First thing’s first; yes, Skeletonwitch did headline this show. However, I opted not to cover them in this review for a variety of reasons. First and foremost because I’ve been following the band since 2007′s Beyond the Permafrost and wanted to enjoy them as a fan rather than a “journalist;” snapping photos, taking notes and trying to remember setlists often feels a lot like “work,” and no matter how enjoyable that work may be, it isn’t the same as just watching and enjoying a band for no other reason than pure entertainment. Secondly, does Skeletonwitch really need another live review, considering the heights they’ve achieved within the metal underground in terms of popularity (especially when their current tour is almost over with)? I’m thinking the answer is “no,” so I decided it might be more rewarding from the “journalist” perspective to focus on Mutilation Rites and Havok, the young and hungry opening bands who might have a bit more use for the exposure.
To say that I was psyched to see Mutilation Rites would be an understatement, as their recent debut full length Empyrean is one of my favorite albums of the year; no bullshit US black metal with riffs for miles and a wicked sense of dynamics. As the band plowed through their set, those qualities came to the fore, but what really stood out in the live setting was just how much these songs rock. Rocking out probably isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when one thinks of black metal, but Mutilation Rites pull it off in spades without degenerating into the sub-Venom drunken silliness of so-called “black ‘n’ roll.” Indeed, Mutilation Rites are deadly serious in their attack, but they also understand the importance of lacing their music with plenty of hooks and barbs with which to ensnare the listener.
I’ve already gushed about Mutilation Rites on several occasions (here and here), so I was pleased to see that all of the qualities I had praised them for were not only present and accounted for in the live setting, but amplified. They not only rocked hard, but were also incredibly bewitching; their most blackened musical passages had an ultra-hypnotic effect upon me that I haven’t experienced since I saw Watain at the same venue a few years ago. All in all, Mutilation Rites’ set was a complete black metal experience which proved to me beyond a shadow of a doubt that these New Yorkers deserve a place amongst the upper echelons of USBM.
I was only vaguely familiar with Havok heading into Sunday night’s show, but I’ve always found the live setting to be an excellent proving ground for bands that are new to me. The Denver-based quartet quickly won me over with an excellently executed set that recalled the best of vintage thrash, but at the same time was infused with a youthful exuberance that kept the sound fresh and energetic. I’ve been a bit skeptical of the new wave of thrash bands that have come into prominence in recent years, but Havok are about as legit as it gets; you can tell from the first note that these guys have a real passion for what they’re doing. Besides, with the country going to Hell in a hand-basket, we need kick-ass thrash metal now more than ever before.
While Mutilation Rites’ set was an exercise in filthy, rocked-out hypnosis, Havok’s set was all about nonstop neck-wrecking. Though I’m not intimately familiar with their back catalogue (note to self: rectify this situation immediately), I find it hard to believe that these guys have ever written a riff that wasn’t specifically designed to incite heavy duty headbanging and wicked pit action. Indeed, it didn’t take long for the moshing to erupt after Havok started playing, and although I’m too old and out of shape these days to join in the mayhem, it’s great to see a young band that’s capable of inciting such a violent reaction; maybe there’s hope for the future after all.
I think what I liked best about Havok’s sound was that they were clearly drawing their inspiration from the whole of the thrash metal tradition and not just the usual Bay Area suspects; I could’ve sworn I heard hints of Overkill and early Sepultura within their face-shredding sound. I also appreciated the apparent seriousness of their lyrical approach; the last thing we need are any more thrash bands singing about partying and eating pizza (although their t-shirt carrying the slogan “No Kung-Fu in this pit” did crack me up).
Havok’s set was a total blast and they left me wanting more of those killer riffs. I’ve never really gotten to witness honest-to-goodness old school thrash in a smaller venue (by the time I got to see Metallica, Megadeth, Slayer, Testament, et al, they had long since blown up to arena status), so it was definitely a treat for me, especially from a band that’s as tight, aggressive and forceful as Havok. I’m looking forward to digging deeper into their recordings and I hope it isn’t too long before they return to a stage near me.