Throw Open the Gates! Watain, Summoning, Tribulation, and More!

I had a vague notion that this year would be front loaded (and maybe back loaded too) with a ton of new noteworthy releases, but this January really has been like none other in recent memory. Most of my time was preoccupied with Orphaned Land’s Unsung Prophets and Dead Messiahs, but the rest was spent trying to catch up on everything else. This is the first part of a series of smaller reviews covering these albums, with hopefully another post covering the rest of them coming soon. In between I have to tackle the mighty triple disc behemoth from Therion so… yeah, that’ll take awhile. There’s a lot of metal to cover and the next few months don’t look like it’ll slow down so I’ll try my best to keep up!

 

 


 

 

Watain – Trident Wolf Eclipse:

I had to check to make sure I was getting the date of the last Watain album right —- its really been five years since The Wild Hunt, an album that while largely good, was a bit of a letdown coming after 2010’s viciously earthshaking Lawless Darkness. That’s an album that is seen by many black metal aficionados as something of a recent masterpiece, so it could be argued that The Wild Hunt was never going to live up to the expectations it created (how many bands knock out one masterpiece after another —- seriously though, promotional hype aside?). My problem with it as I recall was that its experimentation fell flat, particularly in their attempts to slow down the tempos more and at one point even try their hand at a road ballad (“They Rode On”). I think it was good of them to try those things, however meandering and at times just boring they ended up. What we and they should be certain of by now is that the Watain sound works better when its this fierce, uptempo ball of fury just barreling forward at full speed with a stop/start tempo change here and there to set things up.

 

The band returns to this formula for Trident Wolf Eclipse, an album that seems deliberately focused on achieving the spirit of Lawless Darkness, and they almost succeed. What’s holding it back is the thing that made this a really tough album to get into at first, and that’s the strange decision to have this kinda murky, muddy production quality through the whole affair. I had a hard time pinning down this problem at first, but a friend who’s a huge Watain fan pointed it out (“The production sucks!”), and sure enough when you compare this album to their previous outings, there’s a real problem here. It prevents everything from sounding as potent and slicing as it should, and this is a band where you should really feel the riffs on a visceral level. And then there’s just the overall problem that there’s nothing here that stands out, apart from the excellent “Towards the Sanctuary” and opener “Nuclear Alchemy”, two songs that do feel like they were left off Lawless Darkness. Everything else is okay, a fairly consistent barrage of speed and aggression with the occasional slightly slower passage, but there’s little that commands my attention. I’ve gone through this album a fair few times now, and I’m still having trouble deciphering whether its the production that’s keeping things from being too exciting, or that the songwriting just isn’t up to snuff. If its the former, that’s unfortunate but maybe it’ll grow on me in the future —- if its the latter, then we’re still seeing something of a hangover from 2013.

 

 

 

 

Summoning – With Doom We Come:

I’ve been listening to Summoning for a long, long time —-  my first exposure to them was in 2001 when a Tolkien loving friend bought Let Mortal Heroes Sing Your Fame on a whim after inspecting the tracklisting and seeing a bevy of Lord of the Rings references in its song titles (as oddly coincidental as it is that he would stumble upon that album in person, its even stranger that a Summoning album was in a store in Houston, Texas to begin with). The context of this introduction is worth mentioning I feel, because around that time he and I had both undertaken a re-reading of all of Tolkien’s works in preparation for that year’s December release of The Fellowship of the Ring (although, that re-reading had been going on for some time, thanks to Blind Guardian stoking those fires a few years prior). He immersed himself in Summoning’s music and I followed suit, both of us getting copies of their previous album Stronghold and for me at least, having it be background to many a chapter read (and the de facto soundtrack to the hours drained playing Shadowbane aka the greatest MMORPG of all tid).

 

They were powerful, majestic experiences, and fully formed examples of minimalism in black metal long before the advent of blackgaze or post-black metal. The band was at its best on ‘Mortal Heroes, where they found the perfect balance of  golden epic pomp to counteract their ever bleak nature, particularly on “A Distant Flame Before the Sun”, a bleak re-working of the Tolkien/Bilbo Baggins song “I Sit Beside The Fire And Think”. They get close to those moments on With Doom We Come, even though this album largely follows the more subdued and darker tone of 2013’s Old Mornings Dawn. I’m thinking of songs like “Night Fell Behind”, where mournful horns pop up throughout to counteract the sombre singular-note keyboard melody that ambles along at its dreamy pace. Similarly on “Carcharoth”, an interesting mix of keyboard generated orchestral elements are used in juxtaposition to an isolated fragmentary melody to create a mysterious soundscape. Its hard to pull this stuff off convincingly, and Summoning have made a career of doing it. But a few solid moments aside, I wasn’t as enamored with this album as I’d hoped for, large parts of it seem to pass by without me taking much notice (a danger in ambient based music). Seen in retrospect with my lack of enthusiasm for Old Mornings Dawn, and we’re hitting a 14 year drought of something truly excellent from Protector and Silenius. Maybe its time for them to shake things up, to try something bold to re-imagine the Summoning sound.

 

 

 

 

Tribulation – Down Below:

I guess I failed to review Tribulation’s 2015 album The Children of the Night, which is weird to realize now considering I listened to it when it came out (new Nightwish and Kamelot albums came out around the same time, so maybe that explains why it slipped through the cracks). Anyway, what that album showed was the sound of this Swedish death metal outfit embracing a blend of goth rock, traditional metal, and psychedelia elements in their already progressive sound. It was a strikingly more song driven album compared to its predecessor, meaning that melodies were front and center to everything as opposed to the riff driven approach of their first two albums. Take that template, and further strip away most of the old death metal tendencies besides vocalist Johannes Andersson’s raw throated vocal approach and you’ll have a good picture of what to expect on Down Below. I’ve seen a lot of comparisons to Ghost being thrown around in regards to this, but that’s a bit of a stretch… Ghost is exuberantly melodic, working with major key melodies like they’re some kind of silky shirted power metal band from Finlandia. I get the spirit of the comparison, buts its waaaaay off.

 

Now I’ll grant you that Tribulation have upped their production quality, this is as clean and dare I suggest polished as they’ve ever sounded, but their application of melody is still subdued and restrained, used to sketch out the fragments of a song’s skeleton rather than lay things on thick with multi-tracked harmonies and piles of sound. On the album highlight “Nightbound”, its the clean melodic motif on lead guitar that keeps repeating in the background that serves as the actual hook, and its pristine quality allows the rhythm guitar upfront to play a little more relaxed, looser, and grittier. Andersson’s hoarse yet always intelligible vocals careen wildly across, working in tandem with the rhythm guitar in a way that’s half rock n’ roll strut and half goth-metal Nick Cave just going off the rails and ignoring song structure altogether. This is an approach that’s repeated in varying degrees through the album —- there always being something in the way of a simple yet artful melodic figure played with precision to create a sense of structure, and the rest of the band delivering a shimmying, swaying, at times ragged performance around it. On another personal favorite, “The World”, Tribulation unleash a Sentenced-esque sense of musicality, heavy on dark dramatics and major-minor chord shifts to create a sense of the grand and epic. There’s something really charming about this album, about its intentional imperfections and its just right mix of salty and sweet melodic approach that has me coming back again and again.

 

 

 

 

In Vain – Currents:

Norway’s In Vain were on my radar sometime after their 2013 release Ænigma, an album that I never wrote about due to discovering it a year past its release date, but one I ended up listening to quite a bit over the past few years whenever I was in the mood for something proggy yet still hooky and impactful (you’d figure Enslaved would be the go to there but I’ve burnt out quite a few of their albums and others are just too heavy on the prog to satisfy this urge). I just did a guest hosting appearance on an episode of MSRcast’s sister podcast Metal Geeks where I’m fairly certain we referred to these guys as a Finnish band —- a glaring mistake in retrospect because of course they’re from Norway… its written in their musical DNA! Rather than crafting darkly sweetened melo-death with painterly, sweeping guitars ala Insomnium, Omnium Gatherum and their brethren, In Vain display that Norwegian sensibility of progressive death metal heard in fore bearers Enslaved and Borknagar. It means that these songs are at times driven by both riff progressions, and alternately their guitar and/or vocal melodies, sometimes all at once. To add to these bands’ similarities, at times, clean vocalist/keyboardist Sindre Nedlund sounds like a mix of ICS Vortex, Herbrand Larsen, and his brother Lazare (whose Solefald project features In Vain as its backing band). I don’t think as an American metal fan, I’ll ever be able to truly understand just how small and insular the worlds of Norwegian, Finnish, and Swedish metal really are. It just doesn’t work that way here in the States.

 

On Currents, In Vain certainly place a greater emphasis on clean vocals, but they’ve managed to prevent that from scaling back their heaviness factor, resulting in an album that’s strikingly aggressive and hooky. On “En Forgangen Tid (Times of Yore, Pt II)”, they place a gorgeous Norwegian lyric clean vocal melody over a bed of long sustained guitar figures that remind me of Opeth circa Blackwater Park, the tempo paced at a giant’s march with its doom-laden rhythmic approach. In Vain work well with these types of contrasts, and not all of them are vocal centric: There’s an excellent guitar motif throughout “As The Black Horde Storms”, a song that approaches quasi black metal territory with its near tremolo riffed passages and grim vocals (its possible that this is a guest vocal spot but I can’t confirm it). There is one major confirmed guest vocal drop in however, that being Trivium’s Matt Heafy on “Soul Adventurer”, this guy really making the rounds as of late. I like Heafy generally however, and thought he was quite good on Dragonforce’s last outing and of course he helped make Ihsahn’s “Mass Darkness” into a Metal Pigeon Song of the Year listee. I think he must have a couple different shades to his vocal approach because he’s hitting a lower register than I’m used to here (I’m not all too familiar with the spectrum of his work in Trivium). The result is pretty good, nothing I’m freaking out about —- its like hearing an Americanized version of Vintersorg, and to say its unusual is a fair appraisal I think. Time will tell if I wind up listening to this as much as its predecessor, but its made a strong impression overall.

 

 

 

 

Leaves Eyes – Sign of the Dragonhead:

Its been over two years since the last time we had new music from Leaves Eyes —- in that time Liv Kristine and Alexander Krull had a very acrimonious and public divorce/fall-out, and the band went on the road with newly recruited Finnish vocalist Elina Siirala. I’m pretty sure I’m remembering this right, but I saw the band two times with her at the helm between then and now, the band opening a few North American tours for others as a way to not only introduce Siirala to their fans, but also perhaps test out the waters before committing to a recording. I know that I at least mentioned it on the MSRcast, if not in writing here on the blog, but I walked away from those shows rather unimpressed with Siirala within the greater context of the band. I had seen Leaves Eyes with Liv way back in 2007 opening for Kamelot, and she was magnificent that night, her delicate, graceful, downright elegant stage performance winning me over. I still wasn’t too wild on their albums (the Vinland Saga the exception) but I could at least say that they were able to translate to the stage what they were trying to accomplish live. Maybe things will change on future tours, but Siirala seemed out of place onstage, or perhaps it was that she was so strikingly different from Liv and I had a hard time accepting that.

 

As a vocalist however, Siirala has a strong, rich, almost Tarja-esque vocal ability, and she can siren it out live. And that’s the most striking thing about Sign of the Dragonhead, that she delivers the most forceful, pronounced, and strident lead vocal performance heard on any Leaves Eyes album period. Case in point is the opening title track, a slice of strut and stomp symphonic metal that’s about as meat and potatoes as this genre gets, but it boasts a pretty strong hook. Her voice is noticeably without accent, a rarity for a Finnish singer, but apparently she lives in London and you have to wonder if that’s been a factor in changing her voice to something that is very Euro-neutral. On the gentle, folk-instrument accompanied ballad “Fairer Than The Sun”, she delivers a command performance, controlled and precise, and what it might lack in distinct character, it makes up for in sheer strength. Another highlight is the weirdly different “Riders On the Wind”, where I’m hearing a folky-rockin’ vibe unlike anything I’ve heard from the band before. I had to double check to make sure it wasn’t an old Jethro Tull cover or something like that, and I wish the band would try to spread their wings a bit more like this and get adventurous. It works here, and “Riders” and the folk-laden “Winter Nights” are stark contrasts to nearly everything else on offer, which is largely more of the same. There’s nothing wrong per say with cuts like “Across the Sea” and “Jomsborg”, but it just feels like we’ve heard their kind before. A promising start with a new vocalist, but hopefully just a stepping stone to something greater.

 

 

Fall Harvest: Records I Almost Missed + Assorted Ramblings

Yeah, I know its been a minute. What have I been up to this month to cause such a prolonged silence? Well, the Watain adventure late last month made me realize that I had slacked off mid-year in checking out some new releases by noteworthy bands, that concert’s opening bands In Solitude and Tribulation among them. So at the start of the month I began to tackle the laundry list of records released this year that I hadn’t checked out yet. With my mid/late December annual best of lists deadline approaching I really had to set myself to task and delay a couple articles I originally wanted published in November. There were about fourteen albums on that list that I’ve spent the past few weeks listening and re-listening to, some far more than others, and I’m glad I took the time to get to know some of them better. Its a tepid feeling of inadequacy when you come to an album a year or so late only to realize it should’ve been on it’s release year’s best of list. 2011 for me is a pretty glaring example, where top honors could have (and should have) gone to Insomnium’s One For Sorrow instead of Symphony X’s Iconoclast (still a great record though). I almost got it right in 2012, but slept on Woods of Ypres final, masterful album and so this year, I’m aiming for a higher level of vigilance. Chances are that I’ll probably miss something yet again.

 

Suidakra 16.02.2013 Session
Krefeld – Burg Linn, Germany

But for sure it won’t be 2013 releases by Suidakra, Falkenbach, and the aforementioned In Solitude and Tribulation. The latter two I’ll get to in a little bit, but first I have to say that I’ve been absolutely floored by Suidakra and Falkenbach’s new records. I’ve been a long time admirer of Falkenbach’s low-fi take on folk metal for a quite a few years now but was stupidly ignorant of just how incredible of a band Suidakra has become over their past few releases. Delving deep into their catalog now on Spotify, I’m going back four albums deep and loving every single note of what they’re doing, but their new album, Eternal Defiance, sees them taking more risks with their blend of folk infused melodic death metal. This is a gem of an album, living up to the quality of its excellent predecessor Book of Dowth. Learning a bit about the bio of the band it was surprising to note that they hail from Germany, not Scandinavia, where melodic death metal has its roots and current artistic renaissance. Yet they’re singing about Celtic subject matter and tackling folk metal simultaneously without relying on genre tropes and the godawful musical attributes that define the goofy Korpiklaani, the truly terrible Alestorm, and the once great Finntroll.

 

Band founder, vocalist, and songwriter Arkadius (that’s Suidakra spelled backwards by the way) has seemingly forged a new strain of melodic death metal, in that he’s not rehashing the Gothenburg sound of yore, nor following the modern of path of moody, melancholy Finnish melo-death. Instead, Suidakra’s sound and songwriting is geared towards dare I suggest, almost modern power metal minded ideas of major key melodicism, where a Blind Guardian-esque touch of bombast twists and turns over a militantly marching bed of percussion. The folk metal aspect peeks its head out in inspired ways, such as instrumentation or simply full blown excursions into realms of pure acoustic folk, where ethereal female vocals chime in alongside well done clean male vocals. I’m hesitant to write too much about this album here, because yep — you guessed it, Eternal Defiance will have a spot on my best albums of 2013 list and I’ll probably go into more depth there. Suffice it to say that this is a rich, multifaceted work that pulls you in upon first listen and then continually unfolds in layers to reveal even more greatness underneath. You need to listen to this album.

 

Falkenbach flew in under my radar in the sense that I really had no idea they would even have a new album out this year. This is after all a band that is basically one guy, doesn’t play live, and has practically zilch when it comes to an online/social media presence. Their newest offering, Asa, is by an incredibly large margin their best record yet, as Vratyas Vakyas pushes his project’s sound into the welcome reaches of a clearer, professional production. This isn’t to say that past Falkenbach records sounded horrible, but they were coated with a wash of muddled atmospherics and distant drum sounds that often compromised the power of what were undeniably good songs. Here, Vakyas’ vocals are pushed to the front of the mix, his blackened grim vocals now possessing even more bite and rancor than before, and his gorgeous, plaintitive clean vocals are now full, lush, and emotionally affecting. Such is the case on the lead off single “Eweroun”, where delicate acoustic pluckings contrast elegantly against a patient bed of hypnotic, warm riffing —- all while Vakyas calming multitracked vocals take center stage. Its an inspired song, with a definite feel of rootsy authenticity that I find lacking in most modern folk metal. On the other side of the spectrum are fierce black metal tracks that hit with a heaviness and aggression previously not heard on Falkenbach records, such as “I Nattens Stilta” which still manages to surprise with a few prog elements thrown in as well. This is shaping up to be the most welcome yet unexpected comeback record of the year.

 

As I wrote in my previous article, In Solitude really wowed me with their performance in Austin opening for Watain. Now when I listen to their newest album, Sister, I wish I took the time to learn those songs in advance of the concert because I’m hearing great moments that I remembered from their set that night, and good shows are made great by knowing the songs yourself ahead of time. My previous reservations about In Solitude’s prior releases were that while they sounded good and there was generally a decent amount of songs worth going back for, the band was essentially aping Mercyful Fate. Generally speaking, this isn’t something worth crucifying a good band for, not when there are already loads of dopey revisionist thrash bands out there making fools of themselves in puffy eighties styled sneakers. But it was a factor in preventing me from getting into the band completely, and I found myself hoping they’d transition into an original sound or at least a new take on their influences in the future. The good news is that they wasted no time in doing so, and the great news is that they’re unearthing a truly original sound in the process by embracing their post-punk influences and toning back the metal classicism a great deal.

 

On Sister, a song like “A Buried Sun” moves along not on the back of tight riffage, but on airy, spaced out chord sequences that recall pre-Electric era The Cult, and heck, even The Cure. “Lavender” goes one higher, sounding like The White Stripes stop/start guitars married to the dark psychedelia of Bauhaus —- it may be the album’s most genre bending moment, as far from metal as the band is willing to go but a good song nonetheless. On the other hand, the title track is the most propulsive and downright catchy thing they’ve ever penned and its also the most metal moment on the record, with dark descending riffs that lend a classic doomy heaviness to the song. Vocalist Pelle Ahman is quickly becoming one of the more unique vocalists genre wide, his once shameless King Diamond impersonations now finding the usefulness of subtlety and variety and as a result he’s a far more expressive vocalist here —- at times recalling the wild rock n’ roll looseness of an Ian Astbury (sans the “woomon”‘s and “baby”s).  This isn’t an album that I’d recommend for someone wanting hard hitting, direct metal —- but its a successful and very interesting revamp of a band’s musical approach, the sound of a square peg trying to get out of a square hole.

 

The other band that night, the doomy Tribulation, have a new record out called The Formulas of Death, which is plenty riff heavy yet shares In Solitude’s new found penchant for airy infusions of dark psychedelic swirls. I’m still a bit undecided on this one, but a good sign is that I’m intrigued enough to keep coming back to it. They alternate between a doom laden crushing blend of death and black metal without succumbing to genre tropes, or even displaying any obvious influences, and when they hit it hard its gripping stuff. Check out a track like “When the Sky is Black with Devils”, which musically comes across as a mix of Dissection meets latter day Darkthrone. Like In Solitude, Tribulation choose to employ riffs in a far more restrained fashion, featuring long sustains and riffs that aren’t super tight. At times their musical attack brings to mind a blackened version of those early classic Maiden tradeoffs between Murray and Smith —- loose and almost hard rock-ish while simultaneously precise and focused. I love the aggressive moments found on tracks like “Spectres” and “Suspira de Profundis”, but admittedly I find the soft, spacey moments that permeate throughout to be an occasional strain on my patience. When I have the album on in the background and am focused on something else primarily, I find myself enjoying the record as a whole and even admiring those moments of quiet, but when I begin to really focus on what I’m listening to, I find them lacking in musicality —- quiet noodling should still have purpose, direction, and melody. Maybe that’s just going to be my hangup, but it comes and goes, and that further confuses my overall take on this album.

 

I get the feeling that Tribulation will wind up on many reviewers/bloggers best of 2013 lists, some are already short listing it as the album of the year. There usually are one or two albums that end up being a consensus pick of critics genre wide, and far be it for me to suggest that most of these folks don’t truly enjoy the album. Good albums are deservedly recognized as such, but in the past few years in particular I’ve found that the consensus pick of each year has fallen flat for me. And I think that’s where I differ in my end of year analysis and list creation from other sites, blogs, and critics. If a record doesn’t net an emotional or at least a compulsive response from me, then I find it hard to say that its the best album of the year, regardless of how innovative or genre-bending it is. I got a lot of flack a few years ago for publicly questioning NPR’s best metal records of 2011 list, in particular from fans of Cormorant, whose album Dwellings took the top spot on that list. It also appeared on just about every other critical list of metal records for that year, particularly from major mainstream media outlets. Don’t get me wrong, I think that it was an album worth checking out, it was certainly an interesting listen —- but that’s all I got out of it. The responses of that fan base to my list were scathing as expected, and that was fair enough, but my list was an honest one for the time. Of course as I admitted earlier, you’ll rarely get it right in retrospect, but as long as its honest in the moment, how wrong could it be?

 

So when I’m looking at candidates for the best songs and albums of 2013 articles I’m going to be putting up relatively soon (this month I promise!), I’m taking a few things into account: Firstly that this list really matters to no one but myself and perhaps a few other readers, but its going to be on the internet for all time. And secondly, that just like in these two years previous, I’m going to be opening myself up to the potential for a lot of criticism for the album’s list in particular. As the folks at Angry Metal Guy will attest to, this year started off dreadfully slow in terms of the quantity of excellent releases and there were some disappointments that cropped up along the way. 2013 has been heavily back loaded in a bizarre way, but how that has factored into list building is that I’m finding myself seriously going back to reconsider albums released earlier in the year and taking a look at how much I actually listened to them. The results surprised me, in good and not so good ways… some records I thought would be at the forefront of any album of the year list have dropped off for example. The other main takeaway is that its been a quietly strong year for metal, not the blockbuster that was 2011 and 2010, but definitely not the total disaster many bloggers were scouting out earlier in the year.

 

One major disappointment worth noting that I never commented on before is what in the wild hell happened to Blabbermouth? Website redesigns are totally understandable and even welcome when done right but that site was for better or worse the center of my and most other heavy music fans’ online experience. Its been my homepage for years and was always part of the daily new scouring routine. The old design’s iconic news feed scrolling section is now replaced by a far more inconvenient “highlights” feature, mostly featuring Kerry King’s unwelcome face. There are fewer articles on each page of the site, making navigating a chore, and forget about trying to remember how far back you’ve gone because there’s no easy way to judge unless your memory is spot on (mine isn’t). I’m starting to utilize Twitter and Facebook more and more for metal news on essentials like releases and tour dates, but those aren’t perfect systems for those. I find myself actively looking less and less at Blabbermouth even for entertainment value, which was of course one of it’s most dutiful roles, a sort of TMZ for the metal world. Maybe I’m in the minority, but I enjoyed being a spectator to the comment feeds as well, where stupidity and snark would collide in a misguided, often hilarious display of the worst of our fan-doms. With the comments sections now tied into Facebook, anonymity on the site is non-existent, and while some commenters have no problem presenting themselves as oafs and buffoons, the majority of people commenting on individual articles are turning Blabbermouth into a mild version of NPR.org (where complete sentences and paragraph length discussions do a poor job of masking one of the more abhorrent comment sections anywhere online… the ones brimming with irony and smug self satisfaction). Bring back the privacy curtains and trolling idiots I say, god knows we need something to laugh at in this genre.

 

One more thing (I wonder if there’s anyone reading this far), Manowar has announced a 2014 North American tour consisting of nine select shows in February. First, the routing: There’s a couple dates in the midwest, one in Minnesota, two in California and oddly enough two in Texas (Dallas and my current location, Houston). Screw you Florida and the majority of the North East and North West says Joey DeMaio! I can’t tell you how much I loath it when bands come over to only do a handful of dates…. this is the United States of America, a world tour within a world tour. Do a proper 20-30 shows and criss-cross the goddamned land. Kudos to them for scheduling dates in Texas, no proper tour can be called an American tour without hitting Texas in my estimation, but two shows back to back in Dallas and Houston? Fans in either city would drive to the other and meanwhile I’m sure your fans in the very metal friendly but geographically isolated Arizona and New Mexico and El Paso really appreciated that. Why not just be cool to your long suffering American fanbase and do a full fledged club tour of the entire country? Because this is Manowar and they can’t be bothered to play shows in their own backyard unless there’s a huge incentive to do so.

 

The incentive by the way are out of proportion ticket prices. The Manowar shows are 75 dollars for advance tickets or 100 bucks on the day of the show at the box office. Maybe the size of the venues being scheduled (a lot of small theaters like House of Blues) can justify these prices but the reality is that the band is simply taking advantage of scarcity. Manowar regularly schedules full length European tours that see them play in venues such as hockey arenas, soccer stadiums, and at the very least, big big halls (clear em!). They rarely play their own home country and make it point to utilize that scarcity to their economic advantage. Look, I understand economics and supply and demand, the reality is that they’re charging 75 bucks a pop because some people will pay 75 bucks a pop. Do I think they’ll sell out all 1000 tickets for the Houston House of Blues at those prices? Certainly not. I honestly think they’ll be lucky to get 200-300 people in there but there’s more to this issue than just money.

 

For a band who loudly proclaims to be all about their fans and the only metal band that matters, how about showing American fans the same respect that fellow countrymen Kamelot do, with reasonable tours of scaled down production in small clubs for 20 to 30 bucks a ticket so those people who are balking at those prices can cough up the money. The reality is that 75 bucks is a lot of money these days for nearly all of us. Nightwish, a band that can make a really nice career out of scheduling arena tours in Europe and South America toured Stateside last year in a coast to coast tour where base general admission tickets were 30 bucks. They even varied up their setlist a bit as a way of making it up to American audiences who didn’t get to experience their elaborate European stage productions. Getting to see a band that normally plays huge venues in a small club setting, mere yards away from you is a great experience, and they do it without demanding outrageous prices for entry (yes I’m aware Nightwish offered a VIP package for close to 100 bucks on that same tour, but it was entirely optional and you essentially bought a guaranteed meet and greet with the band —- a fair enough proposition in my eyes, as regular ticket holders weren’t being gouged in anyway.)

 

I enjoy some Manowar every now and then, as good time music for hanging out with like minded metal loving friends at get-togethers and such. They’ve made a couple good, not great albums, and their recent output has been dubious at best but always worth the odd catchy song or two. Are they worth 75 dollars? That’s for everyone to decide for themselves but I personally bristle at the idea of American audiences being screwed over in 2013 like that. For a long time it was pretty hard being a metal fan in this country, you’d have to import everything at huge mark ups, bands wouldn’t dare come to our shores for tours because just the very idea itself would lose money, and we had to put up with non-stop barrages of cancellations due to post 9-11 visa issues. Manowar is an American band, but they aren’t particularly welcoming to their fellow countrymen or seemingly at all grateful for the support they’ve had here. I’ll be seeing three shows for certain in the winter and spring of 2014; Amon Amarth with Enslaved; Dark Tranquility with Omnium Gatherum; and Iced Earth with Sabaton and ReVamp. I did the math, all three of those tickets combined cost less than the 86 dollars it would cost to see Manowar. I feel good about where my moneys going.

Yamahama Its Fright Night! Watain Live In Austin

 

Four nights ago I was in Austin, Texas to witness one of the more atmospheric metal shows that I’ve been lucky enough to catch. Watain was in the state capital on their The Wild Hunt tour with their Swedish pals In Solitude, and Tribulation along as support. I was asked if I was doing anything for Halloween earlier in the week, and I thought to myself —- yeah looks like it. Albeit falling one day short of Halloween itself, the tales I’d heard of Watain’s concert hi-jinx were as good as it gets in terms of inspiring an eerie, unnerving sense of dread and anticipation. I have a friend who’s a die hard Watain fan —- this was really his show. But I’d come to appreciate the band in the past year and a half and was curious to see a real black metal spectacle up close. I would not be disappointed.

 

The show was at a seemingly obscure hole in the wall called Red 7 on 7th street, yeah next to that famed street of one number below, but the venue was deceptively sized. Inside was a small stage facing a bar, but a side door led to a spacious outdoor courtyard complete with shady trees overhead and a covered stage. Watain’s backdrop’s were already on this stage behind multiple drum sets, and a pungent aroma of cloves, possibly sage, and incense was pervasive throughout the air. The show would apparently be happening outside, a small commercial office just on the other side of the fence, one of its window blinds drawn open to reveal a still lit computer monitor. This was unusual, and also totally Austin. I’ll admit my experience with the city is severely limited, most of my out of town show excursions aimed at San Antonio. Here in Houston, metal shows are almost exclusively at smoky, dark, indoor clubs in remote corners of the city.

 

I didn’t see much of it, but what little I did was enough to say —- Austin impressed me. We have hours to kill before the show. Across the street from the venue is a nice little dive bar called “The Side Bar” where we grab a beer in what else, a tiny courtyard. At the end of the block is an outdoor clutter of rickety tables under an awning, a precariously perched flat screen TV turned to the NFL network, and five food trailers arranged neatly around it. The guys at the BBQ trailer serve up some pretty damn good brisket sandwiches. Its all very relaxed, perhaps too much so. Everywhere you look on the street there are an alarmingly vast amount of standalone ATMs with no bank designation. All just out in the open —- I should’ve taken a picture of one in particular right at the sidewalk corner of an intersection. Nothing next to it, just a walk up ATM unattached to a building. What the hell?! My H-town born nerves and sense of foreboding would prevent me from daring to risk grabbing money in such an exposed manner. I think it really hits me then that this is a world apart from Houston: It’s a pedestrian friendly city, and rather convenient (or dangerous) for concert going activities. If I have to choose between out of town show locations in the future, I will from this point on always choose Austin. My views on its hipster population and aesthetic be damned.

 

Its raining on and off throughout the early parts of the evening, just light drizzle basically by the time local openers HOD take the stage. I’ve seen them a few times before in various venues, they’re a frequently gigging San Antonio based metal band whose sound is difficult to categorize except to say its mean and ugly. This is the best I’ve heard them yet. In past shows they’ve come across as a whirlwind blur of noise on stage but Red 7 seems to come equipped with a rarity in venues this size —- a really good sound guy. All of the instruments are discernible, the vocals are clear and up front in the mix, and the drums aren’t too overpowering, it all bodes well for the rest of the night. I didn’t know a thing about Tribulation, who take the stage soon after and begin to play a surprisingly atmospheric mix of doom and death metal. I love the instrumentation, they have a vivid sense of melodicism and use of space in moodier sections. They were entertaining on stage as well, a quality that to a relatively jaded metal head like myself is an achievement to note. I promised myself to check out their records once home.

 

In Solitude I’ve been familiar with, having given into the hype surrounding them and checking out their studio albums. I liked what they did, never loved any of it, but accepted them as an above average retro metal band among the scores of retro metal bands crawling all over the place these days. Getting on the tour with Watain seemed to me a pretty nice endorsement, as I’m thinking that Watain are at a stage in their career where they wouldn’t tolerate touring with bands they didn’t like. They are heavier, punchier, and way more interesting live. Its also telling that Watain vocalist Erik Danielsson slips into the crowd during the band’s first song, in fact, right next to where we’re standing in the far back corner. I feel a slight bump on my left side and its Danielsson, a Watain roadie, and an unknown female member of their entourage trying to squeeze in. We make room and amid some discrete pointing and gesturing, quietly freak out and take in the surreal moment. Danielsson is nodding along to the band, he’s clearly there to watch the performance, but as heads turn here and there, he politely obliges fans with handshakes and pictures —- even taking my friend’s not-so-subtle hopefulness that Watain would play their cover of “A Fine Day to Die” in good humor (he asked him this while wearing a Bathory shirt). Eventually they abscond backstage, as does In Solitude, and then things get surreal.

 

Remember when I told you it was drizzling? Good, keep that in mind. Changeover times are short, the venue staff really do seem to have a handle on all these things that we Houstonians usually accept with delays. Live music capital indeed. Watain’s stage set is grisly: A folded out two sectioned backdrop of stretched out animal skin panels with actual animal bones set in each panel column to spell out in runic lettering W-A-T-A-I-N. There is a small altar set off to the side just adjacent to the center mic position, upon it a chalice, an open book, and some kinds of incense or leaves (hard to distinguish in the dark). Inverted crosses stick in between the monitors at the front of the stage, and incense burners produce enormous quantities of perfumed smoke, and the entire scene is bathed in eerie, muted, red light. There won’t be any stage lighting change ups during their set, nor any roaming vocalist spotlights, this is all the lighting Watain wants. All the band’s have had extra help in that regard as the overcast clouds have brought much in the way of actual thunder and lightning throughout the evening. It was mood setting during the opening bands, with many in the audience nodding and smiling while looking up appreciatively at the night sky. Halloween, Watain, freaking lightning in the sky? Its as if the Earth approved of our shenanigans for a time. And then it didn’t.

 

Watain takes the stage to tremendous applause and a huge crowd surge forward, with some unwitting idiot deciding to start the pit (on slippery cement no less) on the left side of the crowd instead of the center (you know, as everyone else on the planet knows to do). I’m casually thrown back ten feet along with a dozen other people from my third row center position as another pit forms middle center. Somewhere between fending off circle pitters to my right with my forearm and helping a tiny female fan next to me get up after being bowled over, I see Watain appear as shadows in the smoke, Danielsson already launching into his weathering vocal attack. I won’t pretend to be entirely knowledgeable about the Watain back catalog, really just the past few records, but I knew they opened with “De Profundis”, one of the best cuts off The Wild Hunt. Then, a few songs into a set, as we’re all headbanging and warily watching our peripheral vision for incoming mosh pitters, the clouds are uncorked and a light, frothy drizzle becomes a torrid, cold downpour. It is vomiting rain, and we are stunned and soaked. The band plays on, covered by a huge sheet metal roof, and some of the first rows of fans pressed against the stage are sheltered as well, oblivious to the storm. The rest of us have a collective moment of either, “yep, going inside now”, or “oh well, hey’re we’re already wet —- and Watain’s playing!”. I stick with the latter camp, my shirt getting heavier and heavier with soaking rain each second, my only concern my cell phone now precariously pressed in my side pocket. I see Danielsson hold up his chalice and say something about ritual blood, oh man…. he throws it, everywhere. It reeks of, ahem… putrefaction.

 

More than halfway through Watain’s set, just after their rendition of “Reaping Death”, I finally have to call time on the satanic shower. Most of the rear half of the audience have gone inside, those closest to the open doorway watching from their dry vantage point. I’m more than drenched, its like I just walked into a shower with all my clothes on and decided to stay there for half an hour plus. I duck inside, past a mass of drip drying faces that I see through a wet blur. I feel a few hands clap me on the shoulder as I sludge past them, what I take as a “good effort, good hustle” type of thing. My friend —- he’s up at the front under the meager extension of the stage covering, raging like a maniac, while just barely escaping the water wall inches from his back. I try to watch from the doorway, but eventually just sit near the wall and listen to the rest of the set. Watain are excellent, and I wonder what they must make of the scene before them. This show was packed with people, there must’ve been close to six hundred in attendance at the peak just before the rainy onslaught. The few left out there look to number around forty.

 

At some point, Watain has to stop. Seriously —- something shorts out in the stage gear and either part of their final song is cut or an entire song is scrapped. Nature in all its protesting fury has finally pulled the plug on the show. The upside is that the rain has washed off the rotten blood, the car ride back won’t make us retch! We stagger out into the still pissing night sky, wind sweeping rain into our faces as we make our way to the car in a lot two blocks away. It wasn’t a pleasant walk, but what an amazing show. I can’t remember the last time I went to a show where I was pleased by every band on the bill, and in terms of matching it’s atmospherics, I can only think of the time I saw Heaven and Hell at a huge outdoor amphitheater, lightning in the distant sky as Dio sang “Well if it seems to be real, it’s illusion…”. This is one that won’t fade from memory —- and not just for me either:

 

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