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Road Reports

Who: Hypocrisy, Scar Symmetry, Blackguard
Where: Reggie's Rock Club, Chicago, IL
When: 05.22.10

In 2009, Hypocrisy was slated to tour the United States in support of their 12th studio LP, 'A Taste of Extreme Divinity'. It was to be an unusual bill, featuring Ensiferum, among others, as support acts and with Alexi Laiho (Children of Bodom) as their second guitarist. Unfortunately, the tour had to be canceled due to visa issues, leaving Peter Tägtgren to promise that Hypocrisy would return as soon as possible. American audiences have heard that number before and usually are left disappointed, but Hypocrisy pulled through in less than a year and this May are conducting a full tour of the States. Although the support still features Blackguard and Swashbuckle as opening acts, Ensiferum and Ex Deo were swapped out for the rather more appropriate combination of Scar Symmetry and Poland's Hate. Alexi, too, has been replaced, by the less showy but ultimately more fitting Tomas Elofsson (Sanctification). Altogether, a solid bill that ranks as the heaviest I've witnessed in months.

I arrived at Reggie's Rock Club with my companion as Swashbuckle got the evening under way. We chose instead to sample the local fare (a grease-bucket gyro that was reportedly superb) and catch up with acquaintances outside of the venue. One such acquaintance was Jonas Kjellgren of Scar Symmetry, who I'd seen walking a few blocks away from the venue as I looked for parking. I doubted it was him at first (what would a Swede want from semi-industrial south Chicago?), but his profile, shaved head, favored camouflage pants, and distinctive lumber were undeniable. It turns out he'd gone in quest of coffee and ice cream, neither of which were to be had within a mile's walk. Thus informed, he shrugged and, with one of his techs, settled into a booth outside the venue while I headed indoors.

Reggie's is a unique venue—perhaps the sole spot south of the Sears Tower to host a significant number of metal shows—and has done especially well for itself since The Pearl Room closed in Mokena last year. It's a smallish space that would merit the word 'intimate' if it didn't seem to be built like a box of concrete and steel piping, and with a sewer drain gracing the center of the stage. Still, featuring a full bar, decent sound, casually effective security, and reportedly good artist relations, Reggie's star is rising.

After Swashbuckle left the stage at around seven, it was time for Blackguard to really warm up the swelling crowd. This Quebecois crew receives the gold star for being among the year's hardest working acts—before their set closed, vocalist Paul "Ablaze" mentioned that they've been through Chicago five times in the past year. After this tour with Hypocrisy closes, they'll be back on the road after a few months for another eight weeks of touring, this time with Kamelot and Leaves' Eyes. (How's that for diverse audience exposure?)

I hadn't heard much of them on record and in retrospect am glad for it, since their studio work is rather more kitschy and keyboard-heavy than their live show. There, the galloping riffs and Paul's energetic persona take over, transforming Blackguard from Finnish metal worship into a self-reliant headbanging powerhouse. For a band that's been on the road so much—for any band, actually—they looked wonderfully at ease on stage and fully engaged with the audience. I can't say this North American take on 'epic metal' surpasses the European school, but their attempt was much more successful than a number of other groups I've seen and I have to tip my hat to their level of commitment.

Hate was scheduled to follow Blackguard and was an act I was very curious to see. Though they operate in the shadow of Vader, Behemoth, Decapitated, and a few other major names from their country, this band has been making its own way since 1990. In the past handful of years, they've tinkered with their sound, most recently settling on a devastating blend of classic Polish brutality and legitimate black metal accents (practically the reverse of how Behemoth has changed). Hate was also an interesting choice for this bill as the only band not tied to Nuclear Blast Records.

Unfortunately, they weren't able to make it to this date, as they'd fallen behind on the road somewhere between Seattle and Chicago. The tour had a couple off days in between—Scar Symmetry spoke reverently of Bloomin' Onions eaten at the Outback Steakhouse in Sioux Falls—and the 2,000-plus mile trek was apparently too much for Hate's caravan to handle. This came as quite a disappointment, since Polish death translates excellently to live performance and Hate's last two records deserve great acknowledgement. With the big names of Poland treading water for one reason or another, Hate's time to rise to international acclaim is now.

Despite this setback, the show got back on track with another rising act in Scar Symmetry. In short order (i.e. since 2005), this convergence of young talent has spit out four records and managed to redefine the standard for melodically technical metal that blends harsh and clean vocals. In any given song, poppy refrains (even more unabashed than new In Flames) are met with mathy seven-string chugs (that fans of Meshuggah can't deny) and the unique soloing voices of Jonas Kjellgren and Per Nilsson. Altogether, it's a very modern project that won't jive well with hardcore fans of the old death metal school, but for the rest of us they are a rich treat.

In 2008, the band suffered a major loss when vocalist Christian Älvestam left the band. His distinctive phrasing and potent growl had led the way since their beginning, but creative differences sent him back to other less recognized (but no less professional) acts. The remainder of the band refused to bow and bounced back almost immediately with two vocalists—Roberth Karlsson for the harsh vocals and Lars Palmqvist for the cleans. Considering the amount of touring the band does and the complexity of their arrangements it was a logical choice, but it left many fans skeptical. I admit to some myself; the last two-vocalist band I'd seen was Sonic Syndicate (mysteriously, also Swedish and with two 'S' words in their name), who were less than impressive. I figured, though, that even in a worst-case scenario Scar Symmetry's instrumentalists would put on their customarily dazzling show and that it'd be fun to catch up with them after the year that had passed.

I shouldn't have doubted them. Over a forty-five minute set, Scar Symmetry put on a first-class performance from side to side, top to bottom. The setlist ran: 'The Iconoclast', 'Morphogenesis', 'Pitch Black Progress', 'Mind Machine', 'Ascension Chamber',' Chaosweaver', 'The Path of Least Resistance', 'Artificial Sun Projection', 'Retaliator', and 'The Illusionist'. (The new single 'Noumenon And Phenomenon' was crossed off in favor of 'Artificial…') Drummer Henrik Ohlsson said it was perhaps their best of this tour, and that would come as no surprise. Their six members filled the stage, and the two new vocalists complemented each other very well, trading the spotlight smoothly and never competing for attention. It will still take me some time to get used to Lars' clean vocals instead of Christian's, but I have no doubt that he is up to the challenge and a good match for the band. I hadn't heard much from Roberth since his brief tenure with Edge of Sanity, and I must say that the years have been good to him. His roar is stronger and more explosive than ever and matches well with his aggressive stage presence (I could do without the gun gestures to the temple, though).

Between the two of them, the complex vocal arrangements of the studio were well represented, and that's even before considering the harmonies and backing growls provided by Per and Jonas. At times, all four of them would be alternating, overlapping, and reinforcing each others' lines. Despite all this fuss, the vocal presence was never overbearing. In fact, by the end of the set, the two vocalist approach didn't seem odd in the least, as they had balanced the vocal duties precisely—less interaction and the second vocalist would have seemed superfluous, more and it would have been gimmicky.

Bassist Kenneth seemed more at ease on stage than when I first saw him, willing to saunter forward every now and then, provide some backing vocals, and make punctuating sweeps with his black Fender bass. Behind his economical kit (a single bass kick and a modest array of toms and overheads), Henrik was an efficient machine. Guided by his in-ear mic, he kept the band in line with their sample tracks and gracefully smoothed out their stuttering grooves.

I must admit, though, that as a guitarist my attention had a natural bias towards Jonas and Per, especially slinging those seven-strings of theirs. Per was using an Ibanez RG that defines "player's guitar": neck pickup removed, tremolo blocked, toggle switch and tone knob cut out, and a PAF-7 stuck into the bridge (if I remember correctly). Despite its sketchy looks, it seemed to play beautifully and delivered an authoritative crunch through their Pod X3 setup. (For both Scar Symmetry and Hypocrisy, the guitarists ran through Pods, forgoing amps entirely. Both bassists played an EBS head through two 4x10s.) Per's playing was, of course, superlative. He has a distinctly cerebral and incredibly smooth solo voice that matches well with Jonas' raunchier approach, which relies a bit more on the grab-bag of guitarists' tricks and grounds their solo battles firmly in metal territory. Jonas was wielding an ESP F-STD 7: EMG-equipped and with a Sanskrit symbol as its 12th fret inlay. Since there were no other inlays, he'd put pink tape on the back of the neck as fret markers. A less dazzling guitarist than Per but no less entertaining, he provided my favorite moment of the entire concert with a classic Jonas move. About halfway through the set, he took a solo that included a scorching tapping passage. Immediately after wowing the crowd and with our eyes still on him, he nonchalantly wiped his nose with the back of a hand and jumped back into rhythm riffing.

Altogether, their set was full of personality and was also a strong reminder that the band's creative center has remained unaltered, even if its face has changed. Jonas, Per, Henrik, and Kenneth are the authentic voices of Scar Symmetry, both lyrical and musical. Lars and Roberth haven't yet endeared themselves to all the band's old fans, but they are making a great first impression on this tour and I have full confidence in their future collaborations.

Once their set was through, the running crew came out to pull back the black cloth-draped backline, revealing Horgh's imposing Pearl kit and four full stacks of Marshall amps, each framed by a twisted and metallic upside down cross. The fun and games were through—Hypocrisy had arrived.

They emerged in gusts of smoke and light (they've picked up on the trend of those incredibly bright flashing floor lights) and immediately took command of the stage. The four members emanated confidence—titanic Horgh on the drums, new second guitarist Tomas Elofsson, the redoubtable Mikael Hedlund on the bass, and, of course, Peter himself, with his wispy madman beard and eyes rolling back into his head. They were consummate veterans, eschewing the exuberance and eager crowd interactions of the earlier bands, neither of which would have fit with Hypocrisy's mood, anyway. Instead, they held their ground, struck solid metal stances, and headbanged us into the depths of Peter's nightmares: religious blasphemy, relentless misanthropy, and, of course, alien invasion.

On record, Hypocrisy tends to have a faintly poppy twist, and not only on 'Catch 22'. Throughout his career, Peter's trademarks have been sinister sing-alongs and melodic themes that get one's head bopping along almost cheerily, no matter how grim the imagery. In the live setting, this cheer was dispelled and the violent undertones worked their magic on the moshpit. Songs like 'Eraser', 'Killing Art', and 'Let the Knife Do The Talking' sounded better live than I would have thought possible. The band pulled out some of their older material—97's 'Abducted' was well-represented—and Peter's matured vocals improved them considerably. Indeed, just as I'd hoped, Peter lived up to his legend (even with a rough hangover, as he later reported). I've long held him to be one of Swedish metal's most treasured voices, and that night he proved why—from lows to screeching high howls, he was dominant.

There were a couple calls of "Bloodbath!" from the audience, and I admit that a couple cuts from 'Nightmares Made Flesh' would have gone down rather nicely, but overall the audience was enthralled. The setlist ran (approximately): 'Valley of the Damned', 'Hang Him High', 'Fractured Millennium', 'Adjusting the Sun', 'Eraser', 'Pleasure of Molestation' (part of an early 90s medley), 'Apocalypse/The Fourth Dimension', 'Killing Art', 'A Coming Race', 'Let the Knife Do the Talking', 'Weed Out the Weak', 'Fire in the Sky', 'The Final Chapter', 'Warpath', and 'Roswell 47'. The moshpit tired towards night's end, but the room remained comfortably full throughout and very appreciative of all the bands had to offer. It remained a disappointment that Hate couldn't perform, but it turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as it gave us all more time to socialize with the bands after an early (i.e. around 11 pm) wrap.

After the show, most members of the bill adjourned to Reggie's bar next door, where they were playing a two-hour tribute to Ronnie James Dio. The festivities quickly devolved into a Sweden vs. USA arm-wrestling contest (they won) that quite upset security, cupcakes and whiskey shots, serious discussions on Swedish moonshine, and related shenanigans. Henrik of Scar Symmetry was kind enough to show off the Iron Man 2 tour bus that they shared with Hypocrisy—a gargantuan, moving billboard for the video game featuring the eponymous protagonist and a looming War Machine. The three post-concert hours were altogether surreal, but highly enjoyable, as select members of both Scar Symmetry and Hypocrisy were quite inclined to socialize, drink, and be merry. I saw any number of fans leave giddy after taking photos with their chosen hero and maybe sharing a brew. This is the fraternity that most fans dream about, so I tip my cap to the bands for making the effort and Reggie's for providing the opportune environment. The venue has an impressive roster of upcoming shows—from Pentagram to Pestilence, Keep of Kalessin to Katatonia—and this tour kicked off the summer just right. If any other tours this year can match Hypocrisy's for sheer fun, then they'll have cleared a very high bar indeed.



--Etiam



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