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Road Reports

Who: Grave, Blood Red Throne, Pathology, Gigan, Morgue Supplier, Air Raid
Reggie's, Chicago, USA

The first proper Swedish death metal set I ever saw was performed by Grave in 2006, supporting Dismember on a two-week Stateside tour. They were a trio at the time and fit just right onto the cozy stage of The Abbey on Chicago's north side. Their performance fulfilled every expectation, and when Dismember followed as quintet, they felt effusive, even superfluous in comparison. Headliners they may have been, but it was Grave's stern presence that left the strongest impression. Five years later, Grave has returned to Chicago on a headlining tour of their own, this time at the larger venue of Reggie's Rock Club, and it was only proper that I make another pilgrimage to meet them.

The last Reggie's show I'd attended began an hour after doors opened, so I assumed the same would hold for this evening. Around 6:30 or so, I wandered from the next door bar into the merch room that connects to the Rock Club venue and Record Breakers, its indie record shop upstairs neighbor. The room was filled with The Clash posters, Def Leppard babywear, and more buttons for obscure punk artists than I could count in a lifetime. I had a few minutes to kill, I figured, so I might as well start and see if I can pick through Dick Dale before the show begins. But then, booming through the wall came a truly show-stopping bass fill followed by a breakneck assault of thrash riffing, and it was obvious that the night's entertainment had already begun. I soon found this to be Air Raid, a Chicago thrash outfit whose live performance puts their recorded material to shame. It seems they were a quintet at one point, but they performed this evening with only four members, bassist John Rix pulling double duty on vocals, and after that performance I can't see why a vocalist would be necessary. These four members played with fervor, but never recklessly, and John seemed equally at home on his four strings as in front of the microphone.

The band is still small enough that a Google search for 'Air Raid Chicago' links to more disaster advice than metal websites, but has evidently been around for close on a decade. Given how the thrash revolution of recent years has largely dredged up the lowbrow party animals, it is very refreshing to hear a band get this technical and pull it off: alternating solos, frenetic rhythmic patterns, relentless arrangements, and all performed, of course, at presto tempos. It was an alarming display, especially for a bill headlined by the primal beasts in Grave. Next time, I'll be sure to catch their full set, and in the meantime I would very much like to hear what Air Raid would have to offer on a full-length record.

Next up were Morgue Supplier, who slowed and sloppied things down in true Chicago fashion. This city seems to have a uniquely gruff take on extreme metal—less creaking and arcane than the best of the Floridian school, miles away from the technicality of the West Coast, and rarely as scowling or pummeling as New York. Death metal here is more brutish than brutal, and with songs like 'Fuck You Note', Morgue Supplier is a case in point. I was a little put off by their lackadaisical stage show—large, burly fellows staring at the ground with a vocalist who cupped the mic to receive his formless emissions and rocked back and forth constantly—which I admit biased me a bit against the music they had to offer. Returning to their 2009 EP, 'Constant Negative', I hear more to celebrate than I did in concert, which felt muddy, messy, and not as bracingly grind-frenzied. Perhaps a full set would have changed my mind in their favor, but a more pressing errand presented itself.

You see, Norwegians and liquor go together like 'tørr' and 'fisk', and although Reggie's provides food and beer to its performers, spirits are not freely given. And so it was that, at the pool table on the roof of the venue, members of our party encountered Blood Red Throne in quest of booze. The chief crusader was Ivan, a Dimebag ringer (he even plays Dean guitars and Krank amps) who joined the band before their American tour last fall in support of Dimmu Borgir. On the Chicago stop that night, I had caught only the tail end of the set due to a lineup shuffle (as Ivan tells it, the post-Gwar pseudo-metalers in Dawn of Ashes showed up late and took too long putting on their costumes), and so was very much looking forward to their performance this evening. But we still had several hours to go, and Ivan needed some wheels to the liquor store. So we piled into a friend's late-model red Ford Mustang and charged off on State St, headed north. Ivan, coming from a continent of practical hatchback coupes and sleek sports cars, was duly impressed, asking about its horsepower, etc., and the driver was happy to demonstrate its torque. We arrived at the grocery store and wandered for a bit before locating the alcohol mezzanine, where Ivan latched onto a handle of Seagram's whiskey ("In Norway, this costs 80 American dollars") and a two-liter of Coke. With time to spare, we repaired to the venue and were ushered down to the green room (literally green, due to eerie fluorescent bulbs that glimmer barely overhead), where other members of the tour were lounging about on the sofas stashed into the many nooks of Reggie's labyrinthine basement. There, we met the band's co-founding guitarist, Død, a man of imposing physique but a disarming smile, and the discerning Vald, who commented offhand that there was too much chlorine in the ice before taking another swig. In their company we spent the rest of Morgue Supplier's set and half of Gigan's, discussing metal venues in Norway and the States, the nature of touring, and the 48-hour cycle of drinking and sobriety that has been carrying the band through 24 straight days of concerts. Altogether, a charming episode.

Not wanting to miss too much of the show, I eventually took my leave and headed back upstairs to witness the future-grind death-alien confabulation known as Gigan. My first impression of them was that the audience was very still—not out of boredom, but rather a transfixion that ranged from mystification to obsession to perplexity and a few instances of revulsion. And this is entirely understandable: with their almost cartoonish alien banners, aggressively green stage lighting, convulsing rhythms and almost complete lack of conventional riffing, Gigan is not a group easily digested or dismissed. It is as if Gigantic Brain and Intronaut fell into a wormhole and emerged out as a single, hideously deformed entity that shifts between planes of percussive jazz fusion, freak-out modern death metal that would do Portal proud, and a faintly gory edge that jives perfectly with the band's Tampa origins.

Naturally, it's impossible to throw so many explosive elements into one pot and have them emerge with any sense of cohesion, so the band's live show was something of a mixed bag. Visually, at least, it was fascinating. Eric wielded a USA-made BC Rich monstrosity with a green flamed maple cap while vocalist John Collett stabbed at the air and struck rigid poses with his upper body, not at all intimidated by the lengthy instrumental passages. Meanwhile, the sound mix was just clear enough to prove that some structure did actually exist in all of these songs, but not clear enough to follow with any success. I can't say it was a deeply satisfying performance, but it is one I feel compelled to revisit, since these things sometimes take time to gestate, like the Ceti eels from 'Wrath of Khan' that slink into one's ear and take control.

After that gooey explosion, next to the stage was a band whose performance I almost entirely forgot to recount—Pathology, a young West Coast group signed to Victory that exhibits enough death metal traits to fit on a bill with Grave, but also enough breakdowns and deathcore habits to 1) be signed to Victory Records in the first place and, 2) be from the West Coast. Allegedly their death metal is 'brutal', and it did indeed have the requisite guttural vocals and pinch harmonics, but it all seemed to smack of imitation instead of authenticity and chugged complacently far too often for my taste. I would have termed it as 'tube socks and khaki shorts' death metal if Blood Red Throne hadn't taken the stage next, some of them in very similar attire, and torn Reggie's apart.

To clarify, Vald was looking the metal frontman part, wreathed in the almost-requisite spiked bracer and exuding menace, but the rest of the band seemed to be wearing whatever was on top of their suitcase that day, from the collegiate casual of bassist Erlend Caspersen to the aforementioned Dimebag-revival of Ivan. Whatever they were wearing, Blood Red Throne delivered the necessary injection of pure death metal to set this evening back on its course, heading Into the Grave.

There is nothing inherently unique about Blood Red Throne's approach to death metal—groove-oriented, blood-obsessed, chunky, plenty of Phrygian soloing—but it is executed so firmly, consistently (six LPs since 2001's 'Monument to Death'), and so satisfyingly that I cannot help but endorse it. Additionally, the live setting is truly where the band's brutality shines through the headbanging grooves, and the subtle technicality of their riffing becomes apparent. Erlend in particular—alongside Død the only remaining original member—is a virtuosic monster on the bass, flying through two-handed tapping patterns on his 5-string Warwick with an easy grin or looking utterly blasé while finger-picking at tempos that would leave many plectrum bassists in the dust. In a band as meat-and-potatoes as Blood Red Throne, it's easy to forget his mastery of the bass, which extends beyond metal into diverse jazz applications and, I suspect, subatomic physics. Aside from Erlend, I was also quite impressed by Vald, who rose above his perfectly serviceable but unspectacular recordings to deliver the night's most broadly compelling performance. His low growls were explosive and furious, his higher register rich and cutting without being shrill, and altogether much more dynamic than I had expected. Some fans may yearn for the days of Mr. Hustler's gory lows, but Vald's breadth of skills has won me over.

Over 45 minutes, their set ran: 'Smite', 'Deranged Assassin', 'The Children Shall Endure', 'Arterial Lust', a phenomenal rendition of 'Taste of God', 'Graveworld', 'Mephitication', 'Brutalitarian Regime', and the rollicking closer 'The Light, The Hate'. I tend not to go for metal DVDs, but after that performance, I'd be inclined to give one by Blood Red Throne a good look.

Then finally, after five bands, four hours, and the one aforementioned trip to the liquor store later, it was time for Ola Lindgren and Grave to take the stage. This occurred in a typically understated fashion, as the band members came out to set up their rigs, exchange a couple witticisms about the sewer drain in the middle of the stage, hang a Swedish flag over Tobias Christiansson's bass cabinet, and plug in their rudimentary pedal boards. I had forgotten that Tobias—a slightly gangly and baby-faced fellow, was also the bassist playing with Dismember the first time I'd seen Grave, and now pulls double duty in both bands. Tonight, he was swinging about a Fender P-Bass with only the three lowest strings put on, which looked a little peculiar at first, but upon reflection it just seems like a perfect fit: sick to the fundamentals, and damn the upper register for anything other than the hideous soloing of your guitarists. To that end, Ola's lead playing has found a little more structure in the past 20 years, but he still played the 'Into the Grave' material with a willful abandon, making them sound almost deliberately ugly. It was glorious.

Over their hour-plus set, Ola charged ahead with unflagging determination, sidling up to the microphone and occasionally headbanging his hair such that it draped over the mic stand, cloaking his face but not his roar. For solos, he stepped back and splayed his feet, occasionally stomping a plain silver box for a boost (I presume). His tone remained virtually unchanged for the entire set, though, running into an EVH head and a Peavey cabinet with a radioactive sign spray-painted on. A full quartet today, Ola was supported by Magnus Martinsson on stage left, but I honestly can't recall much of his presence beyond the skull perched atop of his amp head. A sturdy contribution, but also one acknowledging that Ola is Grave, and Grave Ola.

Their set was comfortable, a touch loose, but not careless. More so in a kicking old school tradition of 'when in doubt, power chord it out,' and I wouldn't have wanted it any other way. Some death metal bands become so consumed by perfection that they forget to groove, even including some of those who exist to exalt bands like Grave. But this was no concern of Ola's; after 20 years, these riffs are embedded in his fingers, and they emerged with the most natural articulation possible. And holding down the beat throughout it all was Ronnie Bergerståhl, a giant of a man who's proved his worth in such groups as the underrated World Below, Centinex, and their successor Demonical, a group not too far removed from Grave's buzzsaw crush. In short, a perfect fit for these primal Swedish rhythms.

Given that this was a 20th anniversary show, I had expected the crowd to be a little greyer than it was, but a generous helping of thrashed-out teens were headbanging along, while the veterans assessed the proceedings from behind the pit, beers in hands. And although I have seen Reggie's fuller than it was that night, the entirety of that crowd was owned by Grave, without question. They commanded the room from the upper level loft to the iron piping of the front row barricade, even playing right through a fight in the moshpit that had two security guards hauling bodies away left and right. After all the night's proceedings—from the tech-thrash of Air Raid to the indifferent stomp of Pathology—Grave's performance was a vivid distillation of extreme metal's origins and its essence. I'd call it a breath of fresh air, but a more appropriate metaphor would be a waft of decay from the crypt, exhumed anew after 20 years of rot.

Throughout the set, Ola took a couple brief breathers to address the crowd. He acknowledged that it was indeed 20 years since 'Into the Grave', but did not indulge much in nostalgia, saying only, "We're going to play the whole album...I hope that's alright with you." During each of these brief chats he allowed his amp to feed back, and he seemed almost entirely unaware of its presence. Even after leaving the stage his amp sat there screaming for a couple minutes before a stagehand thought to turn it off, signaling to the crowd at last that the show was over. Before that, though, the band delivered a couple other classics from 'You'll Never See...' for good measure. After listening to these albums on record again after the show, I am struck by how dramatically Ola's voice has matured from a deep, monotonous bellow to a venomous, more versatile tool. I hesitate to call it a growl, even, since that fails to capture its middling timbre, precise enunciation, and touch of pathos. It is, in short, an iconic voice that age has improved. And with five years of reflection, I can say the same for the band as a whole. Because, after all, Grave is Ola, and Ola Grave.

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