Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Live Action, Spring 2012

The gig-going year got off to slow start, but things picked up after the Ancients extravaganza in March. Some interesting and impressive tours have come through town lately…and also Van Halen. Here’s a quick rundown of some shows I attended this spring. I didn’t take any notes at these gigs; I’m working from memory, so details and insight are pretty sketchy. I just wanted to get these down for the record.

April 1: Helms Alee, Thrones, Anion, Dead Terror at Iron Road Studios
Finding Iron Road Studios was a challenge. I followed my usual strategy of discreetly tailing a likely looking pair of rockers off the Hastings bus and down some desolate East Van alleyways till I reached the venue, which doubles as a rehearsal studio. Once I was inside I still had a hard time finding the exact room where the gig was happening. I could hear bands playing behind every door! After doing a complete lap of the place, I found the makeshift bar and merch tables, along with the main room itself. I missed Dead Terror but arrived as Anion were setting up. I’ve seen this band so often lately that I’ve run out of things to say about them. They were loud and intense as usual. Thrones consisted of Joe Preston, his bass, drum machine, and a cluster of very large amps and cabs. Although he played a bass, he doesn’t play bass, if you know what I mean. His music was droney, sludgy, at times ethereal with his pitch-shifted vocals floating overtop. For me, the highlight of his set was a cool interpretation of Amon Duul II’s “Deutsch Népal.” Seattle trio Helms Alee played a sweaty, powerful set of art-skewed heaviness. Tremendous.

April 27: Mares of Thrace, Anion, Weirding, WCHDTR at Funky Winkerbeans
WTCHDR (that’s “Witchdoctor” to you and me) are a newish outfit featuring a couple Burning Ghats. They had the heavy, grindy mayhem down pat; it was just hard to discern what their particular angle on it was. Maybe I’ll figure it out next time I see them. I last saw Weirding at their disastrous DIEcember Fest appearance, where amp problems kiboshed their set halfway through their first number. It looked like the curse had followed them to Funky’s fortress-like stage when their guitarist broke a string before playing a single note in anger. They recovered nicely though and played a great set. Apparently there is Weirding vinyl on the way, so you need to get your mitts on that when it arrives. Anion were up next, rocking up a cake-fueled frenzy on frontman Johnny Matter’s birthday. Mares of Thrace had a troublesome sound-check—half of Thérèse Lanz’s amp setup wasn’t working properly—followed by a couple awkward/comedic minutes waiting for the “all-clear” from the sound guy to start their set. The amp problems continued, but the duo didn’t let any technical issues slow them down. MoT’s chemistry on stage is a joy to observe. You don’t often see bands of their ilk smiling amidst the din they create, but there are moments when the veil of ferocity lifts and they exchange a quick grin for some reason—whether at a little mistake (I didn’t hear any), some in-joke related to the song they're performing, or simply from the fun of playing the music in the moment. The crowd at Funky’s adored them, and demanded (and received) an encore.

April 28: Antediluvian, Mitochondrion, Auroch, Radioactive Vomit at The Rickshaw
Radioactive Vomit kicked off this night of 100-proof, Ten Fucking Skulls Death Metal encased in leather and spikes, hoods and masks. Auroch were a touch classier but no less brutal, delivering some impressive black/death metal as a bass-less trio. I’ve been looking forward to seeing Mitochondrion for a long time, and I wasn’t disappointed. Their presentation was imposing, stoic, and unique, with the drummer’s interesting half-acoustic/half-electronic setup. A trio of twisted minds working as one, they summoned a whirlwind of gruesome sound. Antediluvian had their own unified look, clad in tunics draped with bones, but appeared to struggle to get their sound across. The Rickshaw PA wasn’t helping much either. Although I admit not being very familiar with the band’s material, what I was hearing didn’t give me much to take away, save for a few quieter, atmospheric passages. Despite the sonic deficiencies, the crowd was thrilled to be witnessing the spectacle.

May 1: Opeth, Mastodon, Ghost at The Orpheum

The Heritage Hunter Tour proved to be a tidy, efficient package, custom tailored to give the people what they wanted. Pity the unfortunate Mrs. Mule, who missed Ghost while SkyTraining to the venue after work. Stupid early shows with 7:00 start times. There are no surprises anymore in this YouTube era, so Ghost delivered what I expected. The quintet of nameless ghouls was polished and professional during this recital of Opus Eponymous, save for a track or two (they left out “Stand by Him,” my personal favourite). Judging by the number of people sporting Ghost merch before their set, the Swedes had made a lot of fans already, and gained a lot more afterwards. Mastodon are a great live band, no question, but they’re all business, blowing through their set—most of The Hunter, with at least one song each from Crack the Skye, Blood Mountain, and Leviathan—like a well-tuned machine. From my vantage point, Troy Sanders looked like the only member working to engage the crowd. There was no banter, just some impeccable music. After the last song (I think “Blood and Thunder” ended the set) Brann Dailor thanked the crowd and they were outta there. It was a weird vibe at The Commodore the last time Opeth played here, with the tough-guy grumbling getting louder as the band played through their exclusively mellow set list. The Orpheum crowd was more relaxed, taking the Heritage material in stride and rejoicing in heavier tracks like “Demon of the Fall” and “The Grand Conjuration” tossed at us later in the set. While death metal vocals aren’t Mikael Åkerfeldt’s forte anymore, banter still is. He namechecked Rush and April Wine, teased the crowd about Sweden’s hockey superiority, and mentioned that they had shot the video for “Burden” just down the street at the Vogue Theatre. Putting the band in a plush, all-ages venue more suited to their current musical direction was a good move. It was a satisfying, if not exactly revelatory, evening out.

Sunday, May 06, 2012

Mares of Thrace—The Pilgrimage (Sonic Unyon Metal)

Calgary duo Mares of Thrace’s second album perfects their raging brand of creepy-crawly noise rock. Their debut, The Moulting, certainly did a great job capturing what they were all about, but the recording’s ragged urgency revealed a few rough seams. They were still a fairly new band at that point. After seeing them live a couple times in 2010 it was clear that their fierce playing and dedication to touring would pay off on their follow-up album, and it has. The Pilgrimage outdoes its predecessor in every way. Sanford Parker handled the recording and mix, and extracted the maximum precision and intensity from the group. The sound is huge, built on the twin forces of G. Thérèse Lanz's bulldozing baritone guitar and Stefani MacKichan’s thunderous drum kit. Adding another musician would be redundant, I think; the band’s existing approach doesn’t suit. It wouldn’t be Mares of Thrace anymore. While the red-lined vocals aren’t totally my thing, they are at least consistent and don’t succumb to the hackneyed old growly/clean tradeoff approach. No, Lanz’s voice preaches discomfort and horror amidst her spiralling riffs. How else are you supposed to make yourself heard over such an onslaught?

Music this astringent demands attentive listening. Confronting its stark beauty head on is the best strategy, one made easier by the album’s approachable length and varying flow. The riffs are electrified barbed wire dragged across the art-damaged realm of post-punk/post-metal heaviness. The first four tracks dish out some stern punishment, with “The Gallwasp” standing out as the best crafted and memorable. The rest of the album branches out from there, with the mostly instrumental “Act II: Bathsheba’s Reply to David” and entirely wordless piece for solo guitar “The Three-Legged Courtesan…” providing some welcome, and sinister, mood shifts. When I stick this disc into my computer at work, it comes up as Unknown album by Unknown artist. Stupid bloody computer. Let's get it straight—it’s The Pilgrimage by Mares of Thrace, and it’s going to end up as one of the best albums of 2012.