Hallelujah, it's raining blood! The Unholy Alliance Tour, a veritable distillation of the current state of contemporary metal on wheels, descends upon Western Canada and finally ends Begrand's 22-year wait to witness Slayer in the flesh.
At a Slayer concert, even waiting in line to get in is an event. Take the afternoon of July 11th, for instance. The Unholy Alliance Tour, the finest multi-act metal extravaganza of the summer, has made it to the Western Canadian city of Edmonton, Alberta.
It's a hot, sunny afternoon, and several hundred metal fans ranging in age from their early teens to late 30s have convened upon the Shaw Conference Centre, located along the scenic banks of the North Saskatchewan River. Built into the riverbank, the auditorium's glass-enclosed concourse consists of an extraordinarily long stairwell leading down to the subterranean hall, upon which groups of fans commingle in near-unbearable heat, the afternoon sun transforming the visually impressive interior into a scorching greenhouse.
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Still, the atmosphere is convivial. A group of punk teenagers compares fake IDs while another group of high school kids arrives, already completely wasted. An affable girl talks about having driven four hours from her lame rural hometown to see her heroes and to meet other like-minded people who share her interests. A dude's shaved head is proudly adorned with the logos of Slayer and Lamb of God, clumsily scrawled with a Sharpie. A petite, spike-clad goth girl with a piercing-induced speech impediment is naively unaware that she'll eventually be refused entry until she surrenders half of her pointy wardrobe to the coat check. And every five minutes, someone in the lineup says the word that's on everyone's mind, inciting a deafening roar of approval along the three-story concourse: "SLAAAAAYYYYEEEERRRR!!!"
In a way, the five-band Unholy Alliance Tour is a perfect barometer of the state of heavy metal today, which is in the middle of riding a cresting wave of mainstream popularity and critical acclaim. You've got the leader of American metal's new wave in Lamb of God, who, through a shrewd combination of Pantera's aggression with the Megadeth's dexterity, has cornered the blue-collar demographic like no other metal band since Dimebag's heyday. Then there's the more aloof Mastodon, a quartet of Georgia sludgemeisters that used to bow at the altar of Eyehategod and Crowbar, but in recent years has taken an inspired turn toward lofty, epic progressive metal and literate lyrical themes, creating a distinct hybrid that has fans of all ages enthralled and the non-metal music media drooling.
From Europe comes Finland's Children of Bodom, viewed as melodic death metal phenoms four years ago, and now signed to a major label, trying to become another European band (like Arch Enemy, Opeth, and Lacuna Coil) to parlay its cult status in North America to something much bigger. You have the humble, hard-working Thine Eyes Bleed representing the current bumper crop of metalcore sound-alikes that tirelessly try to distinguish themselves amid the repetitive, cacophonous din, with mixed results. But for all the younger bands' efforts, you have the mighty Slayer reigning over all, who, over the course of a quarter century, has perfected the intensity, the speed, the bombast, the rebelliousness, the defiantly ageless quality of heavy metal so well, both on record and in concert, that it's at a level that the other four bands on the bill can only dream of achieving. And they'd all damn well better show up every night, because we all know Slayer certainly will.
Without any fanfare and while the majority of ticketholders were still waiting in line up the steps and down the block, turning in their banned wardrobe, or spending wads of cash at the horrifically overpriced merchandise tables, London, Ontario's Thine Eye Bleed sauntered on to the stage, picked up their gear, and in workmanlike manner, churned away at some mildly pleasing metalcore. An unusual signing by The End Records, a label that usually deals with the more progressive side of modern metal, the band's debut album In the Wake of Separation is an interesting little discovery from last year, a taut, 36-minute blend of European thrash, classic death metal, and even a touch of black-metal picking.
On this afternoon, though, despite the rapt attention of the couple hundred kids close to the stage, the band struggled to connect with the slowly filling venue save for some well-timed name-drops of the other bands. With less than a half hour to work with, they didn't do themselves any favors by playing two new songs, but drummer Darryl Stephens did leave a strong impression, as did lead screamer Justin Wolfe, who brings a grating black metal screech to the proceedings. Thine Eyes Bleed's problem was one that continues to plague the current generation of metal bands: with so many bands doing the same thing, when does it stop sounding mildly intriguing and start to sound utterly pointless? On a cleanly-mixed record, the band does hold its own, but in a quarter-full hall, it registers as little more than really loud background music.
Mastodon's rise in the metal world has been swift, first with 2002's Remission, and then in a big, big way with 2004's Leviathan. Following Thine Eyes Bleed's somewhat tepid set, the quartet got down to serious business, assaulting the throng � which had grown tenfold in size during the changeover � with a gargantuan wall of sound that more than lived up to its name. It was proof that despite the fact that large arenas lack intimacy, a sound like Mastodon's is made for bigger venues. Guitarists Brent Hines and Bill Kelliher were a force, such riffs as the swaggering "Iron Tusk" and the unforgettable elastic intro to "March of the Fire Ants" making one's arm hairs vibrate like bristles on a sonic toothbrush, while the furious breakdown of "Where Strides the Behemoth" had all four members suffocating the entire audience, from those up front, to the lazy arses in the side bleachers, to the packed beer garden in the far back, in a thick wall of aural sludge. Bassist/vocalist Troy Sanders was charismatic, ably exhorting the crowd without being limited by his rhythm section instrument, delivering the lines in an authoritative bark that sounded equal parts Scott Kelly and Michael D. Williams.
But the real star was Brann Daillor, who slaughtered his checkerboard-adorned Randy Rhoads tribute drum kit with a combination of reckless abandon and jazz-like precision. As strong as the first seven songs were, the closing one-two punch of the multi-faceted masterpiece "Megalodon" and the head-bobbing "Blood and Thunder", as well as the crowd reaction that greeted both songs, showed how much of a force Mastodon has become in such a short time. Its is one of the most unique sounds in American metal, and if the new songs "Circle of the Cysquatch" and "Crystal Skull" were any indication, that distinguishable style will propel the band to bigger things following the September release of its hugely anticipated third full-length, the major-label debut, Blood Mountain. On record, they're a marvel; in concert, a revelation.
Such is the devoted following that Children of Bodom have fostered in recent years, that there were arguably as many of their t-shirts in the crowd as there were of Slayer. Western Canada remains largely a lightly traveled territory by the Scandinavian metal elite, so whenever a top-notch band comes around, the reception is always exuberant. No exception was made for the boys from Bodom; the floor quickly filled and the few women in the crowd (making up probably one percent of the audience) were mostly there to see this particular band. The chants of "Bodom!" reached a fever pitch as the opening notes of "Silent Night, Bodom Night" began, but as the Finnish fivesome went on to deliver a very efficient performance, the band's few flaws became more and more glaring as the set wore on.
It definitely didn't help the band's cause that they had to follow the brute force of Mastodon; not only did Bodom's overall sound pale in comparison to that of Mastodon (thinly mixed finesse versus dense muscle), but their straightforward Helloween riffs and 2/4 tempos seemed painfully predictable following the thrilling twists and turns that the previous band provided. Diminutive lead guitarist Alexi Laiho is a charismatic frontman, but he often tried too hard, resorting to rock-star poses and displaying a penchant for spitting; it was like watching a Devin Townsend look-alike, sans the sense of fun. Keyboardist Janne Warman traded plenty cracking solo licks with Laiho, and songs like "Angels Don't Kill" and "Hate Me" generated ecstatic responses, but stacked alongside four far less pretentious acts on this night, Children of Bodom seemed a touch out of their league. The more flamboyant side of metal is starting to make inroads among North America's young metal crowd, but the European bands still have some work to do to earn widespread acceptance.
As tragic the decline, dissolution, and destruction of Pantera was, the timing could not have been better for Virginia upstarts Lamb of God, who have been at the forefront of the American metal revival since 2002. Cynics can slam the simplicity of the music, but we always need at least one capable band hammering out strident riffs, pinch harmonics, supremely pissed-off lyrics, and mid-tempo, circle pit-inducing drumming � Black Label Society sure as hell won't do the job, no matter how often OzzFest tries to convince us. There's not much to the Lamb of God formula, but they work it impeccably, giving the people what they want. And did the people of Edmonton ever want it, the crush at the front of the stage tremendous as the four bearded members of the band erupted into the incendiary "Ruin", followed by the always confrontational vocalist Randy Blythe who, sporting a newly-shaven head, seems to be taking on the role of Phil Anselmo more and more each year.
Lead guitarists Mark Morton and Willy Adler, one of the great dual lead guitar tandems in the business, traded solos and rhythm riffs seamlessly, and Chris Adler continued to cement his reputation as an extraordinarily tight drummer, but it was Anselmo � I mean Blythe who whipped the floor into a frenzy, stalking the stage like a lunatic, looking lost in his thoughts one second and ready to tear the audience a new one the next. Lamb of God is becoming near-masterful at crafting angry, populist metal anthems, from the brilliantly hostile "Laid to Rest", the shout-along chorus of "Now You've Got Something to Die For", and the early calling card "Black Label". The 50-minute set was an example of a band fully aware it is on the cusp of major success, and the new single "Redneck" will likely be the catalyst, as all the ingredients are there: a snappy Southern boogie riff, a chugging groove, Blythe's most charismatic vocal work to date, and a profane chorus that every teenage boy will love. It's a blatant attempt to corner the Angry White Adolescent Male demographic, but brilliantly so; it went over huge with the crowd, and will do the same when Sacrament hits stores this month.
Interestingly enough, immediately following Lamb of God's semi-intentional Pantera homage, there was a fascinating twist added to the third and final changeover: Dimebag Darrell's photo was projected on the screen backdrop while Pantera's most beloved songs played. Nobody celebrates their heroes and mourns their dead quite like the metal community, and to hear the entire arena erupt into a spontaneous sing-along to the 1992 classic "Walk" made for a surprisingly touching moment. The devotion by the crowd was almost liturgical in the way it shouted the words.
All it took was four minutes of "South of Heaven" to prove to one and all that no matter how good any of the opening bands were, Slayer remains untouchable as far as the definitive live metal experience goes. An unorthodox set opener in theory, the song went over like a megaton bomb detonating the place: dozens of inverted crosses projected behind the high drum riser, the sinewy opening notes kicked in, followed by an overture of bass, cymbal crashes, and tom fills, leading up to the slowly building crescendo, bassist/vocalist Tom Araya letting the most devoted fans recite the first lines with fervor and foreshadowing the darkness that was about to descend on the sold-out building: "Judgment day, the second coming arrives / Before you see the light, you must DIE!" Upon which, the thousands were transported to the umpteenth ring of Hades, Dante be damned, the lights revealing two absolutely massive Marshall stacks forming inverted crosses behind guitarists Jeff Hanneman and Kerry King. The song, from the 1988 album of the same name, has a sneaky way of kicking into gear, and before everyone knew it, drummer Dave Lombardo was delivering a pummeling helping of double kick-drum beats and double-time snare thwacks as the bearded Araya, spinning his hair in his trademark style, was flanked by the formidable duo of Hanneman and King, who were letting loose their trademark staccato riffs and atonal solos. All in their forties now, the members of Slayer still cut astonishingly imposing figures onstage, one of the only times the phrase, "It has to be seen to be believed" could be used without any sense of hyperbole.
Slayer has never been a band to lean heavily on its stellar back catalog (the strength of God Hates Us All a perfect example) but on this tour, and on this night, it was all about pleasing the oldsters, as all but two of the 14 songs came from the 1983-1990 heyday (2001's "Disciple" and the new tune "Cult" were the only latter-day material). The band's first six releases provide an embarrassment of riches, and the quartet pounded out classic after speed/thrash classic. The rarely-played "Silent Scream" was dusted off. "War Ensemble" was performed with astonishing power. "Chemical Warfare" sounded far tighter than it did on Haunting the Chapel. The projected visuals during "Dead Skin Mask" were inspired; when Araya sung the line, "Simple smiles elude psychotic eyes", the blown-up face of serial killer Ed Gein appeared behind the drum riser. The trifecta of "Hell Awaits", "The Antichrist", and "Raining Blood" brought the night to a gloriously blasphemous climax. And the timeless "Angel of Death", the song with that scream, those lyrics, and the greatest breakdown in heavy metal history, converted the floor into a writhing mass of sweat-drenched humanity by the end. The set was barely an hour long, and there was no encore, but so spent was the audience after six hours of mayhem, Slayer ended on a near-perfect note.
Once the house lights went up and people started to navigate the water bottle-littered floor, their limbs aching, their black t-shirts drenched, their ears buzzing, the only thing left to do was to try to make it up that massive stairwell where they sat baking eight hours earlier. The punk teens staggered out trying to figure out how to get home, the only reason they could walk straight being that the majority of alcohol they consumed had been sweated out. The small-town girl left enraptured, ready for a drive home, but not before stopping at the local metal record store to drain the last of her bank account the following day, while the lisping goth girl was left to wait in line with a hundred other kids to collect her spiked accoutrements. Meanwhile, the dude who wrote on his head with a Sharpie made his way back to wherever people who like to draw on their heads with felt-tipped markers live. And a certain 35 year-old music critic, who had waited 22 fucking years to see Slayer in person, walked out on dead legs, musing euphorically, "Hell yeah, the state of metal couldn't be better." He wearily lifted a foot onto the first step, grabbed the banister, and pulled himself up with all the strength he could muster. He looked up at the steep, 98-step climb ahead of him, and let out a silent scream of his own.
Slayer � "South of Heaven" and "Raining Blood" [Live in 1998]