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Road Reports

Who: Vreid, Kampfar, Necronomicon, Ov Plagues, Empyreus
Reggie's, Chicago, USA

In Chicago, Autumn is coming. The once-broiling nights are now edging into chill; the microbrews are closing out their Hefeweizens and Kölschs; and the urban fashionistas will soon trade in sporty leggings for six months of sweaters. For some, this is a dour time indeed, heralding the onset of winter and its hellish winds and ice. But for metalheads the fall is a blessing, as it is the finest of all seasons for Europeans to come calling on their Stateside fans. 2011 is set to be a triumph, with such groups as Opeth, Katatonia, Enslaved, and Alcest coming through—and those just comprising two shows. This year, the Autumnal rites began in the final week of August, with kickoff honors going to Vreid and Kampfar, two Norwegian artists that have amassed considerable respect over the past decade among metal fans in the know, if not exactly Billboard-charting sales. Scheduled for Reggie's Rock Club, Chicago's new metal headquarters, this show was going to be intimate from the start. Perhaps a little too intimate, as it turned out, but in any case a worthy and distinctive harbinger of the fall concert season.

Opening the evening's festivities were Empyreus, a north-Chicagoland black metal band of speeding tremolos, moderate keyboard bombast, and scathing vocals that ran the gamut from powerful shrieks to unexpectedly grandiose clean passages. If this sounds like Bal-Sagoth, it isn't; despite their spiked bracers and penchant for songs that are "entitled' instead of simply "called" this or that, Empyreus were no-nonsense black metal that set a strong foundation for the night's proceedings. If their set had been a Scantron multiple choice test, they would have precisely filled in all the right bubbles with a sharp new #2 pencil.

Naturally, though, this did cause them to be a little too 'by the numbers', and for all their tight execution, I can't recall a single melody to mind. Indeed, with a band name as generic as Empyreus and songs as Dark Funeral-ish as 'Mastery of the Black Arts', this local sextet hasn't quite carved out their own niche. But they are also fresh to the scene and have a strong live presence. Also to their credit, it appears that they've recently ditched the corpsepaint—virtually impossible for urban American bands to pull off—and instead wore (or "were garbed in", as they might have put it) standard metal attire: old-school T-shirts from Arcturus, Enslaved, and Bathory, etc. They also brought the best backline of the night, including two Engls with matching cabinets. And that's always a good place to start.

Unfortunately for Empyreus, there weren't many folks around to witness their strong showing. By their set's end, the venue had sixty people in it at most, virtually all of whom headed outside immediately once the lights came up. This proved to be a habit for the entire night; with barely any jockeying for position up front, the entire show's attendance could amble outside to take smoke breaks, purchase questionable double cheeseburgers from the vendors next door, and loiter in the night's warm drizzle beneath the south Loop's perpetual glow.

Reggie's crew mitigated the languid atmosphere by running a tight ship, and in 15 minutes Ov Plagues had taken the stage. What Reggie's unfortunately could not guarantee was the band's performance, which left quite a bit to be desired. If Empyreus derived largely from Dark Funeral (whatever their claims of inspiration from Ulver, Thorns, etc.), Ov Plagues owes its existence to Marduk. Virtually every song featured a four-count on a snare followed by three to five minutes of scratchy tremolo picking, raspy monotonous vocals, and little, nay, no dynamic arc to speak of.

They also lacked for stage presence, which is absolutely crucial to black metal of this style. Monotonous Phrygian strophes performed by say, Emperor, no matter how banal, would still look magnificent. Naturally, not all of us can manage Ihsahn's otherworldly grace (or spiked epaulets, for that matter), but Ov Plagues barely even seemed to be trying. Their vocalist and guitarist, Samael, wielded a Schecter with the string ends still waving around uncut and shuffled about constantly, perhaps unconsciously. The other members looked to be concentrating very intently, as they would in band rehearsal, paying no attention to the audience while playing. At one point, the rhythm section finished a song without Samael, who played on for about 8 more bars before realizing what had happened, and their collective energy was nonexistent. Some of this may be attributed to the newness of the band—Ov Plagues have been together less than a year and apparently have no recorded output to their name—but they are not far behind Empyreus in their career arc and were quite outperformed by their warm-up act.

Following another layover—this one featuring Björk's 'It's Not Up To You', among other unexpected flights of fancy—the night's real entertainment began with Necronomicon, recently rekindled blackened death metal from Montreal. Their latest record, 'Return of the Witch', has met with some mixed criticism, and their logo is undoubtedly an abomination of 90s typefaces, but no one could deny the potency of their live show. Any impartial observer wandering in from off the street (or perhaps the blues open mic at Reggie's Music Joint next door) could have recognized where the local bands ended and the touring artists began: from their coordinated moves to their stage gear, meticulous costumes, and, of course, the exactitude of their performance, Necronomicon raised the bar in every respect.

The band, presently touring as a trio, is led by guitarist and vocalist Rob Tremblay. With a regal profile, high brow, arching nose, piercing eyes, and fulsome dark locks, he is surely the evil twin of Pagan's Mind's singer Nils K. Rue. Aside from a bombastic flair, though, Necronomicon's self-proclaimed "dark metal shit" shares little with those Norwegian proggers. For close on 45 minutes, the Quebecois trotted out one death metal groove after another, none especially brutal but all with more kick than I've heard on any of their records. The backing synth tracks included introductory ululations, female choral vocals, synth stabs, and more I'm surely forgetting, and were occasionally a little distracting. The band members themselves had a strong chemistry together that the fluff of a synchronized computer track could only diminish.

While Rob commanded stage right, to his left was their new bassist, Armaros. A slight fellow with aquiline features, by pursing his lips and with his long hang rakishly falling across his face he looked rather more like a Lady Gaga invention than a metal musician, but his skills on the bass were incontestable. As the only finger-style player of the night, he gracefully skipped around his 5-string BC Rich, utterly unfazed by numerous 30-second intervals of windmilling. On that note, I can't recall the last time I witnessed so much windmilling, and that includes the animated gifs of Amon Amarth's 'Pursuit of Vikings' that conquered the internet a few years ago. It did become a little exhausting, but if I had such mastery of the trick, I'd be tempted to abuse it, too.

And yet, for all that, I'm not sure that I actually enjoyed Necronomicon's music very much. Their recordings have never stirred me much, and although their live show increased the energy and in some cases the technical performances, the songs remained stuck in a spot somewhere between actually visceral death metal and more highfaluting symphonic realms. Too, while one has to appreciate the thoroughness of their presentation, it did smack a little of Dimmu Borgir's Gothic parka fashion shows, which tend to be more style than substance. The crowd was similarly ambivalent—a handful of them headbanging madly, others watching keenly with a skeptical squint. Altogether, I enjoyed the energy they brought to the stage, but wasn't compelled to troll past their merch booth afterwards.

At this point, another opening act could have turned the crowd listless or even sent some of them home early. Fortunately, the next band to the stage were the Norsk black metallers of Kampfar, whom many in the audience treated as if they were the headliners instead of Vreid. From the moment main man Dolk took the stage, he was in complete command, and looking the part in skintight black jeans, a bullet belt, a massive spiked bracer, and a black tank top, the wiry Norwegian was a constant source of intensity. Kampfar's music on record is energetic, yes, but also pensive and sometimes somber—live, Dolk was brimming with energy and even a little crass. He would gesture provocatively with his (blood red) mic stand, slam his fist against his thigh in time to the off-beat snare in a suggestive manner, and was clearly practiced in the Kiss school of tongue-waggling. His black lipstick underlined this attitude quite literally. The caliber of his performance prevented him from descending into silliness, though, as did the raucous, yet exacting, performances of his bandmates. The lone guitarist was Ole Hartvigsen, a new face in a group that has seen many, and he carried the band's melodies with conviction and competence. On bass was Jon Bakker, a longtime member back on stage after sitting out the recent European tour. His performance was particularly tasteful, including some lead melody lines on his Halo bass that wandered up above Ole's supporting chords. (It was a bit of a surprise to see him wielding such an instrument, given that Halo is a relatively small US shop that has endured harsh criticism in recent years. But they seem to have turned over a new leaf, and Bakker appeared to have no issues laying down driving triple time meters all set long.) Behind the kit was Ask, drummer and backing vocalist, whose effortless interplay with Dolk was one of the unsung highlights of the night.

Throughout the set. Dolk took many opportunities to thank the crowd, bowing namastes left and right, and seeming entirely genuine in his appreciation despite the relatively thin attendance that night. He also reflected on how the tour's arrival on the East Coast followed hard upon Hurricane Irene and the earthquake, which was appropriately grim to him. An equally uncommon welcome came from a fan at a recent show, who presented him with a pink princess greeting card…and a dead weasel. As for Chicago's housewarming effort, one drunk fan in the audience offered up our local women for Dolk's enjoyment. These women, I suspect, were not consulted on the matter. Behold, Midwestern hospitality.

Kampfar played for nearly 50 minutes, taking a brief amplifier malfunction in stride—Dolk and Bakker performed a nearly a cappella chant—and giving Dolk enough time to reveal his tattoo—the band's logo spread across his abdomen like a Viking Tupac—in dramatic mid-set fashion. Completing the atmosphere was a heathen couple in full attire: him in Conan-style loincloth, banded armor, and pelts, her in an improbably proportioned corset. I can't say I saw either of them become too animated while watching the set, but I doubt in those costumes that they could even touch their own knees, much less headbang without their outfits falling apart.

Still, these costumers were better off dressing up for Kampfar than for Vreid, the true headliners who took the stage around 11 in matching drabs. These outfits, while perfectly suited to their militaristic vibe, don't offer their fans much in the way of Renaissance Faire-ready self-expression. In addition to their sartorial somberness, the stark lighting—isolated white floodlights, almost wholly absent of filler colors—emphasized the distinction between ye olde Kampfar and Vreid's contemporary coldness. Indeed, their towering bassist, Hváll, seemed to be the only one actually enjoying himself by regularly cracking grins, calling out to the audience, and animatedly using all the space the stage had to offer him.

In retrospect, though, Vreid seemed vaguely stolid only relative to Kampfar's effervescence; a more animated presence could easily have run contrary to the gloom that is pervasive in their music. Whatever the case, Vreid delivered where it counted, playing material from all their records to date with equal vim and unerring precision. The setlist ran: 'Arche', 'Raped By Light', 'Disciplined' (introduced as a song about what happened to WWII female POWs determined to be French spies), 'Blücher', 'The Sound of the River', 'Speak, Goddamnit', 'Wolverine Bastards', 'Jarnbyrd', 'The Others and the Look', and 'Pitch Black Brigade'. Naturally, preference was given to the latter-day material, which tends not to be quite as spry as such early rockers as 'Raped by Light', but the band continue to thread stomping rock grooves through even their most adventurous of material, such as the acclaimed 'The Others and the Look', a 10-minute marathon that passed by with surprising alacrity.

This band's lyrical fare is more broadminded than some others who are content to mine the same Norse legends ad infinitum. Vreid certainly draws much inspiration from that realm—you can't release a record with a rune on the cover and not have songs like 'The Blood Eagle'—but they've also tapped more contemporary subjects with regularity. Whether from 942 or 1942 AD, however, all of their material has echoes of the plaintive melancholy and naturalism of Windir, from which Vreid emerged after Valfar's death.

On record, Vreid's production is traditionally a little thin, revealing those black metal roots, and yet live it was brawny and full. Much of this is likely due to the bassist being overpoweringly loud, but the guitars and vocals both were throatier, giving their self-described "black 'n' roll" a more potent rock punch. That said, their tone did leave rather a lot to be desired, at least on Stian's front. All the touring bands used the same Blackstar backline, and I have heard these amplifiers sound entirely respectable in other settings, but none of the three groups playing through them that evening had a particularly righteous tone. Vreid's frontman Sture Dingsøyr and his Gibson SG came closest, while Stian Bakketeig ran his LTD EC Deluxe (with EMGs) into some processing board and then back to the amp. The results were phasey and too trebly, particularly during the harmonized leads.

A number of their arrangements, especially those from the ambitious 'V' record that has garnered comparisons to Enslaved and other genre-bending Norwegians of late, were necessarily stripped down. Clean guitars were incorporated now and again, but keyboards and the like were absent, causing several songs to feel a little incomplete. And although the new material is absorbing and thoughtful, the more straightforward cuts like 'Raped By Light' received the most vocal assent from the crowd. These songs naturally afforded the band less opportunity to turn in on themselves, such as 'The Others and the Look', which is rife with throwback harmonized leads, clean interludes, and the like.

After the set, some of us reflected that Vreid have all the skills (and discography) to be a headlining act, but perhaps not yet the Stateside fanbase. This is no failing of theirs, however, but rather the natural consequence of 1) the limited distribution of a regional label and 2) the average American metalhead's indifference towards folk-rooted metal that doesn't feature jocular keyboards and/or buxom flautists. I find, however, that after nearly a fortnight since the show, that it is Vreid returning to my mind more so than Kampfar, despite the opposite impression upon leaving the venue.

Although I had hoped for better attendance at the show, for the bands' sake and as well as our own, I am grateful that it was able to take place at all. Vreid and Kampfar represent the substantiating core of a genre that is uniquely Scandinavian—culturally, not just aesthetically—with musical roots that run deeper than the US tour circuit kings in Amon Amarth or Ensiferum. To be sure, both those bands are masters of their craft, but I still hope for the day when the word "Viking" is freed from that glossy, muscle-bound fantasy and returned to the primal earth. In the hands of Vreid and Kampfar, it may.

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