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?

Clutch–March 13, 2019–Concord

A Clutch show is always defined by the setlist.  Even now that we are locked in at 17 songs on the head per night, you are still likely to get a good mix across the nearly 30 years.  And if the roulette ball happens to land on that one you wanted, say a rando appearance of Immortal or Oregon or Pulaski Skyway or John Wilkes Booth, then the whole show can be made just in that moment.

Or they might play 9 new songs, and you’re left just the slightest bit…fucking furious?  Nah, just pissed.

I told myself I’d stop bitching about setlists in show reviews, but this night was really defined by it.  There is no way getting around it.  Fallon came out from jump and said he got fuckin wrecked the night before(“drank all the beers last night”).  As a goddamn rock star, such is his right.  Had he never said anything, I wouldn’t have known based on his performance or voice.  But the lack of daring and creativity in the set choices betrayed a hastily-thrown-together evening of whatever was freshest in his head.  As such, we got long strings of new ones which murdered any momentum the show tried to build.  This was most evident when Cypress Grove and Spacegrass peaked out and the crowd tried to get into it—the move right back to the weaker Book of Bad Decisions material stopped everyone dead in their tracks.

The worst Clutch show is still a great rock show and a good time though, and I’m probably being a little harsh because for whatever reason this one lacked even the good modern staples like The Face, D.C. Sound Attack and Firebirds!  I also can’t help feel like I tempted fate by all my crab cake bits, because sure enough, 3 songs in and we get the recipe.  Barf.

I’ll be back next time though, and every time after that.  Just look at what they did in ’16 at House of Blues, and you’ll know why.

Corrosion of Conformity–February 10, 2019–Bottom Lounge

One day I will learn not to drink four beers before the fucking show and then expect to remember much of the show at which I am also going to drink.  But today was not that day!

At least the COC/Crowbar show is a proper venue for just getting loose a bit.  That’s not to take away from the quality of their songs or the impact on their scenes, but this isn’t exactly Meshuggah-level intricacy going on here.  Go to the show, bang your head, wake up and hate being in your 30s.  Got it.

Showed up a bit late and missed Mothership, who I don’t know anything about, and now MAY NEVER KNOW.

Bottom Lounge gets sold the fuck out anymore.  It can be unmanageable when too crowded, with the bar at the entrance of venue area and the merch/bathrooms all the way across the sometimes-unnavigable floor.  People were pretty cool tonight though–maybe on my same vibe?–so even during Crowbar and COC you could still get from end to end.  Now sell 50 fewer tix per show, Bottom Lounge, you fucks.

Weedeater was the 2nd support act.  They are cool in a Zeke-ish way I suppose, but I’ve never been inspired to pick any of their stuff up, and am still not.  They covered Skynyrd’s Gimme Back My Bullets at some point, and Pepper walked out to help with the chorus.  Only it seemed like Pepper didn’t know much about Weedeater, because predictably their arrangement of the song was too fast and muddled.  So when Pepper tried to actually sing the chorus, his vocals didn’t fit with the too-fast-screamed-vocal version Weedeater was doing, causing Pepper to raise his eyebrows and do the slow-back-out.  My thoughts exactly.

My buddy asked me who was still in Crowbar as they were taking the stage, which was a good question.  Turns out Kirk is the last one standing, and this lack of consistency might be the culprit as to why COC eclipsed their NOLA counterparts.  But the comraderie in that scene always seem to shine through, and that happened again tonight.  Kirk and Pepper took turns breaking each other’s balls, and both are veteran frontmen that know how to keep the crowd’s attention and favor until the heavy hitters come in the set.  For me, Crowbar has fewer of them, but bookending the show with opener All I Had I Gave and closers Planets Collide/Like Broken Glass was smart and effective.  The consistent doom/hardcore line straddling of most of their catalog is engaging enough to bang your head throughout.  Can’t ask for more than that.  CROW-BAR.

The crowd was firmly there for COC though, and the celebratory air and multiple crowd participation sections in the show put that on firm display.  I came to COC through Down around the time America’s Volume Dealer came out, so the greatness of Deliverance and Wiseblood took a while to dawn on me.  Shit, Blind was the record we played most in high school.  In the Arms of God was the first new COC record that grabbed me, and it did so profoundly.  That was my favorite record of the year, and I have a strong emotional attachment to it. To hear It is That Way tonight, and to see the incredible crowd response behind it, was a moment of connection with the room that I wasn’t expecting.

Opening salvo of Stonebreaker and Wiseblood instilled a sense of momentum to the show at the outset, though I wonder if the crowd’s cheer for  Pepper’s offer of”something weird” would have been the same had they known it meant we got Born Again for the Last Time instead of Long Whip/Big America.  Dummies!  The staple is a staple for a reason!

The show fizzled a bit in the back half starting with Vote with a Bullet, a song people think they like until they realize it’s the first half of Blind that’s good.  Too much focus on slow tunes and America’s Volume Dealer material as well.  But then came set closer Albatross.  Any metal and stoner fan who doesn’t get at least half a tear thinking about this one is a sociopath.  The exultancy with which it was met by the Bottom Lounge crowd suggests that wasn’t a problem on this particular night.  Good thing too, getting stabbed sucks.

Closed out, of course, with Clean my Wounds.  Though it is a bit tired at this point, screaming “knock it down” with a couple hundred like minded idiots doesn’t get old.

A little rusty, a little uneven, but COC is undeniably that great live band you couldn’t believe the first time you saw them or heard Live Volume (which if you haven’t spun in a while, do it, damn that record is great).   Not even my hangover the next day managed to spoil that.