King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard–Aragon Ballroom–August 24, 2019

King Gizz is an interesting animal. Prolific as hell, but not always proficient. They have a wheelhouse, and while I applaud the instinct to challenge themselves and branch out, oftentimes the material is just not strong enough to merit releasing. Five albums in one year is a fun goal, but the material was good enough for three–which still would have been amazing. But Gizz is following their muse, and this should always be supported in a society where all music seems geared towards garnering enough clicks to sell a festival ticket.

2019 has been true to form for the band, but with an interesting twist. To my ears, King Gizz is best at psych rock; the jammier stuff just doesn’t connect. My guess is most fans would say their favorite records are Nonagon Infinity and Flying Microtonal Banana, and these are rock records. So when they put out Fishing for Fishies earlier this year, it was basically a barf for me. Like Sketches of Brunswick East, my main reaction was, “why?”  Then came the twist–not only was King Gizz going to put out multiple records this year, but the next one was going to be a straight up thrash metal album. Now we’re talking. Ultimately, Infest the Rat’s Nest wasn’t thrash, but it was definitely metal. I don’t think it was a coincidence that it was also the first time in awhile the band sounded urgent and inspired.

How would the weird amalgamation of Gizz fans react? Their meteoric rise from Subt–Lincoln Hall–Metro–Riviera–Aragon got people from all over the map into the band. These boys will take over the world. For now, though, they’d have to settle for a collection of 6,000 college kids, deadheads, stoners, and yes, metalheads. How would they get along?

Oddly! King Gizz came right out with 2 from Rat’s Nest, and the most awkward mosh pits of all time ensued.  As a reformed metal elitist, I welcome the 20 year old EDM heads whose weird friend showed them the band into the fold–but chill the fuck out. When people are outside the pit, it means they don’t want to mosh. This isn’t a Slayer show.
Some Polygonwannaland tracks and a strategic relocation to the back soothed, and soon the Gizz show took on its familiar rhythm and spectacle. So many band members, doing so many interesting things. The current track having almost nothing in common with the one that preceded it. It is glorious, and when they amp up the energy, can border on frenzied. The ability they showed tonight to take this spirit from a place like Subterranean and make it palpable to the Aragon-sized crowd suggests the sky is the limit. Don’t bat an eye if these boys are headlining arenas one day.

The metal was front and back loaded, sandwiching 2-3 song jams on specific records in the middle. First was Polygon, then Nonagon and finally my personal favorite stop, selections from Flying Microtonal Banana. Not the ones you might expect either, which is another part of their charm–Anoxia and Billabong Valley work just as well as the more obvious Open Water and Nuclear Fusion (both sadly left out). Always gotta have Rattlesnake though.

On the whole it was inspiring to see King Gizz step up to the plate and blow Aragon away the same way they do rooms 1/3 of the size. This band was a sensation the first time I saw them, and continue to be so even while going through the boom in fandom. No watering down the weird, no lessening the energy, no pandering–just chasing that muse wherever the fuck it’s going. If you missed them when it was 100 people packed in Subt, I’m sorry, but get your ass out there now before LiveNation starts charging your first-born child to see a show (2 years or so?).

 

Iron Maiden–August 22, 2019

Coming off a couple of lackluster performances by Maiden’s standards, my excitement levels were tempered for this show.  I know they were doing a “legacy” tour, but it seemed that was more driven by their phone videogame than their actual legacy.  Add that in with their shitty beer, and fuck man, am I bummed on Maiden now?

Nope!

The night started with a solo ride on the Reggies bus next to some crust punk who wasn’t sure who Iron Maiden was, where the bus was going, or what a shower is.  But neither this, or the fact that the opener SUCKED, or the fact that I was at Tinley Park could prevent a big dumb metal smile from coming across my face the minute the curtain went up and I saw the giant WW2 plane.  This wasn’t Bruce-is-wearing-a-hoodie Maiden; this was Iron Fucking Maiden, the one that headlined over Dio and Motorhead on the same tour and smoked both of those legends night after night.   Opener was Aces High, followed quickly by a salvo from Maiden’s best album Piece of Mind (bring it), Where Eagles Dare and Revelations.  The night also brought Wicker Man and Flight of Icarus, two rarities.  Importantly, they also nailed the standards, with a full Eddie sighting in The Trooper and the crowd more than willing to play their role during Fear of the Dark.  If you weren’t misty eyed just from nostalgia by the encore, the emotional impact of a Evil That Men Do/Hallowed be thy Name combo should’ve done the trick.  Bruce had the energy, Smith had the solos, Gers was…still there unfortunately.  It was a proper Maiden show in the American and British sense of the word.

Just because I’m me, of course there are some setlist takes.  What’s with the Blaze Bayley nonsense?  Sign of the Cross and The Clansmen are LOOONNGG and NO ONE GIVES A SHIT.  Seriously, its roughly 15-20 minutes of set time.  You don’t think the show would be better served with 3 of literally dozens of other good Maiden songs there?  Killers? Another Life?  The Prisoner?  Infinite Dreams?  Sea of Madness?  Heaven Can Wait?  Bring your Daughter…to the Slaughter?  What the hell are we doing here?  My guess is Harris wrote those Blaze songs and is like, “Look lads, these are bloody good songs so you best fuckin learn them, alright?” and Adrian Smith is just like “get my bandanas and wind machine right and I’ll solo over whatever nonsense you got.”  Verbatim.

Book of Souls was good but the tour was not (again, by Maiden’s standards), and the non-stop commercialism can be grating.  But when the band and the songs are this good, and they coalesce like they did on this night, who cares–it’s still Iron Maiden.

Baroness and Khemmis–July 23 and 26, 2019

It was a hell of a week for heavy music fans in Chicago. Two of the heaviest hitters in any heavy genre rolled through, and I was heavy…er, lucky enough to catch both shows:

1. Baroness–Durty Nellies, Palatine, Illinois, July 23, 2019

This was my first time at Durty Nellies, a venue name that pops up a lot for Chicago-adjacent shows, similar to The Forge in Joliet.  Unlike Joliet, though, this is easily accessible by Metra, so I hopped on them shits around 7 and got there as the opener was ending.  I can’t remember as I type who it was, which is not a great sign (it was Torche).

The venue is directly off of the train, which is good.  The viewing area was also completely inaccessible due to an immediate crush of people at the only entrance, which was not so good.  Once the opener ended, I made an immediate push to the opposite end of the room.  And of course, the opposite end is nice and open and comfortable.  People are dumb.

The venue had good sightlines from the floor and was nice and wide, but was probably just a little too small for the band.  Bottom Lounge-ish.  Good beer list though, and a good mix of people.  Not just jaded city jerkoffs like myself who are over being at the show–much of the audience was fuckin psyched to be out, even if it was Tuesday night, and that energy did the show well.

I missed Baroness the last few times around, so this was my first look at the new line-up.  They haven’t missed a beat.  New guitar player Gina Gleason brought a palpable energy.  She may not be quite the virtuoso that Peter Adams was (though no slouch for sure), but the joy to be where she was more than made up for it.  She apparently also brings a lot to the songwriting table, so it seems like an excellent addition.

The set was a little heavy on Gold and Grey, and the crowd lagged some because of it. The material was strong enough to sustain the positive energy, though a greater nod to Red and Blue would have been appreciated.  Thankfully, some great inclusions at the start and finish propped the set up.  Everything is primacy and recency, and here the band nailed it.  March to the Sea up top, Take My Bones Away and Isak at the back.

It is hard not to evaluate Baroness through the prism of coming back from the bus crash.  The sheer appreciation for the ability to still put on shows like this radiated from John Baizley.  His role as a frontman has been there from jump, but now he is willing and able to play it.  A story about how Durty Nellie’s was one of their first ever shows as a band contributed to the full circle feeling of the evening.  This was not the best I’ve seen Baroness or the best show I’ve seen this year, but it was downright inspirational in vibe.  Positivity in life and excitement for music on a goddamn Tuesday night.  Fuckin a.

2. Khemmis–Reggies, Chicago, July 26, 2019

Friday night brought another show.  Fucking Chicago won’t let you catch your breath, but that’s the point.  Reggies seems to be Khemmis’ Chicago home.  This was the third straight headlining gig Khemmis has played at the venue.  Having seen them all, I can confidently say they have improved each time.  Stage presence is the big factor here.  For some reason, many in the crowd seemed to have no idea who Khemmis was (local openers bringing a loyal crowd?).  In past instances, the band would have struggled to uncross the arms of these fuckers, but not tonight.

They have grown into the live headliner role that the quality of their records suggests–better set pacing, better dynamic presence, better crowd involvement, and of course better material.  Though the highs weren’t quite as high on Desolation as on Hunted (and I remain baffled by the first song; it is legit like I can’t hear it, Westworld-that-looks-like-nothing-to-me style), Isolation and Flesh to Nothing bring that goddamn ROCK that the best doom always has.  The show is better for it.

And they remembered to keep the Hunted title track in the set, which is where it needs to be permanently.  That is your Hallowed be thy Name boys, don’t forget it.

Mastodon–June 14th, 2019–Northerly Island

I’m not sure why Mastodon can’t just play their own shows, opening now twice for weird bands at Northerly Island–though Primus>Coheed, c’mon.  Today’s venture was well worth the trek, because they were doing Crack the Skye in its entirety.  I saw them do this on the initial Crack tour in 2009.  I was so blown away that every time I tripped I watched (and made anyone around me watch) the movie they played to accompany the album from the DVD. Good times! Unless you are not a metalhead and get freaked out by weird visuals amd aggressive music. Then Im guessing it was a bad time. Sorry.

We walked in 5 minutes before Mastodon started, and the early setting took away from the drama. This was very much a Coheed crowd, with Mastodon opening for them. About halfway through Oblivion, any of that nonsense was gone though, and the band absolutely nailed it.  Ripped right through the album and even tacked on a few classics (Blood and Thunder and Crystal Skull were very welcome).  The visual aspect was there too, with a new full movie accompanying the album.  The new movie will not be unseating the original in my drug routine, but it was cool nonetheless, and gave me a chance to do the above-mentioned brag to unfortunate people standing near me between songs. “The old one had even crazier weird flowing spiral things!”

It would be interesting to see them try a full album show with Remission, because that version of Mastodon seems so removed from our current Once More/Emperor crew.  Not so Crack the Skye.  The album is heavy, but the prog is so forward that this iteration of the band seemed comfortable throughout, even Brent “I hate metal” Hinds. That engagement is vital, as it would have been easy to phone in this set. Opening act, 50 mins to play, half-engaged crowd? Mastodon brought it anyways.

We did not stick for Coheed, so my uninformed opinion that they are annoying and poseur-ish maintains.  Bring it.

Chicago Open Air–May 18 and 19, 2019

Saturday

The scaled down Chicago Open Air couldn’t help but be a disappointment this year. Think about Sunday last year–within a 5 hour span, you had Amon Amarth-Behemoth-Lamb of God-Slayer-Ozzy. That’s some Hell Fest level shit right there. Now with only 2 days, 1 stage, no craft beer tent with free metal juke box, and 4 good bands over the 2 days, there was no escaping the spectre of the festivals imminent death.

Not a bad top of the ticket for a funeral though–SOAD, Tool, Gojira, Meshuggah.

Meshuggah kicked it off on Saturday.  They brought it as always, though it felt a bit rote in comparison to the second stage show from the previous year.  Listening to Thorndendal shred and Haake pummel while Jens Kidman is up there just berating the audience like a madman is good in any setting, but nothing really stood out.

It was a lot fucking better than having to endure Ghost though.  Listen everyone, Ghost sucks.  They just do.  The imagery is lame, the guy can’t sing at all, the riffs are barely present, the songwriting is boring.  They are the Nickelback of metal, and I’m hesitant to even grant them that tangential relationship to the genre.  Stop it.

Thank fuck they ended, and it was time for the long-awaited (for me) return of one of my foundational metal bands, System of a Down.  System was the highlight of the whole festival. Never a tight live act, the band relies on the energy and dynamism of their catalog and audience participation in the live setting.  Each element was in full effect here. Having missed the Riot Fest set in 2015, I was simply excited to be in their presence and have the opportuntiy to shout Chop Suey with few thousand fellow former, and some current, disaffected teens whose musical taste was largely shaped by Toxicity. The nu-metal scene has a lot to apologize for, but I am sure I’m not the only metal fan made so by SOAD.

Sunday

Here’s some advice–if you’re 35 years old, don’t stay up til 4 a.m. then try to go to a music festival the next day.  Interpret the below takes with this in mind.

We showed up for Gojira and then had to sit through The Cult.  What an interesting contrast.


Gojira struggled to fill the space. This likely had more to do with the sound system than the band, but anyone who has seen them in a smaller room knows the real power is their ability to overwhelm, and without that, they do not deliver in the way you want. The material and stage presence was still strong though.

They fared much better than The Cult.  The tragedy of what happened to the Prodigy was palpable, and so was the hostility.  I didn’t notice any outright booing, but you know things are rough when the singer defeatedly says between every song, “C’mon guys, this is a rock show.  We are supposed to be having fun.”  He may as well have said, “Please?  Just pretend to like us?” Fire Woman or Smokestack Lightning or whatever the fuck that song is called is still a good song, but the band’s inclusion here was more indicative of the ineptness of this dead festival than anything else.

Tool did not fare quite as well as System on Sunday. Heres a hot take–retire the current “classics” in the set. Stinkfist, 46 & 2, Schism–they are all great, but we have heard them all numerous times by now. I think the Tool live show would be invigorated by some deep cuts.  Despite a bit of monotony, however, it is always a privilege to watch these guys play their instruments. Maynard was also center stage and visible, which offered a new dynamic and bodes well for the upcoming tour on the somehow real new album.

In between the sets, you could…buy a pretzel? Yikes. Outside of the bands themselves there was nothing festival about this. I would be stunned if this isnt the last Open Air. But if they do bring it back, enough with the cost trimming. It didnt do you any favors attendance wise, and alienated plenty who did show.

June Records

ALBUM OF THE MONTH

Amon Amarth–Berserker

True to pattern, the album after subpar outing Jomsviking is a return to form. Berserker’s best quality is the presence of songs seemingly designed for their live show, to be sung in unison by drunk people with alehorns hoisted when Hegg commands. Thats the point of Amon Amarth.

The Rest (descending order)

2. Black Sites–Exile

The first song has a Machine Head riff at its core, which may or may not be a deterrent. But give this one 3 or 4 spins before making any conclusions–it is a real grower for a band with a unique sound in progressive metal. I kept getting a Queensryche vibe–again, maybe a deterrent for some, but a big compliment from this Mindcrime-obsessed listener.

3. Lord Vicar–The Black Powder

The whole album is good, but the opener steals the show. Best doom song since Candlemass’ prime? Quite possibly.

4. Spirit Adrift–Divided by Darkness

A great album, but also a disappointment. I expected this to be on top of any and all lists this year, but it is lacking that songwriting spark that elevated their last one. Don’t skip it by any means, but check expectations.

5. Ketzer–Cloud Collider

A unique album, thrashy black metal but always played with restraint.

6. Haze Mage–Chronicles

Silly but fun. Each song sounds like Danzig singing about a weird comic book character over a Taint song. Not a bad thing.

7. Possessed–Revelations of Oblivion

Very impressive that Jeff Becerra is capable of this so long after 7 Churches, and the perserverance he’s shown is beyond comprehension (check out the decibel article). But I don’t feel compelled to return to this album. It is competent but rarely inspired.

8. King Gizzard–Fishing for Fishies

King Gizz with another disposable one.

Of 2017’s 5 albums, I would go:

1. Flying Microtonal Banana

2. Polygonwanaland

3. Gumboot Soup

4. Murder of the Universe

5. Scenes of Brunswick East

Fishes is unfortunately most like Sketches. But the next one is apparently a full on thrash album, so no bumming out here.

9. Enforcer–Nadir…I mean Zenith

I really tried with this one, but it is basically a Poison album.

Lucifer–March 21, 2019–Reggies

Image result for lucifer band live shot

Lucifer has been an elusive band for me.  I’ve had to miss the last 3 times I was supposed to see them, once before at Reggies; once before at Thalia Hall opening for High on Fire; and most tragically at the 2017 Psycho Las Vegas show (never be a lawyer).  So despite the fact that it was a school night (but seriously, fuck you Uncle Acid, a goddamn Tuesday next week?) and the first night of the NCAA Tournament, I sucked it up and got my ass down to Reggies.  Good thing I did.

I’m not sure what I was expecting.  I know Johanna Sadonis has put out nothing but quality records in The Oath and Lucifer in the last 5 years.  And I knew Nicke Andersson was going to wear a weird Turbonegro-ish outfit behind the kit.  But as a live animal, Lucifer is not yet a known quantity.  I’m here to tell you that it won’t be long before that is turned the fuck around, because this band just fucking took it to the audience.  Routinely I would hear around me when a song ended, “Wow!”  and “Damn!” as the crowd seemed genuinely shocked at just how rad the whole thing was.

Unapologetically retro and campy, the band with Sadonis at the helm came out intent on doing one thing.  No bullshit between the songs, no let up in the pace, just one 70s hard rock jam after another.  I was a little concerned that the band might appear a little kitschy onstage (indeed, one of the openers, Black Road, fell prey to the attractive, vampy woman/unwashed dude cliche).  But Lucifer felt like a unit that had fuckin fun playing these songs together, and it just so happened Johanna looks like she does.  It was palpable from jump.  I still find myself using that trite “female-fronted” qualifier for bands like Lucifer, but this performance emphasized why that is bullshit.  Doesn’t matter what the gender is.  Does the person give a fuck?  Are they authentic?  Are they talented? Are they doing something interesting?  Johanna checked all those boxes tonight in a fantastic way, and nothing else matters.

Highlights for me were my favorite songs on each of the records, “Purple Pyramid” from the first and especially “Reaper on Your Heals” from Lucifer II, which closed the main set and featured an excellent extended jam in the outro.  Then, just to drive their point home, these fuckers played “Bomber” in their encore.  They were also smoking and drinking non-stop on stage, and engaged in Downing/Tipton synchronized rocking routinely.  If you weren’t having fun, that shit is on you.

Early candidate for a Top 10 show of the year in a spot I wasn’t expecting it.  And I didn’t even get drunk…well…that drunk.  Who wants to be sober at work on a Friday anyways?