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Road Reports

Who: Mayhem, Keep of Kalessin, Hate, Abigail Williams, Woe
Reggie's, Chicago, USA

"I had vaguely expected Mayhem to conclude the concern season on an unequivocally "true" note. To be sure, there they did not disappoint, doing honor to both their namesake and their legacy. But seeing these bands together, all for the first time, underlined how genre preconceptions are increasingly irrelevant in today’s scene."

Occasionally, when I look back on my calendar of concerts made and missed, I am baffled by the names I somehow overlooked. Moonsorrow’s Stateside debut at Heathen Crusade in 2006 is a big one. Ditto Meshuggah and Cynic in 2009. For the past two years, perhaps the largest oversight was Mayhem at Chicago's House of Blues. This fall I was blessed with a rare reprieve, though, since Norway's most controversial metal merchants have returned to American shores for a sizeable coast-to-coast tour—the second of November through mid-December, with only four days off. Suitably, the support bill was fleshed out by a quartet of other acts I had never managed to see: Woe, Abigail Williams, Hate, and Mayhem’s estimable countrymen in Keep of Kalessin.

After a hectic fall slate full of genre-slipping talents such as Alcest, Enslaved, Devin Townsend, Gigan, Katatonia, and, hell, even Minus the Bear, I had vaguely expected Mayhem to conclude the concern season on an unequivocally “true” note. To be sure, there they did not disappoint, doing honor to both their namesake and their legacy. But seeing these bands together, all for the first time, underlined how genre preconceptions are increasingly irrelevant in today’s scene.

The evening’s entertainment had no local support—with five touring acts, I wouldn’t have wanted for more—so it was up to Woe to kick things off. Both American bands on this bill are signed to Candlelight Records, and Woe’s recent offering in ‘Quietly, Undramatically’ has received virtually unanimous critical acclaim. Its title is a seemingly prescient rejection of the pseudo-intellectual self-aggrandizement that has come to characterize the East Coast black metal scene in the past year (read: Liturgy), and Woe’s performance was an eye-opening blast of vitality. In keeping with the night’s theme of transition, Woe were also less thoroughly black metal than I had always conceived. On stage, a constant and pulsing punk vitality coursed throughout their set, nowhere more apparent in the d-beat driven ‘Fuck Nazi Sympathy’. This sub-two minute number was replete with middle fingers, a gutter punk chorus of gang vox, and featured two riffs in total. Righteous.

The punk vibe on their other songs was a little more subdued, but the band was no less passionate. Despite their guileless appearance—some unkempt facial hair, faded cut-off Ts, a bandana for bassist Shawn Riley, and spectacles for frontman Chris Grigg when not on stage—the band has a sophisticated knack for weaving waves of minor barre tremolos into a compelling and cohesive narrative. And despite wielding a decidedly thrashy, camo-finished Jackson, Chris delivered his screams with an unaffected pathos that was unmatched by any other vocalist that evening. Attila, of course, stands alone in his own eldritch realm, but Chris’s performance was an authentic, unadorned catharsis, whereas everyone else at the microphone that night was clearly filling the role of “the singer.”

During the layover that followed their 25-minute set, Gwar played over the house speakers in homage to the recent and unexpected passing of Cory Smoot, the latest and last manifestation of the character Flattus Maximus. It clashed a little with the tenor of this evening’s performance, but typified the candor we’ve come to expect from the Reggie’s crew. No great fan of Gwar, I still salute their decision.

Following Woe to the stage was the second and final US act in Abigail Williams. Frontman Ken Sorceron’s first words into the microphone, directed at the sound man, were: “A little more reverb than you’re comfortable with—that should be fine.” Such a comment usually calls for a blast of Nordic black metal, but Abigail Williams are American through and through, a more than any other band on this bill are perpetually in quest of an identity. In fact, they are the only one so fraught, since all the other bands are in a state of introspective flux or purposeful progress. Abigail Williams, meanwhile, in their short history have peppered a nominally black metal base with American -core, symphonic bombast, spiked bracer grimness, and, as of this tour, a heavy affinity for “post”-everything West Coast atmospherics. Aside from having traded in their eye shadow for very thorough beards, two (perhaps even three, but memory fails) of the band’s members boasted merch from Wolves in the Throne Room. If nothing else, their shirts were at least were from different eras, but a nod towards genre forefathers Weakling would have gone down a little bit better. And an identity of their own better still.

Not limited to visual aesthetics, Abigail Williams’ emulation was also borne out in the music. Over 30 minutes, two of their three songs were drawn from their forthcoming record, ‘Becoming’, full of eyes-closed swaying, mid-tempo ruminations, and plenty of accenting chord strums from Ken while his two other guitarists swapped rhythm and leads. Altogether, I must say that I preferred this approach to some of their prior manifestations, but none yet has managed to win me over.

After that fairly sedate interlude, the blastbeats and warpaint were back in full force with Hate. Given the broad acclaim currently enjoyed by Behemoth, Decapitated, and Vader, one might dismiss Hate’s recent upswing in Stateside-eyes as mere bandwagoning, but this would be a grave mistake. Led by Adam (The First Sinner) since 1990, Hate is one of Poland's longest-tenured institutions with seven LPs to their name. Particularly since 2003’s ‘Awakening of the Liar’, Adam has guided the group towards an absolutely lethal hybrid of hyper-triggered percussion and sinister ritualism. These days that will naturally invoke comparisons to Behemoth, which is understandable, but where Nergal and company began in black metal and migrated towards death metal realms, Hate have been headed in the other direction. It’s also worth noting that Behemoth have yet to improve upon the ‘Zos Kia Cultus’ peak of nearly a decade ago, instead preferring to rehash ultra-layered apostasy that buckles beneath its own grandeur. Hate, conversely, have pursued extremity with a relentless dedication, defying rote comparisons to Behemoth with complex chordal textures more invocative of Crionics and wild soloing on par with Lost Soul.

For this tour they were sharing some gear with Keep of Kalessin, not least a drumkit bound in ornate golden figuring. But Hate made their own visual statement quite distinctly by striding out on stage in full regalia halfway between an omega-worshipping priesthood and a post-apocalyptic, flak jacket-sporting militia. Adam, stern, stood bolted to center stage and spit out roars that belied his smaller frame (this seems to be a consistent strength among the Poles) while hardly glancing down at the fretboard of his custom-made Ran. Supporting his efforts on stage right was lead guitarist Destroyer, the perfect distillation of Polish metal: his thick frame slung with a white Fernandes flying V, long hair shaved high around the ears, black leather pants, a bullet belt, corpsepaint on his face but little on his shirtless torso, a tattoo of the word ‘Quintessence’ arcing across his stomach in Gothic font…and suspenders. On stage left, bassist Mortifer took a splayed stance with bass slung low between his legs, which, when paired with his constant bucking to the beat, pervaded their set with an aura of vulgarity.

Altogether they were a little disengaged from the crowd, barely breaking from a deadpan stare even when Adam looked down and handed me the pick he’d used for their thirty-minute set. I fully understand the solemn, ceremonial atmosphere they strive to create (and largely achieve), but a little more activity would go a long way towards riling up American audiences. Too, the full aural magnitude of Hate’s assault does not translate as fully to a live setting as I would have hoped, but their speed and precision were ceaseless, their bellicosity absolute. I would gladly see them again.

By now the house was pretty well packed (Reggie’s capacity is approximately 450), and it was time for Keep of Kalessin to pave the way for Mayhem. Since their rejuvenation on ‘Armada’, Keep has taken some unexpected turns over their past two records (participating in the Eurovision contest not least among them), and many in the audience expressed interest in how they would present themselves live.  Indeed, by this time in a show some fans are glancing at watches in anticipation of the headliner, but I heard not one word of impatience directed at Obsidian Claw and his cohorts in Keep.

The band’s mastermind is a rangy, long-limbed fellow who carries his LTD MH Deluxe with the casual confidence of a true virtuoso. He wears his hair short now, but drenches it before taking the stage so that it whips around his face, and with a casually rolled-up black collared shirt and quasi-cowboy boots (to say nothing of the snakeskin guitar strap), Obsidian Claw looked more 80s rock god than black metal demon. Doing him one better was vocalist Thebon, wrapped up in mic cables and squeezed into black denim with lacing all the way up his thigh—Jani Lane with a goatee instead of a bandana. On bass was Wizziac, a platinum blonde with a stern jaw and a quick hand on his 5-string, and behind the kit sat Vyl, earphones firmly clamped on and determined eyes locked almost permanently on his kit.

I was surprised to see that Obsidian was the only guitarist for the band, but in retrospect I suppose I shouldn’t have been. The speed of his picking, the uniqueness of his chord articulations, and integration of strumming into his riffs are unprecedented in a single player; bringing another guitarist up to snuff on cuts like ‘Vengeance Rising’ would be a monumental undertaking. Besides, Obsidian’s live chops are strong enough to only need the rhythm section to keep up, which is no small task. But the group operated expertly in tandem, and through various winding solos it never seemed that Keep’s momentum was flagging or their arrangements were too open.

Thebon shared the spotlight, of course, and his prodigious lungs were on display, but demonstrated relatively little of his true black metal rasp. He rather leaned towards the half-harsh, half-melodic high register employed in recent years, which actually sounded better than on the albums since it fit more neatly into the mix and competed less for attention. I was still disappointed to see that their set drew only from their last two records, entirely skipping ‘Armada’, which is what catapulted them into the public consciousness in the first place. A nod to the ‘Reclaim’ EP, which heralded their reformation and reinvention, would also have been quite a treat, especially if Attila had joined them to reprise his performances from the record. But once I put these qualms aside and viewed Keep of Kalessin as a majestic, ultra-aggressive rock band, their performance was completely satisfying. When Obsidian, Thebon, and Wizziac all took to their microphones in a line, each with a foot propped up on a monitor, it was clear that Keep have achieved their bombastic vision.

And that tornado had passed, and a lurking fog descended onto an empty stage. Sometime earlier in the day, a smoke device had been placed beneath the sewer grate at center stage, and now it began to send up plumes as banners were unfurled. Mayhem as at hand. After such a clinic as put on by the previous two drummers, few men could honorably climb the drum riser and be hailed as the headlining talent. Hellhammer is one of them, and he came to the stage. As one of the metal world’s most irreproachable and universally brain-boggling skinsmen, I was glad to first see him in the native environment of Mayhem, instead of one of his many other engagements. Naturally, his greeting from the crowd was fervent. A similar hue was raised  for Necrobutcher, an unexpectedly avuncular figure dressed simply in black jeans, no shirt, and with a nondescript black, single-cut Gibson bass. He strolled on stage sucking down bottled water, surveyed the crowd with an encompassing nod, and then assumed his stance with virtually no other fanfare. Throughout the set, he’d eye various members in the front rows, frowning slightly or squinting in what I can only assume was some measure of approval, and very rarely giving a half-point as if to say, “You got it, buddy.”

And now I must confess to recalling virtually nothing of the guitarists, either Teloch or Morfeus. Both were perfectly competent in delivering frenetic bursts of riffage, but were spread on either side of the stage and often wreathed in fog. Besides, with Blasphemer gone, the core of Mayhem is whittled down to the central figures of Necrobutcher and Hellhammer. Neither possessed center stage, though—these days that honor goes to Attila, the band’s most obvious attraction, current lightning rod for their controversy, and the last figure to reach the stage that night. Already a tall man, Attila towers over the diminutive Necrobutcher, and his penchant for bizarre costumes make him an unexpectedly perfect fit for this constantly contrarian troupe. For this tour, his costume was a relatively conventional take on religious vestments—heavily draped robes, necklaces, tabards, etc., and it was his accessorizing that stole the show. His head was shaved but for a solid strip of dark hair down the center; his face was painted white and quartered by black lines; a garishly large cross was taped upside down to his microphone; and in the other hand he held—what else—a skull. This he grasped by its jaw, and never released for nearly 90 minutes. Also, half of his teeth were painted black, which no one beyond the second row could possibly have seen. He was, altogether, perfectly hideous.

While the maelstrom descended about him—both the music emanating from the stage and the frenzied dash of the crowd to the front—Attila moved with great deliberation, almost as if he were underwater, occasionally halting in the middle of a grand gesture and reversing direction. The concentration necessary to keep up such a front, especially beneath the weight of his outfit and surrounded by such chaos, must have been intense. But perhaps he thought it all a lark to keep him amused—mixed in with his religious overtures were moves that looked suspiciously like a zombie’s interpretation of the robot dance.

I was also a little perplexed by how he kept the microphone to his open mouth for exaggeratedly extended periods without seeming to say anything. I soon realized, though, that these were screams, hisses, whispers, or other emissions of extraordinary duration, and that only when they were finished did I notice that layer of noise missing from Mayhem’s mayhem. On a related note, the first handful of songs were plagued by a constant 60-cycle hum coming from the monitors, prompting Necrobutcher at one point to ask who the hell was running sound at this place. But never did the band’s frustration derail their performance or break Attila’s dispassionate façade.

They played a broad swathe of material that ranged from their very first release to their very latest, and managed to invoke each era’s distinct character without any discernable breaks in between. ‘Carnage’ was a sweet-riffing headbanger, ‘View From Nihil’ a disjointed stutterer that threatened to implode, ‘Illuminate Eliminate’ a patiently sprawling and masterful exploration. The performance entire ran: ‘Silvester Anfang’, ‘Deathcrush’, ‘Cursed in Eternity’, ‘Ancient Skin’, ‘My Death’, ‘A Time to Die’, ‘View From Nihil’, ‘Illuminate Eliminate’, ‘Buried by Time and Dust’, ‘Carnage’, ‘Freezing Moon’, ‘Funeral Fog’, ‘Chainsaw Gutsfuck’, ‘De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas’, ‘Pure Fucking Armageddon’. Over this time, Attila’s only address to us was to “Thank you all for coming out toniiiight,” in the same singsong cadence as a hokey Dracula. A Romanian by birth, he may have been serious.

Assessing it now, I estimate that about a third of their set was barely comprehensible, and although my memories of it are perfectly vivid, they are so jumbled that I can hardly arrange them. But I’m not sure I really wanted it to be any clearer. As heard on the perfectly murky (or horrifically muddy, depending on one’s opinion) ‘Ordo Ad Chao’, Mayhem relishes a certain amount of obfuscation and mystery. More reckless than Emperor, madder than Immortal, more rampaging than Burzum or Darkthrone, and grimmer than Gorgoroth, Mayhem have long since shed the trappings of orthodox black metal. But their claim to be “The One True…” is never in doubt. Wherever they roam, Mayhem are kings. As I wandered back to the car, trying to put what I’d just seen into context, I could only think of Nietzsche’s warning not to gaze into the abyss overlong, for the abyss gazes also. And it is the Wolf’s Lair.

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