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Notes from Underground

Adrien Begrand

Begrand hits the traveling metal show Sounds of the Underground for nine hours of mayhem, moshing, and merch. And though this town's put the kibosh on mosh, there's plenty of familiar sights and sounds, from Metallica wannabes to papier-mâché phalluses.

On a blazing, cloudless, 90-degree day in early August, I made my way through a baking parking lot towards Credit Union Centre, a charmless monstrosity of a hockey arena located on the outskirts of the Canadian prairie city of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, where several hundred other metal enthusiasts waited for their chance to escape the sun for the cooler indoor confines and nine hours of music, mayhem, moshing, and merch at 2006's Sounds of the Underground. It was, in the words of Exodus, some good "friendly violent fun", but what I didn't expect was for the show to be completely stolen by the three oldest bands on the bill, culminating in one of the most anticlimactic conclusions I have ever seen: resounding proof yet again that metal is far from a young man's game.

* * *

Upon arriving at the locked doors of the arena (oh crap, the ticket says "Doors at one", not "Show at one"), boldfaced signs declared an intolerance of moshing and crowd-surfing. A group of young men who had just driven in from out of town caught a glimpse of the signs and quipped bitterly, "Saskatoon is, like, the gayest city in Canada." A rather crude way to put it, but under the circumstances, yours truly had to begrudgingly concur with the sentiment.

* * *

Now Slaying

Lunatica, The Edge of Infinity (Frontiers)
Symphonic metal similar to Nightwish (and just as ludicrously bombastic), this album is lightweight, but very heavy on pop hooks. Comely singer Andrea Dätwyler makes it all better than it deserves to be, adding a charming touch to songs that otherwise resemble a generic anime soundtrack. Interesting fact: "Who You Are" was written by the famed Swedish hit factory the Location.

Mendeed, This War Will Last Forever (Nuclear Blast)
These young Scots shamelessly ride the Avenged Sevenfold/Trivium wave on their second album, but it's clear they have better musical chops than most of their metalcore peers. It's plagued by thin production, a severe lack of focus ("For Blasphemy We Bleed" is ridiculous), and goes on too long, but when they turn up the aggression ("Chapel Perilous", "The Reaper Waits"), they sound damn near invincible.

Metal Church, A Light in the Dark (SPV)
Kurdt Vanderhoof and his band of Seattle thrashers sound remarkably resilient on their eighth album, continuing where 2004's comeback disc The Weight of the World left off. With strong tunes like "Beyond All Reason", "Mirror of Lies", and a re-recording of the great "Watch the Children Pray" (in tribute to the late David Wayne), it deserves to stand alongside Metal Church's first three albums.

Axel Rudi Pell, Mystica (SPV)
The oft-underrated German guitar virtuoso returns with another slick, immensely pleasing dose of pure, Teutonic power metal. As expressive a soloist as Michael Schenker, and capable of plenty of UFO/MSG-style riffs ("Valley of Sin", "Living a Lie"), Pell and his band rock like it's 1984 all over again, perhaps too seriously for the DragonForce tourists out there. An unabashed geezer pleaser.

Vader, Impressions in Blood (Candlelight)
More of the same no-frills death mayhem courtesy the Polish veterans, but when it comes to Vader, what more could we ask for? Peter's growl is in fine form, he and Mauser shred relentlessly, Daray is absolutely psychotic on drums, and songs like "As Heavens Collide...", "Helleluyah!!! (God Is Dead)", and "Amongst the Ruins" show the band remains as ferocious as ever.

Do GWAR fans care at all about the band's music, or are they there strictly to get spewed upon by gallon after gallon of fake blood pumped through Oderus Urungus's papier-mâché member? Many kids in attendance were wearing the requisite white t-shirts (so you can, like, see all the blood and crap they spray on you), some with better command of the Queen's English than others (one handwritten white shirt read, "I am there slave"); the band's merchandise table was by far the biggest out of all the bands and doing booming business as soon as the doors were opened, but one had to wonder if anyone under the age of 30 had any interest whatsoever in the band's somewhat bland take on '80s thrash metal.

* * *

A pair of local Battle of the Bands contest winners was given a chance to strut their stuff on the SOTU stage to begin the show. Local emo boys Streetlight Scenery delivered a rather snooze-worthy set, their Taste of Chaos sound out of place with the largely metal / hardcore contingent, both on the bill and in the audience. It didn't help that the singer, a long-haired, headband-sportin' Bjorn Borg look-alike, seemed preoccupied with his pants for protracted periods. A six-piece outfit calling itself Damonen, though, won the growing crowd over with a spirited 20-minute set featuring an effective pair of lead vocalists (a hardcore screamer and a death growler), the band displaying a predilection towards melodic death intricacy and power metal riffs. I'd tout the band even more if it had a website or a MySpace page, but alas, the 21st century seems to be passing them by. Get with the program, dudes.

* * *

South Carolina's Through the Eyes of the Dead got things going in earnest with a workmanlike set suitable for an opening act, and while such deathcore exercises as "Two Inches from a Main Artery" and "Beneath Dying Skies" combined Cannibal Corpse-style blasting with the melodic intricacy of Morbid Angel, lead screamer Anthony Gunnels lacked both range and power. On the other side of the coin, Floridian post-hardcore band Evergreen Terrace had the hardcore dancers coming out for the first time. The pubescent spin-kickers were in their glory, and the band's effective use of the overdone "good cop / bad cop" gimmick turned out to be mildly pleasant for the rest of us, guitarist Craig Chaney's singing making the quintet's otherwise ordinary music passable for 20 minutes.

* * *

All it took was one half-hour performance by a group of seasoned pros to expose the previous four bands as the rank novices they are. There was a palpable buzz in the air before Behemoth's set, and it wasn't just the problems the crew was having with the drum trigger device. The arena floor started to seriously fill for the first time, the people fully aware that something jaw-droppingly awesome was going to take place. World class black/death metal rarely makes an appearance in this part of the world, and 30 seconds into "Antichristian Phenomenon", when the blastbeats kicked in and the tornado of guitars was unleashed for the first time, a collective gasp was audible over the noise. The Polish greats cut an imposing figure onstage, too, looking almost militaristic as guitarist/vocalist Nergal, guitarist Seth, and bassist Orion stood in front of mikes, each with a spiked boot on a monitor, each furiously spinning their hair during the breakdowns. The band has toured the world over countless times, and it showed in the precision of the music; by the end of a rousing "Chant for Escheton 2000", people were hollering for more. They came, we saw, and to paraphrase a song title of theirs, they conquered all.

* * *

I was lukewarm to the Black Dahlia Murder's second album Miasma a year ago, but in person, they remain a band that's very hard to dislike. Not only are they very adept at combining elements of metalcore, death, and black metal, but vocalist Trevor Strnad is a terrific frontman, making open requests for weed ("We don't have any") and women ("We don't have any of those, either"), and sporting the word "heartburn" tattooed across his shirtless, protruding gut. Plus, the guy can go from a black metal screech to a death growl in an instant, which is no small feat. We just need a complete album with music as superior as "Statutory Ape". And with better titles.

* * *

Make no mistake, Terror is a terrific live hardcore band, but must vocalist Scott Vogel sound like he's giving a motivational speech between every song? Yeah, we know hardcore is a great way to unite the kids, how it's empowering, how hardcore bands and fans all care about each other, how it's all one happy Benetton ad, but could you please stick to the tunes and give us a song that doesn't sound like something Agnostic Front has done a thousand times before? In concert, they can whip a pit into a frenzy, as they did on this afternoon, but musically, they're a poor man's Hatebreed, and little more.

* * *

As usual, GWAR made a gigantic mess "killing" various characters in novel ways while performing their likeable but barely memorable tunes. Recent stand-bys such as the Nazi Pope and George W. Bush were brought out and summarily executed, but the fellas from deepest Antarctica did change things from the past couple years, anally raping a pig-headed policeman and carrying the skewered cop away (which, admittedly, was kinda cool), eviscerating the president of their fan club, and best of all, summoning the mighty Gor-Gor (he of "Gor-Gor" notoriety), a gigantic latex dinosaur for a few more minutes of gory goofiness. The liquid spewed a good forty feet from the victims, cannons on either side of the stage, and of course, Oderus's generous schlong, leaving a couple hundred ecstatic kids dyed red and pink for the rest of the night. The band did do a roaring rendition of "Bring Back the Bomb" and a novel cover of "School's Out", but in the end, does it even matter what was played?

* * *

On the heels of their finest album is a very long time, Cannibal Corpse sauntered onstage, took their places (never moving from their spots), and thanks to the best sound mix of the day, let loose a crushing, tight, dense yet crystalline eight-song barrage that mined their vast discography, from "Hammer Smashed Face" to "Murder Worship". Guitarists Jeremy Turner and Pat O'Brien make for a formidable tandem and George "Corpsegrinder" Fischer showed everyone why he is the master of the death growl, sounding beastly one moment and unleashing an ungodly scream the next. The band specializes in the most physically taxing form of heavy music in existence, taking 30-second breathers after every song, but professionals that they are, did not let up one iota when each new song begun.

* * *

The award for Stage Banter of the Night goes to the inimitable Corpsegrinder:

"If you see someone beside you not slammin', MAKE THEM SUFFERRRRR!"

"This one is dedicated to the ladies in the audience. This is 'Fucked With a Knife'."

* * *

We all know Trivium will become the most popular American metal band when The Crusade hits stores next month, but those boys are so bent on winning everybody over, they turned what should have been a show-stealing performance into a near-ridiculous exercise in metal self-parody. Risers were put everywhere for them to run on and jump off. They engaged in the same kind of silly synchronized moves that Accept did 20 years ago. Vocalist/guitarist Matt Heafy wouldn't stop mugging to the crowd, and regularly exhorted the kids to indulge him in such goofy displays as pogoing along with the band. Not only that, but they had the audacity to dangle a gigantic mirror ball above the drum kit. Their Metallica fixation knows no bounds, too; in fact, it's shameless. They played "Hit the Lights" before their set. Heafy cops his stage demeanor from James Hetfield, from his vocal style to the low microphone stand to the chatter. Plus, they proceeded to cover "Master of Puppets" (a third of it, anyway). All done well, but guys, take it from someone who saw Metallica before they were big: Metallica never fucking pogoed.

Still, Trivium is a band on a serious upswing right now, and while the mix was a little thin compared to the virtuosic Cannibal Corpse, the kids ate up every cliché handed to them with fervor. "Gunshot to the Head of Trepidation" was performed with fury, "Pull Harder on the Strings of Your Martyr" incited the biggest circle pit of the day, and most impressively, the mighty new track "Detonation" trounced the early material, a tantalizing hint of big things to come this fall when the new album hits stores.

* * *

Of all the bands on the bill, the majority of people in attendance were looking forward to In Flames the most, and not only did the band fail to disappoint, it completely stole the show, delivering a flawless, highly professional set one would expect from one of the most important Swedish metal bands to walk this earth. The band was extremely tight and tuneful, the sound mix robust yet at a comfortably loud volume, with Anders Friden's notoriously thin melodic vocals easy to hear on this night. Sporting a white button-down shirt and red tie, the dreadlocked Friden led the way during a furious 40 minutes. The band roared through a set that was heavy on the recent triumvirate of Reroute to Remain, Soundtrack to Your Escape, and Come Clarity albums, and while oldsters were wishing for more than "Graveland" from The Jester Race, songs like "The Quiet Place", "Trigger", and "Come Clarity" went over huge, the crowd on the floor singing along with fervor. If there's one criticism to be made, it's that the band relies a bit too heavily on the sequencer, but the songs were so perfectly timed with the lavish, eye-popping light show that one could not complain. An unforgettable set, one that had people shouting "play longer!" because we all knew there was no way the headliner could top this.

* * *

You have to sympathize for As I Lay Dying. They're not a bad band; they're just in way over their heads headlining a tour this large. A B-list metal act at best, it has to be awful to be upstaged by A-list talent like In Flames on a nightly basis. Despite a handful of good songs and a respectable album in last year's Shadows Are Security, they don't so much as excel as simply perform the music adequately, typified by NWOBHM-influenced guitar harmonies, one-note breakdowns, and the hoarse, monotone yelling of Tim Lambesis. The band is Lambesis's brainchild, but he's the weakest part; his vocals lacking any charisma whatsoever, and his failure to connect with the dwindling crowd (a good number left after In Flames' set) was both painfully obvious and kind of embarrassing. After each song, there was dead silence; part exhaustion among the concertgoers, part being blown out of the water by the previous band, and partially the knowledge by most folks that they don't deserve to headline � whatever the reason, the reaction was icy. It didn't help that Lambesis kept making Christ-like poses on the pulpit-like risers, and repeating himself all the time (every song is about overcoming adversity, apparently).

The hardcore kids ate it up, of course, doing their insipid, idiotic dance moves without caring who they bumped into, but the rest of the increasingly thinning crowd couldn't care less and by the time the band was closing its set with "Forever", neither could yours truly. It's hard to fault As I Lay Dying � they tried their best, and indeed sounded solid, but after eight hours most of us had had enough.

* * *

This year's Sounds of the Underground would have been better served by either having In Flames headline, or booking a different headlining band altogether, one with broader appeal, such as Arch Enemy, Shadows Fall, Killswitch Engage, Hatebreed, or even Lacuna Coil. Despite that one misstep, SOTU remains one of the better deals during the summer concert season, a day-long metal fix that consistently gives the customer plenty of bang for their bucks. If there's one lesson to be learned from this year's tour, though, it's that the young bands might draw the kids, but it's the geezers who show everyone how truly powerful metal is performed.


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