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 clichéd 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/                    

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