Friday, November 15, 2013

Live Show Review: High on Fire, Kvelertak - 11/12/13

High on Fire, Kvelertak
Date:  November 12, 2013
Venue:  Rock & Roll Hotel, Washington, DC

My relatively recent dive into the pool of brutal rock & roll madness known as heavy metal proved fruitful earlier this week as I attended one of the most epic live shows of my life. No joke. No exaggeration. Oakland stoner metal titans High on Fire and Norway's "black & roll" powerhouse Kvelertak simply decimated the Rock & Roll Hotel Tuesday night. I had considered not writing a review at all, as there really aren't enough words to describe how ridiculously good this show was. Being as that I've got this blog to feed, I'll try anyway. . .


I arrived midway through opener Doomrider's set. The Boston-based stoner/doom foursome just put out a new record produced by Kurt Ballou called Grand Blood (Ballou and Doomrider frontman Nate Newton are bandmates in metalcore band Converge). Despite looking great on paper, I just can't get into this band, and didn't love their performance. From their uninspired name to their generic sound, there's just not enough for me to grab onto. At least they set the tone for the evening - loud and barbarous.


I first heard a few months back that High on Fire and Kvelertak would be touring together this fall. I noticed they hadn't posted a DC stop despite having three free days between their journey up the coast from Asheville, NC to New York City. I immediately emailed Rock & Roll Hotel's booker and urged him to make it happen. "Keep crossing those fingers" he responded, and a week later the DC date was posted. Pretty sure the show was already in the bag, but I'd like to think my vote counted. Needless to say, I was beyond eager to finally see these guys live - and they didn't disappoint.


After a hasty gear change and sound check, Norwegian six-piece Kvelertak (whose latest album Meir I reviewed recently) took the stage. Shirtless and tattoed frontman Erlend Hjelvik emerged wearing his trademark stuffed-owl mask and, with arms outstretched like a stone age pagan shaman, screeched out vocals to opener "Apenbaring." Soon enough a roadie carefully shuttled the avian mascot away, leaving Hjelvik free to stalk about the small stage like a feral animal, furiously whipping his long mane and thrashing his limbs in sync with the band's high octane aural onslaught.


The packed house responded in kind, roiling about violently, with a sizeable mosh-pit erupting in front of the stage. As Kvelertak hammered out savage album cuts like "Fossegrim," "Blodtorst," and "Bruan Brenn" in rapid succession, fans gleefuly clapped in unison, crowd-surfed, pumped fists in the air, and threw up devil horns. Hjelvik launched himself into the crowd multiple times, continuing to bark verses while held aloft by the adoring throng. The band closed out with their mid-tempo victory anthem "Kvelertak" before mercifully exiting the stage.

High on Fire

After a welcome thirty minute break to let fans rehydrate (with PBR, naturally) and recover from being battered and heaved around like rag dolls during Kvelertak's set, Bay Area stoner-metal trio High on Fire emerged to fervent ovation. If Kvelertak were the spry upstarts, High on Fire were the grizzled war-weary veterans - fully confident and masters of their craft. The band consists of Des Kensel on drums, Jeff Matz on bass, and a typically shirtless Matt Pike on guitar and vocals. Pike served time as guitarist for influential molasses-paced stoner/doom metal crew Sleep in the early 90's, later forming High on Fire as a high-speed alternative.

High on Fire are the absolute essence of heavy metal - a force of nature, like a goddamn category five hurricane. No artifice. No fucking around. As a power trio, these guys boil metal down to its bare essentials - crushing drums, rumbling bass, searing guitar, and bellowing gravel-throated vocals that would make Lemmy shit his pants. Like some frightening beer-bellied biker-bar brawler, occasionally flashing a janky-toothed grin to let you know things were in fact all good, Pike and his bandmates muscled through a set of pulverizing selections culled from their growing sonic arsenal - now six albums deep.

High on Fire

Tracks like "Fertile Green" from last year's De Vermis Mysteriis and recent promo track "Slave the Hive" (reminiscent of Motorhead's "Ace of Spades," available for free download here) kept the rabid mob in constant motion. As Pike announced "we've got one more song for you" a fan in the crowd shouted defiantly "twelve more songs!" Pike responded in deadpan "how about twelve songs wrapped into one?" before exploding into "Snakes For The Divine" from the 2010 album of the same name - delivering on that promise.

An awesome show like this makes me wonder what rock & roll cynics are smoking, claiming the genre is dead - like this sad sack columnist on PopMatters. Maybe aging rockers bemoan the decline of "rock & roll" because they're focusing on its most anemic and self-defeating strains - "indie rock" and "post-punk."  Since the early 00's "rock" musicians forgot to actually, you know, ROCK - like it was embarrassing or uncouth to project any kind of energy or enthusiasm.

It seems the flaming debacle that was Woodstock '99 put Americans off aggresive rock music indefinitely (rightfully so) because, after that, ineffectual mopes like The Shins and Death Cab for Cutie and ironic retro peddlers like The Strokes and The Hives shuffled into the limelight - but inevitably faded out without any genuine cultural resonance, relevance, or infrastructure. No wonder hip-hop and EDM replaced rock, almost entirely, as youth movements and true cultural forces.

Maybe the pendulum is finally swinging back, and people are once again ready for rock music with some balls. Despite metal's clich├ęd reputation for attracting a homogenous troop of white male knuckle-draggers, what I experienced on Tuesday night was pure rock & roll at a venue packed with a multiracial crowd of fanatics young and old, male and female. Make no mistake, rock is alive and well and with bands like Kvelertak and High on Fire carrying the flame proudly (not to mention sludge metal contemporaries Kylesa and Torche, fronted by a woman and an openly gay man, respectively), I think we're in good hands. Rock on! \m/\m/                    

Monday, November 4, 2013

Live Show Review: Black Lips - 11/2/13

Black Lips
Date:  November 2, 2013
Venue:  Black Cat, Washington, DC

2011 was a pretty lackluster year for new music, save for decent albums from Mastodon, Beastie Boys, the Black Keys, and the Black Lips.  The latter was a surprise favorite.  In years when few new releases catch my ear I tend to catch up on older stuff I missed the first time.  That year I got deep into mid-60's psych and garage rock, with the infamous and influential Nuggets box set as a guide.

It was serendipitous that the Black Lips, a band I hadn't really paid much attention to prior, released their sixth album Arabia Mountain that year.  Produced in large part by well known 60's sound fetishist Mark Ronson (responsible for Amy Winehouse's biggest Motown soundalikes), the album faithfully recreated the gonzo Animal House aesthetic of vintage Sonics, Kingsmen, and Wailers.

Black Lips

On Arabia Mountain the Atlanta, Georgia, based garage rock foursome showcased irreverent ditties covering a wide range of goofy topics like tripping in art galleries, Spider-Man getting molested, dumpster diving, and eating tainted raw meat.  If that wasn't ridiculous enough, they had a reputation for insane live shows involving onstage vomiting, urination, nudity, and worse.  I had to check these freaks out for myself, and my chance came this past weekend at the Black Cat.

The Black Lips arrived ready to churn up the packed house of young hipsters, by this point well fueled on Pabst and cheap booze.  Kicking off with "Family Tree" from Arabia Mountain, the band fired through a trebly white-noise set of crowd favorites from that album, older tunes like band anthem "Bad Kids" from Good Bad Not Evil, and even a few new jams off their forthcoming record - which apparently features production by The Black Keys' Patrick Carney, guitar and pedal-steel from Mastodon's Bret Hinds, and horns from members of the Daptones.

Though no onstage urination or vomiting occurred, I did at least witness one of the Lips spit up a loogie (or was it chewing gum?) and catch it back in his own mouth, mid-song.  Impressive.  All in all, despite a surprisingly short set, it was a fun show.  The rhapsodic crowd pogoed around, windmilling sweaty t-shirts and pouring cans of cheap brew on each other's heads.  As the Black Lips slipped off stage after their closing song "MIA," satisfied fans in boat shoes and Wayfarer sunglasses spilled out into the night in search of the next good party.        

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Live Show Review: Neko Case - 10/31/13

Neko Case
Date:  October 31, 2013
Venue:  Lincoln Theater, Washington, DC

Every year it seems, in a subconscious effort to give myself a little break from the aggressive rock and electronic music that typically gets my adrenaline pumping, I gravitate to some form of innocuous, vaguely acoustic, pretty music.  I call it "chicken soup" music, and it usually comes in the form of some kind of tepid contemporary "Americana."  Nice melodies, nice singing, a lil' bit country, a lil' bit rock & roll - major plus for some pedal or lap-steel guitar.  Whatever evokes windswept southwestern deserts or misty Appalachian hills.  In recent years it's been Robert Plant with Alison Krauss, Patty Griffin, or Calexico.  This time it's Neko Case, who just put out a graceful new record called The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You.

What is this, a concert for ants?!

The veteran alterna-country/indie-pop singer played two nights at the Lincoln Theater on U Street in Washington, DC, this past week.  I was looking forward to experiencing my first ever show at the historic Lincoln on Halloween - however, despite the obvious beauty of the structure itself, I was a little disappointed with the place.  Our seats were in the balcony quite a ways back from the stage, and the slope of the floor was too shallow to allow for a clear sight-line.  I spent most of the show on the edge of my seat, back stretched, neck craned, struggling to see over people's heads.  Since we were close to the ceiling of the cavernous theater it was also pretty hot up there, and the venue's PA and acoustics were less than impressive - leaving Neko Case and her band sounding a little shrill and distorted at times. 

Despite hitting the faux-cobweb covered stage later than posted, Neko Case and her backing band were in good spirits (Halloween pun fully intended), all dressed in costume with Case herself dressed as Adam Ant circa '82 - "If you think I'm a pirate, then you're a damned fool!" she announced boldly.  With Neko's self-assured vocals leading the way, she and the band casually ran through a variety of tunes from The Worse Things Get and older records too.  Chirpy "This Tornado Loves You" from Middle Cyclone drew cheers, as did a jaunty rendition of her new single "Man," but the most arresting performances were reserved for slower, uncluttered selections like the pedal-steel drenched "I Wish I Was The Moon" from Blacklisted - letting Case's distinctive voice shine through with just the slightest country twang.

Sort of.  Neko Case, dressed as Adam Ant.

I'd waited years to hear Neko Case live and wondered if she could match some of the stunning work she'd committed to wax.  Again, I was a little let down.  Case occasionally strained with the high notes and sounded a bit shout-y at points (stepping back from the mic a little might've helped).  She and her backup singer Kelly Hogan also bantered frequently and lengthily, with each other and with the audience, drawing hoots and giggles throughout the concert hall - but the loose atmosphere and verbal horseplay led to a few sloppy performances where Case flubbed verses or missed marks entirely.

That drunken goofball energy was channeled more effectively during the encore where Neko Case and the band covered Adam Ant's bouncy "Place in the Country" and a couple of Heart's 70's era hits.  Kelly Hogan impressively took lead on "Barracuda" while Case closed out with an exuberant take on "Crazy on You."  I was hoping for Iron Maiden's "Number of The Beast," in keeping with the Halloween vibe, but we can't always get what we want.

Neko Case has been in the game for quite a while, and she's certainly got a long bright career ahead of her.  I just hope she can tighten up her live show and deliver on some of the promises made by her recorded music.  I frequently get chills listening to Neko Case on the hi-fi (and even get a little choked up too - "Nearly Midnight, Honolulu" off the new album is brutal), so why wasn't that happening at the live show?  Maybe next time.