Archive for May, 2008

The Progressive Nation tour comes to DC

Wednesday, May 28th, 2008

Understandably, this whole Progressive Nation thing is a big deal in prog-rock (or at least prog-metal) land. At one point I think there were four separate threads going on about this tour over at ProgressiveEars, and who knows how much activity there’s been on Mike Portnoy’s forum, the Opeth forum, or the various relevant Yahoo! groups. The tour made its stop in Washington, DC on Monday night, and I went to see what the hubbub’s all about, camera in hand (all photos are at Flickr).

Day 147: Progressive Nation 30

Of the four bands participating — Dream Theater, Opeth, Between the Buried and Me and 3 — I’ve seen the first two (2-3 times each, I can’t remember anymore), am a big fan of the third’s new album Colors, and am totally unfamiliar with the last. Overall I was most excited to see BTBAM; I haven’t been a Dream Theater fan for a long time now, and once I started getting into the more extreme end of extreme metal, Opeth started seeming a little less interesting to me as well (though I still quite enjoy their stuff when I get the hankering to give it a spin).

In any case, I showed up at the venue, DAR Constitution Hall (a 3,700 seat theater), a little before 7pm. I’ve never photographed a show at DAR before, so I spent a few minutes wandering around figuring out what to do. I picked up my photo pass and then got conflicting instructions from staff about where to go from there. I ended up going through some backstage door and getting led to the stage area by a friendly member of BTBAM (I was too distracted by wondering where the hell I was going to engage him in much conversation, but did find out that he’s one of the members from my hometown, Winston-Salem). He actually led me to the stage itself — and I found myself at the very back of the stage just as 3 were beginning their set. Uh, not exactly what I had planned, but ok. I made my way around the wings and got down to the audience area where I was supposed to be. DAR has no photo pit, but I was told I could shoot from the aisles, and found out later (during Opeth’s set) that I could also shoot from the front row of seats right up against the stage, which were unoccupied.

For more on the photography end of this show, check out my photography blog. Now that we’ve gotten to the point in the story that I’m in the venue, what about the music? I was mildly interested in 3, mostly because people have been absolutely raving about their opening set for this tour. In the past I never read anything about their music that made me think I would particularly like them. Unfortunately, I’m still not sure whether I particularly like them, as their music made almost no impression on me. Most of that is my own fault; I was paying attention to getting my bearings in the venue instead of listening. So, put that one down as an incomplete with apologies from the grader. Circumstances were only slightly better for BTBAM as I had to spend the first half of their 30-minute set working out a pass issue, but I did get to see them do “Viridian” and “White Walls” and they fucking blew my head off. Colors was an album that I thought was just ok at first but has really grown on me, and in the live setting these guys pulled it all off with aplomb: the quick shifts in mood, the tricky time changes, the range of styles from Floydlike shoegazing to death metal volume and intensity. The bass solo in “Viridian” raised the tension just enough for them to bring the house down with “White Walls.” The crowd seemed fairly responsive, but then again I was in the front, where folks were bound to be most engaged.

Progressive Nation 04

After BTBAM I figured I’d seen my highlight of the show already, and I was more or less right. Opeth put on a solid set — interestingly, thanks to the compressed time limits (they only had an hour to play), they opened with “Demon at the Fall,” which was actually a little disconcerting to me. I kept expecting them to walk off the stage at the end of the song, since that’s what they usually do. They played a range of stuff from their career, including one of the snoozers from Damnation and a song from the forthcoming album Watershed. I don’t really do the illegal downloading thing, so I haven’t heard the leaked version of Watershed that’s been making the rounds for a few months, but I liked the new song (”Heir Apparent,” I think) with reservations. There were some awesome riffs but it probably could have been cut shorter by a couple minutes (really I could say this about a lot of Opeth songs, so that’s nothing new).

Otherwise, it was Opeth and not a lot more needs to be said. Lots of slow sections that burst into killer riffs and death-metal growls. Lots of banter from Mikael Åkerfeldt. Someone yelled “Freebird.” (Someone always yells “Freebird.” Seriously, I think we need legislative action here. Note to people who like to yell “Freebird” - you are not anywhere near as clever or funny as you think you are.) The sound was awful. Like, really awful; the bass drum overwhelmed everything, especially the vocals. This seems to be the case every time I see this band and it makes me sad.

Progressive Nation 19

Apart from the sound, though, I dug Opeth’s set and waited for Dream Theater satisfied that I’d already seen two pretty good sets, with absolutely no expectations for the last. Just to clarify: I used to love Dream Theater. Images and Words and Awake are two of the albums that originally got me into the whole prog thing, and by association into adventurous music in general. Even as recently as Scenes From a Memory (and especially Live Scenes from New York) I would count myself a fan. But things went quickly downhill from there, and I can’t really say I much like anything that came after Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence. It’s telling that the last time I saw the band live (a long time ago in 2002, back when Usenet was apparently still relevant judging from my old post), I thought the best stuff they did was a medley of old material and a cover of Metallica’s Master of Puppets.

This time around, I went in with no expectations and came away pleasantly surprised with how much I enjoyed Dream Theater’s set. I think I would have liked it even more if I stuck around for the encore, in which they played, well, a medley of old stuff. But what I saw was pretty decent; the new material still doesn’t do a whole lot for me, but these guys have the showmanship thing down, and even if I don’t really dig what they’re playing, at least they are entertaining. When they played “Take the Time” I was really, really reminded of how much better I like the odd-time riffing from the old albums as opposed to the mile-a-minute shredding on some of the newer ones; and some of the songs they played from Scenes From a Memory also came off quite well.

I did start getting a little restless after Jordan Rudess pulled out his wireless keytar thing and played a shredding duo with John Petrucci, and when James LaBrie’s voice started going from somewhat coherent and controlled to, uh, less so. So I booked out of there before I was reminded of all the reasons I don’t like this band as much as I used to. It seems to have worked, as I look back on the concert now with good feelings. The highlight for me was definitely BTBAM — and I would really like to see them on a headlining tour sometime — but the rest of the sets were pretty solid as well. The venue seemed pretty full and folks were getting into the bands, though the turnout for Dream Theater was way, way higher than for anyone else, which was understandable but still made me a little sad to see. It was interesting to see the tension of folks who were there for Dream Theater listening to metal with growled/screamed vocals — not surprisingly, during the BTBAM and Opeth sets there were a fair number of people that retreated to the concourse and downstairs lounge.

Progressive Nation 37

Progressive Nation 47

That’s all I’ve got, music-wise at least. If you still haven’t gotten your fill, read my photography notes here or see the full set of photos here.

New Sigur Rós?

Tuesday, May 27th, 2008

Somehow I missed this until now, but there’s a new Sigur Rós album looming on the horizon. The title is not quite as succinct or easy to pronounce (for us poor English-speaking monolingual schmucks) as Von or Takk: apparently this new record, due out June 24, is to be called Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust. There’s already a track that can be previewed/downloaded here. I haven’t had a chance to listen yet.

Takk, the band’s last album, was really nice, but didn’t strike the same emotional chord with me as their earlier albums, perhaps because I’ve simply become a little inoculated to their style. But watching the Heima DVD — which is absolutely gorgeous — rekindled my interest in these guys a little bit, so I’m tentatively excited about this new release. In the meantime, this is a total gem: an NPR blogger’s video of his interview with Sigur Rós, which goes painfully, hilariously badly.

In other news, I saw the Progressive Nation tour last night in DC. Writeup is coming soon — I’m behind on processing photos and I shot over 1,000 last night — but the short review is that it was good. Yes, even Dream Theater, who, as readers of this site well know, has not really been a band I’m keen on for some years now. More to come…

The Sword at Rock & Roll Hotel… meh

Wednesday, May 21st, 2008

(Random note: you wouldn’t know it from this and my previous couple of show reviews — to say nothing of the Progressive Nation tour review I have coming up next week — but I have been seeing music other than metal recently. In fact, this week, I could have gone/could go to a great show every single night except last Sunday — Candlemass on Monday; Pattern is Movement yesterday; my housemate’s ex-housemate’s band tonight; either Adam Caine/Nick Lyons or Twin Earth tomorrow; A Silver Mt. Zion on Friday; Thee Maximalists on Saturday — but unfortunately I will be seeing none of them. I’ll use the time off from showgoing to post an overdue concert review.)

The Sword 4

Last Thursday: Rock and Roll Hotel. The headliners were The Sword, a mildly ridiculous and fairly straightforward stoner-ish metal outfit who sing about things that your average stereotypical nerdilicious prog fan might enjoy. Opening were Philly’s Stinking Lizaveta (also known in prog circles, partly because guitarist Yanni Papadopoulos has appeared with Thee Maximalists, I believe) and show-stealers Torche. The former went on first and played their trademark herky-jerky heavy instrumental prog, complete with weird time signatures and turn-on-a-dime riffing. They pretty much blew the crowd away, which surprised me. Last time I saw them was when they opened for Sleepytime Gorilla Museum at the Black Cat, and I was less than impressed. Their material seemed kind of sterile and contrived (”odd-time riff after odd-time riff,” I said in my review of that show, and little more). It definitely came off better this time, but still, I headed out for a break about halfway through the set and didn’t really feel like I missed all that much.

I’m ashamed to say I’m not familiar at all with Torche’s recorded output, but I knew there was a good chance they would be my favorite band of the night, just based on everything I’ve read about them over the past year or two. I was right. They fucking crushed. How to describe this show? The first half was accessible, heavy but melodic, nice stuff but nothing extraordinary. I suppose when people talk about this band and say things like “stoner pop” or “pop metal,” this is what they mean. It’s a skewed version of pop to be sure, but I dig it. But the second half of the show, they brought the noise. Honestly, I don’t remember much other than the last song, which was extended out to what was probably 10+ minutes but felt like twice that long. Howling feedback and white noise combined with brutal riffing: I was in a happy place. So was this guy:

Day 136: Torche 3

As for The Sword, pictured above… eh. Color me unmoved. Their records are entertaining enough, but for some reason in the live setting (maybe it had to do with followed the brain-frying performance that Torche gave), their songs seemed remarkably unremarkable. Middle-of-the-road, melodic metal, clean vocals, basic chunky riffs. The crowd was loving it; the show was sold out fergodsakes (seriously? a metal show in DC selling out?) and from where I was standing I couldn’t see anyone who wasn’t pumping a fist. But after photographing the first three songs, I quite happily retreated to my car, where Gaza’s I Don’t Care Where I Go When I Die awaited me in my CD player. Guess I just like my metal a little more extreme these days.

Photographic notes: the lighting was difficult for this show. Rock & Roll Hotel has some nice backlights above and behind the stage, but for some reason they almost never use the equally nice frontlights that they have. For all three bands I was at ISO 3200, wide open with a 50/1.8, struggling to keep my shutter speeds above 1/80. I really needed faster shutter speeds because all three of these bands were moving around a lot (those damn metal bands, they’re energetic and all). I was right up against the stage, too, with a packed crowd behind me, and the 50mm lens was a little too narrow — really could have used that 17-55 I had a couple weeks ago.

Finally, one unusual thing was that The Sword requested that we (myself, a guy shooting for spin.com one other dude) only shoot the first three songs. There was also a “no flash” sign on the door, making this the first “three songs, no flash” concert in a small, no photo pit venue that I’ve ever done. Thought that was unusual, but wasn’t a problem. My photos of The Sword weren’t great, but I don’t think shooting for more than the first three songs would have gotten me anything much better. The conditions just weren’t ideal for the equipment I had (or my limited talent, I suppose).

Full set is at Flickr. I’ll leave you with a shot of Stinking Lizaveta:

Stinking Lizaveta 3

Epica + hired gun at Jaxx

Friday, May 9th, 2008

Epica 12

Last Saturday, I went to Jaxx in Springfield, VA to see Symphony X, Epica and Into Eternity on the last gig of their current tour. Of these bands I’m mostly a fan of Epica; I used to really like Symphony X but I moved away in large part from the prog-metal type stuff, oh, five or six years ago. Unfortunately, Epica was missing their inimitable frontwoman Simone Simons, who has been ill for some time now. Amanda Somerville, Simons’ voice coach (who makes an appearance on the We Will Take You With Us DVD), filled in, and her voice was remarkably similar to Simons’ — if not actually a little stronger all around. She seemed comfortable on stage with the band as well, which I suppose makes sense since it was the last gig of the tour. Still, Simons has an unmistakable charisma that I witnessed last year when Epica played this same venue — even though that time I was watching from afar and this time I was right up front — and her presence was definitely missed.

Epica 6

All the bands put on very good performances. The two local openers, Apothys and Tolerance for Tragedy, were solid, and the former band certainly knew their audience when they played a cover of Opeth’s “Demon of the Fall.” I’m not much of a fan of Into Eternity — singer Stu Block’s more high-pitched wailing moments just don’t really do it for me, to say the least — but Block is an excellent frontman and Tim Roth is a pretty awesome guitarist. As for Epica, well, they rocked it, although I did wish they would have played more stuff from The Divine Conspiracy. I generally find that album much more compelling than the older stuff, but of their older material they did play the best of it, so I suppose it all evens out in the end. “Sancta Terra” was a highlight for me, all cheesy bombast that’s pretty much just sheer awesomeness once you accept the nerdiness factor.

For Symphony X, I retreated to the back of the club and actually ended up leaving early. I just don’t find their music all that compelling these days, although admittedly in a live setting they are way heavier and more engaging than on record (Dave Kerman would still call it “panty-waist mallcore/prog-metal b.s.” though :). Part of my decision to give up my spot near the front of the pit was that or the last couple songs of Epica’s set, some dude who probably weighed 200 pounds more than me decided to shove his way up front and lean his entire weight into me while pumping his fists and screaming. I pretty much had to stop taking photos and brace myself against the stage railing (doing the folks in front of me a favor). After Epica’s set, he didn’t move, and I decided to find a different spot. Unfortunately, that proved impossible, the crowd was so densely packed. So I retreated to the bar and enjoyed probably half or a bit more of Symphony X from afar.

Into Eternity 6

One final note: the bands were unruly themselves, it being their final show. It was actually kind of hilarious; they were throwing food and other things (silly string, as in the above photo of Into Eternity’s guitarist) at each other during the sets, and apparently things got even crazier towards the end of Symphony X’s set, after I’d already left. It was cool to see these guys having so much fun, and in front of a very appreciative crowd to boot.

Lots more photos in the full set at Flickr. Of them all, my favorite shot of the night is probably this one, of the singer for Tolerance for Tragedy:

Tolerance for Tragedy 1

Great show: Earth & Kayo Dot

Monday, May 5th, 2008

Okay, sorry for the major delays in updates both in the site proper and this blog. I’m going to try something here. In 2008, I’ve been focusing a lot on my photography, and doing a lot of live music photography in particular. I’ve started a photography blog, and will be cross-posting concert reviews, with photography notes, at that blog and this one. So at this blog I’ll continue posting my usual ramblings, as well as concert reviews, but the concert reviews will now include more photographs and a few paragraphs of photo-geek stuff that you can safely skip over if you’re just in it for the music. We’ll see how this works. Not that the photos will usually look better at the photography blog thanks to the black background there. Anyway, here’s my first shot at it — a review of a great show I saw last night, Earth and Kayo Dot. Sunday night metal.

Earth 9

“Metal” is stretching it a bit, but both of the touring bands I saw last night at Rock & Roll Hotel, Earth and Kayo Dot, have their roots in it - the former in their classic drone-metal albums of the early 90s, the latter in their evolution out of avant/prog-metal group Maudlin of the Well. Still, this was about as different from Saturday’s prog-metal (when I saw Symphony X and Epica, review to come) as it could get. Earth plays glacially slow, crushingly loud instrumental music that, were it not for the volume and subtle drone tendencies, could almost be called doomy country & western. Kayo Dot is pretty much uncategorizable, straddling some invisible line between rock and rigorously composed modern classical music. The opener, Stymphalian Birds, was a solo noise/drone act that was surprisingly quite excellent. Needless to say, there was no symphonic metal bombast going on here, no drunken screaming fans, no call-and-response fist-pumping.

Earth was who I’d come for and they did not disappoint. The touring version of this band is a four-piece of guitar, bass, drums, and keys/trombone (trombone very sparingly used on one song only). They played almost exclusively stuff from the new album, The Bees Made Honey in the Lion’s Skull, which was fine by me as I think the album is pretty excellent. Live, their music sounded pretty much identical to the album versions, with one key difference: sheer volume. This stuff, when heard at bone-rattling loudness levels, becomes even more doomy and impactful than on record. Yet it still retains its beauty, with slow, repetitive melodies shining through wonderfully. It was also impressive to watch these guys play so damn slowly - drummer Adrienne Davies (pictured below) especially. I’m sure it takes massive concentration to play these songs, where sometimes there was a full second or even more between individual beats, and they pulled it off easily.

Earth 6

I’ve never been a huge fan of Kayo Dot (sorry Aaron). I always get the feeling that much of their material is going straight over my head - lots of abstractness and subtlety when I am longing for more intensity. Live, they held my attention better than on record, and it was fun to see just how intricately composed some of the pieces are, with all the musicians either reading from their charts or watching bandleader Toby Driver (below) intently for cues. The majority of the set was very quiet and slow-moving, with a few heavier parts intermingled; calling this band “metal” at this point would be a total misnomer. The pleasant surprise was a stunningly lyrical guitar solo from Driver during the last song - not sure what song it was but it was gorgeous. By that point, it seemed like they had already completely lost some of the audience, though - a couple of the guys in the front row next to me looked noticeably impatient with the whole affair.

Kayo Dot 7

Photographically, this was a tough show to get anything exciting, between the mostly static performers and completely static lighting. At least there was enough light (barely), but it was patchy and strongly hued. This weekend, in fact, I had a first: I blew out the blue channel in several of my photos. I’m used to screwing up and blowing out red highlights, but blue is a new one for me. Still managed to get some decent shots, but nothing as dynamic as Saturday night’s show - which, all things considered, is hardly surprising. I shot wide open with my rented 17-55 again (boy was I sad to return it this morning), between 1600 and 3200 ISO, shutter speeds as high as 1/160 to preserve blue/red highlights, as low as 1/40 at times to try to get the performers who were standing deeper in shadow.

The nice thing about shooting at Rock & Roll Hotel is that, except at completely sold-out shows, it’s relatively easy to move around. I mostly shot from right in front of the stage, but during Earth’s set I moved to the side and slightly behind (which I how I got the headline shot of Dylan Carlson haloed by the spotlights up front). No problems like Saturday at Jaxx where I was pinned to one spot and not even in the front row.

One last Earth shot to close out this post… check out the full set at Flickr for more.

Day 125: Earth