Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Nail Your Mouths Shut

Greetings and salutations.

Another long week, and the promise to deliver a sarcasm-soaked review, on schedule, looms over my head. There’s been very little time to reflect on the show from this past weekend, and I know there are people counting on me. Some folks might crack under such pressure, but not I. Rather than let these kind of issues weigh upon me, I beat the stress by burying the fear and nervousness deep inside of me and pretending it doesn’t exist. If I ignore it long enough, it will just go away. That seems like the adult way to handle it.

But since I have a limited amount of time out of my day to do this, let’s get right to the point. Friday night was the “Southwest Virginia Metal Fest,” and your faithful Phantom was there to bring you all the action. Featuring War Theory, Speak of the Devil, Solace Requiem, Bullistic, Doom Syndicate, Dark Ruin, and Vital Remains, you can imagine that it was one big continuous mosh pit for most of the night. Due to the number of acts who performed, however, I’m not going to attempt to review them all individually. Instead, I’ll focus on the whole night, otherwise I risk breaking the record for most uses of the phrases “thrash guitar” and “screaming vocals” in a single column.

In fact, I’m not really sure what one can say about the music of a “Metal Fest” that you wouldn’t be able to conclude for yourself by me simply setting the scene. Put 80% of the 2005 inventory from Hot Topic in one room, add a bunch of biker-looking guys (I say “biker-looking” rather than “biker” because the number of those guys far outweighed the number of actual bikes in the parking lot), and set the tempo to around 160bpm or better. Set the bass guitar low so that it growls and ride the double bass drum until you feel a consistent pounding in your chest. High or low, just make sure the voice screams at regular intervals, and make sure to yell at those jerks in the back who paid $15 but won’t come up front like you want them to.

If it sounds like I’m generalizing, take heart. What I think really doesn’t matter in this case. Not that it ever does, obviously, but this isn’t your usual weekend show review. These are not the kinds of bands who really need me to analyze their music for them on a night like this. They are what they are, and they’re not caught up in the usual musical game of trying to make sure their public gets it. The people who get it show up, and the people who don’t stay home, or hang outside the fray and observe so they can write smart-alec comments about it later. Each band and their fans are bound by a strong sense of community and loyalty that exists because each knows what the other wants. Nothing I could really offer would sum it up any better than to say that each and every band did exactly what their audience needed them to, and in return, they were worshipped for it.

Music aside, my biggest concern heading in to the show was how that many bands were going to be handled effectively. Disorganization is a disease among musicians, and I’ve seen some otherwise good shows go completely down the tubes because people couldn’t get their act together in the back. When you talk about two or three bands sharing a bill, the thought of 20-30 minutes between sets for teardown and setup isn’t really all that bad. Make it seven bands, though, and suddenly you’re talking about roughly 3 hours worth of time out of the night spent changing the stage. To spend half of a 6 hour show loading and unloading doesn’t make much sense, so I was impressed at how efficient each and every act was at having their stuff set and ready to go. Most bands were off in 5 and the next band up in 5, so the whole process moved very smoothly. It sounds like such a small thing to be that prepared, but it’s considerate not only to the people in the crowd, but to the fellow bands.

The other notable non-musical observation is on the crowd. Forget for a minute that you may be a fan of any of these bands and/or the scene, and consider what sweeping opinions the public tends to pass on shows like this. The music is most definitely an acquired taste, and a frenzied pit is not everyone’s idea of a good time. While it is an ignorant assumption to classify everyone in black leather, makeup, chains, or spikes as a potential troublemaker, more than a few popular venues in town have been closed down over the years due to people who fail to elevate themselves above the stereotype. Unfortunately, the ritualistic expression of anger through energy has earned the metal crowd a reputation as a volatile, if not dangerous, gathering that not everyone wants in their backyard.

Not wanting to damage anyone’s “cred,” I won’t say people were on their best behavior, but it was obvious that the majority of fans wanted and appreciated the show, acting no more out-of-control than any of the random groups of drunk 40-year-olds I’ve seen stumbling around bars to beach music. The pit was furious, but isolated and contained, which is really where I draw the personal line on that stuff anyway. As far as I’m concerned, people can castrate themselves with a butter knife at a concert, and as long as they don’t interfere with my enjoyment of the show, it’s not a disruption.

It’s hard to say that the show was anything but a success in the eyes of the fans, and like I said last week, it’s always great to see the kind of support these acts give each other. More importantly though, the positive impact this gig made not only increases fan bases, but the overall likelihood that more places in town would consider shows like this a worthwhile endeavor. Coming soon to your backyard…

That’s enough out of me for this week. I’m actually posting this on time, so when I’m done, I’m going to go over and sit for a few minutes to catch my breath. Thanks for reading, and keep those emails coming. I’ll have no idea how much of a self-righteous ass I am unless you tell me! Until next we meet…

- The Phantom

Friday, March 24, 2006

A Time When I Wasn't Sure - Cont'd

Greetings and salutations. Again.

Like I said in my post earlier this week, the plan was go out last night and review a show for this week’s column, putting me only a day behind but still bringing that signature Phantom flair to this week’s InsideOut – can’t let my fan down (thanks Mom!).

The funniest thing about last night was that, while I did end up going to a show, it wasn’t even the show I’d planned to see. Any critic, let alone a PHANTOM critic, should have a little more control over who he sees, but it happens so much more than you’d think. Hell, I’ve tried and failed to see the Pop Rivets like, 8 times. If I make it to 10, I might have to give them some kind of medal.

The important thing is that I did end up in the presence of live music, so I’m going to write about it. Maybe you’ll like it. Maybe you won’t. Combining forces were Red Letter Day, The Venus Transit, Savior Bullets, and Aggressor State. Initially, I feared the style contrast between Aggressor State and the other acts might create crowd problems, but aside from one emo kid who accidentally got sucked into the mosh pit while dancing, everything remained under control. He escaped the pit before he could be sacrificed and eaten, and seemed to enjoy the rest of his evening, albeit a little further from the stage.

If you haven’t heard them before, Aggressor State’s name should tell you everything you need to know about the band and their music. Combining elements of straight-ahead thrash with the operatic themes of bands like Diamond Head and Iron Maiden, they’re one of several acts who are reviving the 80’s underground vibe in the local region. Billed as “Roanoke’s Leading Speed Metal Band,” it is unclear whether “leading” is meant to imply “fastest “ or “best,” but I’ll reserve judgment and let you decide for yourself. Despite what most people in thrash bands would have you believe, speed is not nearly so difficult to develop as is the precision that actually defines talent. Fortunately for Aggressor State, they are well aware of this, and for the most part, have their chops in fine order.

Savior Bullets was next, bringing the sound a little further into the hardcore genre. Interspersing their intricate melodies with alt/rock riffs and punk choruses, the band flexed it’s musical muscle as the singer exploded from one side of the stage to the other, falling down on the floor, climbing up on the drum riser, running out into the mosh pit, and even crowd-surfing overhead. His vocal style (and general behavior) were emotional and uncompromising, swinging from a whisper to a scream and back again. In contrast, the guitarist and bassist were the models of restraint (at least musically). Despite their obvious talent, both served up tasteful slices of minimalism, only stepping up to explode when the occasion called for it, doing musically what the singer was doing physically.

Following Savior Bullets’ roller coaster effect of lightweight textures and middle finger sounds was Red Letter Day, who managed to surprise me from the moment they took the stage. Sounding significantly more original than I first thought they might, and looking nothing like they actually sound, the group’s mix of SoCal punk and aggressive rumbling beats provided the backdrop to the singer’s uncharacteristically low emotional vocal style. At first glance, I would’ve bet money that he was a hardcore/screamo singer. But that was my beer money, and I’m glad I didn’t lose it. Instead, he belted out a controlled midrange tone, possessing the kind of power that let him hold big notes without hearing his voice crack and break like so many other emotional singers.

Ending the night was The Venus Transit, which if you’re a Phantom Critic connoisseur, should be a familiar name. In that huge mailbag I keep talking about every week, I’ve gotten several letters from people who wonder what I’ll do when I run out of bands to talk about. While you would fall asleep reading this if I reviewed the same show every weekend, who ever decided that I couldn’t talk about someone more than once? Variety is certainly a priority, but the best thing about original bands is how much they grow and change. Each band’s evolution is a vital part of the scene, and so it’s worth my time.

That being said, I have no idea if the band ever saw my first review, but what I saw last night was evidence of band who are coming in to their own. Overall, their entire sound has gelled, and they’ve adjusted to life onstage. My first few shots toward the band were mostly because of how different they were live from the cd tracks I’d heard. That early show was rough around the edges only because their sound was being lost. Signature elements on the recordings were falling through the cracks and so their vision, dressed in layers and depth, seemed naked and bare. Not this time, however. Fuller, tighter, and generally more comfortable, they have their live sound. Now if they just stop buying faulty equipment…

Good show overall. Usually shows with more than two or three bands start to blur into each other, but the diversity of last night’s acts kept it interesting and an energetic crowd kept it fun. Best of all, the bands seemed to have a great time playing and rallying around in support of each other. They may all hate the world we live in, but at least they can play nice.

Another review next week, hopefully on time. Expect an announcement about the interview offer soon, and maybe I’ll acknowledge the considerate people who wrote in to share their thoughts on my “unnecessarily hostile” review process. Wait, I just did. Until next we meet…

- The Phantom

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

A Time When I Wasn't Sure

Greetings and salutations.

This is what I get for trying to make promises about my schedule. As it turns out, time itself is plotting against me and so this week's review is for a show that - brace yourselves - won't happen until tomorrow (Thurs.) night. The way I see it, one of two things will happen:

1.) Will go out Thurs. night to see said show, get intoxicated, get in late, make some notes, and put together my review Friday morning. This is also known as the "best case scenario."

2.) Will go out Thurs. night to see said show, get intoxicated, get arrested, wake up in jail with no real knowledge of the prior night's events and make a followup post after I am bailed out that reviews the music overheard in the police station. And in case you're wondering, that's not even the worst case scenario.

Regardless of what I end up doing this week, though, I have my weekends back to normal and will be heading out to see some great talent, giving me fuel for the usual roast in next week's edition. As for the interview concept I posted on MySpace a few weeks ago, I've narrowed down the choices for the first act I'd like to talk with and will announce that shortly. It makes me wonder if they know what they've gotten themselves into...

That's all for right now, but do check back in for tomorrow night's show review. Until next we meet...

- The Phantom

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Headlights Still Shining In My Brain

Greetings and salutations.

Nothing like waiting until the last possible second. Under pressure, true creativity is said to thrive, and that is what I kept telling myself when I decided to wait until last night to check out this week’s artist, Half Moon. Yes, there were actually numerous exciting live activities this past weekend. No, I didn’t find the human energy to make it out to any of them. Yes, there were notable shows in the early part of the work week. Didn’t go to those either.

After taking a short breather, I decided on Monday that I’d pay a visit to Half Moon and leave myself as little time as possible to write an interesting and informative commentary. When I think about it, it occurs to me that I could’ve just as easily seen them later this weekend and given myself more time by reviewing someone else this week. Why am I telling you all of this? So that in the event you enjoy what you read, you’ll have enough additional information about my personal struggle to truly appreciate how awesome I really am.

Assuming you’re a longtime reader of my column (how long have I been doing this, now?), you’ll recall that I don’t naturally gravitate toward jam bands. Not that I don’t enjoy the spirit of spontaneity or admire the strong improvisational skills. Spread over a few hours, some of the more inspired artists can happen upon pure genius, going off into their own world and making some pretty profound musical statements along the way. While you probably won’t confuse them with the Grateful Dead, their sound would no doubt make Garcia proud. Often up tempo but rarely at a pure drive, they add flavor to a relaxed rhythm and blues foundation with folk/rock guitar, swinging bass groove, and soulful horns. Their two (yes, two) drummers flirt with jazz percussion and add a touch of classic rock ‘n roll to turn the bassist’s thumb-snapping walks into full fledged bounce.

On paper, I’d expect such a thing to sound like a mess. Every member seems to be doing something entirely different, meaning much less overlap and leaving a lot less room for error. Since the quality of talent can vary greatly in a genre that does not adhere to the normal music-making rules of expectancy and resolution (the opening and closing of each musical idea with the notes that your head tells you are right), you’ll often find that groups tend to jam by breaking off one or two members at a time. Taking turns at individual improvisation is usually the safer form of fusion, but Half Moon don’t appear to care. Their drummers are seamless and entirely complimentary of one another (at least onstage). The guitarist and bassist groove around each other, and the horns come across surprisingly mild, lending just enough Southern-style tone to be distinct.

In the end, the group’s impressive chemistry and relaxed performance style allowed even a curmudgeon like myself to have a good time, and that’s saying something. I get letters from people all the time who read the column and ask why in the hell someone so negative bothers to even go outside, let alone to review a band he expects might bore him to tears. One word, folks: Paxil. But even unmedicated, Half Moon put on a worthwhile show, with tunes that hold up whether you appreciate each note or just want to take pleasure in a casual listen.

That’s all for this week. Much to discuss in the next installment, including the offer I posted several days ago about doing an interview. Several local acts have expressed interest in taking part, and I think it might be an interesting experience. Anyway, thanks for reading, and do keep those letters coming. We’ll be opening the mailbag again pretty shortly, and who knows…next week I might even post on time. Until next we meet…

- The Phantom

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Down Here You're Gonna All Stay

Greeting and salutations.

After last week’s unexpected detour in my schedule, I’d promised everyone an “all-new” show review in this installment. Not only that, but if you’ll recall from my last full column, I mentioned actually reviewing the headlining act on their own bill. Once again back at the keyboard, I’m pleased to announce that no less than 50% of those promises will be kept! That’s right, an all-new review is just sentences away. Do your best to contain your excitement and keep reading.

Having intended to see this band in their earlier incarnation, I took the opportunity this past week to check in on Speak of the Devil (as they opened for Signal 7). The core of the metal act formerly known as Bludfed, this group emerged following a lineup turnover some months ago, and watching their rebirth has since become a morbid little hobby of mine…not that they’d ever know it, of course. I lusted at the opportunity to watch a local act suffer and survive through the infamous identity crisis. It was my own personal reality television show, with fewer cameras and no badly-written catchphrases. Whether they succeeded or failed, I knew I was going to be entertained.

As loud and as in love with Satan as they’ve ever been, there’s no mistaking the hardcore influence. If you’re near a flat surface with any kind of protruding edge, I’d like to invite you to lift your hand and then quickly slam your fingers straight down against the sharpest point of the edge. If you do it right, you’ll catch the skin behind your fingernails and peel it back to the joint. Were there a microphone in the room when you did this, the stomping, cursing, screaming, and jumping you did after sustaining the injury would closely resemble Speak of the Devil’s musical foundation. To some, this may sound like a ludicrous and unpleasant experience. But consider the attraction of more common, yet similar self-inflicted acts (tattoos, piercings, etc.), and you have yourself an audience.

Separating Speak of the Devil’s contribution from that of their peers can be difficult, especially if you’re only familiar with the genre at some distance, which is part of the reason why, even with tremendous underground success, the music is still resisted in the mainstream. The goal of any real band, and the true key to success, is the creation of a recognizable sound. Even if you’re not familiar enough with music lingo to dissect exactly what you’re hearing, there’s a good bet that even your mother can pick out certain bands when she hears them. Sometimes it is the voice. Or the guitar. A combination of the bass and drums. Or maybe it is the total package. Whatever it is, that’s the nondescript thing musicians are always referring to when they like to talk about their “sound.” So nondescript, in fact, that a large part of musicians don’t even know what it is. Instead, the best thing they can do is tell you who they sound like, and while that earns you admiration in high school, all it really guarantees in the long-term is a potential future in a cover band.

The most difficult thing about listening to hardcore metal is finding a unique element in a particular band’s music that lets you distinguish them from their contemporaries. As talented as they were, Bludfed never really broke the mold of unscrupulous-looking individuals with violent guitar riffs, mile-a-minute drums, and blood-curdling screams, and that is probably why the reformation as Speak of the Devil interested me as much as it did. They seem to be taking steps towards creating a sound that is unique among the stable of Roanoke’s metal scene, setting themselves apart in two major ways. For one, their new vocalist screams in a higher register than most, letting loose with the terrifying wail of a banshee rather than the low growl that sounds as though you’re gargling spit in your mouth two inches away from the microphone. The other change comes in their newer guitar/drum dynamic. All throughout the late 90’s, bands regurgitated the simplistic chunk of the previous decade, and tuned it down to create the “low and slow” sound that, when paired with hip-hop influenced drumming, formed what we commonly call nu-metal. Speak of the Devil evolve beyond that by preserving the “low and slow” chug, but employing the big beats heard in classic hard rock, offering the progressive song structure of legendary metal and a fresh perspective on what it means to be “heavy” in the modern era. Imagine if the band you heard on “Master of Puppets” had never teamed up with the same guy who produced Bon Jovi. Now you follow…

Still rough around the edges, the next few months are crucial for Speak of the Devil as they shape their stage show and write the music that will complete the soundtrack to this evil ritual they’re performing. In the meantime, watching them take shape is an exercise in musical voyeurism that I highly recommend. After all, whether they succeed or fail, you’re going to be entertained.

More uninvited opinions and silver-tongued cheap shots next week, folks. Schedule permitting, I should be able to crash a show, but I also have quite a bit of mail that is beginning to pile up. Thanks for reading, thanks for all the messages, and don’t be afraid to keep me up to date on what your band (or your favorite band) is doing. I promise to be nice. Well, not really, but write me anyway. Until next we meet…

- The Phantom