Clinic / Shearwater @ The Empty Bottle

May 12th, 2008

When I arrived and saw the “empty” stage, I didn’t know where the members of Shearwater would fit, since it was already jam-packed with instruments. But somehow the 5 members squeezed onstage, and throughout their set, no fewer than 15 different instruments were played. Every member played at least three different instruments, with one playing four, and another playing five! Banjo, guitar, drums, bass, bass, bass (upright), shaker, tambourine, keyboard, synthesizer, clarinet, vibraphone, vibraphone, trumpet, and hammered fucking dulcimer. That almost sounds silly, but somehow they pulled it off in such a way that all the instrumentation was there purely in service to the songs and their atmospheres, and never just for the sake of playing a lot of different instruments. But despite all those visual distractions, my focus was still always drawn back to the excellent voice of Jonathan Meiburg. From a gentle soothing falsetto to dynamic bursts of raging screams, he sounded almost exactly like he does on record; he has such a specific and identifiable tone that really anchors their entire sound. I’ll even forgive the fact that he looks like Kenneth from “30 Rock”. They played a nice mix of stuff from ‘Palo Santo’ and presumably the new one. Excellent performance.

I stuck around for Clinic, who I’d never heard of before. A quirky English group playing some kind of post-punk indie pop or something. Their gimmick is to wear surgical masks when performing, and apparently Hawaiian shirts. They didn’t seem like terribly charismatic performers to begin with, so then when you cover their faces, it gets even worse. Some of their songs were pretty good (they played their whole new album to start the set, and I recognized every song after only listening to 30-second clips of them earlier in the day), but something about their melodies just didn’t fit with my melody receptors in the right way. I actually left halfway through the second set, which is rare for me to do, but it was also getting pretty late (it was a 10pm show, after they had already done a 7pm show).

Powerfest Night 2 @ The Pearl Room

May 3rd, 2008

Unlike the previous two nights, I showed up a bit later, around 7:30. This is because I knew that two scheduled bands, Chaoswave and The Autumn Offering wouldn’t be playing. However, I had no idea if and how the schedule would be changing, or if any bands would be added, because not even the cancellations were mentioned officially (The Autumn Offering info was posted by a user on the Powerfest forum, and the Chaoswave rumor came solely through word of mouth the night before). I understand that the organizers are surely busy, but it takes less than 10 minutes to post a note on a forum or update a website with new information. But none of that was done, even though they must have known 48 hours in advance. I hate to say it, especially since the guys run a generally well-organized festival, but that’s a seriously Koshick-like move, and that lack of communication should never happen in 2008.

Again, just the walk from the car gave hints as to what kind of night it would be. It was a much older crowd, both in age and school. And also much more mainstream. Black Label Society and Misfits t-shirts were popular ways to express support of the underground. After Darkane’s set, I decided that I would stay up front to have a good spot for Testament, but when Pantera’s ‘Walk’ started playing over the PA and this group of 10 people around me raised their cups and started singing every single word as if it was the awesomest thing ever, oh god, I had to make a beeline out of there. I’m sure that alcohol sales were more lucrative on this night than the night before!

Twelfth Gate:
I arrived in time to hear their last two songs, and didn’t hear a single hook anywhere in either one of them. I guess I just don’t understand the point of making music without hooks.

They were easily my most anticipated non-Iced Earth band of the two nights, and they lived up to that expectation. Sound was a bit dodgy, particularly in the beginning, but eventually their melodies came through, even if the clean harmony vocals never quite caught up. This band could have been on the Paganfest, but one thing that separates them from those bands is that they have a more genuine extreme-metal background, so their music has an extra intensity to it. And when that intensity is combined with sing-along melodies, it’s just awesome. Also, they have no special outfits; by their look they could have been an old-school thrash band. They did a bold move of playing an instrumental for their third song, but it was so hooky that it worked out great. An equally bold move was to walk offstage in preparation for an encore, even though they were two bands away from headliner status. Luckily for them, someone must have pushed them right back out, because no one in the audience had any idea that we were supposed to call for them! Question: did they play their song “Darkane Times” specially for the band who would be following them?

In contrast to the old folks, there were these two high-school aged couples going absolutely nuts for Suidakra, so after their set, I asked them, “so, I guess you guys really like that band?” “No we’ve never heard them before we just came here and this is awesome!!” The incongruous jumping up-and-down and ill-advised moshing continued through Darkane’s set until one of the girls tried crowd surfing one too many times, which quickly brought an end to their night. Too bad, they were a nice contrast to crotchety Testament fans yelling “get off the stage” to Darkane. Like, really, is Darkane so far away in style from Testament that they’re that intolerable, or is Testament truly the only music that they listen to? I can only imagine what they would have thought if they were there the night before!

I’m not too big of a fan, but I have their first album, so it was very nice of them to include the two “hits” from it, “Convicted” and “July 1999”. The vocalist even did a good job of changing up his growl for those songs to match the style of the original guy. Beyond that, the songs near the end of the set worked out better for me than the earlier ones, partly because I think their sound got a bit better. Sonically they can be a bit of a mess on the fast stuff, so I imagine it helps to know their songs. But by presence, they were easily the biggest non-headliners of the weekend. They’re a strolling band, meaning that all four guys up front constantly roam all around the stage, changing positions, which is actually fairly rare, but a simple way to make a performance seem more active. It also helps that they’re Swedish, and thus, tall. Definitely a much better and more memorable performance than what I remember from seeing them at the Milwaukee Metalfest years ago.

I’m only a mild fan, but if I was as big a fan of them as I am of Iced Earth, then I’m sure this performance would have equaled Iced Earth’s for me. As it was, I just hung way back and enjoyed it in the sweat-free zone. It was difficult to gauge since I was in a different location both nights, but the crowd sizes seemed pretty similar, and the only way to move up would be to bash my way through. Testament’s sound was amazingly good, their lights far surpassed anything Iced Earth had, and their presence was excellent. I had just listened to ‘Live At The Fillmore’ before heading out to the venue, so it turned out that I recognized most of the songs that they played. Best for me were the two I knew the best, “Low” and “Trail of Tears”. Chuck Billy introduced the latter with a plea for human rights and environmental awareness, for which he received an enormous collective “meh” from the crowd of metalheads. Some of the other singers in the fest could really take a lesson from him in how to make the most out of a limited vocal range, because he really sounded good (it helped to have a very active soundman, who would jack up the reverb in time with his growls). Oh, and they could take a lesson from him in stage presence too. Actually all the guys in the band were quite fun to watch, although it seemed like Skolnick was going a bit overboard on the solos (or maybe I’m just not used to listening to music where guitar solos are such a focus?) On the other hand, one of my favorite parts was when the whole band was doing some improvisational jamming during the sing-along call-and-response of “Alone In The Dark”. It would have been cool to hear more of that. All in all, it was an impressive, headlining performance. And I now see that when the place is packed, including the balcony, it can be a pretty fun place for even “big” bands to play.

Overall, it was a great three nights of metal. Though for me, “nights” is a bit of a stretch, because the success of each night (excluding Paganfest) was heavily dependent on the headliners. And I think that I even got a lot more out of the undercard than many people there, who seemed to come *solely* to see the headliners. So, quite a different approach than last year, and a vastly different result in terms of attendance. Hopefully that also translated into a vastly different result for CRJ. I have a hard time imagining that they’d get as lucky with headliners next year, but if they do, it really calls into question the role of the undercard…I just can’t imagine that the attendance would have been much different if Iced Earth and Testament had been the only bands playing the last two nights. But maybe the imbalance this year was just an anomaly.

The only organizational issues were the above-mentioned lack of communication, and the line for the (men’s!) bathroom. It never really affected me, but it’s unbelievable that a venue with the Pearl Room’s capacity has only one smallish bathroom available. It’s like when they built it, they never expected they’d actually get a crowd to fill the place. The security seemed reasonable, succeeding at keeping crowd surfing to an absolute minimum, while still allowing freedom in the mosh pits. Occasionally they would take a shockingly active role in the pit, but hey, some of those guys probably deserve to be flung down to the ground anyhow.

So hopefully this was good enough for the guys to keep it going, because I look forward to next year!

Powerfest Night 1 @ The Pearl Room

May 2nd, 2008

Like the night before, I managed to time my arrival right near the 6:30 start. This time, there were even more people streaming towards the doors, with half of them wearing Iced Earth shirts, so it was pretty clear even before entering the building what this night would be all about. In addition to the balcony, the area to the right of the stage was opened up, which I had never seen before. They definitely outdrew the night before, and I wouldn’t be surprised if there were more than 1000 in attendance.

Arise and Ruin:
Completely unimaginative and by-the-numbers non-melodic metalcore, but it was actually executed quite well. The guys seem ok at playing their instruments, and the vocalist gave an energetic and convincing performance. As I listened, I thought that some of their mega-downtuned breakdowns actually would be pretty cool if they were expanded into full songs, where they’d turn into some kind of dirge-like hypnotic post-metal. And their last song even had some washes of melody, so it wasn’t half bad. But the best part was their attitude: they clearly recognized that no one was there to see them, so instead of exhorting the crowd to cheer for them (which would have failed miserably), they kept the banter to a minimum, and used the cleverly-dropped names of Iced Earth and Testament to keep the crowd involved. Oh, and one guitarist wore an Iron Maiden shirt too.

Ion Vein:
Umm…wow. Where to begin? Well, the beginning, I guess. It seemed to take them forever to set up, mostly because the entire drumkit was being assembled from scratch, and when you have 400 cymbals to forge, shape, and then screw onto the stands, that’s going to take a long time. I can’t understand why they weren’t more prepared, did they only remember at the last minute that they would need drums for this performance? Finally the music starts, and those drums are deafeningly loud, and horribly triggered. Up front, we have the other two guys on guitar and bass shouting angrrry-isms into their microphones gang-vocal style while they play some nondescript groove-metal. Hmm, do we only have a trio? Nope, out sashays the singer, with blond spiky hair, oversized mirrored sunglasses, and enough flamboyant prancing to make Boy George blush. Mixed with that persona, we also have him channeling Martin Short at his comedic worst, thinking that the more exaggerated facial contortions he does, the funnier he is. Ok, so, we have this free-spirited character, maybe that could actually be kind of cool and entertaining, something fresh in the metal world. But, no. Problem number one is that he has to sing too, and to do that, he apparently attempted to channel a third personality, that of Mike Patton and his many voices. Needless to say, he came up woefully short on every style he attempted. Problem two is much more egregious: between songs, his goofy gay guy routine vanished, to be replaced by Mr. Badass, who proves his toughness by showing how many times he can angrily use the word “fuck” in a sentence. But wait, it gets worse. At some point, this clearly white man devolved into a hackneyed black-preacher caricature, even going so far as to call us his “niggaz”. Oh, and then he took the opportunity to decry “fucking non-metal fags”. Just embarrassing. I can only conclude the he’s a bigot who thinks that mocking those unlike him is the highest form of comedy. Somehow, the crowd was actually mildly supportive, which shocked me, although a chant for Iced Earth did go up immediately after they finished their set.

Easily the most interesting band of the night, Iced Earth excluded. They’re one of those melting pot bands who takes influence from thrash, melodic black metal, etc. They were at their best with the more melodic and atmospheric parts, although their keyboard player contributed surprisingly little to their sound, especially given how many notes he appeared to be playing. Unfortunately, the most notable part of the band was their “singer”, who would do ok during the growling stuff, but was absolutely dreadful on the clean vocals, which he attempted quite a lot of. Honestly, I can’t remember ever hearing a worse performance from a singer, he never even came within a mile of the note he was trying to hit. He would have had no difficulty at all making it into the lowlight reel on American Idol.

A Life Once Lost:
By now, the crowd had packed in pretty tightly preparing for Iced Earth, so these guys had a huge audience watching them. Thus, it was all the more amazing how that entire crowd remained completely dead for their whole set. I was way in the back, so I didn’t notice any outright disrespect, and their was mild applause between songs, but for some reason the frontman decided to take the opposite approach of Arise and Ruin: instead of accepting that they simply aren’t going to win over the audience and then trying to stay positive and make the best of it, this guy gets his poor feelings hurt and derides us for being a bunch of pussies. Uh, yeah, that’s not going to help, genius. Musically, they were decent, but I guess if I want to hear a mix of thrash, -core, tech, and southern rock like that, I’d much rather have Mastodon.

Iced Earth:
Finally, the band that everyone was waiting for. From beginning to end, it was a complete no-bullshit, streamlined performance carefully engineered to kick our collective ass for 90 minutes. Zero stage decorations, no intro, they bashed through their first five or six songs without a break, and Jon uncharacteristically didn’t even say a word the whole night. If the goal was to make it seem like Matt had never even left the band, they completely succeeded. The only reference they made to Barlow’s return was when Matt and Jon warmly hugged after a huge “Welcome Back!” chant came up from the crowd, and Matt’s quiet acknowledgment of the frequent “Barlow” cheers.

It was clearly a “greatest hits” set, covering as many crowd favorites as possible while playing to Matt’s strengths. They hit at least one song from every album except ‘Burnt Offerings’, with ‘Something Wicked…’ and ‘The Dark Saga’ getting the primary focus. It’s the first time that I can recall them doing the closing songs from both of those albums without playing at least one of the lead-in songs of their respective trilogies, but the catalog is now getting large enough where that’s necessary, and even welcomed.

Early on the sound seemed a bit clicky and poppy on the bass end, and I don’t know if that improved or if I just got used to it. Then, the PA cut out twice, but apparently with their in-ear monitors, the band didn’t notice at all and just kept right on playing. That was good, because if they had noticed, I don’t think Jon would have been much pleased, and that would have brought down the vibe quite a bit. Since it cut out during a couple of classics and the band was still somewhat audible, the crowd just picked up the vocals themselves, and didn’t seem to mind much at all. The other guys in the band seemed good enough, but honestly most of my attention was on Jon and Matt. And for them, it was exactly like old times. Matt’s voice might have improved a bit as the night went on, but he was solid the whole way through, even on the Ripper stuff.

For me, it was my 20th Iced Earth concert, and it ranks right up there with the best of them. When their set started, I was at the absolute rear of the crowd, but worked my way up through the ‘Burning Times’ mosh pits. Eventually I made it to within three rows of the rail, where I spent most of my time. It was a complete crush, and sweaty enough that my fingertips got pruned. There was even a girl up there who was completely passed out and had to be dragged away; hopefully she was ok once she got some air! During ‘The Coming Curse’, Jon noticed me in the crowd, smiled, and pointed to me with his guitar, which is always cool. He was probably a bit surprised that I’m still up there going nuts for Iced Earth in my old age. It was only because the previous bands allowed me to conserve all my energy that I was able to survive up there, though I did nearly collapse when I dropped back into an active pit for some final insanity during ‘Iced Earth’.

So the crowd came to see Iced Earth, and I think they went home well satisfied. It was so great to see the universal positive reaction to Barlow’s return, and I can almost imagine that Jon is already taking the footage (there was someone filming) to the European festivals and looking to renegotiate upwards, because it’s going to be huge. Then again, the European festivals probably already knew how great the return of Barlow would be; it’s only Jon who was a bit slow in figuring it out!

01. Dark Saga
02. Vengeance is Mine
03. Burning Times
04. Declaration Day
05. Violate
06. Pure Evil
07. Watching Over Me
08. Ten Thousand Strong
09. Dracula
10. Coming Curse
11. I Walk Alone
12. Setian Massacre
13. Travel In Stygian
14. A Question Of Heaven

15. Melancholy
16. My Own Savior
17. Iced Earth

PaganFest @ The Pearl Room

May 1st, 2008

I arrived right around the 6:30 start time to see plenty of others streaming in from the parking lot. When I tried to pick up my will-call ticket, they couldn’t find it, which always gives you a bit of a shot in the pit of your stomach. But the girl was exceptionally cool about it, simply taking down my credit card information and letting me through (apparently I wasn’t the first one). Now, hopefully I don’t get charged twice!

Inside, there were CD vendors to the left and right, but neither was doing as brisk of a business as the tour t-shirt stand. The crowd was the largest I’d seen that early at the Pearl Room; the balcony was open and well-filled along the rail, and the main floor was occupied (in decreasing density) all the way back to the sound booth. I heard the number 700 being thrown around, and I wouldn’t argue with that as an estimate of total crowd size.

This is my second time seeing this band. First was at Heathen Crusade II, where they had an interesting approach to acoustic-driven folky metal, but rather poor execution. By now, their execution was much better, except for their female vocalist, who at least has her heart in the right place even if her voice isn’t. However, their style seems to have changed considerably, having dropped a violinist, and with only one song (the best one) featuring acoustic guitar. So now it was fairly conventional doom-death, which was a disappointment. I would have much rather seen them continue to develop their previous approach. Though it’s interesting to see that they seem to be recreating the path of fellow Chicagoans Avernus, 10+ years later. I should note that their singer wasn’t there (because he had to work!) so vocals were handled by the band leader. I’m a bit confused as to what role he would have played had the singer been there, since he only played guitar on one of the songs.

A crew of eight onstage is quite a rarity for an opening international band on a four band tour, but here they all were. Drums, bass, two guitars (one borrowed from Tyr), violin, hurdy-gurdy, pipes/flute guy, and a lead vocalist. Much like their albums, I greatly preferred their older songs, where the songs are folky both in instrumentation and approach. Their newer stuff is simply In Flames-style death metal with the folk melodies sitting on top as a gimmick, completely disconnected from the chugga-chugga below. Still, In Flames chugga-chugga isn’t bad to see live, especially when it’s performed by eight entertaining and unkempt medievalists. I admit to falling in love with the girl playing the hurdy-gurdy. Most of the time while spinning the crank on her instrument, she would sway back and forth in a complete chilled-out hippie way, but then would occasionally break out the full-on helicopter hair in convincing fashion. Too bad the hurdy-gurdy could only be heard rarely over the din, but overall, their sound was quite good for that many people. Finally by their last couple songs, a jolly heathen pit got going, which took longer than I expected, but I guess despite their good fit on this tour, they were still three bands from the top.

On record, this was the most interesting band of the tour for me, because their style is really quite different from the other bands, taking a more unique, almost prog-metal writing style, and connecting it to the pagan theme only by lyrics, and perhaps vocal melodies. Unfortunately, this was their downfall in the live situation, particularly since they completely refused to pander to the crowd looking for a simple, headbanging good time. They do have some songs that would have had the ability to get the crowd going quite well, but they really only played one of those, with the rest being either new, slow, or both. So while they gain some points for sticking to their guns, that wasn’t enough to counterbalance what they lost. Still, they played well, and it was especially nice to see a band that makes extensive use of two vocalists doing real harmonies; that’s a fairly rare sight in the metal world these days.

After the stripped down and unornamented performance by Tyr, it was quite a contrast to jump to the fully war-painted, fur-clad wildmen in Turisas. They followed the prototypical rules for a pagan-metal lineup, also seen in bands like Skyforger or Manegarm: the short, blond, not-quite metal-looking guy plays violin, the tall bearded guy is on guitar, the bright-eyed skinny guy does the vocals, and the jolly teeth-baring fat guy is, of course, on bass. The only oddity was their accordion player, who looked less like a Finnish warrior princess, and more like a corn-fed American college co-ed, all painted up to go see a Seminoles game. Well, except that you don’t see those girls playing accordion very often, and never so enthusiastically. So obviously, they really got the crowd going, even though they also will sometimes will forgo obvious straight-rocking opportunities in favor of bombastic Hollywood-metalism.

Compared to Turisas, their war-paint was minimal and they were all shirtless (except the female keyboard player in the back!), although the bass player was still the portly one. With just three guys up front, there was no room for gimmicks, which meant that all they could do was play straight-ahead ass-kicking music. One of their great advantages seemed to be that both of the guitarists in the band are leaders. At first, the all blond guy in the center seemed to be the obvious focus, but then I started noticing the second guitarist more and more, both from his playing and his attitude. Only later did I learn that the second guitarist is the true leader of Ensiferum, whereas the “frontman” is the leader of Norther. The only downside was their drummer, who gave most bored-looking performance I’ve ever seen! I seriously think that he had a small TV down on the floor next to his kit, and he spent half the show looking down at it to watch the Cubs game while he played. Still, the rest was enough to get the crowd to its most excited point all night, and they proved themselves the clear headliners. Best band of the night for me too, and I’ve never even really listened to their stuff before.

Top to bottom, it was one of the better shows I’ve seen in a while, which is really what I expected from this lineup. The great thing about “pagan metal” (or a Heathen Crusade) is that you can put together a tour where all the bands are linked by theme, and thus by audience, even though within that theme the musical variations can actually be quite large. So you have a situation where all the bands are well-liked, and that just gives a healthy spirit to the whole event.

I wore my Einherjer t-shirt, and got several comments throughout the night, but none more memorable than from the war-painted guy who nearly wanted to kill me for possessing such an awesome shirt. Odd thing was, while my shirt said “Einherjer” on the front, he had “Einherjer” on his back. No, not on the back of his shirt. On his actual back, in a big tattoo. Uh, dude, I think you have me beat, you hardly need my shirt to show your dedication!