Live Review: Wheel - The Exchange, Bristol
6th February 2020
Supt: The New Death Cult
Review by Paul Hutchings
“Life is like a wheel. Sooner or later it comes around to where you started again”. So wrote Stephen King. Well, if that is the case, and who I am to argue, I hope that Finnish outfit Wheel are back in my neighbourhood very soon because this was one special night. The first date on their first UK headline tour saw the Finns play a spell binding 75 minutes of songs which had the audience in the palm of their hands from the first note. If you missed out on their stunning 2019 debut album ‘Moving Backwards’ then I strongly recommend you rectify that matter as soon as possible because it was one of the best albums for many a year.
But before we indulged in Wheel the healthy audience got an additional treat in the shape of Norwegian alt-rock crossover outfit The New Death Cult. Their self-titled debut passed me by last year, but it is now on the playlist after a set full of confidence and panache. The band’s ‘story’ is that they come from the planet Netuluna in the Andromeda Galaxy and that they are in fact four humanoid aliens, Alpha (vocals/guitar), Beta (lead guitar), Gamma (bass) and Delta (drums). Clad in black and with skeleton scarves covering the lower part of their faces, it was hard to really take that seriously, but good music inevitably surpasses a questionable gimmick. Their combination of alt-rock, stoner and progressive styles certainly ticked the boxes. Lyrically the band focus on anti-war, anti-environmental destruction and anti-competition and whilst some of these subjects’ conflict with the inevitable carbon footprint, the sentiment and honesty of their set was heart-warming. ‘Moon’, ‘The War’, the punchy ‘Blood of Babylon’ and ‘Zeitgeist’ were amongst the gems on offer. As a unit, The New Death Cult were tight, their intricate style a fusion of Biffy Clyro, QOTSTA, Manic Street Preachers and elements of Pink Floyd receiving a solid ovation.
Having been unable to get to London to see the band on their one-off support slots with Soen and Katatonia earlier in 2019, it was pleasing to catch them twice, at Bloodstock and again at Damnation in November. This date was the first of six headline shows and the band grasped the opportunity with both hands. Whilst Wheel are predominantly Finnish, lead singer and guitarist James Lascalles is an Englishman abroad. His key influence is Tool, whose music is evident throughout the band’s set. There are plenty of other bands who have weighed in as well; the band’s polyrhythmic style, signature time changes and elaborate lengthy passages also echoes Porcupine Tree, Steven Wilson, Karnivool and even Meshuggah.
Wheel have experienced changes in recent months with bassist Aki Virta joining the band in the autumn, although you’d be forgiven for believing his tenure had been substantially longer by the way he leads from the front, all headbanging hair, hyperactive movement and fists in the air action. Alongside him, guitarist JC Halttunen’s baptism in the live arena was nothing short of spectacular. Four weeks to learn the set after long-time guitarist Roni Seppänen stepped away from the band at the last minute, Halttunen slipped in with frightening ease, his sharp solos and integrated guitar work suggesting that his talent is substantial. With drummer Santeri Saksala holding things together behind the kit, Lascalles cut a tortured figure alongside his two on stage partners. His hood remained in place longer than the rest of the band, singing the first couple of songs from beneath the cowl. As the lights flicked between deep blues, iridescent purples and radiant red tones, Lascalles threw off his hood, his unruly slicked back hair breaking loose with his raging emotions as the intensity of the gig took over.
Whilst the bulk of the set list was drawn from ‘Moving Backwards’, the band also dipped into their earlier Eps, 2017’s ‘The path’ and ‘The Divide’ from the following year. ‘Pyre’ was especially impressive. Seriously focused, Wheel also demonstrate a human side with the band keen to meet fans at the end of the show. Genuinely excited by the turn-out, this set allowed Wheel to move away from their traditional 30-minute set and the muscles were duly flexed in style. Closing the evening with the excellent ten-minute ‘Wheel’, their intricately captivating sound curled their tendrils around the audience for one last time. 75 minutes of progressive, alternative and challenging music over, all that was left was to soak up those previous memories and wait for the return to the UK of a band who with the right opportunities could well become massive.