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Road Reports

Who: Septicflesh, Krisiun, Melechesh, Ex Deo, Inquisition
Where: Reggies, Chicago, USA

"...thumping his chest with a heavily tattooed arm, he acknowledged that without their fans the bands are nothing—a sentiment sometimes lost on artists once they reach a certain level of fame."

Conquerors of the World, they called it. It's difficult to imagine such a tour managing to overthrow the entirety of North America in a mere 20 dates, but that's all that this brief campaign was allotted. Given the firepower on hand, though—Septicflesh headlining, support from Krisiun, Melechesh, Ex Deo, and Inquisition—this internationally-comprised company may not have needed any more. My instant reaction to this announcement, aside from grimacing righteously, was to mark my calendar, refreshed by a script-flipping dose of "All metal, no white guys." And while that this tagline didn't turn out to be 100% true (a few blond locks had to muck things up), the metal constitution of those involved was still formidable.

The duty of forward reconnaissance on this tour fell to Inquisition, the occultic black metal duo of Columbian provenance. Although the band now resides in the lily northern reaches near Seattle, Washington (and mastermind Dagon himself is half-American), the band has always maintained a uniquely ragged and sinister edge that is quite apart from the northern hemisphere's standard fare. Dagon's hefty guitar attack is not limited to minor tremolos, also mixing in thrashing power chords and melodically drifting classical interludes. Unusually, he regards bass both in the studio and on stage as a superfluity. Even more outré is his vocal style—a monotonous, delay-laden croak that sounds like the creaking of a casket hinge and will make or break the band for most newcomers.

Still, despite not being touted by any particularly major label, Inquisition seemed to finally break through in 2011 with their fifth full-length, the ponderously titled 'Ominous Doctrines of the Perpetual Mystical Macrocosm'. Such grandiloquence fills a back catalogue dating to the early 90s, making Inquisition arguably the Western hemisphere's answer to Immortal. Alas, between the show's early start and a crash-riddled I-90, I only arrived to Reggie's in time for the final couple songs of their 30-minute set. Although the crowd was patchy, those who were on hand seemed to know and appreciate what the corpsepainted duo had to offer. Dagon was at ease as the only man standing on stage, ramrod straight before the microphone with feet splayed wide, while Incubus thundered along behind him on the kit. The concrete walls of the venue were awash in swirling barre chords, and the audience's heads nodded like waves with each of Dagon's protracted bass register bends. They closed with 'Desolate Funeral Chant', raised fists towards the audience, and promised a return early next year. Count me there.

Without any local openers on the bill, that sign-off occurred 7:30. Each layover was an honest 20 minutes, so it wasn't long before the legions arrived to set up camp. The military metaphor (albeit stretched by now) still holds up, since it applies to Ex Deo, the Roman Empire-themed side project of numerous Kataklysm members. This was my first live experience with the band, though I'd seen their gaudy brand of Gladiator-worship pasted across message boards since their sudden appearance in 2009. The band seems to follow all the costumed cues of the folk metal craze that started a few years before, just replacing drinking horns with bracers, face paint with pleated leather skirts, and runic tapestries with felt banners featuring legionary acronyms. The lyrics, too, follow this fantasy with gusto; vocalist Maurizio belted out, "I am Romulus!", "I am Tiberius!", "I am a soldier of Rome!", and "I, Caligvla!" all at one point or another. Otherwise, he spent most of his time with one or both arms raised in an anticipatory pose (perhaps to highlight the SPQR tattoo on his inner left bicep) and eyes downcast in mock reflection before lurching into yet another two-fisted attack on the mic over a 4/4 riff chunking around the first five or so frets. In short, it all seemed rather like Chicagocore playing dress-up, and it was gobsmackingly unimpressive.

I must concede that their mix was very poor up front, and a comrade back near the soundboard reported a much clearer sound and enjoyed the band considerably. And yet from where I stood, the stage left guitar was one overpowering resonant frequency and every plodding riff drowned out what orchestrated grandeur might have been going on underneath. Some in the audience seemed quite engaged and a couple moshpits did briefly break out, so the band does have its fans in this town. But it doesn't seem that anyone came for Ex Deo specifically, and I heard little mention of them after the show. If nothing else, they did keep the international vibe alive on the bill, and their Roman slant was vaguely in keeping with the night's Equatorial-not-Anglo cast.

More promising was the next band on the bill, whom we could count on to embody those ancient Mediterranean themes quite authentically. This was Melechesh, warriors borne of the sands of Jerusalem, although they, too, have since moved on to more northern pastures. But it matters not—alongside Absu, Melechesh have monopolized the scene for occultic, phrygian dominant black metal (i.e. the 'Egyptian' sounding scale), and led by guitarist/vocalist Ashmedi they continue to blaze trails into their 20th year as a band. Yet after Ex Deo's dogged plodding, many in the crowd reacted a little sluggishly to the new tempos at first. Ashmedi commented as much—"It's as quiet as a library in here"—and fortunately by set's end most of the burgeoning crowd had been pulled out of their trance.

In addition to Ashmedi's lead vocals, touring bassist Scorpios—also of Crimson Moon—handled backups, and his throatier shout made an effective counterpoint to Ashmedi's shriller rasp. They blazed through a 40 minute set, perhaps not so tightly as I would have hoped, but given that 50% of the band were session players I can't hold it much against them. In addition to Ashmedi, Xul remained the anchor behind the kit, and he seemed never to flag. Their second session member was on guitar—an alarmingly lanky fellow with waist-length blonde hair and oversized platform combat boots. He wrapped his head in a black cloth for the first song of the set, which worked magnificently to maintain the band's desert-swept image, but for whatever reason chose to remove it thereafter and spent the rest of the set hunched over his low-slung Les Paul, looking like the long lost twin of Tobias Cristiansson (current bassist of Grave) and possibly the gangliest metal musician since Hammerfalls' Oscar Dronjak.

In any event, there was no denying the band's ripping vigor. Ashmedi whirled about the stage, quite the rocker with his white flying V Jackson, heavily bangled wrists, and seemingly endless supply of fist-pumping themes. The band's newest material tends to have a more rockin' vibe overall, in fact—groovier, a little simpler and slower than 'Emissaries', more punctuating slides, etc.—but the impression altogether was still of desert royalty assuming their throne. The set ran: 'Illumination: The Face of Shamash', 'Sacred Geometry', 'Ladders to Sumeria', 'Grand Gathas of Baal Sin', 'Triangular Tattvic Fire', 'Ghouls of Nineveh', and 'Rebirth of the Nemesis'.

With the venue warmed up and approaching a comfortable density, the crowd was at last in full synch with the stage. And just in time, too, for the next band up was a merciless war machine. These were the brothers three, Max & Moyses Kolesne and Alex Camargo, together one of Brazil's most durable exports: Krisiun. Does a better death metal trio exist? Let it be noted that in this contest, studio trios with full stage lineups such as Nile or Hypocrisy do not count. Krisiun is a true power trio on stage and on record alike, and no substitutes will be accepted. Admittedly, this may be a field with fairly light competition, given that most death metal bands would hardly countenance the idea much less successfully attempt it. But that should not detract from Krisiun's achievement, since for twenty solid years these Brazilian brothers have been plying their trade without interruption or error. Over eight LPs they have had no lineup changes, effected no seismic shifts in style, and been content to rail relentlessly on the timeless themes of 'Bloodshed', 'Works of Carnage', and the 'Meanest Evil'. While every release merits attention. 2011's 'The Great Execution', does recast their MO in several subtle ways—longer songs, slightly broader set of influences, and a couple notable Brazilian guest artists. Fans will still instantly recognize the scathing lashes of Moyses' guitar, the signature jackhammer of Max's blasts, and the articulate, raging roar of Alex, the band's ageless voice and ringleader.

All of these qualities are on full display anytime Krisiun comes to town. As one of metal's most tirelessly touring bands—averaging 100+ shows a year throughout the Americas and Europe in addition to weekly local gigs back home—the brothers in Krisiun exude a confidence in themselves and each other that can only be achieved through countless hours of performance. Moyses used a seven-string Floyd-Rose equipped Dean Razorback—surely one of the most unwieldy guitars ever crafted—to cover both ends of Krisiun's spectrum, from remorselessly sharp riffing and juicy harmonics to mind-boggling sweeps and shredding so fluid it hardly seemed to be the same instrument. He also always manage to swap to the neck pickup for his leads, a step many metal guitarists would rather forget, despite having no second guitarist to usher him out of the rhythm riffs. In closing one solo, both Alex and Max dropped out entirely, leaving Moyses speeding along a single note to the point where the pick attack disappeared and he achieved almost a completely uninterrupted tone. It was a rather dazzling display, all coordinated by a simple effects board of a few boost or compression effects duct-taped to a folded-up piece of cardboard. Let that be a reminder to all gear-hungry guitarists—yours truly included—that no boutique pedal or NOS tubes can equal the effects of pure practice and talent.

No less worthy were his brothers. Max's percussion was ferocious and tight, and over their nearly 40 minute set I came to realize how much his blast patterns are a distinguishing staple of the band. While many of his North American contemporaries gain acclaim on blogs or drummers' forums for their extreme chops, Max is an underrated performer who does not seek the spotlight, preferring to just play, tour, record, and represent the blastbeating heart of death metal. And without a second guitarist to back up Moyses, Alex's proficiency on bass is no mere window dressing. When Moyses is flitting through 64th-note arpeggios, Alex's surges up to fill the gap with a playing style both fundamental and occasionally flourished. Octave slides and a few syncopated counterpoints were all it took for our ears to stay tuned.

Just as last time I saw them nearly six years ago with Belphegor and Unleashed, Alex was at his candid best as a frontman, too, thanking the crowd not only for coming to the show but also for supporting the metal community at large. He was also the only performer with a mic to make mention of the other artists on the bill. Then, thumping his chest with a heavily tattooed arm, he acknowledged that without their fans the bands are nothing—a sentiment sometimes lost on artists once they reach a certain level of fame. These humble yet pithy addresses were scattered throughout the set, never taking up more than a few moments before his rapid banter descended into his familiar, heavily-cadenced roar to announce the next song. Altogether it was perhaps the most unanimously satisfying performance of the night, with a setlist running: 'Kings of Killing', 'Combustion Inferno', 'The Will to Potency', 'Vicious Wrath', 'Vengeance's Revelation', 'Descending Abomination', 'Twisting Sights', 'Hatred Inherit'.

With that punishing episode complete, it was time to put away the bludgeons and make way for the thurible, for Septicflesh were calling us to mass. In this case, though, the incense had been burned an hour earlier by Melechesh, the vessel of our attention was a Cthulhic sculpture affixed to the center stage microphone, the Christ depicted on the hanging banners was disemboweled on the cross, and the traditional crest 'INRI' instead read 'The Destroyer'. Aside from switching the backdrops, the setup for each band was minimal—all rigs were shared and drummers only swapped out their cymbals—so in short order the lights went down and Spiros Antoniou strode purposefully to his pulpit. There he stood, face half-hidden by the tentacled crest before him and with a resplendent Vigier 5-string bass slung down behind his back like a weighty axe. He wore fingerless gloves, a three-quarter sleeve zip-up halfway between Under Armour and a padded biker's jumpsuit. His fine black hair was often pulled down tight about his jaws, and two fragments of moustache perched above each corner of his mouth like twitching epaulets. His was an imperious presence, modern gothic like a Blade vampire, and one that not many men could pull off without looking faintly ridiculous. But for Spiros, somehow it works. His mien was as distinctive as his wardrobe, highly orchestrated and gravely ceremonious, but still spiced with unpredictable fits of headbanging, precarious spins, and impassioned roars that sent his eyebrows soaring up his forehead enough that his face looked half split apart in agony. His basslines were rarely complex, so instead of just puttering along passively he would raise the bass up before him and brandish it like a holy icon, his left hand locked in on a root note and right hand thrumming out the staccato patterns.

To his right was the band's occasional live guitarist Psychon, who joined them on this tour instead of Sotiris Vayenas, their tenured member and dedicated clean singer. Psychon was a good fit for the band's stern aesthetic and a fully competent guitarist, but neither he nor main vocalist/bassist Spiros attempted to duplicate Sotiris' vocals. Fortunately, the band's orchestral arrangements—courtesy of Christos, their copiously dreadlocked stage left guitarist and Spiros' brother—were balanced well in the mix and served to substantiate the band's melodic bombast. Finally, behind the kit was Fotis Benardo, a well-traveled drummer with experience from cult black metal to the gleeful fireworks of Gus G and company. His almost cheery demeanor didn't match his stonyfaced bandmates, but was much more inviting to fans during his slightly cheeky call-and-response drum solo.

But to begin, the invocation. The backing track orchestration of 'The Vampire of Nazareth' swelled, Fotis beat out a descending tom tattoo, and then the stage exploded into blastbeasts, fiercely swirling dreadlocks, and a crushing verse chug of guitars aimed straight for the solar plexus. Septicflesh may not have been as fast as Krisiun, but the sheer density of their sonic assault was unparalleled that night. From that first peak, the assault continued with minimal pauses for more than an hour, running in full: 'The Vampire from Nazareth', 'Communion', 'A Great Mass of Death', 'Virtues of the Beast', 'Unbeliever', 'Pyramid God', 'Lovecraft's Death', 'Oceans of Grey', 'We the Gods', the aforementioned drum solo, 'Persepolis', 'Anubis', and finally 'Five-Pointed Star'. I had hoped to hear some of their pre-millennial material, particularly how they might have adapted those more traditionally gothic rock trappings to their current template, but every song was pulled from 'Sumerian Daemons' or later. This did, for what it's worth, create a cohesive setlist that would appeal to the broader American audience. And since Spiros' ravenous baritone roar features much more heavily on the new records, this also minimized the gaps that would usually be filled by Sotiris. So although one might criticize this setlist as a 'business decision', it certainly packed a mighty wallop.

The crowd response, if not quite the constant tumult and chorus-chants Septicflesh could expect back home in Athens, was robust for a weekday Chicago audience. A few dedicated types in the front were growling for one song or another ('Lovecraft's Death' seemed to be the favorite), and the smashing heights of 'The Great Mass' material (e.g. the harrowing 'Oceans of Grey') were irresistible to moshers. For their part, the band received this attention coolly, as befit their image, and offered up individual bows or salutes when the set ended at midnight. Fotis followed all, tossing out two frayed sticks as the house lights awoke into a briny green. Then the stage was empty again but for the blasphemous triptych of a rotting Christs beside a rampant Cthulhu. A fitting emblem for the night.

Though not roundly revelatory, Chicago's clash with the Conquerors was peppered with highlights and altogether one of the most stacked bills to come through town in some time. Tours of late seem to be combining two notable names at the top with an ill-fitting underbill, so I commend all those involved for making this tour more worthy of its name. Now if only the Conquerors would do battle with the hordes of Paganfest, then we might see pay-per-view metal bloodbaths emerge as the industry's newest revenue stream. And the masses rejoiced.

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