Sucker For Punishment: Burning Like a Flame

It’s got to be a surreal adjustment for certain popular metal bands who headline huge festivals in Europe and come over to North America to play venues the tiniest fraction of the size. For some bands, you can tell they’d rather be egotistically drinking in the adulation of 75,000 people in a field in Germany instead of 500 people crammed into a pub in the middle of nowhere, while others are perfectly happy making eye contact with their audience, interacting in a cozy setting. Then you get the bands that don’t give a damn where they play, and those bands are always the best, no matter what the setting.
I’ve seen Swedish bands Amon Amarth and Sabaton play so many different venues, from tiny bars, to theaters, to cruise ships, and of course we’ve all seen festival footage of both bands. Sabaton played to more than half a million people in Poland last year, for crying out loud. With both bands, it never, ever matters where they play: they love to perform, they give their all, they entertain, and their adoring fans love them for it. That was certainly the case a couple nights ago as both bands, along with perennial crowd-pleasers Skeletonwitch played a sold-out show to a rollick group of headbangers on the local university campus.

It’s kind of absurd for a band like Sabaton to be an opening act these days; after all they are the biggest power metal band on the planet right now, and can very easily attract sizeable audiences as a headliner in North America. That said, it makes for one hell of a one-two-punch alongside Amon Amarth, and did Sabaton ever make their fleeting 45-minute slot count with a rousing set loaded with fan favorites and the odd new tunes. “Resist and Bite” and the crazily jaunty “To Hell and Back” held up very well alongside “The Art of War” and “Carolus Rex”, while staples “Primo Victoria” and “Ghost Division” brought the house down. A perpetual ham, mohawked singer Joakim Broden was in his usual good spirits, maybe a bit more than usual seeing it was his birthday that night. “End of passion play, it’s my birthday today,” he cracked during an impromptu “Master of Puppets” cover. That’s Sabaton in a nutshell. They’ll do anything to coax a smile out of a metal crowd, and they always pull it off.

Amon Amarth, meanwhile, is the AC/DC of death metal. Everyone knows what to expect from the guys, they have a tendency to gleefully self-plagiarize yet somehow manage to come through with catchy songs time and again, and that’s all anyone ever wants from them. The same riffing styles, the same melodies, the same subject matter (Vikings, Vikings, Vikings), and the same jokes (“If you don’t know the words, just yell along. It’s death metal, no one understands anyway”), and they are beloved for it. The band has been on a real career upswing since 2008 though, and it’s gotten to the point in Canada where the albums are doing so well that they’re starting to outgrow the venues they play, consistently selling out.

While the poor guy in line in front of me was devastated the show had sold out – prairie folks are laid back enough to assume walk-up are always available – the filled-to-capacity club had a great, festive atmosphere during Sabaton, and especially as Amon Amarth took the stage. The bulk of the 90-minute set focused on the last five albums, with only the staple “Death in Fire” representing the band’s early work. Which is perfectly fine by yours truly, as Amon Amarth has been on fire since Twilight of the Thunder God six years ago. Rightfully, Twilight and last year’s excellent Deceiver of the Gods were given the most focus, and those tracks went over hugely, the crowd responding with a furious mosh pit and, thanks to the absence of a barrier, plenty of stage diving. All the while towering vocalist Johan Hegg loomed over the kids like the Viking gods he sings of, his long beard and drinking horn attached to his belt cutting an imposing figure. From the early run of “Death in Fire” and “As Loke Falls” to the climactic “Cry of the Black Birds” and “War of the Gods”, the energy between band and audience was electric, and sent into overdrive during the encore of “Twilight of the Thunder God” and the requisite “Pursuit of Vikings”. All expectations were met, tons and tons of Viking-themed merchandise was sold, and everyone went home happy and exhausted.

As it happens, Amon Amarth, Sabaton, and Skeleltonwitch will all be part of Decibel’s big 10th anniversary celebration in Manhattan and Brooklyn later this month. It’s not every day you get two metal bands of this caliber touring together, and you owe it to yourself to see this bill if it comes your way. Here are the remaining dates:

10/10 Toronto, ON The Sound Academy
10/11 Montreal, QC Metropolis
10/12 Quebec City, QC Imperial
10/14 Burlington, VT Higher Ground
10/15 Hartford, CT Webster Theatre
10/17 Albany, NY Upstate Concert Hall
10/18 New York, NY Best Buy Theatre
10/19 Columbus, OH Newport Music Hall
10/21 Chattanooga, TN Track 29
10/22 Knoxville, TN Bijou Theater
10/24 Charlotte, NC The Fillmore
10/25 Jacksonville, FL Freebird
10/26 Birmingham, AL Iron City
10/27 New Orleans, LA The Civic
10/29 St. Louis, MO The Pageant
10/30 Joliet, IL Mojoes
10/31 Detroit, MI Royal Oak
11/01 Milwaukee, WI The Rave
11/02 Des Moines, IA Wooly’s
11/04 Lincoln, NE Bourbon Street
11/05 Oklahoma City, OK Diamond Ballroom
11/07 Austin, TX Fun Fun Fun Fest
11/08 El Paso, TX Tricky Falls
11/09 Tucson, AZ Club XS

On to this week’s new releases!

Abazagorath, The Satanic Verses (Eternal Death): The New Jersey veterans stick to rote, formulaic black metal on this third full-length, but despite its severe lack of originality – some Emperor here, Immortal there – this is nevertheless some strongly performed melodic black metal, heavy on speed and intricacy with a good mix of florid melodies and prog-leaning arrangements. If only the band followed through with more material as interesting as the instrumental “A City Visible But Unseen”.

Alunah, Awakening the Forest (Napalm): Is there a doom band that sounds dreamier than Alunah? That’s a big reason I love this English band: they play heavy music rooted in the tradition of Saint Vitus, but the focus isn’t so much on brute force but grace. The songs don’t plod and thud. They glide and swing, the guitars enveloping rather than crushing. By the time the tender singing of guitarist Sophie Day enters the fray, that’s it: you’re entranced. The songwriting as always been good, but this third album is a step up from 2012’s White Hoarhound, the melodies much more confident, the use of dynamics stronger, especially on such tracks as “Bricket Wood Coven” and “Heavy Bough”.

Audrey Horne, Pure Heavy (Napalm): After the astounding career turning point Youngblood in early 2013, which saw the Norwegian band abandon its boring “modern hard rock” in favor of a more classic sound reminiscent of early-‘80s Rainbow, I still feared that the guys might revert back to their old ways. Fortunately, it’s steady as she goes on the follow-up, as Audrey Horne continues to mine that sound from 30-plus years ago. It fits these guys perfectly, singer Toschie performing with verve on standouts “Out of the City” and speedster “Into the Wild”, guitarist Ice Dale (also of Enslaved) relishing his role as the showboating lead shredder. It’s nothing but good, catchy heavy metal like us oldsters remember, and it’s a total delight because of it. The band has embraced this change of direction fully, and it fits them perfectly.

Godflesh, A World Lit Only By Fire (Avalanche): As much as I loved Justin Broadrick’s shoegaze/metal project Jesu – and I loved it – there came a point where I realized that he’d taken that idea as far as it could possibly go. It was around when I saw Jesu perform in 2012, where I very nearly fell asleep standing up. The man should have stopped after Conqueror, and this was apparent when I saw the reunited Godflesh pulverize an audience a year later. I was more of an admirer of Godflesh than a fan – over the years I’ve tended to enjoy that minimalist industrial concept in bits and pieces rather than via full albums, but the energy, the ferocity that night was something to behold. After a teaser EP this past summer that felt decent enough but not exactly earth-shattering, A World Lit Only By Fire delivers the latter in surprising, spectacular fashion. A conscious return to the throttling sounds of seminal 1990s albums Streetcleaner and Pure, this new album is so straightforward in the way it sticks to that classic combination of massive riffs, martial electronic drum beats, and the post-punk edginess of Killing Joke. As much as it might seem like a regression, this record benefits immensely from modern production, as Broadrick has these ten tracks sounding even more colossal than anyone could ever have hoped. It’s simple, but sometimes the simpler approach is the best one.

Lo-Pan, Colossus (Small Stone): The Columbus, Ohio band is in fine form on this fourth album, once again finding a comfy middle ground between the heavy rock of Grand Funk Railroad and the searing garage rock of the MC5. Throw in a vocalist who actually makes an effort to sing, not growling nor yarling, and you’ve got a good little reminder of how satisfying music this simple can be when it honors its roots and tries to create something new at the same time.

Orange Goblin, Back From The Abyss (Candlelight): It seems as if Orange Goblin has been gaining serious traction in North America, at least in the B and C markets. The British veterans have stepped up the touring on this side of the Atlantic, and from my perspective, every time they hit the smaller centers, more and more people are drawn to the shows. And good for them for quickly following up 2012’s A Eulogy For the Damned with a record that’s even better. Typical of the band, it’s very much in keeping with the Orange Goblin aesthetic, which is essentially beer-fueled, sludgy rock ‘n’ roll, alternating between Motörheady speed and bluesy swing, led as always by the burly-voiced Ben Ward. Had this album been 34 minutes insead of 54 minutes, it might’ve had an even more immediate impact – for a band like this, less is definitely more – but this is still a hugely enjoyable record, led by “Sabbath Hex”, “Heavy Lies the Crown”, and the wicked “Devil’s Whip”.

Rigor Mortis, Slaves To The Grave (Rigor Mortis): The story behind Rigor Mortis’s first album in 23 years is impossibly tragic. Just as the Dallas band was wrapping up the recording, they threw a bash to celebrate guitarist Mike Scaccia’s 50th birthday, but while he was onstage performing with his longtime friends, Scaccia suffered a heart attack and died shortly thereafter. In honor of their buddy the rest of the band launched an online funding campaign to help them finish the album in a way that honored him in fitting fashion as possible. Indeed, they’ve done a very nice job of it on this exuberant record. Devoid of frills but performed with the kind of energy that feels like the work of thrash acts half the band’s age, best exemplified by the ferocious “Curse of the Draugr”. An appropriate, robust swan song for a popular guitarist who died far too young.

Stench, Venture (Agonia): In its perversely restrained approach, you can sense this second album by the Swedish band is trying to accomplish what Morbus Chron did so well on this year’s extraordinary Sweven, but while the ambition is there, the execution isn’t. The songs still feel rote, dalliances with post-punk sounds feel half-formed, and as is the case with so many extreme metal bands, the vocals lack personality, feeling more like an afterthought, adding nothing to the music. You can sense good things in this band, but it hasn’t happened yet.

Viathyn, Cynosure (self-released): This week’s biggest surprise comes from the burgeoning Canadian metal hotbed of Calgary, Alberta, where Viathyn has emerged with a shockingly strong album of progressive power metal that is guaranteed to interest fans of Symphony X and Angra. We’re so used to hearing work by unsigned young bands that sound nowhere near fully-formed that when a self-released album comes out that actualy feels like it’s already realizing its potential, you can’t quite believe it. But this is an exceptional piece of work, robust yet lively, fun but not cartoonish, proggy but always built around a strong hook. Cynosure already sounds like a band in full stride, and it deserves to be heard. Stream and purchase it via Bandcamp.

Winterfylleth, The Divination of Antiquity (Candlelight): Winterfylleth can always be depended on for some quality black metal rooted in Scandinavian tradition but always exploring their own English heritage. Nothing changes on this fourth album, and while that can be a detriment, these tracks hold up exceptionally, especially the more melodic fare like the nine and a half-minute epic “A Careworn Heart”.

Not metal, but worth hearing:

This is as exciting a week for new non-metal music as I’ve seen all year, and of the four titles I can’t decide to single out, there’s at least one that will appeal to anyone. Steven Ellison, AKA Flying Lotus, is a mad genius of a composer, and You’re Dead! (Warp) is a spellbinding 38-minute journey through jazz fusion, progressive rock, hip hop, and IDM. The equally talented electronic artist Dan Snaith is also in prime form on Caribou’s rich, vibrant, pop-friendly Our Love (Merge), his best work since 2003’s psychedelic classic Up in Flames. The great singer-songwriter Mary Timony, best known for her work with Helium and most recently Wild Flag, is back with a new band called Ex Hex, which unlike her past projects focuses on hard-driving, punk-infused powerpop on Rips (Merge). Think The Cars meets the Ramones. Meanwhile, Zola Jesus’s latest albumTaiga (Mute) sees Nika Rosa Danilova continuing to gradually shift her sound towards something more accessible with largely entrancing results, although I still consider last year’s Versions to be her best work.

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