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Who: Primordial, While Heaven Wept, Cormorant
Reggies, Chicago, USA

"A far-flung trio of acts, each distinct enough from the others to maintain a distinctive presence, but related enough for their fans to share common cause."

"And if you don't like Thin Lizzy...fuck you."

Thus spake A.A. Nemtheanga, prophet of Primordial, emissaries from The Republic of Ireland. For those few concertgoers who might have been unaware of their provenance, Nemtheanga (Alan Averill) announced it to us more than once throughout their set, though his presence alone was clue enough. With face and shaved head smeared in black and white—more woad than corpsepaint—narrow suspenders holding up rough black pants tucked into high-lacing boots, a grimy white button-up missing its sleeves, and a crude cross of bone dangling like a noose around his perspiring neck, Alan was the perfect manifestation of a turn-of-the-20th-century Irish bludger— an English toff's back-alley nightmare.

This particular comment concluded his first address to the audience, nearly 40 minutes into their headlining set at Reggie's Rock Club in Chicago last Friday night. By then it was nearly midnight, the venue a notch beneath crowded, the atmosphere heady, and Alan halfway into his handle of Jack Daniel's (which was, purportedly, the band's fifth bottle that night). The quip capped a few other comments about Ireland, interspersed with a farmer's blow here or there, and drew cheers from all around. Largely in agreement, but also in acknowledgement, for this was the first break in 'character' that we'd seen from them yet. That's not to say that Primordial were putting on airs—Alan is about as candid and unaffected an ambassador as metal could ask for—but until that point the band had been brutally focused on their performance: black-clad musicians with heads down, while Alan stormed the front of the stage, wielding his mic stand like a scythe and pummeling invisible foes into the concrete stage with rag-wrapped fists.

But once he grinned, we found it easier to do the same. The music stayed heavy after that, of course—cathartic, perpetually in 12/8 time, laced with tragedy—but as it proceeded for another hour-plus, we all came to appreciate what a lucky strike of a tour this actually was. And one not likely to come again.

For it is an unlikely bill—though perhaps not so unlikely as Primordial's presence at ProgPower USA this year, a festival headed up by Symphony X and Epica—that brings together the San Franciscan prog/thrash/trad/fusion Cormorant, Virginian power/doom veterans While Heaven Wept, and Ireland's pagan institution, Primordial. A far-flung trio of acts, each distinct enough from the others to maintain a distinctive presence, but related enough for their fans to share common cause. And each with its own vocal devotees in the audience, Chicago fans as well as pilgrims who had come from surrounding states such as Michigan, Missouri, and Ohio.

Cormorant, despite having no locals as lead-in (or cushion, depending on your view), played to a respectable crowd from the downbeat on. It was a larger gathering than I've seen a few headliners draw, in fact, and every bit of it earned. Their unique blend of technicality, aggression, and progressive interludes translated unexpectedly well to the live environment, and their performance was actually the most technically impeccable of the night. Particularly impressive was their vocalist Arthur Von Nagel, who also handles bass duties for the group, doubling the complex leads while singing and playing clever, syncopated counterpoint during instrumental passages. His bass, a stunning six-string fanned fret custom job by Nelson Stringed Instruments, was equal to his showy skills.

Their set was 40 minutes, long enough unfamiliar ears to become accustomed to their quirky phrasing: 'Scavengers Feast', 'Funambulist', 'Blood on the Cornfields', the comparatively old 'Two Brothers', and 'Unearthly Dreamings', an epic paean that closes their latest record, 'Dwellings' (which also has one of the most dazzling covers in recent years), and gives guitarists Matt Solis and Nick Cohon a chance to trade off spiraling solos. Judging from the grins on the faces of those out-of-state pilgrims and the raised eyebrows of the uninitiated, Cormorant did not disappoint.

Then, from West to East; from young to old. Next to the stage was While Heaven Wept, one of the Atlantic Coast's most veteran acts, though not from the typical redoubts of New York or Tampa. Rather, they hail from Virginia and are the lifelong labor of guitarist-vocalist Tom Phillips. Despite forming more than 20 years ago, the band has only released four LPs, including a six year hiatus between 2003's 'Of Empires Forlorn' and '09's show-stopping comeback record 'Vast Oceans Lachrymose'. That record introduced a new vocalist to the fold in Rain Irving, whose pure, trained tenor took over vocal duties from Tom and raised the band to a new level of refinement. These days, between his vocals and the addition of two keyboard players, the band sounds a little more like power metal at half-speed than traditional, hope-devouring doom. But best not to pigeonhole them, for the capacity for surprising variety remains: some passages weave delicate piano arpeggios around Rain's careful declamation and andante chugs, others kick in with up-tempo double bass and heavy diminished riffs, and still others explore majestic, almost tender harmonies that earn the band their bombastic album covers (e.g. John Martin's 'Christ Stilleth the Tempest').

The band packed the stage with six performers (missing only second keyboardist Jason Lingle) and ran through a forty-minute set, opening with the instrumental 'Vast Oceans Lachrymose', and then to all 16 minutes of 'The Furthest Shore', an especially heavy rendering of 'Saturn and Sacrifice', 'The Drowning Years', 'Of Empires Forlorn', 'Soulsadness', and closing with 'Vessel', which will likely follow the band to the grave as their most mandatory crowd-pleaser. That song had been demanded at virtually every opportunity by one superfan somewhere about six rows deep of stage left, who barked "Vessel! Play 'Vessel' now!" in mock agitation. When it finally arrived, another voice shouted out, "Are you happy now?" The reply came quickly: "Yes, very!" And then he backed up his words, along with the rest of the front handful of rows, as they sang along rapturously for every chorus.

The elegance of the band's performance aside, it was a little amusing to see them follow so meticulously the tacit metal code of hair lengths: wear it past the shoulders or don't wear it at all. Three long brunettes, three shaved heads. Tom and Rain in particular were studies in contrasts: the former in a Forbidden T-shirt, stocky and hirsute; the latter shaved to shine and with a winged graphic Redemption button-up. They were also the band's two peak performers, handing the spotlight with the aplomb of practiced professionals. The other members, however competent, seemed a little more stolid, as if they might have been more comfortable in the studio than on the stage. But that stage is small, the genre is doom, after all, and even Roy Khan (ex-Kamelot) would struggle to out-suave Rain Irving. A consummate and earnest glad-hander, Rain spent nearly half his time pointing out audience members, picking out fans to sing a line here or there, and slow-pounding upraised fists in righteous fraternity. About halfway through the set he made eye contact with to two fans in the fourth row and said, "Born Too Late—years ago," referring to the festival of that name that WHW played in 2009. The two audience members looked at one another, a little stunned, and repeated his words back to him in agreement. Despite Rain being the lead singer at center stage, his was an almost private address, not announced into the microphone or hammed up for photographers.

Just as WHW's music is unabashedly emotive, the band has a history of being unusually approachable and candid with their fans. This tradition has clearly paid dividends, inspiring a loyalty and devotion amongst fans uncommonly seen for bands not named Iron Maiden or Slayer. And they have rewarded those fans, releasing a follow-up record, 'Fear of Infinity', in a relatively swift two years. In the meantime they've also put in more time on the road, including appearances at a number of significant festivals, so perhaps this manifestation of WHW will be the one that lasts. If so, it would be a fine thing to see them return to Chicago to play with another old hand in American gloom, Novembers Doom. Here's hoping.

And that, more or less, is how we all arrived at the soot-smeared and spirit-soaked altar of Primordial. Little did we know when it began, that night's set would end up the longest ever played in North America. Perhaps it was the enthusiasm of the first stop on the tour, before the aches of the road (or their inevitable hangovers) set in, or perhaps it was the crowd's enthusiasm. Whatever the case, as the scheduled set drew to a close, Alan shaded his eyes and looked back to the sound booth. "Billy, what's our curfew here?" Two AM, he was told. A brief discussion on stage ensued—some head-scratching and knit eyebrows—after which Alan turned to us again to announce, "This is the question. Do we fuck off for a bit and then come back on? Or do we just go straight through and play another song?" The simple arithmetic made the latter our obvious choice.

The setlist on the stage read: 'No Grave Deep Enough', 'Gods to the Godless', 'As Rome Burns', 'Lain With the Wolf', 'The Burning Season', 'The Mouth of Judas', 'Heathen Tribes', 'Bloodied Yet Unbowed', 'The Coffin Ships', 'Empire Falls'. Our no-fuck-off encore allowed them to slip two more songs, 'Gallows Hymn' and 'Sons of the Morrigan' (a throwback treat) in before the real closer, 'Empire Falls'. At a true two hours, it was a gauntlet for the fans and no less of one for Alan, who was visibly exhausted and stumbling by the end, his windmills a little less vicious and his waving of the mic stand a little (well, a lot) less considerate of his bandmates standing close behind. In all truth, Primordial were not always perfect—a couple entrances missed here, a flubbed transition there—but they still assumed the stage with unquestionable authority and complete confidence. Too, second guitarist Micheál O'Floinn wasn't able to secure a visa for this trip, so a bit of a lineup shuffle was necessary to bring their act to American audiences. Alan's voice was also touch low in the mix compared to the records, but this may have been a boon in the long run. It gave the driving, tribal pulse of their riffs a more irresistible energy, and Alan's half-sung, half-rasped singing tends to play a little loosely with a song's key, much less when he's been at it for so long. Altogether, it was a definitive episode, one not soon forgotten, and whenever Alan cried, 'Are you with us?' the assent was immediate. 'Then we are with you,' he rejoined, fists raised. And all together sang, 'Where is the fighting man? Am I he?' A question fairly asked. If we were not before, then after the ritual of that night—we all are.

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