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Who: Devin Townsend, Katatonia, Paradise Lost, Stolen Babies
Bottom Lounge, Chicago, USA

"For as much as melancholy defines them... the tone of the concert was one of excitement, enthusiasm, and accomplishment. These bands have plied their trades through good times and bad, through metal’s peaks and troughs as a genre of popular fancy, and today are able to enjoy the fruits of that labor."

Before last Monday night, the only place I would have expected to see Paradise Lost, Katatonia, and Devin Townsend all named together would be on a list of metal's early 90s pioneers, or perhaps even as inductees of the same class into the Heavy Metal Hall of Fame. The ceremony, most likely taking place in Stockholm, might include guest performances from early associates like Steve Vai, Mikael Åkerfeldt, and the Cavanagh clan. A lofty list of personages, to be sure, but one absolutely earned by the bands they would be honoring. All hypothetically speaking, of course. And though that may all yet come to pass someday in those illusory halls—I'll put in for press credentials now—until then we will gladly make do with 'Epic Kings & Idols', the real-life tour that brought the three together at the Bottom Lounge in Chicago. This was more a matter of good timing than any celestial homage, for the tour coincides with 2012 records released by all three bands, each reaffirming the bands' status as genre stalwarts while refusing to rest on the laurels of their halcyon days. For they are not yet past.

Opening the night at 7 pm was Stolen Babies, a group that simply had to be from Los Angeles or New York (turns out it's the former), and simply had to be on The End Records (they are). One might loosely align the quintet with metal, but not without myriad modifiers—swing, cabaret, avant-garde, darkwave, a bit of dance, gypsy jazz, etc.—that all look a scattered mess on paper. But the ear makes sense of what the eyes cannot, so it takes only about 10 seconds' time to suss out just what Stolen Babies are attempting. Ready comparisons can be made to Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, Diablo Swing Orchestra, and Unexpect (the reigning leaders of garish carnivale-metal), some of whom are even Stolen Babies' labelmates. Indeed, it's a genre so deliberately different that most who pursue it end up sounding the same. Certainly the instrumentation may vary— this group is led by a female vocalist/accordionist and features two percussionists—but the atmosphere and headspace rarely do.

Yet Stolen Babies were a reasonable choice for opening this unusual bill, and they began the night with a suitable blend of the macabre and satirical. On stage every member represented some character in black or grey, albeit with varying levels of creativity: the doll-like vocalist and gangly bassist invoked psychobilly, their top-hatted drummer steampunk, their largely inaudible guitarist looked ready to fill in for Unearth and their second percussionist like any given lad from Brooklyn. With his ramshackle assembly of trashy cymbals, empty oil drums, tambourines, and heavy chains, this last member was the most unusual performer that evening, and alas also the most superfluous. Though he did add texture to the performance (and certainly quite a lot to the band's quirk factor), he doubled the actual drummer often enough to just help drown out other instruments. To be fair, that actual drummer is Gil Sharone, formerly of the Dillinger Escape Plan, so chances are he knows precisely what he's doing and is worth imitating.

This aside, the band's between-song banter was also too affected and stagey, but a few quips (usually the spontaneous ones) were trenchantly clever and won authentic laughs. Given how little space the band had to work with on stage—partly their own doing, bringing that second percussion monstrosity and an upright bass, used precisely once—they sold an energetic performance and were admirably tight. Vocalist Dominique Persi was an unexpected standout, flitting expertly between coy flutters to soprano operatic vibrato and a raspy shriek. Altogether, theirs wasn't a set I would have sought out independently, but neither do I wish I'd gone to the bar instead for a pre-PL tipple.

That English institution, Paradise Lost, came next to the stage, following a layover of 25 minutes. This was a mere 10 minutes shorter than all the playing time they were allotted, but they made the most of it, assuming their spots on stage before the Baizley-meets-Beardsley 'Tragic Idol' banner (actually designed by the suddenly everywhere Metastazis) and leaping right into 'Enchantment', from 1995's 'Draconian Times'. Over their long career, the band's membership has stayed uncommonly stable, even as their style swung hither or yon to follow the current mode. But none has been a greater bellwether than vocalist Nick Holmes. Having grown out, shorn, regrown, and once again cut short his hair over the years, so have his vocals drifted between an echoing effort at clean baritone and a higher, throatier half-shout. For this tour he was looking more Chris Martin than Mikael Stanne, but retained most of the gritty punch that has led the way since their redefining self-titled in 2005. He also displayed a characteristically English dry wit, swiftly self-deprecating, all delivered through an arch smirk. He says, "This next song is called 'In This We Dwell'!" The crowd cheers. His passing reply, "Ah, you don't know it."

To be fair, perhaps many of us did not. But the band kicked into it with vigor nonetheless, and the song proved to be one of their most unifying headbangers. And, for all Holmes' wryness, the band drew a consistently enthusiastic response and had several superfans in the front rows. I managed to end up standing behind the most enthusiastic of all, who spent the majority of their set with his arms raised and grasping, singing along to every word of every song and sweating all over my camera.

I didn't connect with the band's more piano-driven danceable numbers (i.e. late 90s material), which were accented in the live setting by Adrian Erlandsson's hi-hat grooves as well as guitarist Aaron Aedy's full-on, shoulder-shrugging 'body bang' and unmiked singing. But balancing him on stage right was the incalculably metal Gregor Mackintosh, who would surely be ferrying souls across the river Styx if not playing guitar in a metal band. His brow was knit, his jaw firmly set, waist-length hair whipping about while his left hand tortured out one jagged vibrato after another. I would have preferred more of that grit from everyone, in fact, and was a little surprised that the goth/alternative material took up a third of their set. More attention to their bookending days would have been welcome, and the scathing 'Living With Scars' would at least have earned them an honorable mention for most audience-slaying song of the night. Still, for a band with such a disparate history, the quintet managed to cohesively thread together almost 20 years of material in just over 30 minutes, following 'Enchantment' with 'Erased', 'Tragic Idol', 'Faith Divides Us - Death Unites Us', 'In This We Dwell', and 'Just Say Words'.

The next layover sent home the Paradise Lost superfan, brought out the burbling fangirls, and led us all towards Katatonia, whose full hour set kicked the concert into high gear for good. The venue was fullest for them, it seemed, and their drummer Daniel Liljekvist was the only man to receive shrieks of adulation from the crowd's female constituency. He seemed slightly (and pleasantly) taken aback by this, but quickly refocused on the task at hand, which was arraying his new all-white Drumcraft shells. Once a couple banners had also made it out onto the stage—wintry pale and etched with Travis Smith's aviary nightmares—the lights dimmed and the hiss of fog machines marked the band's official arrival on stage.

When I saw them on the last with Opeth in the fall of 2011, Katatonia seemed to have found their stride as a live band. They were comfortable on a broad theater stage, their stage presence was generally consistent, performances on-point, and the setlist effective and spiced with surprises (e.g. Jonas Renkse and Anders Nyström trading spots, giving the latter the microphone for 'Murder' and 'Without God'). On this night, from their matching aesthetic alone it was clear that their skills have been honed even further: all in black with white instruments (including Anders' new signature single-cut Mayones guitar) to match the hue of the banners and Daniel's ivory kit. Their collective energy on stage was also much more pronounced this time around, reflecting the official member status now bestowed on Niklas Sandin (bass) and Sodo Eriksson (guitar, back-up vocals). For his part, lead guitarist and co-founder Anders has long been more of an arena rock showman than shoegazing gothic—feet splayed wide, guitar thrust upwards during pick slides—and now he can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Niklas, or in a row of four with Jonas and Sodo, each head rising and falling in half-time unison.

Jonas, in a departure from some past experiences, managed to smile a few times and exude some positive vibes on stage. His face peeked out behind its curtain of hair more often, a few times even deliberately, and his several assertions that "it's really great to be back here," sounded heartfelt. He even belted out a 'Come on, Chicago!', like Nick often had before him. His performance, too, was confident and clear, particularly on the likes of 'Lethean', which he, Sodo, and Anders ended together nearly a cappella in three-part harmony (even including falsetto from the latter).

And on that note, hearing songs from 'Dead End Kings' played live was the perfect catalyst. Their new record is something of a grower—even for the band itself at times—but every new song they played clicked instantly and naturally. They did not devote too much to that album, though, despite opening with the haymakers of 'Dead Letters' and 'Buildings'. From there, they meandered back in time and upwards in tuning for 'The Longest Year', 'Deliberation', 'My Twin', 'The Racing Heart', 'Lethean', 'Teargas', and 'Deadhouse', then forwards and down again in 'Walking by a Wire', 'July', 'Forsaker', and finally 'Leaders'. Although we weren't granted any throwbacks quite so old as last time around, this performance felt more like a band fully invested into its modern element and wholly embraced by its audience. Indeed, although it was pleasant to hear the likes of 'Deadhouse' and 'Walking by a Wire', it was the new material that most energized the band and audience alike. And even as band acknowledges that their music has become more delicate over the years, the massive chugging in new songs like 'Buildings' and 'Forsaker' resulted in the most crowd movement. In a nod to the co-headliner status of the tour, the finale of their set felt worthy of a night's ending, featuring a full-band bow, front-row handshakes, and picks tossed into the waving arms of the further rows. All the main bands on this bill have experienced great changed over the years (indeed, decades now), but of them all Katatonia's course has been the most consistent.

Then at last the spotlight shifted to metal's once-prodigal son, now triumphant jester prophet—
Devin Townsend. Though obviously no new hand to the music business, Devin's recent blossoming has been impressive: since reemerging onto the US concert scene in 2010, he has opened for Between the Buried and Me and Cynic, headlined small venues with TesseracT, absolutely packed slightly larger halls with The Ocean, and now functionally assumed headliner status over Katatonia and Paradise Lost at clubs twice the size. And his stage presence has grown accordingly, beginning simply in business casual dressed-down (a grey blazer over a t-shirt) and now exploded into what Jonas Renkse fondly termed "a circus." During setup at every venue a backdrop broadcasts Ziltoid Television, which blares out faux infomercials and hokey music videos intercut with various internet sensations new and old ('Rejected'—aka "My spoon is too big"—or those irrepressible badgers). And that distraction is welcome, given the time it takes to erect Devin's altar to rock 'n' roll. Band members now all have steel risers, underlit by hyper-radiant red and blue, while flashing lights rim Ryan Van Poederooyen's kit and LEDs illuminate the fretboards and headstocks of Devin's new Framus custom guitars. Bassist Brian Waddell even has his Warwick Streamer basses chromed out, reflecting as much light as the other gear emits. Topping it all off, of course, are the mandatory oceans of fog.

And the wait was worthwhile. Fresh off 'Epicloud's release, Devin's all-out assault on music majesty continues, spiraling ever higher into a rarefied space where power chords radiate with an almost visual force, layers of backing keyboards underpin every climax, bass sub-drops suspend gravity, and a projection screen sprays out vivid images and text like Devin's subconscious writ large. It is a stage show almost utterly dependent upon high technology, right down to their exclusive use of Axe FX digital guitar rigs, but the human performances always are given precedence over any bleep and/or bloop of a machine. Besides, when called for Devin can also strip all that away and take the stage solo, with only an acoustic guitar (and, yes, several delay and reverb effects) to support him.

Tonight was not that night, though; we received the full treatment. And it is not as though the stage show replaces Devin's presence—it reflects it. Devin's face is one of the most emotive and wildly contorted I've seen on a stage, and yet he manages to avoid being a caricature of himself (or a 'puppet', if Ziltoid will), as he once was in Strapping Young Lad. For throughout all the blasting madness, the self-acknowledged schmaltz, and shameless pursuit of excess, Devin remains perfectly honest, and when he sings 'Kingdom'—arguably the single greatest expression of his live capabilities—the pathos, passion, and power in his performance always seem brand new. He doesn't just sing these songs. He lives them.

But all this might be so much wankery if it were just a one-man show, like many stars have found once striking off on their own. Devin, with an eponymous band and five albums released over the past three years, has quite clearly followed such an independent course. But by bringing his friends and bandmates along with him has avoided the pitfalls, and though naturally the center of attention he is hardly the only virtuoso on stage. Brian ("Beavis") Waddell on bass, Dave Young on "everything", as Devin put it, and Ryan Van Poederooyen on drums are all relatively old hands in Devin's regiment, and each more than holds his own alongside their mad scientist, egoist puppet alien, bespectacled nerd-proud overlord. That said, it would be nice, after all the bling loaded into everyone else's gear, to see Dave's axes get a bit more tricked out, too, just to keep up with the Joneses.

As with Katatonia, Devin's set time was officially an hour, but went a bit longer. As best can be recalled, it ran: 'Supercrush!', 'Kingdom', 'Regulator', 'Babysong, 'War', 'Color Your World', 'Vampira', 'Lucky Animals', 'Juular', 'Grace', and the shindig shuffle sensation 'Bad Devil' as closer. Despite the gloom that clouds Katatonia and Paradise Lost, Devin's set actually didn't seem to dispel their aura at all. For as much as melancholy defines them (and indeed a considerable amount of Devin's own oeuvre), the tone of the concert was one of excitement, enthusiasm, and accomplishment. These bands have plied their trades through good times and bad, through metal's peaks and troughs as a genre of popular fancy, and today are able to enjoy the fruits of that labor. Sometimes that fruit is sweet—Devin's wry ditty 'Lucky Animals'—and sometimes bitter—Paradise Lost's 'Faith Divides Us'. But still it is ripe.

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