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Who: Immolation, Jungle Rot, Gigan
Reggie's, Chicago, USA

"This is Immolation’s way—physically explosive, mentally relentless, and sonically tortuous."

This past Sunday, while I watched Immolation unleash their savage death metal at Reggie’s in Chicago, somewhere in Sweden the news was emerging that Dismember have…dismembered. This was a sobering story to see on Monday morning and enough to dispel the concert’s lingering warmth. So I trust that readers will endure a moment of reflection before headbanging commences.

Although they were formed an ocean apart, Dismember and Immolation share much. Both coalesced in 1988, both led by a like-minded pair virtually since their beginning, both released debut albums in 1991 at studios with now-legendary track records (Sunlight for Dismember, Sound Lab for Immolation). And, of course, both are defining voices in their respective subgenres, distilling what it means to be a ‘Swedish’ or ‘American’ death metal band and setting the bar for decades to come.  True, Immolation weathered the drought of the late 90s better than Dismember, but as of their last albums both bands were back on top—true to their tradition, but still vivid and lively with new ideas.

In retrospect, Dismember’s breakup could have been predicted—they’ve played a scant handful of shows in the past couple years and their last album, a self-titled, appeared in 2008—but it still came a surprise to me. In this current era of early 90s worship and reunions of obscure-but-influential artists, it seemed that the death metal legion was only gaining members, not losing them. Now it has lost a commanding officers (until they reunite, given present trends), leaving battalions of imitators to fill the void. Which they can’t, of course. So what to take away from all this musing? As long as these legends have been with us, we should still never take their talents for granted. Hail Dismember. Hail Immolation.

 And now for the show.

This tour, called Raining Fire, could understandably be mistaken as support for the band’s latest LP, ‘Majesty and Decay’. In fact, the band’s latest release is actually an EP called ‘Providence’, sponsored by Scion A/V—as in the company that makes those purple boxes with wheels. This is the second Scion-sponsored EP to drop out of the blue this year, the first being Enslaved’s ‘The Sleeping Gods’, and both were being freely distributed at the show. Metalheads have every right to be skeptical of corporate sponsorship in music—especially a genre so contrarian as death metal, doubly-especially by a car company—but Scion seems to have pulled together the right staff for this venture. Enslaved and Immolation are irreproachable selections, but not obvious ones, so it’s clear that their office isn’t just turning to the Billboard charts or the front pages of Kerrang!. A black-and-white metal zine was also being handed out at the show, courtesy of Scion, which I hesitated to pick up until I saw the name Gaza under its interviews. Grumble we may, but free metal and attention to great bands are two things we should never eschew.

Starting off the night was a local trio called The Everscathed. As one companion pointed out, the mere presence of ‘The’ in their name was the first strike against them. To be sure, ‘The’s are sometimes entirely apropos: The Chasm, The Crown, The Meads of Asphodel (although they are terrible). But whereas Everscathed sounds vaguely like severe European metal, The Everscathed sounds like pretty-ok Midwestern death metal. And so they were. Although entirely serviceable as an opening act, I confess that the most interesting thing about the band was that their lefty bassist/vocalist W. Frickenstein played a righty BC Rich Ironbird bass, upside down, without the strings reversed (i.e. his bass strings furthest away from him). This trifecta of awkwardness was strike two. The visible frustration of the drummer at the audience’s indifference was almost strike three. But the band did ultimately leave a positive impression through their collective determination, the neat swapping of lead vocal duties between guitarist and bassist, and the occasionally inspired Death-meets-Suffo-style riffing.

The crowd at this point was modest, and the front row(s) largely comprised of jittery teens. I haven’t seen Reggie’s filled to capacity too often in recent months, and am hoping that light attendance does not become the venue’s downfall. Its staff is too friendly, its location too convenient (bringing metal back downtown and out of the suburbs, albeit south of the Loop), and its atmosphere too intimate to let fade away. By Immolation’s arrival the floor was decently filled—and they were frankly the only real draw on this bill—but this is a trend that bears watching. Chicago needs a medium-sized venue between The Abbey and the Bottom Lounge for its outcast genres, and Reggie’s is as good as we’re likely to get.

Perhaps more local talent (that isn’t or wouldn’t be signed to Seventh Rule) would help fill out the death metal ranks on sleepy Sunday shows, and it appears that a relative newcomer is stepping up to the challenge. Gigan, formed by ex-members of Floridian groups, now calls Chicago its home, and has begun popping up on local bills. Indeed, the last time I saw them was not six weeks ago on this same stage, opening for Blood Red Throne and Grave. In that review I wrote that I would welcome another chance to crack their fiercely noisy shell, since the first set was through before I’d made much progress. This evening, my bluff was called, and so I had another 30 full minutes of green-hued psychic death metal laid before me like a puzzle whose pieces won’t sit still. The first song, a new one, it was said, for the first half was virtually unlistenable: guitarist Eric Hersemann spewing effects-laden tap arpeggios, John Collett’s indecipherable vocals, and the percussion of Kaish simply overpowering. A true mess.

But the more intently I focus—putting down the camera and actually watching the members work—the more Gigan’s pieces come together of their own accord. Beneath the spastic outbursts and obdurately complex arrangements, Gigan has a fierce, fundamental momentum that grows over time. In this sense, they are well suited to open for Immolation—another band whose frenetic approach can mask a tireless, primal drive. And one has to love the bands they were representing on t-shirts that night: Portal for John Collett, Bolt Thrower on Eric Hersemann, Voivod for bassist Sally Gates, and Frank Zappa for Kaish. With such a hodgepodge on display, it’s no wonder that it takes a couple tries to find Gigan’s pulse, buried deep. Consider me won over on this front, but not unequivocally; the next set I see of theirs might bring everything crashing down again into a quivering blob.

Next to the stage, in the direct support slot, was another Chicago group, but one whose roots run deep in this city: the ageless Jungle Rot. Led by guitarist and vocalist Dave Matrise, they started out on a very high note with a grinding tremolo riff, grooving percussion, and a rock-solid stage presence. This was ‘Their Finest Hour’, the lead single from their latest album and first for Victory Records. For those five minutes, Jungle Rot was a true Midwestern vintage on display. A couple hairy solos (mostly tremolo trickery) came courtesy of guitarist Geoff Bub, a surpassingly tall fellow with equally lengthy blonde locks who looked a touch out of place alongside the broader frames of Dave and the stereotypically beefy bassist James Genenz.  

Alas, the trend from there was downwards, and the steepness of its decline was directly related to the increasing occurrence of breakdowns. As a technique, breakdowns haven’t been ‘cool’ or especially ‘brutal’ for a couple years, now—or ever, depending on whom you ask—so I’m not sure why Jungle Rot thinks their own quotidian chugs will meet with widespread acclaim. Perhaps their new label has something to do with it—Victory Records may be a Chicago heavyweight, but they are more known for hardcore and screamo bands (or, more recently, the stupefying thought experiment gone wrong known as Design the Skyline) than death metal.

In either event, Jungle Rot’s heavy lean towards their latter-day output did them no favors with the old school members of the crowd; it soon became clear that their best moments were merely shadowing the vintage Swedish method (read: the aforementioned Dismember) while the remainder was a pitch to the lowest common denominator. It is true that there were a decent number of these on hand, as viewed from the venue’s upper level above the bar. In the center of the floor, a handful of fans strutted around with chins jutting, occasionally attempting a circle pit but rarely agreeing on which direction to run.

To their credit, Jungle Rot were exceedingly tight in their execution—fresh-faced drummer Jesse Beahler deserves particular mention here—and complete professionals. But halfway through their set, and after the fourth solo of the same desultory tremolo abuse, I could only agree with the fans slouched on the couches upstairs, crossing their fingers in hopes that each song was Jungle Rot’s last. After 45 minutes, that end came, leaving the stage to the band we had all really come to see--Immolation. A seventy-minute set is a decent length for any metal headliner, but for a band as demanding (both of its members and its audience) as Immolation, it was a veritable marathon. And a worthy one. 

Listening to Immolation on record, I sometimes cannot fathom how these riffs are conceived of, much less executed, so it is refreshing to see that they don’t look any easier when Bob plays them. Some bands come on stage and rip through finger-bending riffs as if they were an AC/DC cover band, but Bob wrenches every last dissonant chord and strangled harmonic from his instrument. He is also the only lead guitarist I know of who can exhort the crowd and lead them in fist-pumping…in the middle of his own solo. But this is Immolation’s way—physically explosive, mentally relentless, and sonically tortuous.

Their setlist, including a very brief respite before the encore, ran something like: ‘Majesty and Decay’, ‘Swarm of Terror’, ‘Under The Supreme’, ‘What They Bring’, ‘Close To A World Below’, ‘A Token of Malice’, ‘No Jesus, No Beast’ (which inspired a frantic surge to the front from fans shouting along), ‘Power and Shame’, ‘Dawn of Possession’, ‘Still Lost’, ‘Den of Thieves’, ‘Sinful Nature’, ‘Illumination’, ‘Into Everlasting Fire’, and ‘World Agony’. The latter is perhaps an unlikely choice for a final encore—neither a new song nor a vintage fan favorite—yet it emerged as one of the most evocative and anthemic numbers from 2007 ‘Shadows in the Light’. Its final refrain, ‘The earth is bitter, the earth is black. What have we done? There is no going back,’ is a clear, unadorned summation of Immolation’s worldview: man’s ceaseless corruption of his brothers and his surroundings.

Blessedly, the core of Immolation are not perpetually down, which anyone who’s met Ross or Bob at a merch booth will corroborate. Second guitarist Bill Taylor may be, though. With his glittering blue Ibanez Destroyer, brooding stare, and array of contrarian symbols spread over his person in the form of patches and tattoos, he is precisely the kind of axeman one would expect to fill out the ranks of this troop. That balance—between Bill’s gloom and Ross’s open-armed appreciation for his touring mates and fans—has kept Immolation sharp for nearly 25 years.

After such a run, Ross and company must have some pride in their work (really, they had better), but Immolation as a band is entirely without egos. Ross Dolan and Bob Vigna, titans in their own right and pioneers as much as anyone in the American scene, remain eminently humble and are the most approachable fellows you could ever hope to meet. As the doors opened, they could be found selling their own merch and greeting fans while drummer Steve Shalaty helped the other drummers set up and tear down their kits. It wasn’t that Immolation didn’t have assistants to do such things for them—several roadies prepared their rigs, arrayed their guitars, and helped Steve prepare his mighty throne. It just seems that Immolation still prefers to do some things themselves. And why shouldn’t they? Be it earnestly gladhanding with fans or laying down a death metal clinic, Immolation are among the very best.

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