(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Concert review - Soilwork with Jeff Loomis, Blackguard, and Hatchet

12 April 2013 (Gothic Theatre, Denver CO)
It was metal night at the Gothic with a full line up of bands. There was slightly less thrash for the evening because Bonded By Blood missed the show with a broken van. They got shout outs from the stage, but the other groups shouldered the weight.

Hatchet hit the stage hard and fast with a solid thrash sound. The grinding guitars and rapid fire bass drum showed off their Brit metal/NWOBHM influences, but their foundation is based on classic thrashers like Testament and Slayer. Front man Julz Ramos' shrieking vocals added a shrill intensity.

The band controlled the stage well, very conscious of how they looked. It may have been somewhat choreographed, with coordinated head banging and a lot of back and forth motion, but they kept the small crowd enthralled. Ramos was the key focus, staying in constant motion.

As openers, their set was relatively short, but they managed to spotlight their new album, Dawn of the End. The doom-laden "Vanishing Point" and the rapid fire title cut were both stand-out songs.

Blackguard almost stole the show. Lead singer Paul Ablaze and his band took the stage to a theatrical, pre-recorded intro and could have held the burgeoning crowd for twice the time. With bass player √Čtienne Mailloux apparently missing, Alex Weber from Jeff Loomis' band stepped in and did a fine job rocking the bottom end.

Ablaze was a master at working the crowd. Radiating a mix of glee and confidence, he pumped them up, with restless motion and punk tension. Even though black metal is not my personal sweet spot, his vocals were awesome, rising from a guttural growl to a scream. As he abandoned himself to a psychic blast of raw vocal noise, he became a cathartic channel that focused the band's intensity.

If Ablaze was the face of the band, then drummer Justine Ethier was the heart, spine, and balls. From speedy kick drum rolls to thunderous tom fills, she pushed the band to the next level. She was hands-down the best drummer of the night and she had some fierce competition. Where the growls and grind presented their darkness, Ethier's drumwork hinted at the underlying violent intent.

Guitar player Louis Jacques, who joined the band last year, demonstrated some excellent shredding leads. The group kept a good dynamic balance between the lead and rhythm guitars. Jacques and Terry Roadcase were adept at locking in on the choppy strum, then hitting sharp breaks so a prickly accent riff could fill in the sound.

Where Hatchet's stagework showed its structure, Blackguard kept their traffic flowing more naturally even as they struck all the appropriate poses. Mounting the stage monitors, audience-baiting, and more swirling, synchronized headbanging -- the band had it all and gave us a great show.

As lead guitarist for Nevermore, columnist for Guitar World magazine, and guitar idol, Jeff Loomis has built a career on his skills as a shred-monster in the style of Yngwie Malmsteen. Like Malmsteen, his flashy speed was technically impressive but didn't offer a lot of substance.

Where the other bands filled the stage with churning movement and excitement, Loomis remained fairly static physically even as his hands danced across his guitar neck. As a live performance, it wasn't that interesting beyond the spectacle of seeing how long a flurry of notes he could sustain. Since his machine gun shred dominated the sound, the rest of the band were pushed to the background. The drumming kept up the blistering pace, but remained rhythmically simple.

Loomis made a good effort -- he was friendly and showed some boyish charm -- but he did a better job of being admired than entertaining. In the right band context, stunt guitar can be a lot of fun, but it needs a good front man to elevate the skill into a full show. Without that, the studio would be a better setting for his skills.

Soilwork's set pushed the show back into motion. Powered by Speed Strid's larger than life persona, they had great dynamics peppered with tight rhythmic breaks. Strid tightened his connection to the crowd with a host of small interactions, but there was a Jeckyl and Hyde energy. Singing and growling, he was intimidating: large, loud, aggressive, and sharp as a knife. Between songs, though, his patter was more engaging. He dropped his fierceness to thank the crowd for their support or acknowledge the members of the band. Despite this personality shift, both versions felt genuine. The house was already primed for the music, but his personality made the audience come alive.

The band skipped back and forth through their career, mixing up older tracks like "Final Fatal Force" from A Predator's Portrait (2001) with songs off their latest. The Living Infinite. Because the band has evolved across their discography,  the set varied quite a bit, tossing defiant thrash and death metal jams with their newer rock sounds. There was even a spot of rap-style metal. The stylistic variation, interesting melodic development, and keyboard textures broadened Soilwork's musical impact. We could count on the driving rhythms and hardcore drumming to prod the mosh pit back into action and get us banging along with the band. They demonstrated that a shared ritual of kick drum punch and cathartic excitement are what metal is all about.

The band's momentum easily overcame some minor technical problems with Sylvain Coudret's guitar rig. While Strid dominated, there was plenty of room for the rest of the front line to express their personalities. In particular, bass player Ola Flink proved to be a bit of a clown, although he looks a bit like Ted Kaczynski. Mugging for the audience, there were times that he stalked around with an exaggerated strut. At one point he collapsed on the stage, playing on his back as if he were having a bass seizure.

The stage setup was good, keeping the guitars, bass and vocals on the front line, with the keys and drums in the back. The guitar amps were hidden behind logo screens, but that didn't affect the volume. The one drawback, though, was the fog machine that made it hard to get clear pictures. I hate those things. Soilwork closed out the show with a two song encore, culminating in 2005's title cut "Stabbing the Drama". Strid had us singing the chorus:
I'm waiting for something to show,
I might as well...
Just drag me down so low!
But Soilwork raised us all up.

More photos on my Flickr.

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