Rotting Christ / Mantic Ritual / Epicurean / Whorrid @ Logan Square Auditorium

January 16th, 2009

Whorrid: Local opener Whorrid was…..crappy. (You thought I was going to say “horrid”, didn’t you?) Actually I guess aside from the fact that they play a worthless style of death/thrash metal, there wasn’t anything explicitly bad about their music, but after their set, the band and/or their hangers-on were annoying drunken idiots smashing into people in the crowd for the rest of the night, so it’s so it’s hard to associate them with anything but “suck”.

Epicurean: My thoughts are the same as when seeing them at the Chicago Powerfest last year: good, creative melodic death metal songs, merged with some embarrassingly bad clean vocals. And it just wasn’t the same watching them without standing next to Matt Johnsen; I hadn’t realized what depth his intentionally off-key “harmony” caterwauling added to the experience. It seems really odd to me that I band like this is signed to a “real” label like Metal Blade. I guess maybe the label figured that once they were signed they could convince them to boot their singer, but that hasn’t happened yet. Too bad, because their songwriting does seem like it could be label-worthy.

Mantic Ritual: Oh god. Speaking of odd label signings, this local-opener-type tribute-to-80s-thrash-metal band somehow tricked Nuclear Blast into signing them? Even more bizarre, the band actually forgets to play cover songs, and instead plays their creative “originals”, such as “Death and Destruction” or “Murdered to Death”. Every single element is completely backward-looking, even down to the short-bangs/long-in-back haircut (super-mullet?) of the James Hetfield actor. For thrash, the songs aren’t the worst (the guitars have some melody at least), but none of them are anywhere near what Metallica or Megadeth were doing 25 years ago, so I really don’t see the point. It’s quite a shame Novembers Doom had to drop of this tour, that would have made a whole lot more sense!

Rotting Christ: These Greeks did their first US tour in their 20+ year history last February, and for some reason, I was an idiot and was too lazy to go out and see them. This was particularly stupid because they rank pretty highly on my favorite-bands list. I own five of their albums; only for 27 of the 468 bands in my collection do I own more than that. Since they’re hardly an up-and-coming buzz-band, I figured I missed my only chance, but for some insane reason they decided to do another trek through the US less than a year later. I suppose label-financed buy-ons from the opening bands might be one reason not to curse the existence of those bands/labels? About 100 people turned up, which is actually a little more than I was expecting with $30 tickets on a day where temperatures hit -17F, but in a ballroom that could easily hold 1000, it felt pretty thin.

Still, the guys did a good job, burning through a tight setlist with a minimum of bullshit. Frontman Sakis would even do some yelling at us away from the microphone, which was an effective way to add intensity; I don’t know if he always does this, or if it’s only at places where he can actually be heard when unamplified. The set was heavily, heavily focused on their latest album ‘Theogonia’, which is just fine by me, because it could actually be the best album they’ve ever done. The combination of headbanging grooves and pervasive keyboard (piped in) and guitar melodies means that all their songs come across really well live.

Sakis was wearing a shirt that simply said “X ? ?” across the front with no other text anywhere. I saw that at their merch table, so I figured I could simultaneously support the band and have a unique shirt that would let me pretend that I was in a fraternity (I later found that would be the “666” fraternity, which just makes it more awesome). Unfortunately, the versions for sale said “Rotting Christ” on the back and the sleeves, and since I’m not that guy, I couldn’t get it. Sorry guys!

Heathen Crusade III – Day Two

November 15th, 2008

Under Eden: Almost-melodic death metal from the Twin Cities. Nothing especially Heathen about them, but they were a solid local opener. Seems like there is a much better local talent pool here than in Chicago, or the HC guys just do a good job of not booking shit. The drummer’s girlfriend wandering around the stage taking photos of him was a little odd; I know he’s wearing an Arcturus shirt, but you’re killin’ the vibe! The vocalist should try out some more of those low clean vocals, they add a nice new dimension.

Velnias: OK, scratch that, Chicago can more than hold her own. I saw this trio open for Wolves in the Throne Room a few months back, and they were good, but not nearly as good as this. I’m not sure what the difference was, maybe it was the fact that they were backlit only in blue and candlelight. Stringing all the songs together without a break also helped build that powerful atmosphere. So yeah, why couldn’t Opeth have made music like this after their first two albums, instead of getting all prog and dorky?

Chaos Moon: The first real amateur-feeling band of the fest. Falsetto screams of evil, blast beats, and grrrrr! They were ok when they stopped blasting and grooved for a bit, but they didn’t do that nearly often enough.

Oakhelm: A pretty straight Viking metal band from the PacNW. Fairly aggressive, but still with some ale-swinging moments. Good (particularly the bass-playing frontman), but not quite major league. They had recently suffered another Heathen casualty, and thus had a replacement-guitarist who had only two rehearsals under his belt. He did a darn good job considering that, but did lose his place a couple times, so I’d want to see them again at full-strength before passing judgment.

Nechochwen: Solo acoustic guitarist from Appalachia who did 3 mini-sets over in the bar. He did an amazing job persevering under nearly impossible conditions (competing with sound checks in the main room and drunken revelers in the bar), and those who made the effort to listen were justly rewarded. In contrast to the Scots from Ohio or the Norse from Mexico, Nechochwen fits the ethos of Heathen Crusade perhaps better than anyone. Though the songs are purely instrumental, his introductions revealed that they are inspired by his own geographical and cultural heritage: Native American and early European-American history are frequent themes. Who would’ve thought I’d learn about the Gnadenhutten Massacre at a metal festival? It’s too bad we couldn’t hear these songs played outside around a campfire, but it was still a great addition to the fest.

Wolven Ancestry: By their name and Canadian origins, I was expecting a more natural and organic form of black metal rather than the keyboard-heavy sound they presented. They did have a big presence, particularly the vocalist who donned a fur cape and a horned wolf’s-head headpiece, and they were musically competent if not especially remarkable. Another between-song growler, but unlike the Grand Demise of Civilization guy, this guy was more comical because he was growling about such evil things as their merch sales.

Metsatoll: This is the kind of band that I go to Heathen Crusade to see; in a 40-minute tour de force, they defined what the festival is all about. They were HCIII’s Mael Mordha: a little-known band dug up by the HC guys from a small European country (Estonia in this case) who come out with such energy, power, and joy that they had the crowd eating out of their hand halfway through the first song. In addition to that HC spirit, they also had their unique folk instrumentation (bagpipe-thing, flute-thing, zither-thing (kantele?), and drum-thing), and multi-part vocals, but really the key to their music is the incredible rhythmic punch they have in their sound. It also helped that the lead-singer/bass-player had both the look and charm of “Wolf” from American Gladiators, and he had us singing “Hey-Ya!” in a way that would put Andre 3000 to shame. Best band of the fest.

Woods of Ypres: A special set consisting of “Your Ontario Town Is A Burial Ground” (the awesome standout track from their new album), followed with the complete 5 songs of “Against the Seasons”, their first release. I actually like “Pursuit of the Sun…” the most, so it was too bad not to get anything from that, but it was still a good intense set. For such a DIY-band, their presentation is surprisingly professional, but not in a plastic way. For some reason I kept being reminded of Isis. Maybe it’s because mainman David Gold has a vague aura of Aaron Turner about him, or maybe it’s the sexy Milo Ventiglimia bass-player, or maybe it’s just the three guitars.

Moonsorrow: Finally for the headliner, the crew unbolted the band members’ legs from the stage. Although Metsatoll and Woods of Ypres had started some movement, the Moonsorrow guys ran around more than every previous band combined. That, in addition to their barely-seen banner and privileged use of the 3 green lights made it obvious that these guys were the real pros. Though again, that surprised me a bit, because I had assumed their unconventional songs would have kept them from quite developing that Wacken-circuit level of polish. Unfortunately they didn’t play any 30-minute songs, but I’m probably the only one who would have been made happy by that. Beyond that, their set wasn’t quite as familiar or catchy as I was expecting, though it came on strong towards the end. And it’s always good to see the whole band (even the drummer) chipping in on vocals. So, a worthy closer, but I think among the headliners I’d take Ancient Rites, which I wouldn’t have guessed going in.

Overall: The lights, never Station 4’s strong point, were especially poor on the second day for the early bands; as I said, I don’t think we even saw a green one light up until Moonsorrow (unless this was a requirement of theirs?) In contrast (and much more importantly), the sound was top-notch for the whole fest. Only occasionally would there be a low guitar or something, but by-and-large, every single band sounded excellent. And the schedule was hit nearly to the minute. After the success of the Pagan Fest tour earlier in the year, I had wondered whether the rising tide would lift all Viking boats. I think the answer must be no, since attendance seemed similar to HCII, meaning 300 attendees would be pushing it. But I think attendance was stronger throughout all bands this time, though that was surely helped by the later start-time on Saturday. Anyhow, another great festival, and if there is a IVth Crusade, I’m pretty sure I’ll be there.

Heathen Crusade III – Day One

November 14th, 2008

Grand Demise of Civilization: Started with a really clever military riff/rhythm. Nothing else in the set lived up to that riff, but it was still quite good. All fast deathened black metal, and touches of those military beats continued through the set. Good players all around, particularly the drummer. Halfway through, the shaved-bald vocalist unbuttoned the collar of his black shirt, I thought to reveal the swastika tatoos on his chest, but thankfully that didn’t happen. He did speak in evil-man voice between every song, but it was actually rather effective, since their particular brand of hate seems to have a bit of a theatrical high-concept to it.

Lunarium: First, yes, they have dedicated sword-bearer in the band. Well, in addition to swords, he also bore various Halloween decorations, including a skeleton and a giant troll. Everyone else was kitted out in their best Scottish/Renaissance-Faire gear. Luckily the singer owned up to the Spinal-Tap-ishness of it all. The best moment was when he was digging around in a rabbit-skin belt-pouch: “Next time, I need a better place to keep my guitar picks!” Musically, it was folk-metal in the Falconer vein. Lead singer was actually quite good, and their 3-part harmonies were some of the best moments. So a fun early band, and good for the fest, but you could tell they were from Ohio and not Edinburgh.

Ulveheim: If you can have Scot-lovers from Ohio, I guess you can have Odin-lovers from Mexico, right? They seemed good enough, incorporating some Viking choruses into their thrashy death metal, but I left after a few songs to grab some dinner. If they would have sung about Aztec warriors and their death-sports instead, I might have stuck around.

Inquisition: Two members, a croaking vocalist/guitarist and a pot-bellied drummer, heavily corpsepainted, playing headbanging rock’n’roll thinly disguised as black metal: must be Immortal, right? Nope, it’s another I-band (and not “I” either!) This, is Inquisition. Anyhow, Immortal is so good that even an Immortal-clone is still pretty awesome. Hair was flying furiously throughout the audience for their set, and they were the biggest draw of the night. Not much more to say about a band where one guy is hidden behind the drumkit and the other is tied to the microphone most of the time, but they rocked hard.

Ancient Rites: It took them 20 years to make it to this continent, and along the way, they lost a drummer and nearly lost a singer to some sort of exploding skin infection. But like true metal warriors, they soldiered on, flying in the drums from a tape, and beating back the infection. They were also short a bass-player, but it seems this may be normal for them? Their odd mix of catchy, epic choruses and keyboards, mashed together with un-catchy thrashy riffs (a mix forged in the days before bands discovered how to do this more elegantly, I presume) actually works really well in the live situation. It certainly helps that the singer is a really charismatic guy, and they had already built a relationship with the audience by partying with them the night before. He ended up in the crowd at the end of the set, so I hope that infection isn’t contagious!

Overall, a strong first night, which bodes well for the fest, since I think this was considered the weaker night of the two by a fair margin. Everything appeared to run smoothly and on-schedule (even though Inquisition might have gone over), and my favorite little touch is the low volume on the between-bands music; thanks for that!

Amorphis / Samael / Virgin Black / Urn @ The Pearl Room

October 7th, 2008

When I first arrived and saw the closed doors at the Pearl Room I thought “oh fuck, they better not have canceled this”. Luckily they didn’t, but the move to the bar wasn’t much better. I’m still not entirely sure on the reason. Do they actually save on anything by not opening the Pearl Room? I guess maybe a couple bartenders’ wages? Seemed like plenty of security guys were still around. I can’t imagine it’s just to make the bands feel better by playing to a less-empty room, because surely they feel like losers playing on a 6-inch stage in the corner of a bar. So in the end, I counted about 160 people before Amorphis went on. At $20 a pop, that’s $3200; with 3 bands from Australia, Switzerland, and Finland, once again, someone was taking a serious bath on this one. When combined with unsavory reports from the Helloween debacle, I have to wonder, is this Mokena experiment coming to an end? Or is it simply an unlucky stretch? Either way I can’t imagine there will be a bunch of bands standing around the Wacken water cooler next year telling each other how great the Pearl Room is.

Anyhow, if the bands felt like they were losers, they did a good job of not showing it. First I saw was Urn, who, play gothic renaissance metal. On record, it sounds like their writing can actually support their stylistic ambitions, but their live sound wasn’t so hot. Good on them for having a girl drummer, but she was pretty wooden, and only occasionally would the sound mesh together into something impressive. My favorite part was when the black-clad, corseted keyboard/flute player would bend down between songs and pick up the true drink of a medieval witch princess: a 48oz bright-yellow Wendy’s cup.

Virgin Black were the ones that revealed Urn’s bad sound, because at first I was going to blame it on the crappy venue PA; but VB sounded so great that at first I couldn’t believe that the keening operatic vocals were actually being sung live rather than flown in. They sounded that perfect. Not a single word spoken during their set, just pure operatic doom closed out by one hell of a tortured scream. Credit to them for having a girl (guitar-player!) in the band who they keep almost completely hidden, not whoring her out for cheap attention.

Samael did their best to create their normal strobe-light-fueled atmosphere, but it was pretty hard to pull it off given their uninspiring surroundings. So the songs were good, the performance was professional, the guys were engaging, and the electronic sound stayed crisp and powerful, but it couldn’t beat the times I saw them in ’99 (even though those venues weren’t THAT much better). But then again in a post-Great White era maybe I didn’t want to see that fire-juggler that they had back then. Oh yeah, and the powers that be came with a surprise to cut their set off two songs before it was supposed to end.

Amorphis was much better than the two previous times that I had seen them. Much is due to the new singer, but a lot of that is an indirect benefit that comes from the fact that they put together a more powerful setlist than they ever did with Pasi at the mic. Every time Joutsen (who the stage revealed to be quite short) made the transition from growling to singing, it took him some time to really grab the melody by the throat, but once he got there, he was quite good. And actually it highlighted that a lot of the clean Amorphis vocals (especially on the older stuff) are probably fairly hard to sing. So yeah, great setlist, with plenty of heavy, plenty of grooves, plenty of space, though I’m not sure why they close with Black Winter Day since it’s probably the worst song of the whole set.

So despite the big downside going in, it actually turned out to be a rather good show.

Jon Oliva’s Pain / Circle II Circle @ Chicago City Limits

September 30th, 2008

I was talking about the show with a friend beforehand and somehow mentioned that I didn’t know when it would really start, and she said “why don’t you just call the venue?” I said “ha…anyone who answers the phone there certainly isn’t going to know and/or care!” So yeah, it was a trip back in time; that’s what all late-90s underground-ish metal shows were like, whether Jackhammer’s, Riley’s, Smiler Coogan’s, or J.J. Kelley’s, etc. I was actually surprised that you could buy advance tickets for this one, because even that was a rarity back in the day. I remember the cover charge for Iced Earth (or maybe Nevermore?) was once $3. $3! And I’m talking like 1997, not 1957.

Circle II Circle was ok. Obviously the venue they were playing in colored my impressions, but they looked like a bar band, not an internationally touring band that has played Wacken. Though the lead guitarist does have that awesome Peter Tagtgren/Warrel Dane haggard look to him. I was also impressed by the frequent harmony vocals provided by the bass player; that’s something I don’t see enough of these days. The greatness of the Savatage songs they did at the end mostly served to highlight the relative weakness of the CIIC songs.

Then Jon Oliva came out and showed that the atmosphere of the venue could easily be overcome. His sound was more forceful, the band looked more pro, and the whole thing suddenly felt more like an “event”. He was funny, engaging and relaxed as usual, and, speaking of old-school Chicago metal, he got perhaps the loudest cheer of the night by talking about the long-gone Thirsty Whale. If I was shown photos of the two main forces in the band (Oliva and guitarist Matt LaPorte), I would guess that they would be most famous as a couple of sad-sacks who defended themselves from a goofy lawsuit on an episode of “Judge Judy”. Never would I guess that they could play such great music! So of course the Savatage stuff was the highlight (with “Edge of Thorns”->”Chance”->”Somewhere in Time”->”Believe” being one of the best 4-song sequences you’ll ever see), but even the JOP stuff was good too, with “Firefly”, a song I probably heard once before, as a particular standout. And when Zak Stevens came out for his songs, he looked and even sounded way better than he did with CIIC. And I’m pretty amazed at how great Jon’s voice still is. I thought that the trend of asking him to dedicate songs to people he doesn’t even know was a bit lame, but in the case of the guy whose father had died, it had the nice side-effect of making him play the song (“When the Crowds are Gone”) more seriously. Because while all his goofing around is generally fun, many Savatage songs do have deep emotional power to them, so it was nice to see the actions match the words, at least for a bit. Overall it still didn’t touch that 1998 Savatage show (still one of my all-time favorites), when they were still a “big”, major-label band, but it was pretty great.

I did what I consider to be a fairly accurate count-estimate, and there is no way there were 200 people there. More like 100, 120 max. That’s about the exact number I was expecting, but actually it felt more “full” in there than the numbers imply, due to the setup of the room. When Jon said that they would like to come back to the same venue (“next time on a Friday!”) and thanked the owner for paying them a bunch of money, I thought I heard a note of implied sympathy in there for the fact that the owner was totally taking a bath on this one. But just like those bar shows of yore, the per-capita crowd noise was excellent, way beyond what you’ll ever get at a larger show, if that counts for anything.


General setlist, taken from and modified from my not-great memory:

1.Sirens (Savatage)
2.Warriors (Savatage)
3.Global Warning
4.Hounds (Savatage)

6.Tonight He Grins Again (Savatage)
8.Maniacal Renderings
9.Gutter Ballet (Savatage)
10.Walk Upon the Water

11.Edge of Thorns (Savatage) (with Zak Stevens)
13.Chance (Savatage) (with Zak Stevens)
14.Somewhere In Time (Savatage)
15.Believe (Savatage)

Encore (thankfully they didn’t actually leave the stage):
16.When the Crowds are Gone (Savatage)
17.Hall of the Mountain King (Savatage)

Isis / Dub Trio @ Subterranean

July 26th, 2008

Starting just after the end of the first night of the Wicker Park Fest, this show finally sold out with the walk-up attendance. I was actually surprised that it took that long to sell out, but I guess the fact that Isis would be headlining the Wicker Park Fest the next night probably depressed sales a bit.

I’ve seen Dub Trio twice before, but not as Dub Trio. Instead, they were the backing band for Mike Patton’s Peeping Tom. So I knew they were an instrumental force to be reckoned with, but did they have the songs to match? I think the answer is yes. It’s really just instrumental metal, with no dub to be found, and I wished that they would spend more time on the crushing grooves and less on the jerky, technical rhythms, but I suppose it’s the contrast between the two that makes that groove so cathartic when it comes.

The question for Isis was how this tiny-club show would compare to the the last-minute tiny-club show they did at the Bottom Lounge a couple years ago. While it wasn’t as brilliant as that, it was still better than than the two times that I’ve seen them at larger venues. This crowd also seemed more into it than that Bottom Lounge crowd, even starting up a mosh pit during the encore. Isis has to be one of the consistently best-sounding bands that I’ve ever heard. From the smoothly thumping and un-triggered bass drums, to the three guitars which completely respect each others’ space, to the active bass which slides in between all that respect, to the roars and unchallenging-but-effective singing of Aaron Turner, everything stays apart yet comes together in a way that few bands seem to be able to match.

At The Gates / Darkest Hour / Municipal Waste @ House Of Blues

July 14th, 2008

For the first time in well over a year, I rode the L into the city. They finally have most of the slow zones eliminated on the Blue Line, so what used to be like an hour took less than 35 minutes, way faster than traffic. Yay! Only downside was for the people who had to sit next to me on the way back home, since I was thoroughly coated in the slimy stink of a mosh pit. Sorry!

Municipal Waste – I arrived shortly before they started. They’re pretty terrible. They play thrash of the worst sort – purely backward-looking (by decades), and neither hooks nor heaviness are anywhere to be found. Paying $1000 for the privilege of playing the 1:15pm slot at the Milwaukee Metalfest in 1997 is where I’d expect to find them, but due to some crazy rip in space-time, they actually have fans in 2008 that were going all crazy-mosh for them. Congratulations to their marketing team, I guess. I started down in the pit, but left after a few songs. Not to avoid the violence, but just because I was really bored. Their cover of a punk song was the best thing they did, along with their chant of “Municipal Waste is gonna fuck you up!” or some such at the end of their set.

Darkest Hour – I saw them open for Tomas Lindberg and The Crown six years ago at the Fireside Bowl. I liked that version of the band a lot more. In comparison, the 2008 version is a lot less energetic, and seems to have less melody in their melodic death metal. But, they have much fancier lights, banners, and risers! Someone should tell them that that stuff won’t hide boring songs though. It was a boatload better than Municipal Waste, but nothing I need to go out of my way to see. Crowd was noticeably less enthused than they were for MW, but not to the point of hatin’.

At The Gates – First, I must establish my postion. I bought “Slaughter Of The Soul” in 1997. The band was already dead and gone by then, but I would guess that purchase date still puts me in the upper 60th percentile of tr00ness among those in attendance. Because, you know, that was 11 years ago. It hit me instantly, and to this day, I consider it a masterwork and one of the defining albums of 90s metal. It’s not at all “overrated”, and since I’m not dumb, it’s not even the slightest bit diminished simply because it inspired a million other bands who I don’t care for. I acquired “Terminal Spirit Disease” not too much later, but never warmed to it, or anything else they did.

So I was there solely to hear this resurrected band play “Slaughter Of The Soul”, and they did not disappoint me. I think they played every song from it except the atmospheric instrumental “Into The Dead Sky” (“The Flames Of The End” was used as the outro music). And they played it all with the same slicing precision, pained ferocity, and ruthless efficiency that made the recorded version such a classic. Ok, maybe the pain that the 22-year-old Tomas Lindberg felt wasn’t quite as evident in the screams of the 35-year-old version, but nowhere else was there a hint that they had been away from this for 12 years. The guitars still produced that groundbreaking sound that is simultaneously massive and penetrating.

In between the SOTS songs they played plenty of older material, apparently at least one from every release they ever did. I feel no shame in admitting I could have done without any of them; they were ok, but hearing them mixed in with the SOTS songs just highlighted what an incredible and out-of-nowhere leap they made for their final album; nothing in their past hinted that they would produce anything with the sound, style, and most importantly, songwriting featured on “Slaughter Of The Soul”.

But at least they did a nice job of mixing the old and “new” songs so that the sold-out crowd’s interest never flagged. Following the lesson of SOTS’s three-minute songs, the set contained a minimum amount of bullshit. Perhaps the longest break was a genuine show of respect for the Chicago metal scene by the band, who were wearing Trouble and Nachtmystium t-shirts. Even when they went offstage to the fading outro of “Need”, the enthusiastic “At The Gates!” chant went for only 30 seconds before the iconic sounds of shearing metal signaled that the encore would start with “Blinded By Fear”. That equaled the climax of Iron Maiden’s “Rime Of The Ancient Mariner” earlier this summer for the most intense concert moments that I’ve felt in years. The intensity continued through the next song (“Unto Others”?), but then unfortunately faded a bit when they insisted on a traditional closing with “Kingdom Gone”, an old song. But that’s about the minor nitpick, and I would have put up with far worse in order to witness the highlights that I did.

Mucca Pazza / Baby Teeth / Chandeliers @ The Mansion

June 19th, 2008

First, the venue: this show was held in the Stan Mansion, a 1920s greystone in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood that was formerly a Masonic Temple. Not quite Bruce Wayne’s house, but awfully close. On a tree-lined boulevard and surrounded by greenery, it’s the last place you’d expect a concert at (in fact, some people standing right in front of it asked me for directions there). Since the end of music at the Fireside Bowl, Chicago has been short on unique spaces like this for music, so it’s a welcome addition to the landscape (I haven’t yet had a chance to see a performance at South Union Arts, held in an old church with a giant neon cross, but that sounds pretty cool too). Of course, not being a dedicated music venue, there were a couple shortcomings. The “bar” was in a separate room from the music, they ran out of beer early on, and that led to a long line for a limited choice of drinks. The performance space had the temperature, humidity, and odor of an armpit, and stage lighting was minimal. However, the sound was surprisingly good for the cavernous, boxy room. I don’t think they’ve had many shows there (they’re run by the Empty Bottle people), so I’m sure some things will get smoothed out once they have more experience; I’ll have a chance to check it out again soon, since I see Shearwater there on Tuesday.

And, the music: Chandeliers was a drummer and four(!) guys playing keyboards/synthesizers. So pretty electronic sounding, though I think I did see an analog synth or two in there. Nothing too great. Baby Teeth was enjoyable; drums, bass, and a frontman playing keyboards. Good, simple, groovin’ pop songs, including lots of vocal harmonies from the drummer. The singer had an interesting keyboard setup: he almost always played with both hands, but the left hand was on a full keyboard, while the right played a smaller sequencer thing, often creating two quite different sounds. And sometimes I think he might have been manipulating the sound of one through the other, particularly when he’d do bendy, guitar-solo-type stuff.

I’ve wanted to see the spectacle created by the headliners, Mucca Pazza, for more than a year, but this was my first time. Instrumentally, they’re a 20- to 30-piece marching band, but aesthetically, they’re gypsy punk freaks. The lineup is about one-third brass, one-third percussion, and one-third miscellany (guitars, clarinets, accordion, violin, melodica, cheerleaders, etc.) Their mismatched, rag-tag marching band uniforms and their complete lack of marching are strong clues that the music coming out of their instruments isn’t going to sound like a traditional marching band. Instead, it often has a strong Balkan vibe to it, which means that this little-known Chicago band is (independently?) doing something surprisingly similar to little-known bands Alamaailman Vasarat and Estradasphere. It’s been a while since Estradasphere has done their whole ‘circus’, including their Death Metal Cheerleaders, and the guys in Mucca Pazza can’t match the mind-blowing instrumentalists in E-sphere, but they’re clearly drawing from similar influences. Especially since Mucca Pazza even had some “spy”-sounding numbers as well. They come even closer to the wall-of-sound style of Alamaailman Vasarat; although MP doesn’t have the bass-and-distorted-guitar of AV to provide the weight to their sound, they more than make up for it by sheer numbers.

Mucca Pazza made great use of the space; since only a few instruments required amplification, they frequently infiltrated the crowd, used the balcony at the rear, and one guy even made it up to play his horn out of the little decorative cutout high above the stage. With a band so large, I wondered if it would be difficult for individual members to keep the energy up, since very few of them are ever in the spotlight. But when your band is as large as the audience might be at a lot of other shows, that means that the rest of your band CAN be your audience. And since most of them are surely former(?) band geeks, they clearly enjoyed performing for each other as much as they did for us. So it was a ton of fun for everyone. I don’t know if they ever get this conglomerate on the road (actually they’ll be at Rothbury, along with…Estradsphere!), but if they do, see ’em, because it’s not something that you’ll see every day. Actually, instead of touring, they should just franchise out the concept, since I bet it would be pretty easy to find 30 band geeks in most cities in the country who would want to be part of something like this.

Iron Maiden @ Allstate Arena

June 11th, 2008

I’ve been to 185 concerts in my life, and only three of them had been at arenas/amphitheaters with assigned seating. Even at general admission shows that have seating available, I simply can’t enjoy a band’s performance while I’m sitting down. The last assigned-seating concert I went to was Iron Maiden / Dio / Motorhead, nearly five years ago, and I never really expected to go to another. But then this Iron Maiden nostalgia-tour came around, and I was mildly interested in going, due to the setlist and theme. It was at the Allstate Arena, but when I found out that the floor area was general admission, I decided to give it a shot. I figured, “if I don’t enjoy THIS arena-sized concert, then I should be able to confidently swear off all arena shows for the rest of my life”.

I showed up at around 6:30 for the listed 7:00 show. Not being familiar with these arena shows, I didn’t really know how they schedule them, and wanted to make sure I wouldn’t end up standing way at the back of the floor. Less than a quarter of the floor was filled when I arrived, so I killed some time sitting in the upper deck for a while. Eventually I wandered down to the floor, after finding the place to trade in my ticket for a floor-access wristband. I walked up to a spot that was about the same distance from the stage as I recently watched Testament from at the far smaller Pearl Room. The opening band actually started around 7:30, which was about what I was expecting, though there was still plenty of room on the floor then.

So, Lauren Harris, Steve Harris’s daughter. She’s pretty easy on the eyes, which is about the only positive thing I can say. Her singing ranged from pedestrian to cringe-inducing, her band was straight from Spinal Tap, and her songs were pre-fab. She did this strange running around the stage that made it feel like she was always rushing to hit her marks, but maybe that was just because she had no shoes on. Best part of the set was when a big guy near the front got up on someone’s shoulders, and then lifted his shirt to show her his tits. That earned him a hearty round of applause. Oh, and the other good thing was that we got to see at least one Harris still wearing skin-tight pants in 2008.

So then around 8:30, it’s time for Iron Maiden. There were about 4 separate surges as the crowd packed into the front: once when Lauren finished, again when the lights went down for Maiden, again when the flying-on-the-Eddie-plane video started, and last when the fireworks went off and the band launched into ‘Aces High’. A bit more jostling after that, and I ended up about five rows from the front, where I spent most of the night. Despite the large mass of the general admission audience, it was only about half as intense up there as it was seeing Iced Earth (and presumably Testament) last month, at a much smaller place. My guess is that the combination of a somewhat older audience and the more casual music-love of fan at an arena show combined to help keep a lid on things.

So musically, it was pretty good. Even though I was only 8 when they did this concert the first time around, it really hit my nostalgia-bone perfectly. Especially since it also included ‘Somewhere In Time’/’Seventh Son’ songs as well; those and ‘Live After Death’ seem to be the ones that I remember hearing the most when my brother was cultivating his Iron Maiden obsession in the late-80s/early-90s. I think what I appreciated most was all the atmospheric bits that are included in many of those songs…I’d almost forgotten how important a part that was to even “classic” Maiden songs. Thus, ‘Rime Of The Ancient Mariner’ was easily the highlight for me, and the minute or so of music (and then fireworks) when The Mariner’s curse is finally lifted was probably a top-5 concert moment for me. Bruce sounded great, and the band performs just as well as they always did, which is amazing given their continually advancing age.

But it wasn’t all roses. I derive about 80% of my enjoyment at concerts from jammin’ to the grooves, and for some reason, I had a really hard time doing that at this show. My theory is that there was some massive echoing going on in the large space, so from where I stood, it was really hard to find the genuine beat and lock in on it. Perhaps if I would have moved back it would have sounded better, but then I would have lost the intensity from being right up front, so I stayed.

Maybe another reason I should have backed off is because there was this really annoying group of guys who were baked off their asses up front, constantly stumbling and crashing into everyone. One of the guys apparently annoyed someone else even more than he did me, so Mr. Super Annoyed began beating the crap out of him. Twice I broke up the fight (well, it wasn’t a fight, it was one guy whaling on someone who was essentially defenseless), and received a sharp punch to the wrist for my trouble. I don’t really like seeing people get the crap beaten out of them, even if they completely deserve it, but by the third round I said “fuck it”, and just let ’em go. In short order the offender had a mask of blood covering the left side of his face, streaming from a direct blow to his eye. That freaked the shit out of everyone, which made security notice, and drag him out of there. So, problem solved, but not really the method I would have chosen.

That sort of thing might not be solely due to the size and nature of the audience at an arena show, but I’m sure it’s a contributing factor. Add in the $15 parking, the long exit time, and a bunch of other little things, and it becomes something that’s not really worth it for me. Even things that I thought would be benefits, and are impossible at smaller venues, turned out to be non-factors: the massive spectacular stage show was fun and all, but it still seemed a lot less “huge” than my memories of watching the ‘Live After Death’ VHS 15 years ago. And the atmosphere created by ten thousand screaming fans went almost completely unnoticed; from where I was, with everyone unseen behind me, I could have been at the Metro and the show wouldn’t have felt much different.

In summary: good show, and I’m happy I went, but I’m also happy because now I know that I’ll probably never need to attend an arena show again. I won’t completely rule it out, but the only way I could imagine it happening is if Iron Maiden’s next album completely blew me away, and they were going to be playing most/all of it on their next tour. But I don’t really see that happening, and now having seen Iron Maiden 7 times, I won’t be sad if it’s my last. Especially since it probably was my favorite of the 7, and, they even closed with “Hallowed Be Thy Name”; and what better way to go out for a lifetime?

01. Intro – Churchill’s Speech
02. Aces High
03. 2 Minutes to Midnight
04. Revelations
05. The Trooper
06. Wasted Years
07. The Number of the Beast
08. Run to the Hills
09. Rime of the Ancient Mariner
10. Powerslave
11. Heaven Can Wait
12. Can I Play With Madness?
13. Fear of the Dark
14. Iron Maiden
15. Moonchild
16. The Clairvoyant
17. Hallowed Be Thy Name

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).