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Ground and Sky » Metal
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So… the Nightwish show. This was their first show of their U.S. tour I believe, and it had sold out something like six months in advance, with paying customers from as far away as Russia (uh, you would think that Nightwish plays plenty of gigs a hell of a lot closer to Russia than Springfield, Virginia, but whatever). The openers were Paradise Lost, whom I did not show up for. After a seemingly interminable delay, which unfortunately I did show up in time for, the band took the stage sometime after 10pm, after a nice little pep talk from club owner Jay, who made the very good point that these guys are used to playing stadiums and arenas and it’s pretty damn cool that they were willing to play at a tiny little metal club in suburban Virginia.
They opened with “Bye Bye Beautiful,” which I thought was an interesting choice, considering that song is basically a “fuck off” towards Tarja Turunen. Eh, ok. It was alright. See for yourself — a video of part of it got posted to YouTube and is below, kind of fun to watch if you can ignore the hyperventilating fanboy going “oh my fucking god” through the whole thing. Then came another song from Dark Passion Play; again, it was alright (can you tell I’m not that enthused about the new album). “Dark Chest of Wonders” and “Ever Dream” followed, and it was really interesting to hear the new vocalist perform the old songs. “Dark Chest of Wonders” was great, “Ever Dream” not so much. Annette Olzon is a completely different singer from Tarja Turunen and gives Nightwish an entirely different sound — one that’s much less over-the-top, not operatic at all, much more mainstream. Normally I don’t really like bands that are so over the top, so one would think that I would like this more streamlined version of Nightwish better — but really, when listening to female-fronted power metal, where’s the appeal except in the over-the-top-ness?
Besides that, Olzon seemed to really strain to hit some notes, and I found myself missing Turunen a lot. This really isn’t the same band, and while it’s a little unfair to compare them to the old version, when they play the old songs the comparisons are inevitable. I left after about an hour and a half, in the middle of “Nemo,” after finding that the new songs were almost all pedestrian and the performances of the old songs just left me wishing that Turunen was singing them. Ah well.
For a different perspective (and a complete setlist), check this out. Also note that the same guy who posted the below video at YouTube also posted clips of “Nemo” and “Wish I Had an Angel.”
A very thoughtful review of Nightwish’s new album, Dark Passion Play, got posted today at PopMatters. I’ve given this one a few listens, enough to form a brief opinion about it, but I’ll save most of my thoughts for a proper review. In short, I pretty much agree with the PopMatters review. What this all brings to mind is something of a tangent: why are there so few metal review sites that are worth a damn? Anytime I read a review at Metal Observer, Metal Storm, or any of those sites, I never feel like I’ve come away feeling like I know whether or not the given album is any good. Part of that is uneven or downright bad writing; part of it is that all of these sites seem to give positive reviews to practically everything.
For the record, there are a few metal sites that I find quite valuable, but few of these really keep up with new releases on a regular basis: Satan Stole My Teddybear and The Dark Legions Archive both boast good writing, intelligent musical commentary, and useful critical viewpoints, and Encyclopedia Metallum has a ton of user-written reviews that are actually of generally good quality. The upstart avantgarde-metal.com looks interesting, but so far the quality of writing is very uneven. Outside of those, I haven’t found too much, especially in terms of sites that are willing to review the more extreme forms of metal (very few of them, even those that write about death and black metal, seem to do much in the way of grindcore and the various death/grind hybrids out there). Any suggestions?
I haven’t seen any live music since Richard Pinhas way back in July, so last night I decided to go to a show at Jaxx — a bunch of female-fronted gothic metal bands, headlined by Epica. Circumstances had me arriving late at the venue, two hours after the appointed showtime, but the first opening band was still on. I caught two or three songs of their set, both of which were entirely forgettable. After a surprisingly short changeover time, Visions of Atlantis took the stage and played a 45-minute set. This is an Austrian group on their first U.S. tour (although their singer is American as far as I can tell); they just released an album, Trinity, from which almost all of their set was drawn. It was okay; I found myself enjoying it at first but I was definitely ready for it to be over when they finished. Their singer did a lot of your typical metal stage moves (fist-pumping and the like), but also broke out some hip gyrations that wouldn’t have been out of place at a pop concert. That was weird. Female vocals on top of metal riffing I can handle. Booty dancing (even if briefly) to said riffs is something entirely different.
Epica came on and, right off the bat, played a couple songs from their own just-released new album, The Divine Conspiracy. I downloaded this album from eMusic a little while ago and it was basically the sole reason I decided to show up at this concert. Previously I had heard Consign to Oblivion and never really thought much of it, but this new one I liked. It’s much heavier than most other female-fronted gothic metal out there, with lots of blast beats and an intriguing male vocal style that flits between death-metal growls and black-metal shrieks. It’s also insanely bombastic, boasting both metal’s grandiose cinematic tendencies and prog’s symphonic pretensions.
Live, they came off pretty similarly to the way they do on record. They were great performers and vocalist Simone Simons is a striking frontwoman. Also, the male vocals were impressive — the guy really does go from low-end growls to upper-register shrieks without even batting an eye. Seriously, his facial expressions stayed almost completely blank whenever he sang, which was really bizarre when he was screaming like a banshee. Set-wise, I had hoped that more of their performance would be drawn from the new album, as they played a fair amount of the old stuff that didn’t hold my attention quite as much. Additionally, it does seem like a lot of their songs are a few minutes longer than they need to be, with many of them going through numerous instrumental sections that seem a little redundant.
My favorite parts of Epica’s set were the heavier black metal-influenced sections. This was a reminder that while this gothic metal stuff is nice and all, its totally unashamed bombast making it a great “guilty pleasure,” what I really like is the heavy shit. I enjoyed this show, but in the end it mostly made me really excited for the upcoming Enslaved show at the same venue.
Well, last night Sleepytime Gorilla Museum put on the best show of the three I’ve seen thus far. Maybe it was just that I’m now familiar with all the songs — with very few exceptions they played stuff from In Glorious Times, as they have been doing for the past two years. But despite a surprisingly small crowd (smaller than in 2005, when they didn’t start until nearly midnight, and much smaller than three months ago, when they barely made it to DC thanks to a nasty ice storm), they were really on, both musically and theatrically.
They opened with “The Companions,” which they’ve been doing since I first saw them in 2005. Actually, technically they opened with a gimmick, parading slowly from the back of the club while playing some kind of brassy fanfare, walking straight into the middle of the crowd, finishing the fanfare, and then taking the stage. It was a highly amusing stunt and set the tone for the rest of the night. It’s amazing how these guys can be so creepy one moment and then completely and genuinely funny the next. After “The Companions” — which I found much more enjoyable after hearing it on the album, and I picked out some subtleties I’d never noticed before, like Carla Kihlstedt’s ghostly wordless backing vocals — they brought down the house with “The Widening Eye,” just as they did last time. I described this song last time (which was the first time I ever heard it) as a more metallic take on “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, Part 2″ — it’s easily my favorite song on the album, and it’s a real crowd-pleaser live.
After playing most of the songs on In Glorious Times, the band surprised me by playing some stuff from Of Natural History — previously I’d only heard them do “Phthisis,” but this time they played “The Freedom Club,” “Hymn to the Morning Star” (Nils’ voice in this song is just astonishing) and “The Donkey-Headed Adversary of Humanity.” All of these songs killed and this reminded me that, as much as I dig the new album, Of Natural History is still easily my favorite of theirs. They did an encore of their new, tripped-out version of “Sleep Is Wrong,” which despite its funkiness I actually don’t like nearly as much as the original version, which is much more lean, mean and heavy.
Theatrically, the whole band was funnier and more animated than I’ve seen them, which is definitely saying something. This is even though the crowd was probably half as big as their last show at the Black Cat, which must have been disappointing.
Openers Stinking Lizaveta I found mildly disappointing; I’ve heard great things about them but aside from a couple songs I thought were great, they mostly played songs consisting of odd-time riff after odd-time riff, and I ended up finding them rather tiresome. Great musicians to be sure, but I just wasn’t a huge fan of the compositions.
This past week I’ve missed three shows I would have really liked to see (Konono No. 1 topping the list), but I’m getting back in the game this weekend, even though the sky fell on Thursday with regards to my work. Despite working late today and getting to the show over an hour late, I caught Within Temptation on their first U.S. tour ever, and it was nothing if not fun. If you’re a regular reader of this site, you probably know that I have a soft spot for female-fronted gothic metal, even if it’s cheesy, poppy or both. Within Temptation were the band that got me hooked on this subgenre, and I was embarrassingly excited to see them live.
They played at Jaxx, a metal-oriented club way out in the burbs that has a really bad reputation around here for just kind of being a nasty club — rude staff, no ventilation, overly crowded, etc, not to mention the fact that it’s in a strip mall in northern Virginia (and let me tell you, there’s suburban hell and then there’s northern Virginia). This was the first time I’d been, and I actually kind of liked the place. The sight lines and the sound were excellent, and there’s definitely an intimate feel to the place as it’s quite small and there’s not really any divider between stage and audience. Also, interestingly enough, I saw more people there wearing earplugs than at any other show I’ve been to. I guess metal fans (not that this was an especially metal crowd, but still) know they’ve gotta wear them if they want to still have their hearing five years down the road.
Anyway, the show. It sold out a while ago. It was the band’s fourth show in the U.S.; their tour only has them playing about 15 dates in North America, so we’re lucky they played in the DC area. They were opening for Lacuna Coil, so unfortunately they played a pretty short set, and it was heavy on stuff from their new album, The Heart of Everything. I think they played the first five songs from that album, plus “Ice Queen” and “Mother Earth” from Mother Earth and “Stand My Ground” from The Silent Force. And even though I’m not really a huge fan of the new album, I have to say that the highlight of the show, by far, was “The Heart of Everything” — when Sharon den Adel breaks out the snarlier side of her vocals, the effect is awesome. And that song rocks.
As for the band, they seemed genuinely excited and happy to be playing for an audience that’s probably a tenth of the size of the audiences they play for on the other side of the pond. It helps that the fans seemed pretty deliriously happy too — most of them seemed to know the songs from The Heart of Everything, which hasn’t even been released in the U.S. yet (though, come to think of it, none of the band’s earlier albums have had a domestic release here either). Sharon den Adel has tremendous stage presence, and not just because she’s gorgeous and wears elaborate dresses — she has a real charisma that I thought came across really well in the small club. Also, it was funny to see her walk on stage and 80 percent of the males in the club break out their cameras or cell phone cameras.
In the end, the band’s live show isn’t substantially different, musically speaking, from what’s on record, so this wasn’t the most memorable show I’ve ever seen. They pulled it all off admirably, but I was mostly just excited about the novelty of seeing the first U.S. tour of a band that’s become legendary, it seems, for great live shows. Hope they can come back as headliners and play much longer sets. (I left right after their performance, as I find Lacuna Coil mostly boring.)
Tomorrow: Ahleuchatistas and Alec K. Redfearn and the Eyesores. Sure is a good two nights to get back into my concert-going ways!
Despite awful weather — a 40-degree drop from Thursday to Friday and a dramatic shift from cloudless sun to icy sleet — Sleepytime Gorilla Museum and Secret Chiefs 3 made it to Washington, DC last night to play at the Black Cat. Secret Chiefs actually didn’t get in until very late, so SGM played first, starting at around 10:15 (doors were supposed to open at 9, but I guess they were doing their soundcheck because the club made people stand out in the cold until almost 9:45). They played almost exclusively new material, with only “Phthisis” somewhere in the middle and then closing with a crowd-pleasing “Sleep is Wrong.” They opened with a song I recognized from when they played here two years ago that reminds me of Idiot Flesh — maybe this one is called “Companions”? But then they played something that absolutely blew everyone away, a chunky odd-time instrumental with Kihlstedt flailing away on violin against a dual-guitar attack, that really sounded like SGM’s version of “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, Part 2.” Seriously, this was a blistering piece that will likely be on the next album, out in late May.
The rest of the set was good but not transcendent. Nils was in full performance mode throughout, but also made time to banter a bit with the crowd. I dug most of the new songs, but am looking forward to hearing the studio versions; the sound in the club was surprisingly good (much better than the last time they were here), but most of the nuance got washed out by the odd-time heavy-metal riffing that seemed to dominate everything. The crowd absolutely ate it up though; there was a great turnout despite the weather, and band seemed to feel so good about their set and the audience that they did a clearly unplanned encore of “1997,” which I always thought was a vastly overrated song but which of course drove the crowd to a frenzy.
It’s nice to see that this band has evidently developed quite a devoted following. I think they’re one of the most innovative current bands out there, and the fact that they’ve made such a name for themselves pretty much by touring incessantly is great. Sadly, since they didn’t finish until 11:45, I didn’t stick around for Secret Chiefs 3, which apparently is my loss. Hopefully I’ll get a chance to catch them again in the near future, but as it was, I was happy enough just seeing SGM again.
A while back I mentioned I might try to do a “live recording of the week” sort of thing here, because I keep accumulating live shows from Dimeadozen but never get around to actually listening to half of them. There’s been a particularly fruitful run of stuff on Dime lately, including some cool Fred Frith/Bob Ostertag duos and a ridiculous flood of Magma torrents with several DVDs of classic-period material (a totally awesome 1977 concert featuring “De Futura” and “MDK” is tops on my list right now).
But what I want to highlight is something I got a little while back, and something considerably newer and cheesier. Within Temptation’s new album came out in Europe this weekend (and yes, I am fan enough to order the import version because the US release doesn’t happen until July; and yes, I feel slightly silly for admitting this), and I was watching a couple short DVDs I have of their live shows. There’s a neat one broadcast on Rockpalast from January 10, 2004, a little show at the Dutch Eurosonic Festival. The stage is absurdly Gothic, the kind of thing that’s probably all over Europe but that you’d never find anywhere in the USA. The performance is fun; Sharon den Adel does her goofy undulating/dancing, wears a really low-cut flowing dress (I don’t understand how she manages to move in it without some dramatic, er, wardrobe malfunctions), and sings beautifully — you know, pretty standard for these guys. She also goes up to an audience balcony to sing part of “Mother Earth,” giving us some pretty hilarious footage of a couple fans clapping sort of to the beat, really awkwardly, and just generally “doing the standing still” as Travis Morrison would say. But the really neat bit is a cover of Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill,” which somehow absolutely rocks. Pretty cool, I wonder if this is on any of their official live releases? I don’t have any of those… yet.
Last Sunday night, Isis appeared at the 9:30 Club to play for a mostly sedate crowd of post-rock and nerd-metal types. I was among them, and suffice it to say I was disappointed at best and angry at worst. Here’s what I posted to Bob’s ProgAndOther list:
I saw them last Sunday in DC and was really, really disappointed. Glad the show in Philly had good (if loud) sound - the DC show was ridiculous. I think there was a monkey behind the soundboard; the bass was so boomy it overwhelmed everything else, and the kick drum was equally bad - if not worse because it was so loud it took all the subtlety out of the “quiet” parts. I could barely hear the guitars at all, and even though Isis is one of my favorite bands and I know all their material, there were a couple songs I couldn’t recognize because I literally couldn’t tell what they were playing. I was pretty seriously annoyed at the sound guys and left after 45 minutes or so.
I saw them put on a great show last year, so I pretty much blame this fiasco entirely on the club’s crappy sound. Oh well - at least I did manage to snag that Live 4 CD :)
I hate it when idiot soundmen ruin otherwise great performances. And this is the second time this has happened to me lately at the 9:30; Mastodon a little while back was similarly unlistenable. Thankfully, most of the rock bands that pique my interest these days are playing at smaller venues with slightly saner volume levels.
Last night I saw about an hour of Mastodon live at the 9:30 Club. An hour only, because I didn’t really enjoy myself. I got there late and the show was sold out, so I was stuck in the back corner of the club, where bouncers would periodically push through to throw particularly rowdy folks out the door, and where, more importantly, the sound was atrocious. I don’t know if it was any better closer to the middle of the floor, but in the corner, the volume was nearly unbearable (and I had earplugs) and there was an omnipresent high-pitched screeching that I guess was caused by all the noise bouncing off the walls around me. So to be honest I couldn’t tell if the band put on a good show or not; the crowd certainly was eating it up. (Metal crowds are really incomparable when it comes to really, viscerally showing enthusiasm for the music.) They sounded a little sloppy to me, but, you know, not really being able to hear anything might have contributed to that impression.
An equally big problem is that for the hour that I stayed, they were pretty much just playing Blood Mountain straight through. I have come to really dislike that album, and live it didn’t come off much better; if anything, it seemed even wankier. For me, the whole concert was a battle between wanting to leave early and wanting to stay long enough to hear them do some older stuff. The former urge won out in the end.
PopMatters redeems itself with this, the best one-sentence summary of what’s going on with Isis that I’ve yet read: “Even though Isis’s musical progression is cautious at best, the band is still miles ahead of its peers.”
That about sums it up, I think. I found In the Absence of Truth a bit disappointing and “more of the same,” but it’s still a pretty excellent work in its own right, and this is a band that has never really let me down.