Concert review : 23/1/2012, Guano Apes, Sala Apolo, Barcelona.
I was about 16 years old when Guano Apes first came into my attention. The alternative metal band from Göttingen, Germany, scored a massive hit across the continent with the extremely powerful song "Open your Eyes". It was a direct indication of what would become the band’s trademark: heavy guitars, songs full of energy, and the extremely powerful vocals by vocalist Sandra Nasić. The vocalist drew most of the attention from the audience due to her combination of very heavy yet clean vocals and rap-metal crossover phrases, some people even beleving that she was actually a man (which is total nonsense of course as you can clearly hear this is not the case ; that said, her voice is more powerful than that of the overwhelming majority of male vocalists, even in the hardrock style). "Open your Eyes" paved the path for about 7 years of continuous success with other big hits such as "Lords of the Boards", "Pretty in Scarlet", "Big in Japan" (a cover of Alphaville indeed but with such heavy guitars and vocals that only the lyrics remained identical ; the song itself sounded extremely different than the original) and my personal favourite of them, the ballad "Rain". The band called it an end in 2005 after almost a decade of international success, two last compilation albums "Planet of the Apes" (a sort of best-of compilation) and "Lost (T)Apes" seemed to draw a line under the chapter. Sandra Nasić embarked on a solo career which had some succesful singles such as "Say the Name of my Baby" and the other band members got involved with other projects. That was, until 2009 when the band decided to reform for a reunion tour across festivals in Europe. Apparently they got along so well and missed the times in the band badly enough to make what was seen as a temporary reform a permanent reunion. 2011 saw the release of the first post-reunion album "Bel Air", which the band was promoting already last year and is continueing to promote this year.
I nearly saw Guano Apes live back in 2009 during their first post-reunion tour. Relocation stopped me from attending the show. Then last year, the band announced a concert in Barcelona. Again bad luck, because Sandra feeling slightly ill lead to a cancellation of the show. But third time is the good time, as the saying goes, and the band announced their comeback to Spain with shows in Madrid and Barcelona. Their first concert here since about 8 or 9 years as it was the first time the band came to this city since they re-united.
In the beginning and up until the last moment I wasn’t even sure if I’d be attending. I wanted to, but finances and work duty made the date of the gig, a Monday evening, a bit unsuitable. At the very last moment a holiday request was approved. The last obstacle was getting to the concert hall in time and hoping there’d still be tickets available. A taxi drive was needed to reach the hall in time, but luckily there were still some tickets remaining. Rarely the difference between missing a gig or getting in was so narrow, but we made it.
Sala Apolo, located along the Paral·lel (one of the longest avenues in the whole of Europe), is not a very common choice for a metal concert. The only time I was inside this hall before was when Algerian singer Souad Massi performed there. The hall was excellent for such intimite music, with the crowd seated and listening calmly and in silence. I wondered though how such a hall could be conveted into a room suitable for metal, with a typically standing and very active crowd. I must say I was proven wrong here with my scepticism. Granted, the light bulbs had more an atmosphere of a ballroom but with lights dimmed nobody noticed that. The seats and tables in the corners and sides of the hall remained, but the seating in the rest of the room was removed, allowing standing and dancing alone for all those who wanted. There was also a second row up at the first floor, a sort of balcony typical to theaters. It was not your typical venue for a hardrock concert, but they surely did whatever was needed to make sure this remained unnoticed.
The band kicked off without support act, with one of the older songa (= pre-breakup era), "Quietly". It was however clear the band was here to promote their newest creation, "Bel Air". 9 songs in the setlist came from the Bel Air album, with another tenth track that is available only on the vinyl version of Bel Air. The new tracks were clearly the majority, but the band did start with some old classics to get the crowd going and in the mood immediately. "Quietly" was followed by the first single from their latest album, "Oh, what a Night". Which by the way sounded surprisingly good and energetic. Then came 4 tracks of which only "Sunday Lover" (the second single from "Bel Air") was a new track, the other three being old successes: "You can’t stop me", "Open your Eyes" (after all those years, the breakthrough single still is a fan favourite, proved by how Sandra lifted the microphone in the air and let the crowd do part of the singing) and a surprisingly good "Pretty in Scarlet" (never really noticed how good this song was before, but somehow it sounded excellent tonight). The band clearly chose to first win the crowd with a combination of their latest two singles and some old Guano Apes classics.
That said, most of my attention went to Sandra. The vocalist is, without wanting to disregard the others in the band, not just the voice but also the spirit of the band. In all videos and performances I saw online, her stage presence is huge, the charisma is very strong and you hear a vocalist who not only sings loud but without a single false note, you could also see someone who just enjoys herself to full extent on stage and who seems to be born to stand in the spotlights. I was curious if that image would indeed be correct now that I finally saw the band live.
One answer: YES. Sandra is an amazing frontwoman. I still think it is nonsense that some confuse her voice with male singers. She clearly sounds feminin. However, she has an amazing power in her voice. She can sing extremely loud without a single note missed, she sings extremely powerful but still pure, rarely if ever shouting. An extremely powerful voice. A voice which is definitely female, but indeed overpowers the vast majority of male vocalists (even when comparing to vocalists in the hardrock genre, few males have the power in the voice that Sandra has). So far the voice. Now what about the charisma? Indeed, also as good or even better as I hoped for. You could clearly see a woman born to stand on the stage, feeling perfectly comfortable standing on stage, giving all her energy in the performance, and clearly enjoying it as much as the thankful crowd does. The charisma and stage presence is huge, Sandra knows exactly how to draw the attention to her and get the crowd going. From time to time she bowed over to the front row or lifted the microphone high up to let the crowd sing, which instantly made the whole concert room sing along. I always liked Guano Apes’ music but was curious about the live version. It was actually better than I hoped for, and especially Sandra really makes the gig. Her personality on stage, the self-confidence, the energy, the voice, … It’s all there. Many male rockers can only bow in admiration.
By that time my mobile phone camera also did its duty and of the approx 90 pictures I took, at least half or more were surprisingly good (for cell phone standards). I hence decided to put it safely in my pocket, as 90 pics is sufficient, and focus on just the stage and music for the remainder of the gig. That remainder were, until the band left the stage, all songs from the new album "Bel Air". I didn’t have the chance to give the album a listen, so all songs were new to me. That always means a certain risk of disappointment when compared to the old songs you know so well and like. However, the disappointment was not there. Of the seven consecutive songs from the new album that followed, at least 5 were sounding very fresh and full of energy. I liked them from the first listen. It’s clear the band still has that typical Guano Apes sound, and hearing the new songs it really felt sometimes as if they’ve never been away. The chemistry between the band members echoed that sentiment.
While the evening moved on, the band not only promoted the new material but made time for some unexpected surprises. Sandra’s frontwoman rock attitude reflected once again when she, although maybe a tiny bit cliché, directed herself to the male part of the audience, asking to take their shirts off. When an initial reaction didn’t happen, she screamed "I wanna see naked men!" and calmly stood still, saying "I can wait"… The guys got the message: if they wanted more music, they had to obey. While I kept my clothes safely on, I suddenly found myself surrounded by bare-chested men in the crowd, and surprisingly one girl who also obeyed the command and would spend the rest of the gig with only a bra above the belt. Another "moment de surprise" came when the band announced that there were "rebajas" on the fan merchandising (this basically means: reduced pricing). They announced they hired a photo model who would show off all available styles of shirts between two songs. That fashion model who, according to the band, otherwise performed on catwalks around Europe, appeared to be one of the guitar players who did an amazing parody on a male fashion model, showing off t-shirt after t-shirt, including the female version with a side comment "this is one for those who have breasts, whom I see some in the audience have… like the guy on the front row!"
Some comedy as a small break but it was the music it was about. After the final song "This Time" the band disappeared off stage, but a loud calling for encores drew them back enough soon for, which they promised "2 more songs". In the end this was yet another bit of teasing as it ended up with 4 extra songs, the first of them being an instrumental before Sandra joined the rest of the band back on stage. With "Staring at the Sun" the first real song in the encore was a nice fan treatment: this song is available only on the vinyl prints of the new "Bel Air" album and thus could be more or less compared with a B-side. A nice treatment for the die hard fans in the crowd before the band left with two "oldies" to make sure the crowd would leave on a high. While the guitarist asked Sandra to do a cover of "Radio GaGa" by Queen, she soon enough asked if no more serious song could be covered. At that point the crowd knew it would be "Big in Japan" coming up. Partially sung by the crowd by the way. Spaniards tend to have some difficulties with English but this was not noticeable when Sandra lifted up the microphone to the crowd who sung along perfectly. An extremely heavy cover set the crowd on fire with one more track to come. I was hoping for my favourite, "Rain", but it was clear the band wanted no ballads tonight, they wanted to rock. So it became "Lords of the Boards" as conclusion of the night (one of the few tracks I am not too fond of personally, but my shouting for "Rain" was not heard amongst the many screaming fans).
The moment the gig was over the energy the band displayed on stage could still be felt in your body. Then you suddenly realised what an overwhelming musical force had just filled the hall with decibels and energy for the night. The gig convinced that the new material, which I heard for the first time, definitely has some very good songs to offer, that the chemistry between the band is there and especially impressive was the charisma, energy, stage personality and powerful voice of Sandra. Again, may the majority of male rockers bow out of respect, I doubt many of them could match this charisma and power. If the band is not embarking on side projects again and decides to continue the band for the long term, then there’s enough quality here to become one of the best rock bands in German history. So let’s keep fingers crossed the band is not considering solo projects again and will continue as the powerful entity they are.
I rarely have to write negative concert reviews (although occasionally it happens. For example last time I saw Marilyn Manson live, it was so disappointing a 3 out of 10 score would still be flattering). The reason for that is simple: pick your concerts carefully, go to those bands where you’re sure to like at least part of the setlist. Subject to the band not underperforming live, then the chances of a disappointing night are slim. Guano Apes tonight was a bit of a question mark. With some bad luck the new material didn’t do the trick and it’d sound like a melancholy trip. Luckily this was not the case. On the contrary, the new material sounded fresh and I’m sure to give the entire Bel Air album a listen very shortly.