Jonas Renkse is a difficult man to photograph. For the entirety of Katatonia’s set Wednesday night at Wooly’s, the singer kept his face deliberately obscured behind a mass of hair; as if not wanting to face the crowd. But his jovial between-song demeanor and powerful performance spoke otherwise; his exquisite vocals the undeniable focal point of the Swedish quartet’s excellent hour long set opening for prog metal grand poobahs Opeth. In some ways, Herr Renkse’s locks could be a metaphor for Katatonia’s music; their underlying metal-ness often obscured by heaps of beautifully dark, multi-textured melancholia.
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.
The last time I wrote about Early Graves, it was with a heavy heart. A planned review of their 2010 album Goner became a lamentation of vocalist Makh Daniels, whose life had been taken in a van accident while the band was out on tour. I assumed it was to be the first and last time I would write about the devastating young quintet who had shown so much promise. However, the remaining members of Early Graves regrouped, making the undoubtedly difficult decision to soldier on with new screamer John Strachan (also of The Funeral Pyre) at the helm, proving the old cliche that you just can’t keep a good band down. The result is Red Horse, a snorting, stomping, snarling beast of a recording that’s beyond a shadow of a doubt the San Franciscans’ most potent statement to date. The album isn’t out until October 30th, but Early Graves are already hitting the road hard, bringing their patented brand of pure Hell to the stage.
Morbid Angel, Dark Funeral, Grave; listening to metal in my early teens and twenties, I never imagined such an excellent lineup would roll through my hometown of Des Moines, IA. When this tour was announced, I found myself checking the dates on several websites just to make sure I wasn’t seeing things and that there really was a Des Moines stop scheduled. This would be my first time seeing all three bands, and being that all three bands are legendary (at least as far as my own personal metal pantheon is concerned), I was just as giddy at 33 as I would’ve been at 18 had this lineup desecrated Des Moines back then.
The last time Exhumed played in Des Moines, it was the middle of July. If you’ve never been to Iowa in mid-Summer, imagine being trapped in a giant pair of sweatpants and forced to walk through someone’s sweaty, overheated crotch; now you’ve got a pretty good idea of what humidity in the Midwest is like. It’s the kind of heat that causes old people and animals to spontaneously drop dead. Now, imagine a tiny venue with no air conditioning smack dab in the middle of that nasty-ass environment. These were the conditions Exhumed were forced to weather their first time playing our little one-horse town, so it’s something of a small miracle that they actually agreed to come back. Granted, they’re in the midst of a high-profile tour with death metal kingpins Cannibal Corpse (for more on them, wait for my upcoming review of their new album, Torture), but still, I can’t imagine that initial encounter made a very good impression.
It was a not-so-dark-and-stormy night when the creepy Creepsylvanians known as Ghoul brought their patented brand of uh, ghoulish splatterthrash to Des Moines, IA, aka the asshole of the Midwest. I was excited to see them for the first time, and that excitement was only heightened by a lengthy wait outside the venue (at least I wasn’t standing next to the Juggalos), followed by what seemed like an eternity sitting through a rather abysmal opening band (the less said on that, the better). After a declaration by the Grand Basilisk stating that we were all in violation of Creepsylvanian law for harboring these four maniacal hooded fugitives, the band hit the stage, immediately launching into “Off With Their Heads” from their latest album, 2011′s Transmission Zero. From the very beginning it was clear that Ghoul had come to kill, and the musical evisceration didn’t let up for a moment over the course of their thirty-odd-minute set.
Over the past twelve months, I’ve been thinking a lot about death, due to the untimely passing of several friends and loved ones. You’d think that the last thing I’d want to do is listen to death metal, let alone go to a death metal show. But you see, I never thought of death metal as music that makes light of, pokes fun at, or otherwise devalues death. On the contrary, death metal (at least the good stuff) is a celebration of life, a potent cultural reminder of our own mortality, that life is often too short and should therefore be lived to the fullest. I can’t think of many things in life more exhilarating than blastbeats, heavy riffs and careening guitar solos. So going to a death metal show is exactly what I did when the recently re-animated California gore lords known as Exhumed brought their patented brand of musical malpractice to my home town.
My wife and I arrived at the Vaudeville just as the first of the opening bands was finishing up their set (why do venues/bookers insist on cramming so many bands onto these bills?) and it was already sweltering, the pitiful excuse for an A/C unable to keep up with the heat-advisory level temperatures we’ve had here in the sweaty asshole of the Midwest of late. During what is apparently to be one of the final sets from local death/grind stalwarts Black Market Fetus, I had the pleasure of meeting Exhumed mastermind Matt Harvey, who is an old acquaintance of my wife’s. It’s always great when a musician you admire turns out to be a genuinely nice guy as well, and Harvey was one of the most friendly and down-to-earth I’ve encountered during my years doing this metal thing.
When Exhumed finally hit the stage however, Harvey was all business, leading the rejuvenated band in storming through a career-spanning set. Having long-since surpassed their origins as Carcass-worshippers, Exhumed are a death metal force to be reckoned with, as evidenced by the pure ferocity and precision with which they attacked their instruments, in spite of the oppressive heat that threatened to sap the show of its energy. The band showed no signs of faltering under the brutal conditions, and the crowd responded in kind, whipping up some serious (at least by Iowa standards) pit action for much of the set.
Of course, professionalism will only get you so far in death metal. If you really want to stand out from the pack and get the heads banging, fists pumping and beers pounding, you’ve got to have songs. Exhumed has always had them, and this night they deployed some of the gnarliest hooks in all of death metal. Tracks from the band’s back catalogue, such as “The Matter of Splatter” “Decrepit Crescendo” and “Necromaniac” are as catchy and fun as they are overwhelmingly brutal. Exhumed also unleashed a battery of songs from All Guts, No Glory (their first album in eight years, not counting covers collection Garbage Daze Re-Regurgitated), with “As Hammer to Anvil” and “Through Cadaver Eyes” demonstrating an even more refined songwriting approach. Call it murderous yet memorable, call it stadium rock for flesh eating zombies or just call it gore fucking metal, as was emblazoned on the backs of the band’s guitars.
Speaking of guitars, the six-string work of Harvey and Wes Caley (ex-Uphill Battle, Fatalist) was in stellar form throughout Exhumed’s set. Caley treated the crowd to an extended solo in between songs, proving that it’s possible to play your ass off without degenerating into the ludicrous tech-death wankery that plagues today’s DM scene. Caley and Harvey traded off on lead and rhythm while laying waste to the stage, slicing through the mix with a blitzkrieg of bent strings, punishing riffage and whammy bar abuse. The band as a whole was incredibly tight, but as a (painfully mediocre) guitarist myself, it was a pleasure watching these two demonstrate such a high level of axe-mastery.
As the band blasted through the remainder of their set with reckless abandon, the intensity never waned and I found myself totally lost in the sonic bloodbath, throwing up the horns and headbanging to the point of exhaustion. By the time Exhumed concluded the evening in a barrage of distorted cacophony, I was dog tired and sweating bullets (and that was just from being in balcony, I can’t imagine what it was like on the floor or on stage), but extremely satisfied. Some death metal was exactly what I needed to feel alive. Exhumed delivered and then some.
Exhumed 2011 North American Tour (remaining dates)
Jul. 25 – Milwaukee, WI – The Rave Bar
Jul. 26 – St Paul, MN – Station 4
Jul. 27 – Winnipeg, MB – The Royal Albert Arms
Jul. 28 – Regina, SK – The Exchange
Jul. 29 – Edmonton, AB – Pawn Shop
Jul. 30 – Calgary, AB – The Distillery
Jul. 31 – Kelowna, BC – Sapphire Nightclub
Aug. 01 – Vancouver, BC – Rickshaw Theater
Aug. 02 – Seattle, WA – Studio Seven
Aug. 03 – Portland, OR – Branx
Aug. 04 – San Francisco, CA – Slim’s
Aug. 05 – Sparks, NV – The Alley
Aug. 06 – Las Vegas, NV – The Cheyenne Saloon
Aug. 07 – Hollywood, CA – Key Club
I live in Central Iowa. No, it isn’t the suicidal nuclear wasteland of grotesquerie that the members of Slipknot would have you believe (no offense to those guys, but that just isn’t my personal experience). However, it is quiet and somewhat desolate. Not a lot goes on here and for the most part we like it that way. We’re never in much of a hurry to get anywhere or do anything.
This can be good and bad for a metal head. You don’t get to see many live bands, but you’re very grateful for the ones that you do get to see. It is something special, not “just another show”. (I remember how shocked I was out in California, everyone seemed so jaded about going to shows, while I was practically bouncing off the walls with excitement.) I was pretty ecstatic when bands like Watain, Vader, Soilent Green, Fuck… I’m Dead and Boris actually deemed Iowa worthy of making a stop in. Of course, the fact that they haven’t been back since is telling. There are only a handful of people here that really give a shit. Of course you can always drive 6 hours to Chicago, 4 hours to Minneapolis or 3 hours to Omaha for a show, but that typically isn’t feasible when you have a career and a family.
Since it is so quiet and laid back, you’ve got plenty of time to sit and listen to music in the comfort of your own home. If you spend a lot of time thinking and writing about metal (as I do), chances are pretty good that if you need a few hours to be left to your own devices and listen to records, no one is going to stop you. The downside is that you’re not going to be able to go out to the record store and just buy those records you want to listen to. There are no “cool independent record stores” that cater to metal here. There was a shop within walking distance of my mother’s house that would at least get Relapse and Metal Blade titles, but it closed its doors years ago. There just aren’t enough serious metal heads to support something like that. I buy 99% of my music online for that reason. Occasionally the used bookstore will surprise me with some cool CDs and the dreaded FYE is usually good for the big new releases (I was pleased to buy the new Enforcer album for a reasonable price there recently), but other than that you’re going to be buying from Amazon, Ebay or one of the various indie distros.
Generally, I don’t even tell people here that I’m into metal. A lot of people here are into what I refer to as “lowest common denominator metal”, bands such as Devildriver, Lamb of God, As I Lay Dying, assorted terrible metalcore, nu metal (yes, that shit is still alive and well in the Midwest), or they play in a band that plies one of these awful styles. I try to avoid these people like the plague and if I do end up in conversation with one of them, I try to end it as quickly as possible by just agreeing that whatever awful bands they like are good and then run while they aren’t looking. I’m not about to try to explain Deathspell Omega or Lifelover to a person who actually thinks Devildriver is a good band. If that makes me an asshole, so be it. I like some pretty questionable stuff myself (the above mentioned Pantera probably falls into that lowest common denominator category for many), but I’m smart enough to recognize it for what it is… I just don’t get that from the folks I generally talk to, so I try to just avoid it all together. Granted, the band t-shirts I’m usually wearing are a dead giveaway, rendering my attempts to avoid metal conversation futile… maybe I need to start wearing polos.
Then there’s Slipknot. Once people find out you’re from Iowa and into metal, they inevitably want to talk about this band. The truth is, I own their records but they’ve never been my favorite. I’m not just saying that to “be cool”, you’ll have to take my word for it. I’ve only seen them once, and no it wasn’t in some dingy club before they were famous. It was at Hilton Coliseum while I was on assignment for my college newspaper reviewing the show. In Des Moines, everyone (except me, apparently) has a story about Slipknot. They typically go something like this: “Oh yeah, my father’s uncle’s brother’s sister’s cousin’s former roommate used to babysit for Corey Taylor… but he hasn’t talked to him in a couple of years. Corey used the bathroom at my house once.” If you want to talk about Slipknot, talk to them, not me. Again, it’s nothing personal.
Other local bands? Well there’s Black Market Fetus, a great grind/thrash/cluster-fuck of a band (when they’re actually active), and that’s about it for “real metal” these days. Anything we have resembling a “local scene”, that band pretty much carries it on their shoulders, in my opinion. There used to be a great band here called Hunger Pains that had an Eyehategod/Soilent Green thing going on, but who the hell knows what happened to them. Fuzzhawg (one of many bands captained by Des Moines riffmaster Ed Henry, now of Thee Exalted .) was another band that showed up, kicked some ass and then were never heard from again. Skin of Earth were pretty interesting the times I’ve seen them. To be honest I’m pretty out of touch with the local scene, mainly because of all the bands I’ve seen over the years, those I just mentioned were the only ones that ever really impressed me.
Iowa is not a cultural wasteland, but it does not cater to heavy metal (unless you like bad metalcore, nu metal or hair metal, but these do not count for my purposes). In some ways, I’m glad. I’m able to form my opinions in isolation, without much interference. I don’t have a million shitty local bands breathing down my neck to listen to their self-released albums and give them coverage. I get to look at things from the Midwesterner’s perspective. We’re stubborn, we’re loyal and we take our time making decisions and forming opinions. We like to have all the facts and plenty of time for study and contemplation. We don’t worry much about whether our decisions or opinions will be popular and we will defend them tenaciously. Those might sound like stereotypes, but I’ve always found them to be true.
Some people might say I’m not qualified to write about metal since I’m just a “hick from Iowa”. The truth is that because of my geographical location, I’ve had to work harder than just about anyone to get into metal (as discussed in “I was a Teenage Metalhead”) and to be in the position that I’m in today. It doesn’t come easy out here on the prairie.