Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Up The Hammers live report

Here follow my impressions of a recent live show of several underground Heavy Metal bands (amongst them Atlantean Kodex and Slauter Xstroyes), those that are faithful to the older gods and daring, may crush the link with their mūs.

An club is a relatively small venue but one full of history. Situated in the urban epicenter of Athens, Greece, a usual 'third choice' for international rock bands and most certainly the first choice for most local ones looking for a host. I'd say six hundred people could be packed in there if an organizer were willing to risk an asphyxiation or two (and they mostly do). One of the few places in the capital where anyone can negotiate a live show for a decent cost makes it a staple for metal concerts organized by fans and supporters in the underground. Such is the case with the annual Up The Hammers festival whose focus is on the tried and true types of Heavy Metal. The selection of bands is made on what I suspect is a three-fold standard: quality, cult appeal and willingness to travel.

The club is as underground as the bands that will be playing. The ventilation is often spotty, as is the sound. The stairs up terminate to a civilian road so the early metalheads loiter in packs before the show, perhaps grab a bite in the adjacent sandwich shop.

From an anthropological point of view I expect the North American listener of extreme music (in the general sense) would be shocked to survey the crowd that gathers outside. Wave after wave of the traditional roving metalhead packs gather for the pilgrimage. Two or three dedicated longhairs, perhaps a girlfriend decided to come, perhaps the wayward metal brother that has succumbed to societal pressures is willing to put on the faded colors for the occasion. They gather in close-but-not-too-close circles, perhaps exchange some pleasantries with each other but mostly keep to their coterie. Uniformly the fashion is out of 1983 or so. Even the retro-thrasher look that is in vogue around the globe right now is a minority this night. Instead the paraphernalia of an older zeitgeist dominate. Manowar covers on cut denim on top of leather jackets, spikes on wristbands, bright red patches in a sea of black, a bandanna, 'Sign of the Hammer' or 'Melissa'. There's as many balding heads as there are manes. I saw a tall lanky dude with black raven hair, a widow's peak, pointy devil's goatee and Fu Manchu combo, long v-cut spandex shirt displaying a proud chest of hair, vinyl tights, knee-high black boots and a St. Vitus tattoo right on top of his heart and you know he means business. There aren't many beard-men around, not many casuals, even the women are decked out. These are the people who no longer wear the outfit to shock their school teachers, they wear it as a tribute to how the perpetually teen-aged spirit of metal has shaped them. For good and bad and worse.

Vents are working fine this time thankfully. Raging Storm open early to a friendly crowd and they capture the Greek power metal gamut perfectly, from Maiden-only-faster to more austere Manowar worship. Reformed for the occasion, there were some rough edges but on the whole a good way for the evening to start. There is much applause and wide grins all around, the underground is feeling good tonight.

Swedish newcomers In Solitude go up next. I haven't heard a note of them before. They look like they're sixteen years old, singer in particular is a handsome thin boy that's going for a King Diamond slash fashion catwalk look. Burly aged Greek metalheads survey below, takes some balls. They hit their first few chords and I quickly get what this is going to be about, Swedish NWOBHM revival but with a twist. The singer's displaced baritone vibrates overhead, conjuring a spirit that is ageless and nameless, those that love Heavy Metal know it well. Most bands don't conjure shit so I'm paying attention now.

By the graces of NWOBHM, the material's easy to follow, I'm chanting choruses I've never heard by their second repetition now. Singer, black paint under his eyes, third eye drawn on his forehead, teenage shoulder-length hair now tangled up and dripping sweat, holds his off-hand high and open, blesses crowd and says "It is strange where some find God, isn't it?". Yes, yes it is.

I've been spotting affiliations on the band's garb for a while now. Master's Hammer patch, Root decal. Repugnant guitar sticker. They're one of these Swedish death metal kids turned to full-on NWOBHM worship, aren't they? It's hard to imagine them having a different band before this one though, they look so young. There's a Bleak House logo on the singer's purposefully torn and dusted denim too, I might not be convinced but I am impressed. I look around and see I'm not alone. They finish their set with an instrumental, their singer leaves the stage early. Akimbo guitars feedback to the bitter end. Enthusiastic applause from grumpy Greek trad metalheads in their thirties, high praise.

Dexter Ward are up next but they're not doing much for me so I go up for air and a sandwich in the nearby eatery. They've got a projector showing a football game. Lots of lazy metalheads spending the inbetween there. Seems like the sandwich shop man knows how to cater to this crowd. It's still 0 - 0 but AEK is playing badly, I suspect Larissa will be winning soon.

I missed Atlantean Kodex's introduction but none of the material, that's great. Well, I'm not a huge fan but I can appreciate a heartfelt show when I see one. I don't listen to Heavy Metal to belong, I never did. Not in a posse, not in a scene, not in some forum, it's a private affair. The Manowar thing perhaps falls flat even more for me because of all the 'metal brothers' bullshit they keep going on about. No longhair is my brother by default.

Atlantean Kodex are very audibly huge Manowar fans. They do not mention any 'metal brothers' at all (in fact the bit of stage banter that stayed with me was "there's so much culture here [in Athens], it makes my dick hard"), but I get this strange vibe from them on stage and from the crowd below, as if they're one clan. Perhaps bands like Atlantean Kodex have misinterpreted Manowar, taken them literally (as most Greek fans of the band I've talked to certainly seem to) but all the more power to them, I say. They've taken a joke and turned it stone cold serious. They conclude their set aptly

"Beneath the black mountain we're lead astray
Never to see our home again
Beneath the black mountain our journey ends"

I see below their friends are moved. Everyone's singing the coda lyric, myself included. I am thinking to myself "by moonlight we ride / ten thousand, side by side" and it's not so funny anymore.

Overdrive are up. Some old NWOBHM band. Bizarrely, they also employ a keyboardist that is fond of arpeggios. I stay for a couple of songs, they're not bad, just not for me. At least not after Atlantean Kodex messed up my metal ontology. I go overground to check on AEK and replenish supplies.

When I return to the underworld Enforcer seem to be in their second song and over the course of their set I come to realize it sounds like their third, fourth, fifth song and probably their first one too. If In Solitude's were a pleasant surprise, this other set of Swedish teenagers... not so much. I've not seen such an energetic live show since forever, though. Everyone on stage is all over the place, tempos are two hundred beats per minute and up uniformly. No ballad, no epic dirge. Their Swedish chops hold the motörheadisms from running together too much, blond teenage-looking singer with the fluffy hair is falsetto yelping the-end-of-every-line. Their Guitar Left dude is playing with his teeth. I guess I should be impressed by their vitality and for the first twenty minutes I kinda am but by the time they hit their second encore I've never been so tired so fast. I don't take drugs but I expect that's how a cocaine down feels like.

Slauter Xstroyes are up next. Most readers might not be aware of the Chicago band's cult status in the underground, some might be reading their strange name for the first time. Appreciators of the history of metal often say the genre peaked in originality in 1984 and then gene-spliced itself to its various permutations by 1986 and "it's all downhill from there". Slauter Xstroyes put out their debut, 'Winter Kill', in 1985 to little fanfare. A year too late to claim to be originators, a year too early for their innovations to become standardized. Must have sounded so sci-fi compared to Priest and Maiden back then. Their extremely tightly performed US-styled power metal is characterized by the almost manic mood changes in both singer's John Stewart's delivery and in the accompanying twisted compositions penned by Guitarist Paul Kratky and bassist Brent Sullivan. They could be said to be spiritual peers of another early US metal juggernaut, Jag Panzer, standing proudly on a different league to the more 70's styled metal bands that thought a single good riff and a memorable chorus were enough to make for a good metal song. No duds on that record, no filler and no mercy either. It accumulated cult acclaim slowly over the years while the band were gathering steam for their sophomore outing, 'Free the Beast'. Sadly as was the case with a lot of promising US metal acts, things fell through and the 1998 release of that record was untimely as it was posthumous. Never mind that the record was a masterpiece, the ship had sailed for them.

There is an allure to a band that goes out in their prime. especially in 'cult metal' circles. Imagine if Metallica broke up after Master of Puppets. Slauter Xstroyes are usually framed by hyperbole when discussed by metal curmudgeons. “Better than Maiden any day” is one I've heard a lot of times. “Best bassist in metal” is another. Regardless of whether I agree or not I can see where the draw is that leads to such extravagant statements of adoration. I first listened to Winter Kill in a my friend Jason's bedroom. I was a teenager early into metal and he was three years older and a few hundred cherry-picked records wiser than me, he had decided to set me on the right path. I listened to Omen that afternoon, to Watchtower, to Cirith Ungol and to Slauter Xstroyes. He must have said something like “you probably won't like this” before he played me the Winter Kill title cut and like always, half in spite, half in honesty, I said I did. Although the singer was alternating between forceful mezzo and King Diamond shriek in a seemingly random manner, although the song had more stop-starts than three Megadeth records and although the production was remarkably both dry and muddy. There was something there, unique and proud, unashamed. It took me a long time to actually fully appreciate that record like many other gems he had played for me and now that he's no longer here I often wonder how I could thank him.

When I heard Slauter Xstroyes were back together I was really hesitant, I checked Metal Archives and saw original singer John Stewart is not in the reformed line-up and that Paul Kratky's the only guitar player now. I never check out touring youtube clips before going to see live shows, it defeats the purpose. I had seen Omen with a new singer and a nigh-incoherent Kenny Powell on guitar in the last Up the Hammers so I was expecting something equally disappointing.

So up they go, they introduce themselves and proceed to slay.

Heavy Metal might be a young man's game but there are glaring exceptions. I've often been disappointed by reunion shows if not for inability to perform up to standard by that most often the reformers seem to be going through the motions for a paycheck. Playing songs but not conjuring entities. This isn't the case here. To start with, this is the tightest, strongest power trio I've heard play live. Kratky's trading riffs for fills with himself and Brent Sullivan is in “best bassist in metal” form. An club has graced us with great, crunchy sound and that's a great blessing for bands like these (I remember how in a past Up the Hammers, Brocas Helm had played with an ear-piercing guitar tone so trebly one couldn't tell the what the tonality was anymore). So, the sonic foundations are there but that wouldn't be enough.

New singer's got the pipes too. He hits every Stewart scream with gusto and great respect (respect? Yes, there is respect in replicating sublime material exactly, as one does not improvise on top of a J.S.Bach fugue with a light heart) and he has grace. Simple stage presence but effective, he holds the crowd in sync and it's a wild ride through emotions that change as abruptly as the colored stage lights. I'm sitting here trying to chop it up in discrete pieces, 'this was good, that was great' but honestly Slauter Xstroyes were one thing up there, they were together as a band, not as 'some musicians doing a reunion tour'. Sweat is running down brows as chords and leads are struck and their grimacing faces don't look old now, they look ancient. Carved out of stone. I go from appreciation to awe in the span of the first song. You know that Heavy Metal feeling?

The negative space underlines the sculpted contours and they play a new song to drive the Gestalt in. It sounds like it would belong in 'Free The Beast'. Schizoid and playful like much of that record yet urgent, crushingly immediate. I'm on board for their new album now, excitement, anticipation. Hope they keep this singer. Hope they put out ten records as good as the first two. Hope they grow from cult favorite to sans cult, they deserve it and let the elitists bitch. Really glad, grateful to have seen them. I'm fourteen years old again, listening to this US metal record defining my whole life. Slauter Xstroyes, how do you even pronounce that?

Well, after that Doomsword played. I'd be kinder to them if they had played below Slauter Xstroyes, kinder still if they hadn't put out a few records worth of redundant material since the beautiful first two. I stick around for the first five songs. They play well, they believe what they're doing and the crowd appreciates them. Sadly I'm in no mind to follow their steady pace after the tangential excursions of the night's real headliners. I head home excited, my fingers are pressing Slauter Xstroyes riffs in the palm of my hand and with memories to guide and inspire.


Nekromantis said...

I'm not really sure what to think about the SLAUTER XSTROYES revival. I would probably go see them live if I could but I wouldn't expect the same things I get from listening to Winter Kill. The SLAUTER XSTROYES I know and love had a vocalist who wasn't just capable singer but became a part of the very essance of their music. Trajected his own ethos into it if you like.. Or at least that is how it sounds to me and I don't know could I bear listening anyone else singing "BLACK ROSE! You gaaa-aaaave me thorns!" be it Halford (what a bizarre thought!), ressurrected Midnight or "Tyrant" Conklin.

Helm said...

Your concerns are valid in the case of any band revival where key members were missing. If you see them live you'll note that their new singer is treating the material with a lot of respect and an extremely capable voice. I couldn't expect more of him when it comes to material he hasn't birthed himself, I am hopeful for the new record where he can contribute properly.

The big thing was that from the live show and its energy I got the strong impression the rest of the band were very very into what was going on, it didn't sound like a 'bad copy' to them and their enthusiasm for 'Slauter Xstroyes, done right' was audible, visible. This is a good sign for things to come.


I cannot beleive you saw Slauter Xstroyes.... !

My much older cousin force-fed Winter Kill to me to no avail in the mid-80s. I was too taken with Maiden to listen to anything else, and found them odd and "dated".... maybe far too unabashed and "Heavy Metal."

Years later I was searchng high and goddamn low for the LP. Still am... SLAW-TUR EX-STROYES

Helm said...

That's fascinating, Slauter Xstroyes sounded sci-fi compared to Iron Maiden to me even back when I first heard them. But odd, yes.

The debut is going to get a reissue soon I think.


"Sci-fi" is apt.

My exposure to Heavy Metal at that point was limited to Maiden, Priest, Crue, etc. Slauter was completely alien, ancient/primodial sounding even... although it shouldn't have been.

Helm said...

Yes, all those things. The pertinent quote is

"It really didn't matter if they liked it or not, I was going to give it to them straight down their throats" -John Stewart

Nekromantis said...

Love that line. It has the same confidence and insolence as his performance on record. I will build a new citeeyyy - not made of wood, but Heavy Metal steeeeel!