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Road Reports

Who: Esoteric, Velnias, and Saturnalia Temple
Where: Reggie's, Chicago, USA

"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."

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 California—a 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 silence—even 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 backline—those 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 flow—however natural—was 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 Chandler—his 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 stage—a 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 unshakable—perfectly aligned in bleak, exhausting professionalism.

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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