Monday, August 31, 2009

Six Organs of Forbidden Woods

Wherein I round up reviews of recent shows. It’s been a busy summer for gigs, almost as relentless as the heat that pounded our pale Pacific Northwest hides for a couple weeks in July and August.

Six Organs of Admittance, with The Intelligence and Master Musicians of Bukkake, August 20 at The Biltmore
This was quite a different Six Organs of Admittance show to the one a few years ago at the Media Club, where Ben Chasny and band promoted The Sun Awakens with a demanding, aggressive set. He took a folkier approach for this show, playing acoustic guitar throughout, supported by another guitarist, an occasional synth player, and, for a few songs, a larger cast drawn from openers Master Musicians of Bukkake. Chasny’s modest demeanour contrasts with his monstrously dexterous guitar playing, taking the finger picking and open tunings from early '60s British folkies like Bert Jansch and launching them into the psychedelic fringes (just as his other band, Comets on Fire, does with garage rock). He must have played mostly new material because I didn’t recognise a lot of it. An atmosphere of quiet devastation prevailed, highlighted by a stirring version of “Strangled Road” from Shelter in the Ash. Not that the show was a downer by any means. Music appears to effortlessly emanate from Chasny's fingers, and it's a thrill just to be present while it happens.

Prior to Six Organs of Admittance, the two boys and two girls who make up The Intelligence delivered a nice surprise in the form of a peppy set of post-punk inspired pop. Think Joy Division, Buzzcocks, Gang of Four. Their punchy songs helped ground the gig to this earthly realm, positioned as they were before Six Organs and after a fascinating ritual performed by The Master Musicians of Bukkake. As my friend remarked after the Master Musicians' set, “I wouldn’t even know how to describe what that was.” To take my own stab at a description, MMoB resembled beekeeping monks playing Asian-tinged drone in dry-ice fog. Recommended if you like: Secret Chiefs 3, SUNN O))) and Popul Vuh.

Woods of Ypres, with Trollband and Torrential Pain, August 24 at the Cobalt
Ontario’s Woods of Ypres have put in some serious mileage this summer, with a Western Canadian tour that took them from Sault St. Marie out to Victoria and back. I had high hopes for their Vancouver debut, but harboured some nagging dread about what might happen to them in this cesspool surrounded by mountains. Please, Vancouver, I thought, don’t be too sketchy—just let them play a good show. After a fun if over-excited performance by local folk metallers Trollband, Woods of Ypres took the stage in front of a decent-sized crowd and started raging immediately—so intensely that bassist Shane Madden broke a string and had to battle through the bulk of the song. The rest of the band sounded great, and were set to dominate once they’d procured a replacement bass. “Your Ontario Town is a Burial Ground” was next, surprisingly early in the set for such a stadium-sized, encore-ready song.

Although most of the crowd was loving it, one or two dudes were clearly not, glaring at the band and throwing the occasional middle finger. Perhaps they’d come expecting to see some other band called Woods of Ypres. Maybe the Woods guys—unpretentious, regular guys—weren’t putting across a grim enough image for a black/doom metal band.

While I was taking in this scene, my wife took an odd turn and I followed her out of the club to get some fresh air and make sure she was OK. I hailed a cab for her, which stopped a little past the throng out on the sidewalk. As I got her bundled into the back seat, I heard a “smash! smash! smash!” behind me. My wife shut the door and the cab took off but quick. I turned around to see the Woods of Ypres van with its front windshield smashed in and two dudes—the same guys having a lousy time inside—rushing across Main Street towards the Skytrain. One of them turned back towards us and said, “That isn’t black metal!”

I reentered the club and watched the rest of Woods’ set in a completely bewildered, increasingly sad state of mind. Woods were incredible, but I couldn’t enjoy the show. I was just embarrassed for this city and sorry for the band, who wouldn’t even be able to drive to their next stop all because of some elitist asshats and their infantile, cretinous attitudes and actions.

Forbidden, with Gross Misconduct and Magnus Rising, August 26 at The Bourbon
I was never a Forbidden fan, but my friend Smash, whose taste in thrash I trust implicitly, gave me the opportunity to go. After the miserable vibe of the previous show, some good old thrash would be the perfect tonic.

Magnus Rising had plenty of groove and grunge, but their material is rather ill-defined at the moment. It sounds like they’re taking cues from Soundgarden and Kyuss without capturing either of those bands’ flair for variety and quirkiness.

Seasoned deathsters Gross Misconduct were solid as ever with their Death and Morbid Angel-tinged attack. They're comfortable enough on stage to banter aimably between songs while being deadly serious when in full flight. Wicked stuff.

Forbidden carried on in a similar vein, laying down some ferocious thrash and engaging the mid-size crowd with amusing remarks, including a tale of getting grilled as potential "undesirables" at the Canadian border only to find themselves driving through the most "undesirable" part of Vancouver on their way to the club. As vocalist Russ Anderson put it, "And they didn't want to let US into their country?"

New drummer Mark Hernandez was undoubtedly the star of the show—his crisp, hard-hitting attack was a marvel of precision and stamina—but the rest of the band acquitted themselves well, and if the new song "Adapt or Die" is indicative of the rest of their new material, Forbidden should pick up enough momentum to be playing to crowds of thrash-metal zealots for a long time to come.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Down with Voivod, Danava and Weedeater, August 10 at the Commodore

Superfan Phil Anselmo made sure he brought along some interesting bands on the Canadian leg of the Down tour. The four band bill started efficiently at 8:00. I arrived in time to catch a few numbers from Weedeater, who played dire, overdistorted sludge with some valiant attempts at power trio jamming that were lost in the low frequency morass. Bands like this are always best when riffing in unison, which is what they did on their last song, sounding powerful instead of hobbled...but it was too late.

Danava, another trio, were more of a players’ band, laying down some lengthy jams with plenty of soloing. The playing was tight and full of proggy digressions, and the vocals were refreshingly vocal-like. They were fun to watch but the tunage generally went in one ear and out the other. After announcing a special guest would be joining them for the next number, a hooded figure with a guitar entered stage left—the night’s first Phil Anselmo sighting! The crowd surged, then tapered off once everyone realized that the Down frontman’s axework was inaudible.

The bands thus far had been playing under a banner bearing the Killing Technology-era Voivod logo. It was now time to put the prop to good use. Considering that Voivod’s first visit to Vancouver was on the 1990 Nothingface tour headlining over Soundgarden and Prong—in this very venue—they had nothing to prove in terms of their status as legends. They did have everything to prove in terms of being a viable band without the singular talent of Piggy on guitar and honouring their legacy. The unmistakable surging tritone introduction to “Voivod” set the mood. Expectations took a nosedive when the song turned into a messy soundcheck-in-progress, with no snare drum, vocals cutting in and out, Snake glaring at the soundman and pointing furiously at the monitors. Thank the cosmos that it all came good for “The Unknown Knows” and the rest of the set, which featured just about every Blacky-era “hit” (for Blacky had returned, playing the same bass he tortured back in the Nothingface days) plus “Global Warning” from Infini. With the set focusing on ’84 to ‘92 material (some of the best, maddest metal songs ever written), the gig was pretty much a dream fulfilled for fans. Angel Rat’s “The Prow” was a personal highlight, while the most unexpected selection was “Overreaction,” a deep cut from Killing Technology. Martyr’s Daniel Mongrain did a remarkable job on guitar, replicating Piggy’s sounds and tones with the touch of a true acolyte. Anselmo, displaying a stage-hopping bonhomie worthy of Ron Wood, joined Snake for a duet on “Nothingface.” With a triumphant charge through “Astronomy Domine,” they were done. Having brought Piggy’s final recordings to fruition on Infini, it’s impossible to say where Voivod may go next, but on this night they gave Vancouver’s chapter of the Iron Gang something to remember forever.

Down were all good things. Not being familiar with their discography, I can’t comment on the quality of the setlist. It was, however, interesting to observe and compare the crowd to the throng that came out to a similarly packed Clutch gig a couple weeks before. Where do all these people come from? Clutch attracts a diverse array of people, from outright metalheads to dreadlocked ‘n’ tiedyed types, to Tim from Sales...all hell bent on partying down. The Down crowd is more burly, buzz-cut, and mosh-crazy. Paradoxically, the level of testosterone was a little lower at the Down show, due to the number of ladies in attendance. Phil and Pepper can’t half pull them. Both shows and both crowds were proof that good old hard rock and metal that translates well live (unlike most newfangled subgenres) are still a big draw. Good riffs played through a wall of amplifiers will always bring the faithful out of hiding.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Worlds Away: Voivod and the Art of Michel Langevin (Spider Publishing)

The fabled Michel “Away” Langevin art book has arrived. The iconic illustrator and Voivod drummer/conceptualist has long promised a collection of his visual work, but the delays in completing the project are completely understandable—Voivod’s career has been stranger than fiction these last five years. I'm happy to report that Spider Publishing and Martin Popoff have done an excellent job with this satisfying slab of a book.

“When I think of metal album covers I think of Voivod and Michel’s art,” says Dave Grohl. Dave and I have something in common. I've always considered heavy metal as music from another plane—a bleak, brutal alternate reality I like to visit, then clamber back to my comfortable, boring life. Langevin’s art (along with Giger, Dan Seagrave and perhaps a couple others) was a wormhole to lead you down into that dangerous, deafening dimension. I can honestly say I bought War and Pain on the strength of its cover art, though I'll admit that Voivod's status as one of Canada’s first thrash metal bands and their legendary bad review in Kerrang! also piqued my interest prior to the album showing up at A&B Sound. With its red-and-black palette, rough approximation of perspective, and visible canvas texture, War and Pain's album art exuded an otherness that was borne out by the crusty punk-metal lunacy of the music itself. Subsequent albums perfected the sound-vision symbiosis. The pulverizing momentum of RRRÖÖÖAAARRR was captured by the Voivod-as-Tarkus-tank cover image. The demented mutant Voivod in space depicted on Killing Technology represented the science-gone-mad theme of the album. Voivod were thrash metal’s premier conceptualists, a perception immensely bolstered by Langevin’s art.

The book traces Away’s style from his earliest Metal Hurlant-inspired alien doodles to his first real painting (a bleak landscape that could have worked as an early Ulver cover), through all his Voivod designs, to his more recent commissions (Probot, for example). Martin Popoff, a painter himself, devotes chapters to each Voivod album. As it turns out, Langevin's style and techniques expanded as he tackled each album cover—the oil and acrylic paintings of first three albums, the airbrushed Dimension Hatröss and the Amiga-powered computer art of Nothingface. The book features of hundreds of sketches, doodles and paintings, all lovingly reproduced. The album covers look particularly vibrant.

The book’s aesthetics would have benefitted from a more sympathetic typeface. Langevin isn't really a Times New Roman kinda guy. Mimicking the look of Langevin’s beloved OMNI magazine might have been a nice touch. The lack of captions (other than labelling certain illustrations by year) is sometimes irritating, especially when the text refers to a work that sends you rifling back through the pages in search of it. As well, Popoff lets his voice slip at points where Q & A sessions suddenly break out in the midst of a third-person narrative. As is common with rock books, a thorough copyedit would have caught a couple clangers.

However, it’s Popoff’s archive of interview tapes that makes Worlds Away much more than a catalogue of one man's drawings. This is no less than the definitive story of Voivod, told through Langevin’s art and his bandmates’ words. Snake, Piggy, Blacky, Eric Forrest and Jason Newsted are all accounted for, giving forth on Langevin’s talents as well as Voivod’s fluctuating fortunes over the past 25 years. If the narrative stumbles and digresses a little, at least I can’t dispute that I learned a lot about one of my favourite bands. It’s an inspiring story, and Popoff doesn’t blow his chance at telling it through the work and words of Langevin, an inspiring artist in his own right.