American white metal masters BARREN CROSS met with a frenzied throng of moshers when they debuted their new line-up in Ireland recently. Dave Caughey met them.
One thing, which has mystified me ever since I started working with touring bands, is their ability to survive for long periods without sleep. Upon their arrival at Belfast, Barren Cross had gone no less than 27 hours without knowing the bliss of well-earned kip, yet there were no signs of dulled senses. With the exception, that is, of one of the two new boys; singer Vince Van Voltenburg, who was having his first 'on-the-road' or (to be more precise) his first left-hand-side-of-the-road' experience. When leaving the airport he screamed out a warning to our bemused driver, "Look out that maniac is driving on the wrong side of the road".
On arrival at the band's lodgings I expected them to head straight for bed however they stayed around to "talk technical" with the local support band.
All around it was talk of floor toms, hi-hats and snare heads: Barren Cross' other new boy, drummer Dave La Vie, a veritable man mountain, told Noahs' Arks' drummer (whose kit he was using) that he would buy him an extra snare drum skin. "That won't be necessary," blustered the young Irishman, a statement he retracted rather quickly as La Vie stood up to reveal biceps thicker than Kylie Minogue's waist. On the other side of the room, the band's "technician/manager", instead of talking technical was doing what he does best, relating anecdote. "Do you know that Stryper never use half of their Marshalls..." Eventually came the question which every Irishman dreads, but is inevitable in any conversation with an outsider, "why is everyone fighting in Ireland." The answer which began, "Back in the times of Oliver Cromwell...", lasted about half an hour and ensured that no more questions were asked. At least I did not receive the somewhat simplified solution offered by another American friend of mine who suggested, "Just get rid of the English, after all, we did!" At last the voice of reason arose in the form of Ray Parris saying, "it's getting late, we'd better get to bed". With the morning came Barren Cross' first experience of Irish cuisine, which is perhaps too grand a term to use for the legendary "Ulster-Fry"; a proven contributor to heart disease, yet quite exquisite as an occasional indulgence. This proved to be the hit of the visit, an honour marked by bass player Jim La Verde dunking a piece of fried soda bread in his tea, a sight which still causes my stomach to churn.
Before leaving for a short trip round the seaside town of Bangor, we had a brief devotional time which involved singing a few worship choruses, a couple of prayers and a "thought for the day" from Psalm 40 given by Dave La Vie, "May those who say to me, 'aha! aha!' be appalled at their own shame. But may all those who seek you rejoice and be glad in you; may those who love your salvation always say, 'the Lord be exalted'.
"With Barren Cross even a short walk around the town centre is eventful. For a whole hour they were followed around by a gaggle of giggling schoolgirls, received wolf whistles from workmen, and caused great embarrassment to their native guide by whooping for joy on seeing their 'Atomic Arena' LP on the racks of the town's major record shop. To top it all Vince Van Voltenburg, who was still unaccustomed to the traffic being on the left hand side was almost hit by a car when he looked to the wrong way crossing the road. By late Monday afternoon we arrived at Queen's University, the venue for the first gig.
As the starting time neared, more and more things seemed to be going wrong, but through a mixture of prayer and hard work, the major hitches were resolved.
The nerves were finally beginning to show in the band who hadn't played live for six months, and in particular Vince Van Voltenburg who was performing his first gig with Barren Cross, since filling the gap left by the almost legendary Mike Lee; better known as "the one with the blond streak down the side of his hair'. Half an hour late, Noah's' Ark kicked off proceedings with a stunning set. Many were left speechless at the improvement this dedicated band had made in the last year. There was an overwhelming feeling of excitement and expectation as the lights dimmed and King's X burst into their opener, "Dying Day". There were grimaces on the faces of the bands' hardcore fans who didn't recognise the new singer; but on hearing his stunning vocal work their worries quickly dissolved.
My main criticism of Barren Cross, used to be that they sounded too much like a Christian version of Iron Maiden; something which could not be avoided because of Mike Lee' s undeniable vocal likeness to Bruce Dickinson. However in Vince Van Voltenburg the band have perhaps unwittingly stumbled across the answer to all their problems.
The little guy has the same vocal power as his predecessor, but has a far greater range of styles and techniques, which instantly strips him of any similarities.
After a somewhat shaky start by the young singer, which included him beginning to sing the words to the wrong song, he settled into the groove with the band's only new number in the set, the unforgettable "Pain Reliever" written by none other than Vince himself.
The other debutante, Dave La Vie, more than proved his worth with an extremely visual performance including an impromptu drum solo to fill in during a technical hitch. Jim La Verde took up the challenge and launched into a virtuoso display of bass playing when the promised breaking of the snare drum skin took place.
A roar of approval met the question, "What do you think of our new singer and drummer?" And the band went into hyper drive. The more thrashy material such as "Cultic Regimes" and the magnificent "Stage Of Intensity" appeared to take a seething crowd of moshers into seventh heaven. Something which greatly endears me to Barren Cross is their avoidance of the standard white metal fare of spiritual warfare, demons and holy warriors in shining armour, instead giving more thought to social issues such as alcohol abuse's effects in the home ("State Of Control"), drug abuse ("Deadlock"), the futility of war ("Dying Day"), and cults ("Cultic Regimes"). However their variety also leaves rooms for decidedly more evangelistic material such as "Give Your Life".
The band used admittable tact and wisdom by not "getting preachy" with a predominantly non-Christian crowd. Their approach was one of expressing what was on their hearts. Ray Parris' short talk about loving one another, despite being a 2000-year-old message, was something fresh and bold. If only all of Northern Ireland could grasp it.
The only thing which marred the evening was the actions of the bouncers who turned up without the promoters' invitation and cleared everyone out of the hall as soon as the band left the stage. It made a bizarre change to see members of a rock band arguing with the security that they wanted to meet their fans. Unable to convince the obstinate mercenaries, the band members ventured out into the freezing cold to talk to those who had stayed around.
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