The energetic and convivial shows of Volbeat and Kamelot are reminders that for all the insularity present in extreme metal writing, there's true joy to be found in the popular stuff.
I’m at a Volbeat show, hanging back behind the mixing board, leaning on the rail, absorbing the garish spectacle of the Danish band’s new cowboy-themed stage show. Out of my line of sight, a big, sweaty arm suddenly slides around my shoulder, and I’m subjected to a gigantic hug by a gleefully tipsy man who’s quite a bit bigger than me. I’m not the most overtly social fellow most of the time, but invade my space, and I get snippy -- inwardly snippy, anyway, as we introverts usually are. I just reply back with a polite smile and feigned laugh, though I’m staring daggers at the guy.
Later on, Volbeat’s still going strong, churning out their Social Distortion-meets-Johnny Cash-meets-‘90s Metallica thing as skillfully as they always do, when I’m playfully accosted from behind by someone else, given another big hug like we’re long-lost buddies, with an enthusiastic noogie for good measure. What am I, 12? This when my screwed-up fight-or-flight instincts kick in, and my innate distrust of people I don’t know -- years of being bullied will do that to you -- starts to rise to the surface just as it did back in junior high. Which most likely means I’m just going to let them win, and retreat to a corner of the arena and enjoy being alone. Enough of this shit.
But then the guy releases me from the grip of his sweaty right arm, and I see he’s beaming from ear to ear, and is hollering to me above the massive rockabilly din of the band about how fucking awesome this song is, or something to that effect. I’m not very good at conversation in the middle of a loud arena show. The joy in his face is contagious; I relax, we high-five, I get a big pat on the back, I run a hand through my mussed, cowlicked hair, and go back to watching the spectacle. Where I’m standing, removed from the thousand or so crammed towards the stage, I’m able to gauge the entire scene, and all I see around me is happiness. Various degrees of inebriation, of course -- Volbeat has tapped into the blue-collar crowd better than any new(ish) band in metal or hard rock these days -- but good, innocent fun overall. It’s a far cry from, say, an underground death metal show, where if you’re not destroying someone in a moshpit you’re likely digging the music with an expression of either studiousness or cathartic anger.
Both of those things are great in their own way. But the positivity at this Volbeat show, kickstarted an hour earlier with a rousing greatest-hits set by thrash heroes Anthrax, is a breath of fresh air. All around me, girls are dancing, guys are air-guitaring with no sense of shame, and random mischief is being had -- okay, maybe the drunk guy giving security guards complimentary lap dances is going a little too far -- but it’s representative of a side of heavy metal that gets no respect from tastemakers, either made fun of, or worse, completely ignored.
Last month Grayson Currin wrote, “Metal critics sometimes snipe at each other for preferring extreme or arty metal to the sort of music to which actually raise beers and fists.” It’s very true, although my gripe has always been, Why can’t you have both? There’s plenty of room, and both sides have equal merit. But for some reason, the dour, “extreme” side of heavy metal -- the death, the black, the doom -- has more of the critical cachet today than anything that dares to attempt to carry a tune.
Part of this is pure narrow-mindedness or ignorance among writers, a preference to dwell on the insular exclusivity of the underground rather than acknowledge heavy metal’s broader, inclusive nature. Another explanation is that the hive mind of critics and publications in the New York area -- the epicenter of music hype in America -- is so incestuous that album promotional cycles go in the same crazy loop again and again: you know which writer is friends with which band, which band has a publicist who’s also a writer at a well-read website, which writer manages or sells merch for which band, which blogs are owned by the same parent company. The biggest reason could also be the simplest: a writer with significant clout happens to love a certain form of metal, uses it to give his or her favorite records some good press -- hell, we all do that -- and innocuously sets a wave of hype in motion. If Pitchfork didn’t start espousing the virtues of modern black metal, do you think The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal would be covering underground black metal shows? Or would trust fund kids be flocking to a space in Brooklyn to see Canadian noisemakers WOLD, who couldn’t even draw five people in their hometown? Of course not.
A few days later, I’m at a much smaller show, headlined by American power metal band Kamelot. The show isn’t a sell-out, but there are a lot more people in the 600-capacity room than I ever expected, and a much more diverse crowd than I’m used to seeing at, say, a more extreme-oriented show. Several of the local metal scenesters are there, a handful of people who go to every show in town show up, but there are also a lot more women and girls this time around. As is always the case when it comes to power metal and prog metal, there's also a high geek factor, a lot of short hair, a lot of gearheads, and obvious music students.
I’ve been to plenty of these shows, and the crowd is usually on the reserved side, normally not the sort who’ll resort to slamming into each other for pleasure. Power metal is rooted in fantasy, which attracts a lot of listeners who are drawn to the escapist element of the music, and so their pleasure of seeing and hearing the music performed live is often directed inward. The crowd looks tame enough for me to watch from the floor instead of the terraces on the side, affording me a chance to hear the mix as well as possible in the weirdly echoey room. As soon as the band takes the stage and kicks into “Rule the World”, however, the bodies start flying. Even the band is surprised. “People don’t usually do this at our shows,” singer Tommy Karevik says a little later on. “But this is fucking awesome.”
It’s sheer lunacy, but just like at Volbeat earlier in the week, it’s happy lunacy. At one point, the scene around me consists of eight young men, arms entwined, headbanging in unison; a grey-haired man in his 60s pumping his fist with a big grin on his face; a girl watching the band adoringly; and a tall guy gesticulating with great emphasis and passion like an orchestra conductor. It's full-fledged heavy metal nerdery, and combined with the band, who sounds sensationally good, so much better than I ever expected, my smile is broad and genuine, not forced like my initial meeting with the Volbeat hugger.
As a metal writer who’s so wrapped up covering as much new music as possible, trying to find the right balance between underground, mainstream, and all the other little niches in between, it’s inevitable you’re going to wind up drifting a little too far towards one side and be too distracted to be mindful of what’s actually popular, what’s engaging people, not just the self-appointed metal cognoscenti listening to Haulix streams through their powerbook speakers. About 99 percent of life as a music writer is spent holed up on your own listening to music, researching, writing, and transcribing interviews, so much so that it’s easy to lose sight of the forest for all the trees. When you do drag yourself out of the house, though, what you thought was “uncool”, or “lame”, or just plain “sucks” does have merit, and just might put a smile on your face.
Volbeat’s success in North America is well earned, especially in Canada where their 2013 album Outlaw Gentlemen and Shady Ladies topped the charts, smartly working the smaller markets and returning time and again to build a loyal fanbase. They’re starting to reap the rewards just now, able to draw great crowds, put together a flashy show, and have a band as venerable as Anthrax open for them.
Kamelot, meanwhile, is more of a cult favorite, but their cult has been growing in recent years, with the very good new album Haven debuting at a respectable number 70 this week in America. Wherever they play, people come from out of the weeds to see them, and they’re just starting to learn how big a draw they are as headliners. Both bands have done all this without little to no support from critics and metal blogs, proof that the insanity of that promotional cycle -- album trailers, track “unleashings”, tour date announcements -- doesn’t work as well as good music, sincere performances, and some old-fashioned word of mouth. Connecting with actual people, in person -- imagine that.
One recurring theme at that Volbeat show, aside from my being hugged repeatedly by random dudes -- it’s kind of flattering in retrospect -- was how singer/guitarist Michael Poulsen went out of his way to single out any younger kids who were in attendance. At one point, he spotted two children in the stands with their parents, and crowd-surfed to them to give them a pair of t-shirts. Near the end of the show, meanwhile, he extended an open invitation for any little kids to come up on stage and rock out as the band played ’16 Dollars”. Before long the stage was swarmed with preteens, some experiencing adorable stagefright, others jumping up and down like mad.
Was it all calculated? Of course it was. But Poulsen and Volbeat gave each and every one these kids a memory they’ll never forget, creating a couple dozen fans for life. That’s how to ‘maximize your brand’, I thought. Sometimes it’s beneficial to get out, away from the buzz-worthy underground bands, and go see what the majority of people actually like. Don’t be scared, cooler-than-thou writers; you might be pleasantly surprised. Plus, a lot of you could use a random noogie to wake you out of your stupor. It worked for me.
Angra, Secret Garden (EarMusic)
A few more people are now aware of who Angra is because longtime guitarist Kiko Loureiro is now also the newest member of Megadeth. If his newfound fame gets more folks listening to the Brazilian power metal band, then that’s fantastic. For the uninitiated, this eighth album is a fairly good indication of what Angra does best: creating good, bombastic melodic heavy metal, rooted in tradition and content to stay there without branching out too much. Is it essential? Not at all; the band has made better, more consistently strong music in the past -- 1996’s Holy Land is a great place to start. But the best moments here are terrific, like the searing opener “Newborn Me”, the catchy and cutely titled “Storm of Emotions”, and the progressive metal extravagance of “Upper Levels”. (Listen on Spotify.)
Civil War, Gods and Generals (Napalm)
Not to be confused with the Americana duo the Civil Wars, Civil War was formed by three former members of Sabaton. Not to be confused with World War II-obsessed Sabaton, Civil War sings about the American Civil War -- never mind that they’re Swedish. But if you have Americans singing about Vikings, then why not? Their 2013 debut The Killer Angels was a solid effort, proving the apple doesn’t fall far from the Sabaton tree, and this follow-up is very similar, specializing in the same simple, jaunty power metal that Sabaton is so good at. This isn’t better than Sabaton, but fans of that band will enjoy this, if they haven’t caught on already. If there’s one ace card Civil War has that sets them apart, it’s singer Nils Patrik Johansson, long known -- by yours truly, anyway -- as the world’s greatest Ronnie James Dio impersonator, who carries on with a wonderfully goofy performance. (Listen on Spotify.)
Domovoyd, Domovoyd (Svart)
I was big into Oh, Sensibility, the Finnish band’s debut from 2013, and this new follow-up continues right where the last record left off, creating a pleasant hybrid of doom and psychedelic rock, heavy on the riffs but also mindful of texture. This thing does sprawl, with a pair of songs in excess of 15 minutes and a total running time of 58 minutes, but the jams and grooves these guys create are undeniable. “Ambrosian Perfume” wriggles its way into your head with its lugubrious pace and wah-wah riff, and refuses to leave. (Listen on Spotify.)
Noisem, Blossoming Decay (A389)
The most exciting young thrash band to come along the pike in years, Baltimore’s Noisem follow up to 2013’s excellent Agony Defined is a furious, 24-minute blast of crusty speed that’s equal parts taut and filthy. Sounding loose and sloppy yet harnessing it all with deceiving dexterity is a tricky balance for any thrash band to achieve, but time and again Noisem nail that sound with astonishing consistency, bringing a little grindcore confrontation to a sound so rooted in tradition and repetition. If there’s one thing holding the band back just a bit, it’s the lack of that one gigantic hook. There’s so much ferocity and virtuosity on display, but these boys need their own “Angel of Death” or “Left Hand Path” if they want to take that crucial next step. This is a very good record, but as exciting as Noisem is, they’re not quite there yet. (Listen on Spotify.)
Prurient, Frozen Niagara Falls (Profound Lore)
One of the boldest albums Profound Lore has ever put out might, in time, wind up being one of the Canadian label’s most rewarding. Dominick Fenrow’s latest release under his long-running Prurient moniker is a sprawling, surreal piece that combines electronic and acoustic, conventional and avant-garde in an unsettling, comforting, unpredictable, and rather brilliant way. With its 90 minute running time, it has a cinematic quality as Fenrow takes you into his world, offering listeners a glimpse of New York through his own twisted lens. (Listen on Spotify.)
Seremonia, Kristalliarkki (Svart)
Seremonia’s sumptuous blend of doom, psychedelic rock, and Finnish folk music has long enticed people like yours truly -- Finnish is such a wonderfully alien-sounding language that adds even more mystique to music -- but I’ve always held back in my reviews of their past albums, not yet ready to deem them “great”. This time around, I don’t feel as hesitant. Something’s clicked on album number three. The music itself hasn’t changed; its dreamy combination of heaviness and softness, like hearing Black Sabbath through a pillow, is the same as ever. Noora Federley still sings in that detached way of hers. However, the songs just feel more engaging, more concise, just assertive enough to lend the slightest bit of urgency to the music. Of course, you’re going to get the odd hazy jam like the 15-minute “Kristalliarki I”, but even that’s a cool little departure from the short bursts of mystical heavy rock, jazz flute and saxophone meshing beautifully with organ drones and repetitive, modal riffing. (Listen on Spotify.)
Sirenia, The Seventh Life Path (Napalm)
From the moment it starts, it feels like there’s something “off” with the Norwegian band’s seventh album. The production is so sleek, reverb permeates everything you hear, melodies go in one ear and out the other, and singer Ailyn is stuck in the same, emotionless gear. Their last few albums had some good moments -- they can be a very good symphonic metal band when they apply themselves -- but here all parties involved are just spinning their wheels, kicking up a bit of dirt here and there, but going absolutely nowhere. This is a waste of time. (Listen on Spotify.)
Veil of Maya, Matriarch (Sumerian)
The good thing is that the Chicago band’s fifth album is only half an hour long. Sadly, that’s the nicest thing I can say about it, as it serves up the same lame, stuttering Meshuggah rip-offs (you’ll never equal the power of the masters, kids), glitchy effects, and deathcore idiocy as they’ve always put out. Sure, they try cleanly sung vocals from time to time, but it’s an even worse fit from all the hardcore barking, making an already artificial-sounding album feel even more cloying. It’ll be interesting to see how the band’s teenaged audience responds to this.
There’s been a fair amount to like as far as 2015 releases have gone so far, but the year in metal has been in desperate need of a swift kick in the pants. Thank goodness for Matt Pike and the mighty High on Fire, who this past week released “The Black Plot”, the first single from the forthcoming seventh album Luminiferous, which comes out 16 June on eOne. The song, their catchiest track since “Frost Hammer” five years ago, is yet another near-perfect distillation of what High on Fire is all about: speed, riffs, and nonsensical wackjob lyrics snarled out by the gravel-gargling Pike. It’s High on Fire; it hasn’t changed, nor does anyone ever want it to change, and it is glorious. Crank it.
Horns Up: Chips & Beer, Malcolm Young, Rush’s glorious R40 setlist.
Horns Down: Vulvatron, writers who somehow think they’re as cool as the musicians they cover, Lars Ulrich’s underwear (or lack thereof).
Follow me on Twitter at @basementgalaxy.