Gama Bomb

The Newry thrash metallers 'shriek and solo' their way through a set to celebrate ten years in the business

For every ironically-moustachioed indie band or jauntily-hatted folk troubadour reaping press inches for their latest VIP showcase launch event, there's a hard-working, honest-to-goodness, home-grown heavy metal band out there paying their dues the old-fashioned way.

Dungannon's Million Dollar Reload have toured the States, played the Download music festival three times and opened for Alice Cooper. Meanwhile Trucker Diablo, from Lurgan, are gearing up to support the Foo Fighters, having released their debut album on a US label.

But most van-crazed of all – and arguably one of the biggest bands of any genre to have emerged from the north of Ireland in the past decade, at least in terms of the number of people you'll see wearing their t-shirts in rock dives from Belfast to Belo Horizonte – is Newry thrash metal outfit, Gama Bomb.

You probably won't have heard them on local radio, and the regional press for the most part passes them over, but while the Northern Ireland media slumbers, Gama Bomb have quietly (for want of a better word) toured Europe several times over.

They have also criss-crossed the Americas and released two albums on the pioneering UK metal label Earache Records, the most recent of which, 2009's Tales from the Grave in Space, made history as the first full-length album by a signed act to be given away completely free.

Not bad for a bunch of horror movie-loving, booze-soaked reprobates who started out playing pubs and youth clubs in County Down in the early 2000s. Sure, only lead vocalist Philly Byrne and bassist Joe McGuigan remain from those fledgling days – the rest of the line-up being bolstered by Dubliners Domo Dixon and John Roche on guitars and Paul Caffrey on drums – but wholesale personnel changes are not uncommon in this genre.

The mob who have gathered at Belfast's Limelight for tonight's special tenth anniversary show don't seem to care whose in the band or what their names are, so long as the amps stay cranked and the double-kick drum beats keep coming.

Irksomely, the quintet's opening salvo of 'Zombie Blood Nightmare' and 'Slam Anthem' are marred by a murky sound mix, but sheer adrenaline levels carry proceedings through. 'We're going to play lots of songs for you just like those ones,' grins Byrne, who clearly knows what side his band's bread is buttered on.

Sadly, the frontman's vocal cords, which normally allow him to rival Lemmy for sheer guttural glory, are recovering from recent surgery and consequently his performance suffers. Still, McGuigan's snotty-nosed backing yells fill out the sound, and besides, the crowd are singing most of the lyrics anyway.

In refreshing contrast to many of their more-evil-than-thou peers, Gama Bomb don't seem to take themselves particularly seriously. There are no armfuls of tattoos, no pointy beards dangling from chins and no eulogising about the dark arts. The closest it comes to evil in a league with Satan is Byrne's tongue-in-cheek request to, 'Let's see your horns in the air.'

Instead, Gama Bomb shriek and solo their way through the movie reference-heavy likes of 'New Eliminators of Atlantis BC', 'Three Witches' and 'Evil Voices'. One number, 'We Respect You', even manages to namecheck everyone from Police Academy star Steve Guttenberg to legendary Italian exploitation movie director, Bruno Mattei.

With the crowd nicely warmed up, it's time to move into the party segment. Former guitarists Luke Graham and Kevy Canavan are brought out to play on some songs 'so old no one knows or cares about them'. 'It's a bit like VH1 Storytellers except it's shite,' adds Byrne with a chuckle.

But as soon as the 'classic' line-up smash into 'Zombie Creeping Flesh', it's evident what a loss long-time member Graham has been to Gama Bomb, while Canavan's shredding on the likes of 'Steel Teeth (The Metal Jaw)' and 'Zombie Kommand' is not to be sniffed at either.

Byrne, for his part, dons a blood-splattered mad doctor's coat, a nod to the theatrics of the band's formative period. Some may find the mucking about wearisome, but the group's serious side is underlined with the heartfelt polemic of 'Racists!', before Dixon and Roche return for the rather less weighty 'The Cannibals Are in the Streets (Therefore) All Flesh Must Be Eaten'.

If this offering from the five-piece's upcoming fourth album represents business as usual, then 'Backwards Bible' flirts with what sounds through the muddy PA like some off-kilter rhythms.

The new material highlights the challenge that now faces Gama Bomb ten years into their career. It's the same one that loomed over the original 1980s thrash bands at a similar juncture: to keep recording the same album with different lyrics to potentially dwindling returns, or to commercialise your sound and risk alienating your fans while making no new ones.

It's a predicament alright: for every Metallica, who pulled off their mainstream makeover, there's an Exodus or a Nuclear Assault, whose reluctance to progress left them working on building sites or driving taxis until the reunion bandwagon rolled into town.

Still, such worries are for another day, and for now Byrne and co are content to blast through a selection of short songs that nod to their hardcore punk heroes such as DRI or SOD. The mosh pit goes mad for 'Curry Chip', 'Nuke the Skeets', 'Random Note', 'OCP' and 'Mussolini Mosh', the latter of which comes with a story of how Graham spat in a disgruntled neo-Nazi's face when they played it in Italy.

As the festivities wind down, balloons are released, a birthday cake is produced and John Kevill from support act Warbringer joins in on a rough-and-ready cover of 'Rotten to the Core' by erstwhile Gama Bomb tour buddies, Overkill.

Finally, with all past and present members of the Newry noisemakers on stage – plus a friend of the band merrily bashing a cymbal – the night ends on 'Zombi Brew' and 'Bullet Belt', complete with a solitary stage diver, who crashes onto the dance floor with a thud. His may have been a limp display, but tonight Gama Bomb have given us anything but.

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