Monday, September 30, 2013

Concert Review - Vektor, Earthling, Borracho, Midnight Eye, Asthma Castle - 9/26/13 at Fillmore, Silver Spring, MD

I headed over to DC Heavy Metal's 4th Anniversary Party after a meeting in Edgewater, and got there just in time to see the headliner, science fiction themed thrash band Vektor. (But I like to tag everyone for future reference - "I coulda seen those guys, but...")  And I'm sure glad I made the effort - it was worth the long night and the frantic change of clothes at a friend's house, and a great start to a three night streak of concerts.

 I wouldn't call myself a giant thrash fan, but I definitely appreciate a good thrash show for the intense aggressive energy that the band and the audience put out - and Vektor was one of the best thrash shows I've seen. They started off with a pensive quiet melody that reminded me of old Metallica, then launched into thundering thrash riffs that sounded great on Fillmore's superb sound system. Immediately a good sized pit broke out, and even with fries in hand it was impossible not to headbang to the earthshaking riffs. The wall of sounded subsided a bit for a great solo. Vektor's thrash has a fair bit of melody, and the science fiction themes and spacey moments also give it a unique flavor. The lighting - battle stations red, deep space blue, mystical white - also helped create the sf mood. And the singer brought the 80's into the house with his cloud of curly hair, cut into bangs in the front, and his tank top and tight jeans. (I can't see skinny jeans on guys and not think of 80's thrash metal.) My favorite song was probably the third or fourth song, "Hunger for Violence." It started off sounding like battleships pulverizing each other, or giant war machines marching over the earth - and then it got really crazy, like the mecha pilots had been knocked off their proverbial horses and were locked in melee combat.

Metal Chris uploaded a video of "Hunger for Violence." If you crank the volume to 11 you can get some idea of how it sounded!

 Toward the end of the set, they had a slow, spacey segment that evoked the reaches of the deep ocean - or deep space - with its extended, wavering notes. The lighting, with its myriad beams of light, and even the sound as they picked up the pace again reminded me of Alcest! Too weird! They ended with a final thundering segment that set the crowd churning one last time. Especially since I just found out that they're not from around here, but from Tempe Arizona, I'm so glad I made it out to see these guys - a new addition to my list of top "local" bands!

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Concert Review - Anathema, Alcest, Mamiffer - 9/13/13 at Empire, Springfield, VA

I've wanted to see Alcest for a long time - ever since I missed them last time they came around. Being someone that likes fast, heavy, harsh music, it might seem surprising that I like Alcest a lot - but a little contradiction makes everything more interesting. Alcest does have fast and heavy remnants of black metal buried in the atmospheric flow of their music, but I love them more for the soft, dreamy parts. Anathema - recommended to me by a friend this summer shortly before the tour was announced - seemed to fall into the same camp, although less heavy and complex. I wound up enjoying their latest few albums (the atmospheric rock ones) a lot, and got excited about seeing Anathema as well.

Alcest bathed in rays of light
Alcest bathed in rays of light. (photo by Steve Wass)

The experimental rock project Mamiffer, meanwhile, sounded like it might be an interesting experience, but didn't really hook me right away. Granted, I listened to one of their albums while working on other things, which is not necessarily the best way to enjoy atmospheric or experimental music. I thought they might be more intense live, but sadly arrived at the venue late and only caught the last five minutes of their set. I had to go down to the floor because the people near the bar were too noisy, and this seemed like something that I had to get into the zone to really enjoy. The sound was very sparse, with little in the way of melody or beat, more like a continuous wave of sound that varied in intensity and tone. Faith Coloccia, the mastermind of the project, was singing some repetitive syllables in a lamenting tone (she does use actual words occasionally - I thought I even caught some Finnish words on the album I listened to) while Aaron Turner strummed the guitar, and something electronic may have been going an as well. They were both somewhat obscured by smoke, lit up by fixed red lights. They built up to a consuming crescendo of distorted sound, and then walked off to applause from the decent sized crowd. I felt disappointed about getting there so late - as I had predicted, it was a mesmerizing and meditative experience live, and I would have wanted to experience more of it.

Mamiffer: red light and fog
Mamiffer: red light and fog. (photo by Steve Wass)

The atmospheric magic of Alcest wiped away my disappointment. I expected them to be incredible, and was still blown away. At first we were standing  by the steps leading down to the floor, then managed to snag a spot on the railing at the back of the floor, from where we could see the whole stage and floor, and from there I was transported into Neige's fairy world. The wistful, beautiful music, with just a touch of heaviness giving it intensity, and occasional harsh vocals but usually dreamy cleans floating over the guitars like a glimpse of another world, was just as enchanting as I expected. The lighting enhanced the mood - most amazing were the spotlights that looked like rays of sun scattered by leaves, or a gentle shower of rain, but turned out to be forming the shape of a rose, I realized, when a break in the crowd let the light fall on the floor.

Although it didn't detract from my enjoyment much, the sound seemed a little muddy at first, the vocals in particular barely distinguishable, but that seemed to clear up once we moved closer to the center. "Sur L'Océan Couleur de Feu" sounded crystal clear as it should, while with other songs like "Percées de Lumiere," a fuzzier atmospheric sound was expected. More annoying were the people talking - during quiet moments, people were even talking on the floor, which regrettably pulled me out of my trance a bit. Neige was not as shoegazey as I expected - he spoke to the crowd and even looked at - or at least looked out over - the crowd, including one moment where he bobbed his head inviting some clapping along. They played heavily from their most recent album, Voyages de l'Ame, and also graced us with two new songs. If I remember correctly, the first new song, "Opale," was gentle and melodic, with a repetitive motif, while the second one, "Delivrance," was a bit more layered, showing some of their black metal roots with a sort of heavy, sort of distorted passage near the ending. At the end they walked off with a backing track of soothing guitars and vocals still going, which seemed a little odd.

I had not realized they were co-headlining with Anathema, so the long set was a pleasant surprise. I enjoy most shows, but usually at some point I start looking forward to going home at the end - but this time, I wished that Alcest would never stop playing, that I could be immersed in their sound forever. The rest of the crowd was also quite appreciative, and the crowd had grown very large by the latter part of their set.

I think I was not quite recovered when British atmospheric rock act Anathema appeared on stage. Their demeanor was a sharp deviation from the minimalistic, mysterious aura that the previous two acts had presented with their soft lighting and quiet stage presence. They - particularly the vocalist, Vincent Cavanagh - were much more energetic and talkative, which broke the atmospheric vibe for me. Their sound was also much crisper, with more of a straightforward rock sound, and the drums seemed jarringly sharp and loud at the beginning. At the same time, their songs start out very, very minimal, with maybe just some clean vocals and a little guitar or piano, so after the intense experience of Alcest, it was a little hard to get into. Still, they sounded good, and I got more into them as the set went on.

I got distracted near the end when I saw Neige near Alcest's merch table, and had go say hi and shake hands. I was too shy to say much else and he was pretty quiet himself, so I left it at that. Overall I was a little disappointed with Anathema, but I think that probably had as much to do with my expectations and mental state after Alcest as with their performance. It was funny - early in the set, Vincent called on the crowd to "go wild" for the upbeat part of a song, and...a few people bobbed their heads. I guess that's what passes for going wild at an atmospheric rock show XD But nearer the end of the set, most of the crowd did start to jump for one song. At the very end, actually, they played something rather intense, heavy and distorted, and that was probably my favorite song of the set.

I wish I had been able to get into Anathema more - what I had thought would be an amazing night was a little less so. But only in quantity, for in regard to quality, Alcest was unbelievable and unforgettable. I was still relishing the experience the next morning, and should my memories start to fade, I only need listen to a song or two to fall back into that trance and relive them again.

Next show: possibly Death Ray Vision this week; going to try to catch Vektor at the DC Heavy Metal 4th Anniversary Party and My Enemy Complete at their album release party next week.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Concert Review - Kamelot, Delain, Eklipse - 8/3/2013 at Soundstage, Baltimore, MD

Kamelot is a show not to be missed in my book, not only because they're one of the best power metal bands still playing power metal nowadays, but because they're a special band to me and S. For whatever reason, we connect deeply over their music - probably for the same reasons they're one of the best power metal bands - they're melodic, epic, have powerful storytelling lyrics and fantastic delivery. They've always been great when we've seen them live. This time, we were worried about the sound, though. Soundstage has been plagued with sound problems the past two times we've been there - there were complaints both for Wintersun and parts of Paganfest. So, we had our metal horns crossed hoping Kamelot would prove the exception.

As we were walking up to the venue, we saw our friend D standing outside talking to a tall lady with bright blue hair. She shook hands with us and introduced herself as "Alyssa," and then she and D went into the venue. As we walked off toward a nearby beer garden to wait out the line, I turned to S and said, "Was that really her? Did we just shake hands with Alyssa White-Gluz?!" And he said, "Yeah, I think so. I guess we know who Kamelot's back-up singer is now!" :D

In contrast to previous shows, I was not very familiar with the openers this time. Kamelot's huge discography along with internet problems at work colluded to keep me from having a chance to listen to Eklipse or Delain in the weeks leading up to the show. Prior to the show, all I knew about Eklipse was that S called them "the female Apocalyptica," so I was imagining something with cellos, and metal song covers played with such intensity that it would look like the strings were in danger of being torn from the instruments. They weren't quite that - they were more of an electric string quartet, clad in gothic outfits - black lace, masks, a jaunty hat - playing sweeping or catchy music with panache, but not quite the violence of Apocalyptica. They started out with a few original compositions, and then played covers, which included "You Spin Me Round" and "Sweet Dreams." Although the covers were more welcomed by most of the audience - honestly, their whole set was exceedingly well received, with cheers even for their original songs - I preferred their original compositions. Perhaps I would have felt differently if they had covered metal songs rather than pop and rock songs. I also wondered what they would sound like without their backing track of drums and, I believe, some symphonics. The backing track certainly added to the intensity of their most sweeping moments, but surely the aching beauty of string instruments can achieve intensity all on its own?

All I knew of Delain, meanwhile, was their genre (female-fronted gothic-symphonic metal) and that I had a song or two of theirs in my novel's soundtrack. As far as all those female-fronted bands, they never really stood out to me - so I was pleasantly surprised by how good they were live. In particular, the guitar was much stronger than I'd expected - the first song started off with a raging riff, and there were more of those to follow, as well as spectacular solos. Charlotte Wessels's vocals, meanwhile, were just average, but what they lacked in virtuosity, they made up for in variety - ranging from a rocking alto, to a soaring soprano, and of course, the occasional piercing operatic vocals. I cut my teeth on Nightwish, so I have pretty high standards for operatic vocals in metal - Ms. Wessels's weren't exceptional, but they were good enough, and she only pulled them out for a few choruses. Overall, their performance was marked by variety - from sweeping symphonic metal numbers with forceful riffs and powerful vocals, to more rock or electropop-like songs that cut the intensity back a notch. Still, I enjoyed their set - things were energetic and catchy enough to get me headbanging and jumping along with the rest of the crowd.

Finally, the long-awaited Kamelot emerged. They began with a song from Silverthorn, which I'm not as familiar with, and then they launched into "Ghost Opera," one of my favorites. The crowd was really moving for the first couple songs - I believe there was a pit for both songs. A real pit, for Kamelot! That's the first time I've seen that. At first, something was wrong with the sound - the drums were way too loud, so that it sounded like just drums and vocals, the guitars barely audible. Luckily, that problem was fixed by the second song, and they sounded amazing for the rest of the night. As we were expecting, Alyssa White-Gluz of The Agonist emerged to provide female vocals, as well as harsh vocals in "Sacrimony" and "March of Mephisto," and Tommy Karevik's vocals were spot on.

Last time we saw Kamelot, Tommy was brand new to the band, and S and I were both happy with his performance. I think he fills Roy's shoes pretty well - he is able to emulate Roy's sound, and he even looks a bit similar. Of course it's good for a performer to have their own personal sound and style, but for a band of Kamelot's standing, some continuity is good - in order to be able to keep playing all their awesome older songs, for example. The audience seemed to like Tommy as well - chanting his name at one point, which he said gave him goosebumps, and then added that he was glad he'd taken English classes XD

Speaking of old songs, they didn't pull out any real deep cuts, but pretty much alternated songs from their latest release, Silverthorn, with their classics like "Ghost Opera," "Center of the Universe," and "Karma." Although S griped about the lack of deep cuts, I was content with their setlist since they played the three songs I really wanted to hear: "Center of the Universe" (which inspired the third and last pit of the set, and also the biggest and craziest one, started by none other than my dear S), "Eden Echo" and "Forever." I always forget what a fast and intense song "Forever" is, considering the romantic lyrics. I was least thrilled with the choice to include "Song for Jolee," which I find one of the weakest songs on Silverthorn, but it did showcase Tommy's vocal chops quite nicely.

So when we stumbled out of the venue, sweaty and tired, I was quite satisfied. Kamelot had put on yet another magnificent show, which had (for the most part) not been ruined by sound problems, and the openers had been more entertaining than I'd expected. A good night, and a highly recommended show for anyone who likes their metal on the melodic or symphonic side of the continuum.

Next show: Anathema and Alcest, 9/13. So a, you know, quiet and peaceful way.