Avatar @ KK’s Steel Mill, Wolverhampton – 22 February 2023

Avatar’s current tour was originally set to support the 2020 offering ‘Hunter Gatherer’, but comes less than a week since the release of their ninth studio album, ‘Dance Devil Dance’.

While the “C” word still lingers, it’s been a long time coming for Swedish metallers Avatar to be back in the UK. Tonight at KK’s Steel Mill, the wait is finally over, and to say you can feel the anticipation would be an understatement. There’s reasonable support for Hull’s sludge/hardcore five-piece Mastiff, and US metalcore outfit Veil of Maya, but with the greatest respect, there is only one band the ever increasing audience has come to see.

Consisting a two level caged backline and lighting rig, it’s a compact but impressive looking set-up. Smoke fills the stage, a haunting bell chimes, and as John Alfredsson starts to beat the merry hell out of his kit, we catch first sight of Avatar’s demon ringmaster, Johannes Eckerström. New album title track ‘Dance Devil Dance’ is nothing short of the perfect opener. unleashing upon us the beginnings of a full-on metal show and creative theatre.

The cane-twirling Eckerström marches back and forth, patrolling his captivated audience. Combining sinister gaze and mischievous harlequin grin, he leads the way with ‘The Eagle Has Landed’ and ‘Valley Of Disease’. Arms outreached, fingers pointing, reeling and contorting, he takes momentary pauses, leaning back on his cane to survey the reaction of those watching. In return there is an eager and adoring reception, fitting for the rarity of uniqueness in modern day metal, and emphasised during the groove riddled ‘Chimp Most Pit’.

Avatar’s brand of avant-garde, melodic death metal, has both industrial and progressive leanings. It’s a veritable sonic mash-up which in places is desperately dark. and in others joyfully light. Guitarists Tim Öhrström and Jonas Jarlsby provide a maelstrom of complexity and energy, ably accompanied by bassist Henrik Sandelin. During the gallop of ‘Scream Until You Wake’, and the journeys through ‘Bloody Angel’ and ‘When The Snow Lies Red’, the threesome meld together musically and physically, with a regular frenzy of synchronised headbanging.

It’s during the carnival inspired ‘Puppet Show’, and at a time when you figure the showmanship has peaked, that Eckerström appears on top of the bar to engage in balloon sculpting and perform a trombone solo. There’s a guitar battle between Öhrström and Jarlsby leading into 2012’s maniacal ‘Black Waltz’, and for ‘Tower’ Eckerström is seated at a piano for a superb solo performance. “Tonight is incredible!” states the chief provocateur … and it certainly is that.

Relatively late to the party, ‘Collosus’ was my introduction to Avatar and a track I became a little obsessed with. I’m more than happy to discover the thundering bass of Sandelin, that huge chunk of a riff, and Eckerström’s Geoff Tate-esque vocal are all replicated perfectly in the live environment. For ‘Let It Burn’ Alfredsson stands and plays drums front of stage before firing a confetti cannon into the crowd. A theatrical ending has founding member Jarslby decked out in a cloak and crown for ‘A Statue Of The King’, before the bands helpful gimps reset the stage.

There’s no doubt that in terms of vocal range, performance and engagement, Johannes Eckerström is the complete rock star. Upon return to stage he gives a heartfelt interpretation of 22 years in Avatar: “I try to wrap my head around you being interested in us and giving a fuck” he says. “Thank you for giving it meaning.” The set concludes with ‘The Dirt I’m Buried In’, ‘Smells Like a Freakshow’ and ‘Hail the Apocalypse’.

I’m not alone in thinking Avatar should be heading to new heights, but whether they will is for the metal gods to decide. They play Download Festival this year and I have no doubt will go down an absolute storm. That said, it’s hard to imagine the same atmosphere and intimacy of tonight’s show translating to a daylight festival appearance. If anything, it’s reason to go see them at a smaller gig, while you still can. Hail Avatar!

Review & Photography: Steve Johnston