival to be held in North Wales during March 2014 and features a host of big names including Dr Feelgood and Simon McBride.
The band played a solid set and included 'Bitch Blues' which starts off as a funky slow number track two has bass player Glyn Mason leading the way whilst vocalist/guitarist Rob Lomax seems to be having fun especially when the track speeds up towards the end which is when drummer Elvin Robinson locks in with Mason producing a solid rhythm section.
The final band to win a festival place this year were three piece band, The Kix, who hail from South Wales whose prize was a slot at the HRH AOR festival alongside Graham Bonnet, Tyketto and Tigertailz. Comprising of sisters Sam and Charlotte Bolderson (vocals/guitar and drums respectively) along with bass player Harriet Wadeson, they were the last band to play before the voting commenced and you couldn't have asked for a better closing band.
'Lady Luck' was the second number here which featured a good drum intro (with Charlotte having a fit of the giggles half way through it) before the track begins properly. When it gets going, though, it's a good solid number and Sam does well with her vocals. Their cover was a crowd pleasing medley of five (count 'em) Queen songs and I don't think there was a member of the audience who didn't end up clapping or singing along at some point.
So there you have it - this year's winners. Of course, Highway To Hell is an annual competition and the quality of acts gets better and better. All the acts appearing over the weekend battled hard to get here which is some consolation but for those that didn't make it to the top tier this time, there's always next year.