C O L U M N S
"Thus the stage was washed in shapeless shadows. Each man stood with his
head down and movements muted, even when a song rose to its deranged climax of keyboard keening,
spiraling guitar leads, and brutish riff progressions that punched out of their amps like blocks of cold steel."
Who: Esoteric, Velnias, and Saturnalia Temple
Where: Reggie's, Chicago, USA
A full quarter of 2013 may be left, but there's already no doubt which concert of the
year will have been best suited to its weather: after September 28th at Reggie's Rock Club
in Chicago, that award unequivocally goes to Esoteric, Velnias, and Saturnalia Temple.
Chill winds swept in bracingly from Lake Michigan, the waning crescent moon was obscured
by clouds full of stinging rain, a congregation gathered deep into the night, and the
first rites began only during the witching hour. In other words: a stormy night, doors
opening at 11:30 PM, and the warm-up acts only starting at midnight. Downright gloomy. And
probably counterproductive, given the number of excuses it gave casual fans not to attend.
But at least guaranteed that Esoteric's Chicago crowd on their first US tour consisted
only of the faithful and the nightcrawlers: spiked leather greaves and animal bone
necklaces were peppered amidst the crowd as casually as more standard adornments like
Mjölnir pendants or half-dollar-sized ear gauges. Esoteric's epic paeans to despair
demand no less.
For all three bands the tour began out on the West Coast at the Stella Natura Festival in
Californiaa three-day quasi-mystical bacchanal of neo-folk, experimental, gothic,
black, doom, and dark metals set in the untrammeled expanse of Tahoe National Forest. Once
it was through, each band packaged up some of that mysticism along with their rigs and
brought it along to the Midwest.
Beginning the evening were Saturnalia Temple, a Swedish
power trio desperately in love with fuzzboxes, wah pedals, cascading delay, turning it up
to 11, strophic grooves, Tony Iommi, Victor Griffin, and probably UFOmammut, too. Their
set was a swaying, trippy séance of ultra-down-tuned vintage doom without a single second
of silenceeven between songs the guitar amp fed back nastily through a solid wall of
Atlas cabinets (more on those later). Wearing a ruffle blouse straight out of 1967 (or is
that 1697?), guitarist/vocalist Tommie swayed like a serpent charming himself, squeezing
one pentatonic groove after another out of his black Electra SG. A stalwart rhythm section
kept pace beside him, perfectly constant if a little bored-looking, yet still attentive
enough to clasp hands with a couple fans in the front row who quaked and clutched at the
sky as if possessed. This was an auspicious way to begin the ceremony, suitably dazed and
confused, but altogether too loud and drowned out by its own effects. A little less
mystery next time around might actually do more to develop their legend.
Second to the stage (circa 1 AM) came Velnias, bearded and
sleeveless to a man. This craggy quartet now homesteads in the mountains around Boulder,
Colorado, but several of them first hailed from Chicago and its surrounding suburbs. In
the past six years they've risen with the new wave of West Coast American black metal
while managing to defy lazy comparisons to the genre's biggest (and often most polarizing)
names. Their approach is highly atmospheric but not vapid, their arrangements sprawling
but not without direction, and their frontier aesthetic legitimate and unpretentious.
Velnias' guitarist and vocalist, a strapping young fellow who goes by 'P.J.V.', was also
responsible for the evening's backlinethose aforementioned Atlas cabinets arrayed in
a solid wall of three guitar full stacks and a 3/4 stack bass cabinet, likely a 2x15. He
handcrafts them all to beautiful custom specs with natural wood finishes, including
custom-engraved runes, etc. My personal experience with his work has been regrettably
brief, but each opportunity has been equally rewarding. And, by Thor's beard, can they get
loud, especially when driven by a trio of Engl, Peavey, and Sunn heads.
Backed by these sturdy pillars, Velnias laid out a smattering of candles about the stage,
which provided virtually the only light throughout their set. A large incense stick was
placed in front of the center monitor, but was thankfully of the tasteful variety that
slips into the subconscious instead of staining the sinuses with its aggression. Sometimes
these efforts at atmosphere can seem affected, but Velnias clearly live their creed and
neither boast nor preen. Of course, it helps that the music is rather good, too.
Their style is quickly recognizable to anyone familiar with American black metal from west
of the Mississippi these days, but Velnias also employs considerably more key changes and
through-composed intricacy than most bands content to strum and shriek. Throughout their
four-song, 40-minute set, the dynamic rose from single clean guitar melodies to explosive
blasts, vast rolling rhythms and melodious interludes. This intensity earned them the
night's most animated crowd response, though it was perhaps boosted by some old hometown
faithful (and the fact that their average BPM was twice that of the other bands).
Despite their vigor and experience, some parts of Velnias' set were still rough around the
edges. The guitars weren't always quite in tune with one another, the complexity of the
arrangements seemed to give them a few stutters, and the overall flowhowever
naturalwas not always graceful. On the other hand, the band had driven from Colorado
in one day and were playing 40 minutes of demanding material late into that same night, so
fatigue may well also have been a factor. Altogether it was an episode worth repeating.
But next time perhaps at a more humane hour. It was already past 1 AM when Velnias
wrapped and thus nearly 2 AM by the time Esoteric's six-man crew took the stage. During
the layover they set up a boggling array of equipment boasting nearly as many expression
pedals on their floorboards (9) as they had feet (10, drummer not included). A projector
set was also connected for some backdrop ambiance. Throughout it all there was plenty of
time to reflect on how, as befits one of England's most veteran doom ensembles, Esoteric
looked a right glum lot.
They were led by vocalist/guitarist Greg Chandlerhis head shaved but for a narrow
strip of hair slicked back in the middle like a fallen topknot, nose pierced with a hoop,
and grimly contorted tattoos on his bared arms. A little incongruously, he played a black
Parker Fly, which is of the most airy and futuristically streamlined guitars on the
planet. But then again Esoteric is not purely funereal; in fact much of their success
stems from rejecting genre standards and creating a uniquely progressive form of
despondent music that does not solely utilize ponderous tempos and lachrymose minor
chords. In any event, given all the pedals at his feet it might hardly have mattered what
kind of axe he slung.
He also wore a headset mike, which he might have chosen for several reasons. 1) The
flexibility it afforded him to kneel down and work the pedalboard with his hands without
having to stop his abyssal utterances, 1a) the flexibility to weave and sway slowly around
the stage while doing the same, 2) preserving floor space on the stagea precious
commodity for a band of six in mid-sized clubs, each with pedalboard cases large enough to
conceal a child's body, or 3) perhaps merely another chance to exercise his fascination
with electronics. Indeed, the stage was suffused with these, so much so that it was hard
to tell sometimes where the band and their performance ended and their equipment and its
effects began. Perhaps that queasy conundrum is part of their appeal.
Unfortunately, Esoteric's compulsion with technology did not extend to lighting, making
photography all but impossible. Their background visuals provided the primary light source
with a slowly swirling tapestry of colors and (forgive me) esoteric geometry, like the
cover artwork from 'The Maniacal Vale' brought into sluggish life. Thus the stage was
washed in shapeless shadows. Each man stood with his head down and movements muted, even
when a song rose to its deranged climax of keyboard keening, spiraling guitar leads, and
brutish riff progressions that punched out of their amps like blocks of cold steel. What
with the clutter at their feet, no one aside from Greg was really able to move around,
anyway. Perhaps bringing all six members on the road was a little in excess, but
altogether their presence was unshakableperfectly aligned in bleak, exhausting
Pushing up against the 3 AM curfew, their setlist ran, 'Abandonment', 'Silence', 'Circle',
'Disconsolate', and 'Caucus of Mind'. Given the absolute focus of the audience I can't
fault them for their choices, but a couple older numbers might have gone down well with
the veteran fans. Aside from Greg, though only fellow original member Gordon Bicknell
(guitar) is still around from the band's first few albums; when their debut
'Epistemological Despondency' came out in 1994, current Esoteric current drummer Joe
Fletcher was nine.
Such constancy as this is rare, especially in a genre so defined by pessimism. But Greg,
Gordon, and their cohorts refuse to flag even as they eclipse their second decade as a
band. In fact, each of their last two records have been double discs, returning to the
format of their early years, and the brutal pathos of songs like 'Abandonment' show that
Esoteric still has plenty of depths left to plumb. But somewhere amidst that darkness
there must also, too, be light: enough to see them through these years, across the
Atlantic with faith in their fanbase, and then set them once again to creation, not
dissolution. Look closely and you'll see it there, small and sole but resolute. And
humble. After wringing the final notes from 'Silence', Greg looked up at us and uttered
the night's first words from the stage: a simple 'Thank you.'
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