Date: February 18, 2014
Venue: Rock & Roll Hotel, Washington, DC
Following January's blackened-thrash and viking metal onslaught at the 2,000 capacity Fillmore, a couple weeks back I hit another must-see package tour at the more intimate 350 capacity Rock & Roll Hotel - Russian Circles with KEN mode and Inter Arma. The evening served as a reminder of the wide spectrum of style and philosophy that exists in the metal scene. Whereas populist showmen like Amon Amarth and Skeletonwitch relish in the fabricated drama and spectacle of viking lore and the occult, not shy to remind everyone that it's all in good fun, Russian Circles and their tour-mates are dead serious about this shit - it's about the art, man.
|Russian Circles - Brian Cook and Dave Turncrantz (left to right)|
Despite all the blog debate, "hipster metal" really is a thing. Drawing heavily from non-metal genres like post-punk, post-rock, shoe gaze, noise, and indie, while eschewing most of the lyrical and visual ridiculousness of popular metal, these bands rate highly on Pitchfork and attract urbane fans in dapper pea-coats and tortoise shell glasses. Not one Maiden back-patch in sight. Don't even try to mosh. You'll get a stern side eye from that glowering couple who honestly thought a metal show would make a good date night.
Chicago's Russian Circles made my 2013 year-end "honorable mention" list with their fifth album Memorial - an impressive collection of epic Wagnerian instrumentals. As on the album, their most distinctive live feature is drummer Dave Turncrantz. Like Buddy Rich soundtracking a horror film, Truncrantz was all over the kit going for broke while his bandmates Brian Cook (on bass) and Mike Sullivan (on guitar) manipulated clusters of electronics and effects pedals, coaxing roaring waves of sound from their instruments. I wondered how this three-piece would recreate those monolithic album anthems live, and this is how - by bringing the studio to the stage, even if it meant taking lengthy and somewhat deflating breaks to twiddle knobs between songs.
|Russian Circles - Dave Turncrantz and Mike Sullivan (left to right)|
Openers Inter Arma and KEN mode where far more visceral and engaging by comparison. Richmond, Virginia's experimental blackened pysch-doom five piece Inter Arma kicked off the evening with a short but furious set with frontman Mike Paparo pacing the stage screaming bloody murder - eyes bulging out, at one point locking gaze with me for a whole verse. Freaky.
|KEN mode - Jesse Matthewson|
Not to be outdone, KEN mode, from Winnipeg, Canada, were the highlight of the night - as they were when I caught them last summer opening for Miami doom-pop heroes Torche. This scuzzy three piece, five critically acclaimed albums deep into their career, do not fuck around. Their sound is tough as nails and tougher to pin down - leaning boldly into hardcore, post-punk, industrial, noise and progressive rock. Think Fugazi, Black Flag, Helmet, Prong, or a really pissed off At The Drive-In.
|KEN mode - Jesse and Shane Matthewson|
Like Russian Circles, KEN mode's secret weapon is their rhythm section. For the duration of their set drummer Shane Matthewson locked into a serpentine groove with bass player Andrew LaCour - who has a daring tendency to toss his guitar around mid-song like a roadside sign-spinner. Frontman, and Shane's brother, Jesse Matthewson played six-string (sometimes doubling up on bass with LaCour to deepen the rumble) and barked into his mic while in a perpetual gorilla stance, rocking back and forth, glaring at the front row like a psychopath about to pounce.
Suffice it to say, KEN mode are beyond solid and easily the most thrilling band on this tour. With a brutal energy and youthful fire that belies their veteran status as decade-plus road warriors, it's a crime these guys aren't headlining more tours. Maybe their unique combo of angular art-rock and ferocious metal is just too weird, if not too frightening, for most - but it was certainly fun seeing KEN mode stir up the small crowd, provoking some appropriate moshing by some to the displeasure of the chin strokers.