Monday, February 21, 2011

To Hell With God Tour Featuring Deicide 2.21.11

Death metal was scary when I was a teenager, and no death metal band were scarier than Deicide. There was nothing coy about their ties to the dark one: inverted crosses branded on foreheads, blasphemous lyrics, and the band members openly labeled themselves Satan worshippers. At one point during their 90's peak, they even called out Slayer for being "poseurs." Along with Cannibal Corpse, their infamy has lent them the highest profile in death metal, even allowing them to occassionally infiltrate the mainstream.

Since then though, sub-par albums, line-up changes, and black metal have muddied Deicide's legacy. Not unlike fighters who've suffered a series of losses, Deicide needed a clear win to maintain their relevance; luckily for them, To Hell With God is such an album. Despite the generic album title (which strays to close to self-parody), the 10th Deicide album is both a return to their mid-90's form and something of a reinvention, thanks in part to the flashy work of guitarists Jack Owen and Ralph Santolla, who replaced the drama that was the Hoffman brothers in 2006.

Joining Deicide on this tour were a number of bands whose allegiance to Satan is suspect at best. The one band whose presence was most welcome - Austrian goat worshippers Belphegor - were missing due to visa problems, leaving a motley assemblage of newjack death metal bands to open. It was like being served canapes before armaggedon, but not completely a waste of time.

I've been a fan of Neuraxis for years - though in truth, the musicians who made the Truth Beyond and Trilateral Progression albums that I love are gone, and the young members in now make the band look more like a child labour camp. Regardless, the Neuraxis of 2011 have the same flair for writing fun (if not always memorable) tech-death that's heavy on the hooks and never tedious live. Looking forward to seeing them with Sepultura in a few months.

What deluded nitwit thought it would be a good idea to put Blackguard on this tour? Certainly their stage presence and OTT melodic metal is too twee to be anywhere near the headliner? Not that they were bad, but they would have been more welcome opening for Ensiferum the following Saturday. The highlight of their set for me was their female drummer, who wasn't just adorable, but really fucking good. All the same, though, they should consider themselves lucky that a hostile crowd reaction is all that they had to suffer through.

Deicide took to the stage with little fanfare, simply walking on stage and plugging in. Glen Benton dryly noted, "I guess you've heard we've got a new album" before his band launched into To Hell With God's title track. Old Glen was in a relaxed mood, content to throw out quips when the occasional obnoxious audience member didn't get the better of his infamous temper. It's been two decades since their self-titled debut scared the shit out of impressionable teenagers and Deicide now look less like the embodiment of hell on earth and more like the Angry Dad Band. Rick Santolla and Jack "The Human Garden Gnome" Owen got hit especially hard by middle age. But the crowd reaction is as it ever was: total pandemonium and rabid appreciation for anything from the first 4 albums.

Deicide at their best are a kind of death metal Atkins diet - short blasts of blasphemous fury that never outstay their welcome. Unfortunately, that approach tends to wear a crowd out after half an hour, and the energy level lagged noticably mid-set, especially during songs from the last decade. However, things picked up immensely for the three set closers: "Kill the Christians", "Lunatic of God's Creation", and (of course) "Sacrificial Suicide". With that and a dozen tossed guitar picks, Deicide were off. I can't wait for the tour accompanying their next album Fuck You, Satan Is Awesome!

Also, major respect to the security staff at Gramercy for literally leaping into action to catch the bodies as they flew over the barricades during Deicide's set, and wading into the crowd to pull out an audience member who had been injured. They even went out of their way to avoid blocking my crappy camera. It's a nice change of pace when the guys on the other side respect the fans who pay their wage, and don't just see them as a nuisance. It's also nice when that respect is mutual.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Immortal and Absu 2.19.11

The night before the concert, howling winds shook my apartment and banished the warm weather that New York City had enjoyed for the previous 2 days. There couldn't have been a more perfect welcome for Immortal, Bergen's Kings of the Ravenrealm and purveyors of all things icy and metal.

$40 seems like an unconscionably high price to see 2 underground metal bands (especially for someone like me who saw Immortal open for Satyricon 11 years ago, and paid half the price to do so), but the line for ticket holders stretched down the block and around. It would appear that like organized crime, black metal is recession proof.

Joining Immortal on this limited jaunt through the States was Texas' Absu, a band who's early thrash-inflected black metal has always seemed highly suspect to me. Proscriptor's studded headband and snakeskin leather pants didn't do much to convince me otherwise, but credit to the man for carrying the vocals and the blast at the same time. I'm still not entirely sold on Absu (or their needlessly convoluted faux-mythological schtick), but they play with the conviction and expertise of veterans. Not to mention that they have more identity than any number of bands that jumped on the thrash revival bandwagon in the last decade.

After an interminable wait, Immortal took to the stage with "All Shall Fall", and proceeded to slay with a setlist drawn largely from their last 4 albums. Not that anyone minded - indeed, the unrelenting hyperblast of the earlier albums may have derailed their momentum (though the appearance of "Grim and Frostbitten Kingdoms" got a huge cheer, and the absence of "Blashyrk" was baffling).

Unlike most of black metal bands, who are content to largely stand in place and look evil, Immortal are performers and entertainers of the highest calibre - their onstage antics range from classic rock poses to physical comedy that would do the Kids in the Hall proud. I'd make the case that Immortal are the first black "meta" band - a group of self-aware Norwegians who enjoy satirizing black metal's conventions as much as they celebrate them. Or maybe Abbath is just a clown at heart. Either way, it's impossible not to be won over by his stage presence and antics.

But make no mistake, though they're not a band whose proficiency is often celebrated, Immortal are as impressive musically as they are comedically. Handling the guitar and vocals by himself, Abbath hardly missed a note and his rasp was in fine form. And what more can be said about Horgh, the most lovable drummer in all of black metal? Even under all the corpsepaint, he seemed genuinely moved by the audience's enthusiasm. Pity we didn't get to see him re-enact those infamous shirtless band photos from 1999.

I assumed that because of the ticket price, Abbath would treat us to his firebreathing trick. He didn't, but I can't say I missed them as these guys pulled out all the stops. With the holocaust winds in full effect during my walk back home and another snowstorm on the horizon, I couldn't have gotten a more complete Immortal experience.