Live Review: Up The Hammers XVIII – Athens

Cirith Ungol Live

Live Review: Up The Hammers XVIII - Athens
8th-9th March 2024
Featuring: Coven Japan, Crom, Astronomica, Sacred Steel, Summerlands, Visigoth, Burning Starr, Stygian Crown, Steel Inferno, Quartz, Seven Sisters, Evil Invaders, Eternal Champion, Cirith Ungol
Words & Photos: Jon Wigg

Now I’m always up for a road trip for a gig. Living in London, I am massively spoiled in that most tours from bands big and small make it to the capital, but travelling adds some spice and extra enjoyment to many shows. Over recent years, I’ve seen bands across the UK and Ireland, Denmark, Sweden, Germany, Spain, Luxembourg and the USA. So when one of my favourite bands was announced for Up The Hammers XVIII in Athens, I booked immediately. An added bonus is that Athens is an amazing city full of friendly people, outstanding food and lots of culture.

Atop the Acropolis, metal shirts were rife, and the knowing nods of acknowledgement were frequent in the community. I’m not sure the regular tourists knew what to make of the amount of impressive battle jackets on the day I visited, but it was fun for us metalheads.

Up The Hammers is dedicated to traditional heavy metal which is most definitely right in my wheelhouse. With the bands on offer from all over the globe, it is one I’ve considered in the past, so I was glad to finally make the trip.

Up The Hammers XVIII started with a warm up show at the An Club on the Thursday. Unfortunately we weren’t able to make it but from talking to some that did, it was a great night with stellar performances from the lineup which consisted of Saturday Night Satan, Dolmen Gate, Lynx, Witchunter, Sentry and Night Demon.

So on to Friday night at Gagarin 205, a 1200 capacity venue a couple of miles north of the centre of Athens. The venue itself was first rate with a balcony crammed with band merch, and vinyl/CD stalls. The staff were friendly across the board, and it’s an excellent set up. The bands had 20 minutes between sets all day and with set times of 45 minutes to 1 hour 20, all of the bands were given a good amount of stage time to flex their metal muscles.

Kicking off the entertainment were Coven Japan. It’s never an easy task to open a day at a festival, but a good crowd was on hand for a great start. The band was excellent and their mix of Japanese and English lyrics from frontwoman Taka, backed by some wonderful twin guitar work, made for a rousing opening.

Bavaria’s Crom were up next and with their brand of epic metal. A nice mix of slow and stompy, and faster paced bangers filled their setlist, and while they were not a band I was familiar with before buying tickets for the festival, I have been very impressed with their discography, particularly their 2008 debut ‘Vengeance’ and 2023’s ‘The Era of Darkness’. They are certainly a group I’ll be watching keenly going forward.

Former Crimson Glory frontman Wade Black brought his new band, Astronomica onto the stage next. With the setlist predominantly made up from Crimson Glory songs - 5 from 1999s Black-fronted Astronomica and 2 from 1986’s Transcendence, the crowd was up for it from the start. I was glad to see the addition of 2 tracks from the band’s recent release ‘The Awakening’ (Destiny and Protectors of the Realm) as they showed that going forward, they will be a band not totally reliant on those songs from the past.

Germany’s Sacred Steel are a fine band, who have over the years, certainly in the UK, not gained as much publicity as some of their contemporaries such as Rage, Iron Savior and Running Wild. With 9 top notch albums under their belts, they are definitely worth checking out, both on record, and live. And they were on top form in Athens with a set full of crowd pleasers including the obligatory Wargods of Metal and Heavy Metal to the End. Subtle they are not, but boy they are a lot of fun.

Photo Credit: Jon Wigg

I was aware of Philadelphia’s Sumerlands when their debut self-titled album was released in 2016. Fairly dark in nature, it was an excellent album but I will admit to losing touch with the band. A change of vocalist ensued, from Phil Swanson to the more upbeat Brendan Radigan and he did a great job, leading the band through tracks from that debut and 2022’s follow up ‘Dreamkiller’. With 3 members of Eternal Champion in the ranks, the riffs and solos were as good as expected and it was a fine set from a band which doesn’t always fit easily into the traditional heavy metal framework.

Now, in terms of who the majority of the crowd was at the venue to see most on Friday, it was clear that the next band, Salt Lake City’s Visigoth was it. From the first bars of ‘Steel and Silver’ with the chorus accompaniment from about 90% of the crowd, this was a set to savour. Fist were pumping, voices were loud and heads were banging. For me this was the highlight of a superb day’s music and the inclusion of their cover of Manilla Road’s ‘Necropolis’ was inspired. They even had time to return to close the show with ‘Steel and Silver’ after being told they had run a bit short of the set times. Do yourself a favour and get to a Visigoth show - you won’t regret it.

Photo Credit: Jon Wigg

Headliner Jack Starr’s Burning Starr provided a rousing end to the evening. With songs from Starr’s long and prolific career, including 5 Virgin Steele covers, a first-rate and varied setlist also included some of Starr’s early work post-Virgin Steele (False Messiah), and some of the band’s more recent tunes such as the wonderful ‘The Flame Never Dies’. Burning Starr has had many members over the years, but in vocalist Alex Panza, Starr has found a real gem. Panza really knows how to work an audience and his vocals are tremendous. A great way to end the night with Starr’s solos ringing in the ears of the crowd as they went into the night.

The final day kicked off with some doom from LA’s Stygian Crown. Another band that was new to me before the festival, and another on the list of bands added to my playlists. Their brand of ‘epic doom’ is right in my wheelhouse and Melissa Pinion’s haunting vocals really set them apart from others in the genre.

A complete change in pace next with Danish youngsters Steel Inferno living up to their name perfectly. A high octane mix of traditional and speed metal which got the crowd bouncing throughout an excellent set. I’ll certainly be checking out these guys.

At the other end of the age spectrum, UK rockers Quartz were a part of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, and a small part of my musical journey back in the early 80’s. I hadn’t seen them live in the years since their reformation in 2011, so I’m extremely glad that this has been corrected, as they are belting live, especially for a band where all the members are in their 70’s. While they don’t bounce around the stage like some of the bands on the bill, they sure can play. Highlights included the wonderful Satan’s Serenade, Street Fighting Lady and a set closing cover of Sabbath’s ‘Heaven and Hell’ which had the crowd frothing.

I’ve been a fan of London’s Seven Sisters since their debut album in 2016. Frontman Kyle McNeil’s other band, Phantom Spell are up next and this is one I’ve really been looking forward to. The band is based in Spain and provided a great ride through their small discography (one full length ‘Immortal’s Requiem’ and an EP ‘Tales From The Black Spire’). With their prog-tinged metal, Phantom Spell are one of the rising bands and one to watch. Highlights for me were ‘Seven Sided Mirror’ instrumental ‘Black Spire Curse’ and ‘Dawn of Mind’.

Another change in pace next with Belgium’s speed metal heroes Evil Invaders launching into a frantic set. I’ve seen these guys a few times and they never disappoint. Just watching their energy on stage always makes me tired and they are technically brilliant. Crowd pleasers such as ‘Feed Me Violence’ ‘As Life Slowly Fades’ and closer ‘Raising Hell’ help open up some small but perfectly formed mosh pits - a feat in itself given the venue’s tiered flooring. A great performance.

Eternal Champion have been darlings of the epic power metal scene for a few years now. Their 2 full lengths have been held up as examples of how to do it, and they do not disappoint here in Athens. Taking the stage to Manowar’s ‘Fighting the World’ with a warmed up crowd singing along to every word, EC delivered in spades including ‘The Armor of Ire’, ‘I Am The Hammer’ and ‘Skullseeker’. They may be a bit corny and clichéd, but when they can play live like this, who cares - this is what we all came for anyway.

One band to go, and the band that made me buy a ticket straight away. Ventura’s legendary Cirith Ungol was a big part of my metal journey. I was introduced to their debut ‘Frost and Fire’ when I was about 12 and I’ve been a massive fan ever since. I’ve tried to see them live since their 2016 reformation and it never lined up for me - I was ironically in California the one time they played in London in 2018 and I have had tickets for cancelled festivals they were booked at. Over the years, I’ve been lucky enough to see almost all of my favourite bands and Cirith Ungol were the ones that got away. So on a Saturday night in a packed venue in Athens, I finally got there. And after all that waiting, and despite the absence of the ill Greg Lindstrom, it was magnificent. To hear these songs that have been such a part of my musical life for so many years live, with Tim Baker’s amazing vocals as strong as ever and Rob Garven’s stunning drumming, it was quite emotional.

Photo Credit: Jon Wigg

Opening with ‘Velocity (S.E.P.)’ from their fantastic 2023 release Dark Parade, the crowd was treated to a mesmerising set from the veterans. With Night Demon’s Jarvis Leatherby (bass) and Armand John Anthony (guitar) filling out the lineup, the band stomped through songs from all of their albums. Newer songs like ‘The Frost Monstreme’ and ‘Sailor on the Seas of Fate’ sat perfectly next to tracks from the 80’s like ‘Atom Smasher’ and ‘Blood and Iron’.

Cirith Ungol announced that 2024 will be their final year performing live so time was of the essence. I have tickets for their final UK show in September and if you get a chance, please take the opportunity to see one of the greatest heavy metal bands live.

Overall, Up The Hammers is an amazing festival, in an amazing city. With a lineup for the 2025 iteration already including Crimson Glory, Crypt Sermon and Butcher among others, I’m definitely considering a return. The organisation was spot on, staff friendly and helpful and the stage ran like clockwork (or at least it looked like it from the balcony).

For all the latest news, reviews, interviews across the heavy metal spectrum follow THE RAZORS'S EDGE on facebook, twitter and instagram.