Friday, May 23, 2014

Live Show Review: Black Breath - 5/21/14

Black Breath
Date:  May 21, 2014
Venue:  Ottobar, Baltimore, MD

The twelfth annual Maryland Deathfest (aka "MDF"), apparently the largest metal festival of its kind in North American, officially kicked off in Baltimore yesterday, but any black denim and leather clad longhair who wanted to get a jump on the four day festivities had their chance at the sold out "pre-fest party" at Ottobar this past Wednesday evening - featuring New York veterans Immolation, Baltimore's Misery Index and Noisem, and Seattle's Black Breath.*

Black Breath (left to right - Jamie Byrum, Eric Wallace, Elijah Nelson, Neil McAdams, and Mark Palm) 

I've had a lot of fun navigating the metal scene at large with its plethora of sub-genres, over the last decade or so, but death metal (and its close cousin grindcore) has been a final frontier of sorts for me.  Like black metal, with its sordid history of violence and controversial politics, death metal isn't entirely inviting to outsiders.  Almost everything about this sub-genre, and I speak generally here, is designed to repulse - from its punishing instrumentals and guttural vocals to its gory lyrics and imagery.

I've never been a genre purist, so in my exploration of metal I've naturally gravitated to mixtures of styles - sludge prog, blackened thrash, black n' roll, and so forth.  My recent gateway to death metal has been Seattle five-piece Black Breath who combine the rhythmic speed and brusque vocal delivery of hardcore punk with the colossal buzz-saw riffage of traditional Swedish death metal.  The primary influence here is Entombed - a band that famously employed the Boss HM-2 guitar pedal, with all levels maxed out, to create a distinctive tone that became the hallmark of the early 90's Swedish death metal scene.

Setlist and Eric Wallace's effects pedals, including the infamous Boss HM-2

I'm a huge sucker for that classic Boss HM-2 sound and a lot of newer bands have been milking it shamelessly - Trap Them, Nails, All Pigs Must Die, and Black Breath - incidentally all produced by my favorite punk/metal studio man Kurt Ballou at GodCity Studio in Salem, MA.  Black Breath is my favorite of the bunch, and when I heard they were playing the MDF pre-fest party I couldn't miss out.  No disrespect to the other great bands on the bill, but I made the trip up I-95 specifically to see these "death n' roll" evangelists first hand.

Just as local death/trash phenoms Noisem wrapped up their manic opening set, Black Breath assembled onstage and bathed in the blood-red glow of Ottobar's stage lights launched into the accelerated bedlam of "Mother Abyss."  From the word go the band kept the packed house in a frenzy with molten cuts off their 2010 debut Heavy Breathing and 2012 followup Sentenced to Life fueling a near constant circle pit.  Vocalist Neil McAdams, sporting an epic beard, even encouraged some stage diving despite the posted warnings.  "Absolutely no stage diving" McAdams mocked, "but I don't give a fuck" - immediately provoking eager fans to climb the elevated stage and dive headlong back into the roiling crowd.

Black Breath

Notwithstanding the long locks and synchronized head-banging, members of Black Breath came up in the Seattle hardcore punk scene and make no bones about riding a hyper-speed d-beat on rippers like "Sentenced to Life" and "Virus."  Black Breath are also obvious Entombed acolytes so its no surprise that the gargantuan mid-tempo crunch of tracks like "Home of the Grave," "I Am Beyond," and "The Flame" - the latter featuring a killer solo by lanky guitarist Eric Wallace - had traditional death metal fans' fists up and hair flying.  The band got even better mileage from tracks that seesaw between both styles like "Feast of the Damned" and blasphemous fan-favorite "Black Sin," which closed out the set.
Black Breath drummer Jamie Byrum suffered multiple fractures in his left leg after being hit by a car this past January.  I feared the group would be sidelined and bow out of their spot at this year's MDF but the stout percussionist made a quick recovery and joined his bandmates onstage with nary a limp.  Already a solid drummer, Byrum never missed a blast-beat and undoubtedly kept his partner in rhythm, gigantically ginger-haired bass player Elijah Nelson, on his toes.  Even at a relatively concise forty minutes, Black Breath absolutely crushed it.  They're still booked for another set at MDF tomorrow (Saturday 5/24) on the Baltimore Soundstage, so if you're in town and enjoy this sort of audiovisual pandemonium - I highly recommend catching them.

Black Breath
*I had to hit the road, reluctantly, after Black Breath's set but I'm positive Immolation and Misery Index killed it too.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Live Show Review: Mastodon, Gojira, Kvelertak - 5/13/14

Mastodon, Gojira, Kvelertak
Date:  May 13, 2014
Venue:  9:30 Club, Washington, DC

Last Tuesday was the hottest day of the year so far in DC so it was only appropriate that DC's 9:30 Club host a sold out evening for the most scorching metal tour of the year so far - Mastodon with Gojira and Kvelertak supporting.

Mastodon (Brent Hinds and Troy Sanders)

Norway's top purveyors of beer soaked black n' roll, Kvelertak, hit the stage first.  This band's sophomore album Meir made my top ten list last year and I was lucky to catch them crush an awesome set at the tiny Rock & Roll Hotel too.  It's a tough proposition for a boisterous six-piece, whose amped-up party rock works best after guzzling a few brews, to capture a crowd that's still trickling in off the sidewalk - but Kvelertak had everyone in a stranglehold in short order.

Kvelertak (Marvin Nygaard, Erlend Hjelvik, and Kjetil Gjermundrod)

Lead screamer Erlend Hjelvik emerged with a stuffed owl on his head - by now a ridiculous ritual that will be tough to live down if the band ever try to get all Radiohead on us.  Not a chance - and the better for it.  Kvelertak fired through a short half-hour set of choice cuts from their debut and sophomore albums and, despite some mic issues that silenced some of the band's trademark gang-vocals, the band delivered.  It's fitting that Kvelertak linked up with Mastodon for this tour as (I've said this before) they're following a similar trajectory to crossover popularity.

Kvelertak (Marvin Nygaard, Erlend Hjelvik, and Kjetil Gjermundrod)

Next up, France's critically acclaimed technical death metal monsters Gojira. I'm not too familiar with these guys but I know a few good folks who swear by them.  The band, neatly dressed in black and not a single visible tattoo in the bunch, were the epitome of professional.  Lead guitarist Christian Andreu and frontman Joe Duplantier unleashed precision riffage while drummer Mario Duplantier hammered out blast-beats like a 50 cal machine gun.  Though I didn't know a single song, I was blown away by Gojira's commanding presence and energy. Can't wait to catch 'em again.

Gojira (Christian Andreu, Mario Duplantier, and Joe Duplantier)

Finally, Atlanta's progressive sludge metal titans Mastodon took their spots onstage in front of the roaring crowd.  The gentle sound of lapping waves filled the concert hall as the band teased out the winding intro to their roiling fourteen minute epic "Heart's Alive" from their classic sophomore album Leviathan.  With its meandering guitar twang, blistering solos, and knotty jazz percussion "Heart's Alive" reconfirmed Mastodon's debt to classic southern rockers like The Allman Brothers Band and prog-rock heroes Rush - putting them in a category altogether alien in heavy metal.

Gojira (Christian Andreu, Mario Duplantier, and Joe Duplantier)

Despite the imminent release of Mastodon's sixth studio LP Once More 'Round The Sun, out next monththis tour was unofficially promoted as a special treat for old school fans rather than a showcase of unfamiliar new material.  Riotous classics like "Crusher Destroyer," from their debut Remission, had co-vocalist and bass player Troy Sanders showing off much improved vocal control while progressive mind-fuck "Capillarian Crest," from Blood Mountain, had co-vocalist and lead guitarist Brent Hinds shredding in typical expert fashion.

Mastodon (Troy Sanders and Bill Kelliher)

Selections from The Hunter, Mastodon's most recent and radio-friendly album, not only featured more frequently in this set than expected but drew some of the best audience reaction.  With its pop-hooks and furious breakdown "Blasteroid" had the room going berserk, while the off-kilter groove of "Bedazzled Fingernails" had fans entranced - definite live classics in the making.  The band did unveil two new songs from their forthcoming album.  The briskly paced "Chimes at Midnight," sounding a bit like The Hunter's "Spectrelight," caught the room off-guard while the primordial chug and lofty chorus of new single "High Road" had everyone pumping fists and singing along in unison.

Mastodon (Brent Hinds and Troy Sanders)

Though Mastodon criminally omitted their best-loved anthem, "Blood and Thunder," and Hinds had to re-tune his six string mid-song on a few separate occasions, shooting dagger eyes at his guitar-tech each time, their set was predictably fantastic.  The band concluded with the ethereal calm of "The Sparrow," with phenomenal octopus-armed drummer Brann Dailor on clean vocals.  As the evening's last notes echoed into oblivion, Dailor came out from behind his kit to thank the audience:  "We hope you enjoyed these songs. We're going to put out a new album next month.  Then we're going to come back and play those songs for you."

I'll be there.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Album Review: Beck: Morning Phase

Beck:  Morning Phase
Label:  Capitol Records
Released:  February 25, 2014


Beck is one of the pivotal artists of my adolescence.  I distinctly remember seeing him on MTV's late night alternative-rock show "120 Minutes" in late winter of 1994, interviewed by that already legendary pillar of cool - Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth.  Along with the Beastie Boys' Ill Communication (plugged on that same broadcast) Beck's major label debut Mellow Gold was my soundtrack of the summer.  Kurt Cobain had just committed suicide and for me, previously a grunge fanatic, that gesture put a bookend on the sanctimonious purism and unhealthy gloom that enveloped rock music at the time.  I was ready for something new - something brighter and more fun.  Mellow Gold's hodgepodge of punk, noise, folk, and hip-hop was exactly that and Beck has remained an indispensable fixture in my musical world ever since.

So here we are, twenty years on from Beck's improbable breakout success, with his ninth major label studio album Morning Phase.  I don't need to cover Beck's storied musical history, but it's worth mentioning that his album output tends to swing into one of two categories - fun and irreverent, or melancholy and austere.  Notice that albums in the former category never show Beck himself on the cover, while those in the latter category feature the artist's face prominently, eyes fixed on the camera, conveying a sense of personal connection and sincerity.  So it is that Morning Phase presents Beck's still youthful visage draped by blonde locks underneath an old time wide-brim hat, implying lineage to iconic troubadours of yesteryear like Woody Guthrie, Hank Williams, and Bob Dylan.

Fans of "wacky" Beck aren't going to get upbeat summertime jams from Morning Phase.  This album is slow, dare I say slower than Beck's first crack at languid orchestral folk - 2002's Sea Change.  Saying Morning Phase is a "companion piece of sorts" to Sea Change (per the press release) is an understatement, as both albums share many of the same musical and lyrical themes, session musicians, and luxuriant string arrangements from Beck's dad David Campbell.  One major departure is the absence of Beck's frequent producer Nigel Godrich, who lent Sea Change an impossibly plush sound (I still audition new headphones with Sea Change's "Paper Tiger").  Here Beck handles production alone, doing a fine job and nearly surpassing Godrich in delivering soundscapes so rich and voluminous they could rupture speakers.

Despite arriving in the guise of an intimate singer-songwriters' album, Morning Phase isn't lyrically profound or particularly confessional.  Quirky free association and stream of consciousness have long been Beck's modus operandi and Morning Phase is no different.  Despite the lyrical looseness, each song on the album is linked by some notion of loss, regret, isolation, or surrender - heavy on metaphors like being buried or carried away by natural forces.  These sorts of themes made sense on Sea Change, which was allegedly written and recorded after Beck's breakup with a longtime girlfriend, but Beck is supposed to be happily married with children now.  Why so sad?

This sort of somber aesthetic is just a great vehicle for Beck's new-found singing and production acumen.  Sublime vocal harmonies abound on Morning Phase, with Beck's pipes front and center, multitracked, drenched in echo and reverb, ebbing, flowing, and soaring into infinity.  On "Turn Away" Beck harmonizes elegantly, simultaneously evoking Simon and Garfunkel's "The Sound of Silence" and The Who's "Behind Blue Eyes," while the simple melodies and pedal steel of "Blackbird Chain" suggest The Shins on a desert detour.  The instrumentals are equally striking.  The lumbering piano on "Unforgiven" is treated with a disorienting flange effect, while the album's centerpiece, a percussion-free "Wave," features arresting string orchestration recalling Bjork's "Hunter."  With its growling cello and naked vocals, "Wave" is one of the most unusual and sinister pieces in Beck's catalogue, eliciting goosebumps long after first play.

Though Morning Phase uncoils at a glacial pace and doesn't break a lot of new ground for Beck, the album is still an immensely rewarding listen.  Rumored and mislabeled by many to be a minimalist "acoustic" album before its release earlier this year, Morning Phase actually turned out to be an exercise in polished maximalism.  The album breaths with a self-assured vitality, bursting at the seams with finely crafted sound - strings, keys, glockenspiel, guitars, and voice surge and twinkle in an all-enveloping auditory flood.  Morning Phase is a welcome addition to Beck's larger repertoire, and if the man himself is to be believed, we'll be seeing another side of Beck soon enough.