So seeing as how the 2017 monthly journal went from a monthly to two-month thing in its first two iterations, it should be no surprise to see the April, May, and June entries packed here together in a triple feature. There’s no excuse except that the other blog updates took up the bulk of my writing time, and that publishing these in their respective months slipped by me. The sad thing is that I actually did write the April and May entries within the time frame of those months… just never finished polishing them up. So here they both are, extremely late (but what else is new?) but re-written a touch to actually be readable. Unlike the Feb/March edition, which was a long piece on the state of Amaranthe and their 2016 album Maximalism that I had only gotten around to delving into during that time span, the April and May entries are more a random collection of observations I had during those months. In reading over them now I can see a thread running through both of them, the central theme being the changing of the tangible experience of being a metal fan today. The June entry is about the Iron Maiden show I attended on June 21st in Houston, essentially my post-show documenting of what was a phenomenal experience. I hope some of you get something out of reading these, because the point of the journal experiment for me is to write stuff that is largely self-centered, and these are certainly in that vein for better or worse.
April: (Reflecting on the state of my physical music collection, aka “These Boxes Are Heavy”)
Had some extended time off in the middle of this month, a stay-cation of sorts, and went through my own bout of spring cleaning (as you do around this time of year). In addition to the regular vacuuming, wiping, dusting, spraying, incense-burning, etc, my cleaning involved the continuation of a major project I’d begun just a few years ago —- the compacting of my physical music collection. Compacting? Yes. See at its height, my physical music collection (nearly all CDs) comprised close to 1,700 items, the result of a twenty year plus obsession with a completionist’s eye for detail. This was particularly true from oh… I’d say ’96-07, the height of which came around the turn of the millennium. I’ll give you a small example of the depths to which this went: Take Cradle of Filth, a band that I consider myself a fan of since hearing Cruelty and the Beast in 1998. I promptly bought up all their catalog prior to that album and entrenched myself in their work. During the three year gap between Midian and its follow-up Damnation and a Day, Cradle put out a few “stop-gap” releases, the double live album Live Bait for the Dead and a two-disc compilation album called Lovecraft & Witch Hearts, both in the summer of 2002. There was also a DVD released earlier that year in April, a live show/behind the scenes documentary called Heavy, Left-Handed and Candid, of which I had pre-ordered from their website an autographed copy.
Now consider that the concert that the Live Bait for the Dead double live album was culled from was the exact same show filmed for Heavy, Left-Handed and Candid. Anyone who’s been to a Cradle of Filth show, particularly in that era will certainly attest that they were very visual experiences —- the band in full make-up, a regalia of stage performers doing creepy things, all very visually theatrical. Between the two releases, the obvious get would be the DVD right? You’d want to have a visual document of that kind of performance, and frankly, Cradle’s already difficult to decipher style of extreme metal is challenging enough on studio albums, let alone something you’d want to process on a live album. Well, I bought both. Why? I have no idea, but in retrospect I can say that 2002 me would’ve felt a little guilty and perhaps aggrieved at not having a complete Cradle of Filth collection. I ended up watching the DVD quite a few times —- the live album… I think I went through it once and shelved it permanently. And lets not forget the compilation album Lovecraft & Witch Hearts, which I bought because it contained a second disc full of rarities, b-sides, and covers. Now the Iron Maiden and Sodom covers are complete gems, but I already had both of them on my double disc edition of Cruelty and the Beast. In fact, pointless remixes aside, most of the stuff on that bonus disc were found on the limited editions of the other Cradle albums I had. As for the first disc, it was a best of, and not the song selection that I would’ve picked either. All in all, it was a wash but I bought it anyway. Why? (Because I had a problem!)
It was compulsive collecting behaviors like the example above that largely contributed to me amassing a physical music collection that was as detailed as it was impractical, particularly as the years rolled on through the age of downloadable new albums and streaming services. I got my first iPod (a 2nd gen Nano) around 2006 and loaded its 4GB up with a rotating selection of as many albums I could pack into it, and with a AUX cable for my car, I stopped taking most of my CDs out of their cases for any other reason except ripping them to iTunes. Not only was my car CD player going unused, but the long abused stereo system I had at home was getting dusty as well —- good quality headphones and a laptop were the only music listening equipment I needed apparently. It did take sometime for my physical music habit to abate, but I slowly started finding myself not leaping at every single release any band I was even a moderate fan of. I’d buy albums off iTunes, and when I did buy physical releases, they were only the special editions of albums, your gatefold editions, box and book editions with tons of artwork. At times I felt the old guilt return, but in smaller, more easy swatted away doses. When I started The Metal Pigeon in 2011 and started getting on record company/PR firm promo email lists, I wasn’t surprised to find that everything was being done digitally now, albums distributed through website apps like Haulix and Dropbox. In the entire time I’ve been writing this blog, I’ve only had one physical release mailed to me (from France! Shout out to Sebastien Regnier of Eclectika!), a far cry from when I used to take home armloads of physical promos from running the music department of a Borders (not coincidentally a large reason the physical collection ballooned to such absurd numbers).
So over the years, I’ve moved a few times, and like everyone else who’s moved, I learned that I had a lot of junk that I simply didn’t need. I threw away or donated more stuff than I ever realized I had, and made the decision to sell off chunks of my physical music collection —- mostly the non metal/rock stuff that was simply taking up room that I never listened to anyway. It was a helpful decision, as it cut the collection down to just over half of what it was, but I couldn’t bring myself to part with the metal/rock stuff. It was hard earned, and in its own small way a tangible stitching of my history as a fan. Two years ago however, I moved again, and this time the absurdity of having 7-8 arm achingly heavy boxes of jewel cased CDs to move was too much. I never wanted to go through that again and had further downsized the majority of my possessions as a whole, so I dragged my age old CD towers and racks out to the trash. I resolved to not have the physical collection on display anymore, mostly because it felt pointless, a waste of space that not even I looked at all that often anymore. I still wanted to keep the discs and the artwork though, so I bought a couple huge CD binders, and began the slow, monotonous process of ripping out the CD booklets, the back tray artwork inlet, and the discs themselves and slotting them in. Dear god what a tedious process it turned out to be.
Its taken me about two years to get it done, only bothering to tackle it in spurts when I summoned enough motivation during bouts of intense cleaning, but this past week I finally saw it through, the last of the jewel cased CDs shoved into a massive cloth zip-up binder that’s certainly heavy, but not unwieldy. I sat on my couch, watching Netflix with my remaining box of CDs on the floor and a big garbage bag next to it that steadily filled with useless plastic. I used to be so obsessive about the state of my jewel cases, replacing broken or dented ones with nicer ones taken from albums deemed less important. Now they were tossed aside like corn husks, cracked tabs and all and thrown out with something resembling scorn. I had even begun to loathe the name, “jewel cases”, as if they were these hidden treasures of an ancient empire, these jewels to be coveted. Nope, they had become as superfluous as CD longboxes, as cassettes, as boxed PC games (do they even produce those anymore?). Also tossed out were the generic, same cover art as the booklet slipcases that so many jewel cased albums often came in, the most pointless kind of packaging. The only physical albums I have now are a pretty substantial collection of special format editions, those non-jewel cased items such as numerous digipacks and boxed sets.
But in the days that have passed since I’ve finished, I’ve been thinking a lot about how much I miss the idea of buying physical music and actually maintaining a collection. Its absurd to think the latter now, particularly when I’ve just finished condensing 95% of it into two massive black-cloth, zipper binders. Sure the core collection is still there, and I can flip through it, all those key rock and metal albums that are markers of my history as a fan of this music as well as a huge part of my personal history —- but the fact that I don’t add to the collection quite as frequently as I used to is bumming me out. Last year, I bought a total of only ten physical releases. Ten! The rest of my purchased music was digital downloads from iTunes and Bandcamp, and of course most of my consumption tends to come from Spotify and of course, digital promos. And my no jewel cases policy prevents me from simply buying some releases because its not released in a “special” format (ie your digipacks or book-formats) such as the recent awesome November’s Doom album Hamartia. A few weeks ago, a friend of mine mentioned how he missed going to record stores and actually buying a physical copy of something, he didn’t even know what he wanted specifically, he just missed that feeling. I get it. Every now and then I’ll go out to the few remaining music stores in Houston, all indie places, and browse through, not knowing what I’m even looking for, just hoping that something will catch my eye. The metal selection is usually pretty threadbare, but I’m open to anything. Most of the time I leave without buying anything. The physical product I do buy is almost always ordered from an online distro.
As everything we do gets digitized and streamed, I’ve joined everyone else in letting go of most physical entities, even shedding most of the meager DVD collection I had because its easier to call it up on my phone from Netflix and its ilk and cast it to my TV. Digital life is more convenient in all ways, it allows us to de-clutter our lives and living spaces, but it has created an unexpected void of the tangible nature of physically owning something. I recently read a book by Marie Condo called The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up, a best-selling treatise on the Japanese philosophy of zen in living spaces. Condo’s through line throughout her recommendations for organizing, cleaning, and discarding is the underlying question of: Does this object spark your joy? If it doesn’t, you thank it for its service and get rid of it. She also frequently reminds you that nostalgia is not your friend, and that most of our clutter derives from this emotion and our inability to deal with it. That’s a problem for most metalheads I imagine, because our physical music collections are built on the very essence of nostalgia, not practicality. My MSRcast co-host Cary has a room upstairs at his home that is filled from floor to ceiling with physical copies of music, but he’d be the first to admit, he dials up everything he needs on his computer, hardly ever going up there to grab a disc. As someone on the opposite end of the spectrum now, I can feel good about the space I’ve regained and the ease that my future self will enjoy when I have to move someday, but I think I haven’t quite figured out how to square the downsizing with maintaining that spark of joy.
May: (Big shows vs small shows and love for H-Towns “Scout Bar”)
This past Sunday, Metallica played a humongous show at NRG Stadium, the same place they held the Super Bowl in February and the home of the Houston Texans. A friend of mine posted a picture on Facebook from his mid-bowl level seats and I’ve shared it here. Get a load of that scale and size, as well as the nominal view, which is the best you could hope for with a ticket that’s still nearing (or past) the 100$ mark. Now from what I’ve heard, everyone who went thought it was a great time, that the bands (Avenged Sevenfold and Volbeat were also there) sounded good and there’s no doubting that Metallica always delivers a spectacle. I’m not sure how the folks in the upper bowl felt, nor the people who bought the cheaper tickets far opposite the stage, because I’ve been to Texans games there and sat in the end zone areas. Lemme tell you, when the teams are playing at the opposite end of the field from where you are, its like watching ants, and you end up watching the big screen TVs anyway. When I was in my formative metal fan years, I bought a Ross Halfin’s book of photographs of Metallica, which featured the best of his career’s work with the band from the 80s through the mid 90s. It was filled with a myriad of work, from promotional photoshoots and outtakes, backstage shots of the band just coming off stage in sitting in their sweat drenched garb in an arena locker room, as well as the band in far flung places like Thailand, catching the local riverboats. But mostly, it was just awe-inspiring shots of Hetfield standing on an enormous stage somewhere, in front of an immense crowd, kind of like the one in the Houston picture above. I loved those shots in particular, because they were simultaneously a repudiation of the mainstream that so often ignored metal as a whole, in a “look how many people love the band I love” kind of way —- but they also inspired a feeling of affirmation, that I wasn’t alone in my fanaticism but a part of something greater. I wanted to be in those crowds, screaming back at Hetfield with my metal horns raised.
All these years later, having attended countless (seriously, countless) shows of all shapes and sizes, if I’m being honest, its been the smaller, gritty, club-sized shows that I prefer. First, consider just how spoiled metal fans are relative to fans of more popular genres of music, particularly here in the States. We get to see many of our favorite bands in small venues simply because that’s the nature of most touring metal bands who don’t get the big draws of your Nickelback or Foo Fighters. Frequently these happen at clubs that become favorite haunts, nice places to sip beer as well as enjoy live music with nice beer selections at reasonable prices (no ten dollar Bud Lights like the local amphitheater). If you’re hoping to meet a particular musician and nab a picture, you pay a relatively small upgrade fee for a VIP meet and greet (not hundreds or thousands like fans of pop stars do) or you just go old school and show up early to catch them walking in for soundcheck or stay late and loiter by the buses. Most metal bands are so laid back, they’ll be out and about in the venue anyway after the show, and you can just come up and say hello. Our experiences are richer too, the small shows are more intimate, more intense if you don’t mind the pits, and more about the music itself.
I haven’t talked about this on the blog (though certainly have on the MSRcast a bit), but I’ve been to a few shows these past few months, Kreator/Obituary/Midnight/Horrendous back in late March, Amorphis with Swallow the Sun in April which was the closest to my birthday that a show has ever fallen, and most recently Hammerfall last week (**retro-edit** May 15th to be exact). In case you were wondering, I skipped the recent Sabaton headlining tour that went through Houston, the first time I’ve missed the band on a tour since I first saw them open for Accept way back in 2012. It was a mere three days after the Hammerfall show and in the midst of a packed schedule that week, but as I learned from friends who went, it was obscenely oversold, the place so packed full of bodies that it was described to me as “uncomfortable”. Now as much as it does suck to hear that my friends had less than a good time there, its also amazing that a European power metal band was able to draw that many Houstonians to a show on a weekday night! Its a highwater mark for the local metal scene in my view, and a sign that power metal’s audience has grown in my city, which is welcome news.
Most of these shows took place at a venue called the Scout Bar, which has for the past half a decade taken over as Houston’s primary metal show provider. Its located down the road from NASA near the southeastern border of Houston and League City. Its so far away from downtown itself, that you’d be forgiven for thinking you had left Houston proper, but that’s just how wide the city spawl is. The underlying facet about this geography lesson is to consider just how far most metal fans have to drive just to reach the venue, because if you live anywhere but near mid-town or downtown, you’re essentially driving across the span of Houston itself to and fro. The volume of shows I see here compared to more centrally located venues is entirely lopsided, in fact, out of the past eight shows I’ve seen since November 2016, only one has been at another place. Its also an odd duck of a venue, lodged in what was supposed to be an upscale waterside shopping area (there’s a huge creek behind it), with the shopping center punctuated by huge atrium style open air outdoor seating areas where presumably restaurants and cafes would seat those guests who wanted to see and be seen. Those grand plans never materialized, and the shopping center is now a mishmash of random local businesses, tiny eateries, and of course, a loud as hell rock/metal club that uses said atrium as its outdoor smoking area.
Inside the Scout Bar, you’ll find one of the strangest setups for a music venue that you’ve ever seen. Imagine that when you walk through the door, pass by the box-office foyer and walk into the club proper that the stage is directly off to your right. That’s right, the stage is placed against the front of the venue, turned around, while the bars are at the very back. This opposite day madness was utterly bewildering to me the first time I visited many years ago, and still doesn’t make sense except that there’s really no other way they could’ve configured things if you really look at the internal architecture. There’s a space for the sound booth directly opposite the stage, crammed in on the floor which takes up space which prevents the floor from being a nice rectangle of open moshing room —- there is no shape that describes its layout. Two bars, one at the very back on an elevated platform, and one with a respectable seating area that is off to the left of the door that we entered the club through. Obviously you can gather that there’s no backstage (where would it be?!)… there is a quasi green-room upstairs but I’ve rarely seen anyone use it. Bands either head back to the tour buses after playing, but most of them just hang out in the venue among the crowd or by the merch tables near the bar.
And in accepting all this weirdness, I can honestly say that its become my favorite venue. I have a collection of happy memories there, seeing bands like Sonata Arctica, Amorphis, Sabaton, Accept, Hammerfall, Insomnium, and countless others there for the first time. There was the night my idiot friends and I hung out with Stu Block of Iced Earth by a grilled cheese truck that was parked next to the venue (everyone getting a laugh out of a roadie taking Jon Schaffer’s order from a cell phone, the tour bus mere yards away). There was the time my friends’ band Brimwylf opened up for Sabaton and I was manning their merch table, side by side with Sabaton’s merch guy who could not have been nicer and more generous. Then there were all the amazing shows themselves, the small space naturally creating a more loose, comfortable, intimate vibe. Besides all the memories, the sound is great, and there’s just something charming about the fact that the bands walk from their tour buses directly into the front door and walk onstage. Its a venue that seems to urge concert goers and the bands themselves to remove themselves of pretense. Case in point: Were you to be standing outside in front of the venue when the headlining band walked off stage for the encore, you’d see the band members standing outside the venue’s front door, clad in stage garb, lingering awkwardly for a minute or two, and then walking back in to screams and hollers to deliver those final songs. What a scene.
June: (Troopin’ It: Iron Maiden @ Toyota Center 6/21/17)
So now that I’ve had the benefit of a few days to recover, I just wanted to report a little something about the Iron Maiden show at the Toyota Center here in Houston on Wednesday. It was a strange and surreal experience for a few reasons: First, I was seeing the band in an indoor arena for the first time ever, after all my previous four Maiden shows occurring at the outdoor Woodlands, Texas based pavilion amphitheater. We (myself and three friends) had bought floor/Standing Room Only tickets, and there was some thought to getting to the venue early to see if it was possible to get a semi-decent place as close to the stage as possible. We figured that we’d have to nudge, cajole, push, threaten, and elbow our way through a dense, immobile crowd to get remotely close to the front. I won’t bore you with details about how early we got there, but suffice to say, when we finally clambered down the arena steps from the concourse-level to walk across the floor that the Houston Rockets built, there was only perhaps 3 rows of people deep at the front of the arena. We causally walked by the enormous soundboard area, gated off and surrounded by a sea of empty space and just joined the rest of the eager throng standing agape at the stage in front of us.
I’ll help set the scene a bit. We were at most, I’d say 25-30 feet from the lip of the stage, so close that the staging didn’t even look that big from where we were (oh it was big, trust me, this was just how friggin’ close we were). I turned to my compatriots with a ridiculous grin I couldn’t control and stammered, “I can’t believe we’re going to see Iron Maiden this close, what the hell?!”. It felt indecent, and in the murky depths of my brain I felt we were going to be found out and promptly escorted outside, so when those three wandered off to the concessions for beers I almost berated them for abandoning such an absurdly good crowd position. That was my unspoken job you see —- hold the line, hold our spots with my presence. They returned and didn’t even have a difficult time getting to where I was, there was only a loosely scattered mess of people behind me by that point. This was my first time standing in the middle of an arena, unless you count my high school graduation at another venue, but that was different because there weren’t nearly as many people there as there would be at Maiden, plus half the arena was curtained off back then. This was far more bizarre, standing there looking on either side of us to see walls of slowly filling seats rise up from the ground and go up and up. Later when the venue was totally packed and Bruce was addressing the crowd in between songs, the house lights came on briefly and I turned around to see the panorama of a truly staggering mass of people sitting in that rising wall and it was slightly vertigo inducing. Clearly this was the biggest show I’d ever been to.
Damn near everyone we knew was at this show too, including my MSRcast cohost Cary and his wife, who I mistakenly thought were going to be on the floor with us but turns out were sitting in the lower deck, directly in line with us. They were so close they spotted us and we waved to each other as I tried to mime “Wtf? Why no down here with us?” in my best metal show version of charades. A few rows above him, our boisterous friend Trucker Matt (his name is Matt, but we’ve known a lot of Matts in our time, so everyone of them gets a variation on it —- he is not a trucker) was there with a date(!), which is probably one of the best ideas he’s ever had. He hooted and hollered at us, waving like a maniac and even in an arena that size, jeezus I could hear him. I’m not sure during what part of the show he took the picture, but he snapped a shot of the crowd directly in his line of sight and captured my ballcap wearing buddy Jason turned towards him, as if he knew the picture was being taken (I’m somewhere behind Jason to the right I think, seemingly lost in this particular picture however). Our friend Maurice and his wife were around somewhere too (he of the Houston doom band Blues Funeral and MSRcast guest), with him having both seated tickets and standing room only access (long story) and deciding to run to and fro from his wife in the seats and his buddies on the floor, can’t imagine how tiring that must’ve been. And of course there was our good friend Brent Bailey and his wife Lindsey, who we literally ran into halfway through Maiden’s set as Brent practically crashed into us, as excitable as only he can get, practically grabbing my shirt collar and shaking me like a madman screaming about how awesome this was. Excitable Brent is perhaps the most excitable person in the entire arena, I assure you. There were loads more people there that I recognized and ran into after the show —- this being perhaps the must-see metal event in Houston for all of 2017, even more so than the Metallica show. It just had that feel, that permeating joy that was etched into everyone’s face.
I don’t really write show reviews, as some of you might know, and besides this is a journal entry anyway. You damn well know that Maiden were amazing! That they played with passion and vigor that shames most bands twenty, thirty years their juniors. You know that Eddie came out and chased Janick around until Bruce literally ripped the beast’s heart out of its chest, and that everyone in the crowd wore delirious smiles, giddy with the utter silliness of it all. Surely you know that Bruce Dickinson ran and leapt all over the stage, never once seeming like a man who’d spent the better part of the last few years enduring chemo while battling cancer. You’re aware that when they played classics like “Fear of the Dark”, we all sang along to the melody, and you wouldn’t be surprised to hear that we did the same for a newer song like “The Red and the Black”. But did you know just how much friggin heat I felt on my face when the pyrotechnics flared up the moment the show opener “If Eternity Should Fail” kicked into its first heavy riff? Did you know just how much my legs were absolutely on fire from standing in a compressed space surrounded by fellow Maiden fans (that crowd got pretty dense after all)? Bet you didn’t know just how much energy I had to summon to rally through the encore, when the only thing my body wanted to do was collapse (seriously, I don’t know how I made it back up those arena stairs).
Standing there so close to the stage, I saw Steve Harris so vividly in front of me when he went for his machine gun stance, that I remember seeing a drop of sweat plummet from the tip of his nose to the neck of his bass. And when Bruce ran on the catwalk closest to our area of the stage, I felt so close that I could shout his name and he’d hear it over the din of the band. He waved the British Union Jack during the Trooper from the same spot, and I could’ve counted the damn holes in the tattered flag if I really tried. It was (and I know I’ve used this word a lot here) surreal. I had enjoyed seeing Maiden before, particularly in 2012 on the Maiden England tour when they played most of Seventh Son of A Seventh Son (aka my favorite metal album of all tid), and we had really good seats, center stage, certainly a little further back then we were this night, but close all the same. Something was different about that show however. You had a lot of space between you and the row of amphitheater seats in front of you, and hell… there were seats to begin with. This time, as close as we were standing, and without the inhibitions that the presence of seats places on the crowd, the atmosphere was more electric, the experience more visceral in intensity and enthusiasm. My buddy Jon said that it felt like we were at a club show at the Scout Bar, and Maiden were playing that night. Utterly surreal.