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Road Reports

Who: Katatonia, Cult of Luna, Intronaut, Tesseract
Where: Bottom Lounge, Chicago, USA
When:
10.02.13
Writer/Pics:
Etiam

"The setup seemed excessive at first, but after their set began and reached its first crescendo—double-toms pounding, keyboards flitting, bass swelling, three Orange rigs snarling, vocalist Johannes bellowing, and pure white light erupting from their feet—I was completely converted."


For one band it was an affirmation; for the other, a culmination. When Sweden's Cult of Luna and Katatonia set out on a co-headlining tour this fall it marked the former's first U.S. appearance since a 2005 support slot for Mastodon. Over those same eight years, Katatonia toured the States a whopping six times, frequently as headliners and otherwise as special guests. Both bands are icons in their respective genres, but before this tour I would never have thought to combine them on a bill, much less with support from the UK's Tesseract and California's Intronaut. Yet the tour seems to have been a success, drawing strong crowds across the nation and making good use of Chicago's capacious Bottom Lounge. And after seeing each act command the stage in turn, uniquely and completely, a unifying and deeply encouraging theme emerged: progress.

Or prog, in musical jargon. But not the solo-slathered geekery or synthesizer symphonies that the term often calls to mind. When executed well, that sort of indulgence can be hugely inspiring, but by pegging itself so neatly into a box it has almost ceased to 'progress' anything other than its performers' technical expertise. No, the progress on display this evening was of a different sort. An integral sort. A literal sort, defined more by purpose than identifiable traits. Soaring power metal drama met cold djent syncopation in Tesseract; eldritch heavy jazz blossomed in the hands of Intronaut; post-hardcore axe-chopping cut through waves of Neurosis in Cult of Luna. As for Katatonia…well, critics still haven't found the pithy epithet to pin them down. Shoegaze stumbles through Stockholm? New Wave played on heavy metal kit? Fields of the Nephilim goes to 11? No swift summary can capture their distinctive voice. And frankly, the first three attempts also do each of those bands injustice as well, for each is more than the scant sum of its parts. And that's the nature of progress—defying simple equations, introducing new variables, and arriving at new solutions.



I arrived at the Bottom Lounge just moments before Tesseract hit the stage at 8 pm, but still managed to filter towards the front through one of the largest crowds I've yet seen for an opening act. Glancing around from the third row I saw their T-shirts liberally dotting the crowd and nearly as many upturned (and oft-bespectacled) faces mouthing the words to each song. In the three years since I saw Tesseract last (at Lincoln Hall opening for Devin Townsend, fresh from his phoenix rebirth), the band has departed somewhat from their origins as a more straightforward, technical/djent outfit and cycled through more vocalists. The role demands a high pure tenor as well as occasional harsh midrange, with the former increasingly dominant in their songwriting. Since last year the band has had Ashe O'Hara at the microphone and, fresh off the release of 'Altered State', seem poised to realize an ever-expanding vision. Consisting mostly of new material, Tesseract's set was a meticulous fusion of the dry, chugging technicality derived directly from Meshuggah (quarter-note cymbal splashes from drummer Jay Postones pushing through the dense metrical fray) and a melodic, reverb-washed sweetness almost evocative of Roy Khan-era Kamelot. Absent the heavy rings and leather pants, that is. In fact, Tesseract hardly had much stage identity at all aside from an obvious enthusiasm for their material and general shagginess (ultra-suave bassist Amos Williams aside).

Yet for all their spotless technique and the crowd's bright-eyed enthusiasm, I found myself a little unmoved. Tesseract's stuttering rhythms lacked the tectonic mass of their forefathers in Meshuggah, and few of their arcing, aching melodies seemed to stick, however perfectly delivered. Some of this may be due to production, though: despite playing in front of a beautiful tube amp backline, all of Tesseract's sound was piped in through the PA via AxeFX, and O'Hara's vocals were too heavily dipped in reverb (and backing tracks). I can understand taking precautions to protect his performance when the demands are so high, but he has the skills to stand more independently. Let him.

In any event, the audience loved their 30-minute set and clamored for more when it came to an end. After honing their chops on the tour circuit and in the studio alike, it's clear that Tesseract have paid their dues (despite the revolving door at the microphone). As soon as this tour wrapped they hit the road again with Scale the Summit for another crisscross of the U.S., but this time at the head of the bill instead of its foot. It's a spot they've earned.



Next to the stage were labelmates Intronaut, who thankfully put those regal full stacks to use. Guitarists and co-vocalists Sacha Dunable and Dave Timnick each played a Mesa-Boogie Royal Atlantic atop 4x12 full-stacks of matching colors (Sacha's were white). Bassist Joe Lester Lincoln-logged together a stack of equal height via three small Ampeg cabinets and matching rack unit, then played a ludicrously articulate 5-string Zon (lefty, fretless, stacked with EMGs). Off-set from center stage was drummer Danny Walker, playing an kit of Meinl cymbals and DW shells—relatively few pieces for a technical band, but each scaled up in size. Colored lasers traced lazy arcs across their gear and out into the first few rows—otherwise the stage was dim.

After the disembodied clarity of Tesseract, it was refreshing to hear 'live music' emanating from the stage. Yet by this time I was standing front and center and so could hear hardly anything but the rhythm section. The guitars were a shimmering wash and the vocals an even vaguer background ripple. I imagine the liberal use of effects (oscillation, delay, etc.) didn't help those guitars punch through, but it was still a keen reminder of why bands take Tesseract's route of assured, dependable, repeatable balance, even if it is digital. Too, being less familiar with Intronaut's latest work, on which Dunable and Timnick explore more clean vocals than the harsh half-shouts of Del Müerte in the past, I would have gladly heard more of their interplay in the live setting.

Still, I took consolation from the fact that Walker-Lester tandem is one of the most impeccable and creative rhythm sections in metal; the unfettered visual and aural access to their performances was almost like having isolated tracks to study in the studio. Their performances were virtually as perfect. All the members of the band have unshakeable technical foundations, but after each knuckle-cracking display of virtuosity they can just as swiftly rise up into reflective interludes full of unpredictable beauty and balance. Lester in particular is a master of this, anchoring sharp technical passages with absolute accuracy (despite the lack of frets) and then taking the lead with sliding double-stops and a delicate vibrato touch while playing his own counterpoint in the bass—still fretless, of course. Walker was no less compelling, moving from thumping tom tattoos to jazzy hi-hat, flitting across the cymbals and cracking the snare with an almost insouciant disregard for conventional 2-4 downbeats. I cannot in good faith call him a more technically accomplished drummer than Tesseract's Postones, but Walker plays with a natural vivacity that is distinctly appealing and well-suited to Intronaut's ebb and flow.

Aside from focusing on new tracks, the band trotted out the live staple 'Any Port', which is bookended by a drum-line kind of tête-à-tête between Walker and Timnick, who takes up sticks and plays a rack of toms in an intricate polyrhythmic climax. It's more an exchange than a duel between the two, each playing to support the other in turn and scaling up to a stronger and more synergized finish than either would have achieved on his own. It may not be my favorite track from 'Prehistoricisms' (that'd have to be 'The Literal Black Cloud'), but in the live setting it has an undeniable focusing power.

Intronaut's set lasted about 30 minutes, and though they had the night's lowest tally of hardcore fans, many of the Tesseract fanboys came away looking newly impressed. After years of waiting myself for the right opportunity to see Intronaut I was similarly pleased, imbalances in the mix notwithstanding. From here the band heads to Europe for a headlining tour of their own, poaching Scale the Summit from Tesseract once their aforementioned jaunt is concluded. One hopes they travel as well there as the night's headliners do in the States.



Speaking of which, after the Mesas were cleared away and the industrial-strength floor LEDs brought in, Cult of Luna's hour (and a half) had finally come. For all their gear the layover was effected rather quickly, but it still gave me time to reflect on what's transpired since the band last touched American soil. That '05 tour came in the midst of a productive first decade that saw five CDs and two DVD releases, after which the band went to ground for a time. Nearly five years passed between 'Eternal Kingdom' and their latest LP, 'Vertikal', which the band attributes to a scattered and slower writing process than ever before. For some groups this would be a euphemism for listlessness or a loss of inspiration—not so Cult of Luna. Always known for their patience and broad perspective, after five full albums the band recognized that they'd reach an plateau and needed to strike out for new ground. It's not a process to take lightly, nor one always executed to success. But after the live performance they put on, preceding Katatonia on the bill but playing an equal set, there's no doubt that the Cult of Luna is still as committed as ever. (And, as if to make up for lost time, they've already released a follow-up EP, 'Vertikal II', that at 35 minutes is nearly long enough to pass for an LP in its own right.)

Initially wary to see those Mesa stacks wheeled away, I was pleased to see three Orange half-stacks hidden behind them. The two drum sets were a bit of a surprise, however. But their purpose soon became clear: cutting corners is not Cult of Luna's way and their music is far too primal to allow for any backing track support. They numbered fully seven people on stage—three guitarists, a bassist, keyboardist, and two percussionists—and were also the only band to bring a dedicated lights technician out for the tour. The setup seemed excessive at first, but after their set began and reached its first crescendo—double-toms pounding, keyboards flitting, bass swelling, three Orange rigs snarling, vocalist Johannes bellowing, and pure white light erupting from their feet—I was completely converted.

And also a little shell-shocked. I had always considered Cult of Luna to be a reflective bunch, understated even in their epics, and more far-gazing than eruptive. Good Swedish lads in button-downs and expensive denim. And some of them are—off-stage. After the show, for instance, I had a pleasantly low-key conversation with bassist David Johansson (also of Kongh) on topics from how Nirvana changed his life to the tasty drafts of Voku Hila courtesy of Local Option representative Alexi Front, who had brought swag for the whole band. (Front organizes an annual Scorched Tundra metal fest in Gothenburg, at which Kongh is playing this year, and where hometown heroes like At the Gates and In Flames can be seen representing Local Option's pink-mohawked skull.) But on stage, Cult of Luna are in thrall to their music, heaving their shoulders against the merciless tide of riffs that rolled out of their steel-necked Kramers, scarred Les Pauls, and white Firebird. It's a noble battle, but one that only their captain—the bull-necked and tattooed Johannes—seems to be winning, even if costs him his life. While the bands other members swayed and sagged to the floor, Johannes attacked the microphone as if it were the teeth of the gale and mounted the monitors in a burst that nearly left him sprawled across the floor, his amplifier pushed askew into one of the drum kits. And then those floor LEDs, flashing lightning through the gloom of the concert hall, signaled the peak of each massive swell before plunging again into a deep and lengthy trough.

For its passion, unity, and length, Cult of Luna's set was one of the most surprising and arresting I've seen in recent memory. Despite the sonic density, it was also the most perfectly-mixed set of the night: each instrument clearly audible, actual sense for dynamics (those double drums especially), and vocals managing to be clear above the fray. The set did seem to have a couple false endings and perhaps I would have clipped it by 15 minutes, but not due to any lack of quality material. It is just the fundamental nature of atmospheric or 'soundscape' metal and its dependence upon epic climaxes that eventually loses its edge. Still, the intensity and commitment of the performance, as well as the sheer amount of visual information to digest, set a high-water mark that few stage shows can hope to exceed. As Johannes said later that night, moments before their 3 AM bus call, “If I can't feel it here [grabbing his crotch] it's not worth playing.” It was worth it. It was their affirmation.



So what, then, of Katatonia's culmination? Dispel any notions of selling out the biggest stadiums around—the 18,500 Allstate Arena is for such outsized summer circuses as Gigantour and Mayhem Fest. Nor are Katatonia that kind of band to begin with—for all the rock-star swagger of guitarists Anders Nyström and 'Sodo' Eriksson, Katatonia is just as defined by the introspective focus of drummer Daniel Liljekvist and bashfulness of singer Jonas Renkse, whose black locks perpetually obscure his face like a natural shroud. Katatonia is best suited to roomy standing-room clubs like the Bottom Lounge (cap. 700) or elegant yet intimate concert halls like The Vic (cap. 1300), which they rocked as special guests on Opeth's 2011 'Heritage' tour. Thus Katatonia's culmination in 2013 was of a subtle sort, much akin to their recent 'Dethroned & Uncrowned' record that dismantled and rerecorded modern material in a stripped-down setting of eerie keyboards, acoustic guitar, and Jonas' lilting vocal harmonies. Risky, perhaps, even for a band that's rejected metal stereotypes for 15 years now, but it was the record they wanted to make. And after all these years of wooing audiences with their big hits and latest lead singles, Katatonia in 2013 is here to play the sets they want to play, confident that their audiences will understand and appreciate it, having grown together over all these years. They wagered well.

We'd been primed for this for a while, in fact, though we may not have realized it at the time. The band has been tinkering with a 'song pool' over the past few tours that ensures each night has a slightly different set, and now that pool has now expanded enough to include obscure B-sides and rarities. Their Chicago setlist dated back even so far as to their 'Saw You Drown' EP, which marked the momentous shift to a new paradigm that has come to define their career.

Like Tesseract, Katatonia relied upon off-stage rigs to deliver their sound, transition between clean and distorted parts, and handle all effects, solo boosts, etc. They've been using the technology for several years now (the past three times I've seen them, at least), and for all its efficiency the mix sounded almost as remote as Tesseract's. Anders and Sodo each even walked over to their stage mixer during the set to fiddle with knobs, though this didn't detract from either's performance. After such a soft landing on stage it took a couple songs for the audience to get fully involved, too, but soon enough their heads were bobbing along appreciatively. The setlist ran: 'Ashen', 'Hypnone', 'In the White', 'Ambitions', 'My Twin', 'Lethean', 'Quiet World', 'Undo You', 'Ghost of the Sun', 'Leech', 'Dissolving Bonds', 'Forsaker', 'Soil's Song', 'July', and 'Unfurl'. No encore, but at 15 songs the set was a headliner's length and concluded on the right note.

Despite Sodo and bassist Niklas Sandin only joining in 2010, Katatonia has toured so extensively since then that its members have the comfort and chemistry of a veteran ensemble. And even as their performances have each become more dialed-in (Daniel's penetrating stare at his drums is an especially, weirdly compelling understatement), they also are allowing themselves a little freedom. Jonas, for instance, will always be a mild frontman but during 'Dissolving Bonds' he allowed himself an ascending forte burst in the final chorus. And Anders, a redoubtable vocalist in his own right, switched up the backing vocals in 'July' to include a nearly falsetto shriek evocative of his days as Blakkheim in Diabolical Masquerade. Meanwhile, Sodo seemed to favor his Stratocaster more than his Schecter for this set (usually the former is more for leads and the latter rhythm), and used it to dazzling effect on his 'Lethean' solo. Overall this set was the most technically impeccable I've seen the band put on to date, even if the atmosphere perhaps wasn't as strong as some previous gigs.

And throughout the night the overarching theme of progress remained strong, achieving its conclusion—its culmination—in Katatonia's group bow to close the night. Even as they crisscross the States for the sixth time in five years, the band refuse to simply retread old paths. And even as they revisit old material (the anticipated 10th anniversary remaster of 'Viva Emptiness' comes out this month), they look ahead, surprising their fans with fresh interpretations. Cult of Luna also embodies this kind of organic and self-sustaining growth. While many bands spread themselves too thin striving to 'break new boundaries' or 'push the envelope', those on stage tonight will endure. For the most authentic progress always starts from within.







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