I’ve seen about a billion and one concerts since I last posted those show reviews of Caspian, Jucifer and Salome, or so it seems. I won’t recap them all but here are some highlights.
Last night I saw the Tiptons Sax Quartet and Drums at An Die Musik. I have been starving for more experimental jazz in the DC area for the last couple of years. Things are really picking up these days (many thanks to Ed Ricart and others who are putting on awesome shows at Bossa here in DC), but this was the first jazz show I’ve been to in a long time. I think Nordic Jazz Fest last summer was the last jazz I saw. This show was a great way to ease back in - super accessible, fun and eclectic stuff. I remember seeing Rova Saxophone Quartet at Twins Jazz a couple years ago, and pretty much everything about that show went straight over my head. This was totally different: the Tiptons played nothing without a solid, head-nodding beat, and their compositions were chock-full of gorgeous melodies and stunning solos. I found Jessica Lurie in particular really impressive, and it was a treat to finally get to see Amy Denio after hearing her on so many random records (my favorite perhaps being the Cuneiform obscurity The Danubians).
Before this were a couple of female-fronted Euro-metal shows: Epica and Arch Enemy. As readers of this blog know, I am a sucker for Epica. That said, I’m less than enthused by their new album. Couldn’t tell you why just yet, but it seems to be even more bombastic than previous efforts without as much heaviness or even as much of a melodic sense. Le sigh. The band’s performance at Jaxx in Virginia was the first show of their U.S. tour, and the kinks were definitely there. Energy wasn’t all that great and guest keyboardist Oliver Palotai (also of Kamelot, and vocalist Simone Simons’ boyfriend) doesn’t quite have his parts down yet. Still, there were plenty of enjoyable moments and it was nice to see Simons fronting the band again - the last time they played the States, she was ill and a replacement singer was with them.
I’ve never been a huge Arch Enemy fan, although as far as melodeath goes they’re pretty good. Like the Epica show, the show I saw was the first night of this tour. There were fewer kinks, but again the band didn’t seem to be at their peak in terms of enthusiasm. I can’t really judge this one though as I left early and am not all that familiar with a lot of the band’s material anyway.
Otherwise, there were three shows I photographed for the Washington Post, the best of which was one I never would have gone to otherwise: a bluegrass pairing of Carolina Chocolate Drops and Red Molly. The former is a trio playing traditional black string music, and they were amazing, tons of energy, tremendous chops and all kinds of catchy melodies. The latter are also a string trio, playing a mix of standards and originals, and I found their songs beautiful across the board. I picked up one of the records and it absolutely didn’t do the show justice.
The other two were Pree, a DC-area indie-rock band who are drawing comparisons to Joanna Newsom, Neutral Milk Hotel and the like; I liked them pretty well, enough to investigate further; and Otis Taylor, famed blues guitarist, whose set was way too disjointed for my taste. There were a few times his band broke out into some amazing jams, but otherwise I’d have to say it was kind of a dull night.
So that’s what I’ve been up to so far in January… I was hoping to go see Tim Berne and a new band that he’s in, Four Limones, but the show got cancelled last minute. Major bummer. Next up is Those Darlins on Sunday… not a show I’d imagine many readers of my blog would be particularly interested in.
I’m a bit ashamed to admit that this year’s Maryland Deathfest lineup is largely Greek to me, consisting of tons of bands I’ve never heard (and many I’ve never heard of). Last year, I knew a much higher percentage of the MDF lineup, and even so got totally overwhelmed by all the unfamiliar music. So this year I’ve decided to go through the entire lineup and at least listen to a little bit from each band, to get a sense for what bands I’m going to want to pay attention to this year. Here are my listening notes for the first few.
Note: regarding the bands that are new to me, these are all very much snap reactions and I’m sure I’ll change my mind on a lot of these with more familiarity and/or after MDF VIII. So, take it all with a grain of salt.
Gorguts: The main band I’m excited to see at MDF this year. No research needed. Obscura is one of my favorite metal albums of all time.
Possessed: Released one classic album in 1985, Seven Churches, considered one of the founding pillars of the entire death metal genre. Just listened to a few tracks and I’m not a huge fan; it all sounds very “proto” to me, an album that was undoubtedly groundbreaking at the time but has since been surpassed a thousand times over. I’ll probably dig their set but I’m not feeling like it’s mandatory for me.
D.R.I.: Now this is an interesting choice. D.R.I. is far more hardcore than metal, though they’re generally considered crossover thrash. I don’t really like the vocal style, but there are tons of juicy, head-nodding riffs throughout their music and this is definitely crowd-pleasing stuff. It’ll be interesting to see if it’s crowd-pleasing when the crowd is a bunch of death metal fans instead of punk kids.
Watain: No research needed. I like these guys’ take on black metal well enough, although the show I saw them play in 2008 left me with much more of an olfactory impression than an aural one.
Coffins: BOOM. Nasty, doomy Japanese death metal that feels like a solid punch to the gut. They’ve got an unnaturally guttural vocalist and one hell of a thick, sludgy guitar tone. It’s like if Devourment actually wrote interesting compositions instead of nonstop slams. I’m going to love these guys, I think.
Nazxul: Hey, look! Epic, symphonic black metal. For whatever reason, I always need a lot of time to properly digest black metal, moreso than any other kind of metal. At first listen though, this stuff sounds pretty damn good to me. This is another band that released one highly-acclaimed album in the mid-90s, and then a recent reunion album. The new one seems to be getting tons of acclaim too, so it looks like these guys will be in fine form. The keyboards should offer a nice break from all the guitar-centric bands at the fest.
Trap Them: Saw and heard them at last year’s MDF. They seemed like largely unremarkable deathgrind. Listening to their recordings now, they’re definitely better than I gave them credit for, but there’s not a whole lot to set them apart in a festival with 50+ similar bands. Not going to be a priority for me.
Gride: Not much death metal here, this is pure chaotic grindcore. I dig it. Not as hyper-aggressive as some of the current grind leaders, but it’s speedy, unpredictable and intense as fuck, just the way grindcore should be.
Birds of Prey: At first, upon hearing this band’s straightforward, sludgy hard-rock take on death metal, I fully expected to totally hate it. But something happened: I started unconsciously nodding my head, and got swept up by a ridiculous abundance of catchy riffing. To make an obscure reference, this sounds to me like a hookier yet heavier version of DC locals King Giant. There is absolutely nothing complicated or innovative about this stuff, but it’s for exactly that reason that their live show will probably be awesome.
I closed 2009 with a whimper rather than a bang, not going to a single show in the last six weeks of the year. So it was nice to get back into it with a pair of shows here in DC early in 2010. Last Friday, I saw Massachusetts-based post-rockers Caspian at an amazingly packed The Red & the Black; last night, I saw a great metal double-bill of Jucifer and Salome at the Black Cat backstage.
The glib way to describe Caspian is “Explosions in the Sky but heavier and not as good.” They play a melodic, accessible, largely predictable brand of instrumental post-rock that does the soft-loud-soft thing religiously. One of the things that sets them apart is that their loud parts are really loud - and not just really loud, but quite heavy as well, with some good ol’ chunky riffage that appeals to the metal fan in me. Their live show had some pretty great, cathartic moments, but it didn’t take long before it kind of all started sounding the same, which I suppose is the major pitfall for most post-rock bands. Even the really great ones don’t always manage to avoid it (see: Mogwai, etc etc). Still, a fun show, and the last song ended with a huge percussion breakdown that was pretty cool.
One thing of note: Caspian’s drummer used a bare-bones kit of snare drum, bass drum, hi-hat and two cymbals. No toms to be found. To be honest, I missed the toms a bit. The band’s music doesn’t really demand much from their drummer, but a bit more variety in his sound might have helped keep the show from getting samey as quickly as it did.
As for last night, Jucifer and Salome were a real treat. I’ve seen both these bands multiple times at this point and really enjoy both of their live shows. They’re a perfect bill together: Jucifer completely eschews their poppy album material in favor of a pure wall of sound, while Salome plays (to steal words from a coworker and fellow metalhead) “doom with fifteen Os” - monstrously slow, sludgy, riff-centric metal, with a seriously ferocious vocalist. Neither disappointed at this show; although I think I enjoyed Jucifer’s last show in the area (at Baltimore’s Ottobar) a bit more than this one, I couldn’t really pinpoint why. Maybe because at the Ottobar show, I was able to pick out a few familiar riffs here and there and could actually tell what album material they were playing, albeit transformed into near unrecognizability - this time around, it was all completely unrecognizable to me.
Turnout at this show was great too. I’d guess 30-40 for both bands, which is great considering the last two times I saw Jucifer there were probably 20 people combined. The fact that folks came early to see Salome was awesome. People seemed into it, too, although with DC crowds it’s sometimes hard to tell. To be fair, this isn’t exactly mosh-pit music. Although it’d be fun to see a Salome mosh-pit. Slowest wall of death ever!
Anyway, I also just had a nice experience at this show talking with folks, which is something I often don’t get to do at metal shows. Enjoyed shooting the shit about why I don’t like current-day Mastodon, getting all prog-nerdy about the likes of Opeth, Symphony X, “Starless” and more, hearing Salome tour stories, etc etc, with various friends and band members. Definitely a great way to start a year in concerts.
Photos from the Jucifer/Salome show coming to a Washington City Paper Arts Desk post soon.
It’s always difficult to pinpoint things like this, but “Slit Your Guts” (listen below) might be the one single song that really got me into death metal. I found None So Vile at Borders while on a family trip to Phoenix. I can’t recall why I bought it; it wasn’t on sale — my spreadsheet says I paid $15.99 for it — but I must have read some flattering comments about it in one of the infrequent metal threads on rmp or ProgressiveEars.
My only previous extreme metal experience was mostly driven by Opeth circa Still Life, so I was completely unprepared for the ferocity of the Cryptopsy record when I popped it into my Discman (yes, I’m dating myself here; this was in December 2002). My first reaction was to laugh out loud. Unlike most extreme metal albums, None So Vile comes with liner notes that actually include lyrics. I wasn’t necessarily expecting to understand the vocals, but I was probably imagining something along the lines of Mikael Akerfeldt’s growl; while guttural, Akerfeldt is clearly signing words. Cryptopsy’s Lord Worm does no such thing. He just pretty much grunts rhythmically, and I thought it was hilarious (plus, the guy calls himself “Lord Worm”). I was also bewildered: when are the real vocals going to come in?
By the time “Slit Your Guts,” the second song on the album, came on, I realized that Lord Worm’s grunts were the real vocals, and I was too transfixed by Flo Mournier’s light-speed drumming to care. “That’s gotta be a drum machine,” I remember thinking. “Hell, that’s probably two drum machines.” After only hearing midtempo, melodic psuedo-death metal to that point in my life, the speed, brutality and precision of this stuff was completely blowing my mind.
It took a few listens before I was able to adjust to the rapid-fire pace of the record and really parse what was going on. “Slit Your Guts” was the first track that I really understood. The main riff is played insanely fast using a razor-sharp, almost thin guitar tone, an intriguing contrast to Lord Worm’s massively deep and relatively midtempo vocal lines. Around the one-minute mark, Lord Worm takes a breather and, impossibly, we get a pair of guitar solos that are even faster than the main riff. The first lasts all of eight seconds; the second lasts five. Despite — or perhaps because of — their brevity, they ratchet up the intensity of the song to a whole new level.
These solos are followed by what I’m tempted to call the first breakdown in the history of metal music, although I don’t know my metal/hardcore history well enough to get the timeline right. After another couple vocal sections, there’s another solo around the three-minute mark, this one an epic length of 25 seconds while still being faster than the main riff. Then there’s another proto-breakdown: fifteen seconds of headbanging heaven, before the main riff kicks back in to close out the song with a bang.
At no point in this entire song is there a break in intensity; if anything, the various transitions to solos, bridges, and breakdowns consistently increase the ferocity rather than the other way around. None So Vile is a great album, but “Slit Your Guts” is clearly the gem. I put this song on a mix CD full of modern grindcore songs, and to my surprise and pleasure, it more than held its own in terms of complexity and sheer fist-pumping awesomeness. Just as Gorguts‘ Obscura remains a pinnacle in complex metal even 14 years later, Cryptopsy’s effort from the same year can still take on all comers and come out on top in terms of sheer inventiveness, technicality and brutality.
Anyone who reads this blog knows that I like Joanna Newsom, like, a lot, and I missed her tour way back in 2006 because I didn’t think she could possibly sell out the 700ish-capacity Black Cat mainstage. Well, after years of no news, she’s finally up to something, after that teaser of a “secret show” last year. Playing a mini-tour of seven cities in the U.S. this spring, including a date in DC on March 22 at Sixth & I Historic Synagogue. I’m so there. This WILL sell out fast as Newsom’s legend has grown mightily since that last tour, and Sixth & I’s capacity is only a couple hundred more than the Black Cat.
Also, there is yet another Wilco tour, which is hardly news since these guys seem to be practically Jucifer-like in their capacity for living on the road. But, the press release says that the tour will consist of “extended, varied sets exploring material from each of the accomplished Chicago sextet’s seven studio albums.” Since I don’t like the past couple albums very much, this is pretty great news. DC date is at Strathmore on March 30.
Other shows I am really psyched to see this spring: Atomic, Epica, Between the Buried and Me headlining with Cynic supporting. Also very curious to see how the Scion Rock Fest lineup shakes out this year - it’s apparently scheduled for March 13 but I can’t get much in the way of confirmation on that date.