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Road Reports

Artists: Stratovarius, Paganís Mind, Sacred Dawn, Septer
Where: The Pyramid Club, Addison/Chicago, IL
Date: 9.25.09
Written By: Etiam

When word came down that The Pearl Room was closing, my first thoughts were a mix of disappointment and elation. On the one hand, The Pearl Room had been a reliable go-to for metal gigs of all kind in the Chicagoland area, featured the best backstage hangout of all the regular haunts, and always had easy parking. On the other hand, it was located in a remote southwestern suburban strip-mall, had inconsistent sound quality, touchy security, and, ultimately, was as much of a bar as it was a club. For many Chicago-area metal fans, the jury is still out on whether this closing is a help or hindrance to our local scene.

The first show to be relocated was the penultimate touring date for Stratovarius and Pagan’s Mind, which ended up at the Pyramid Club in Addison. The Finnish headliners will take a couple more weeks to hit the West Coast, but due to some conflicts with the promoter, Pagan’s Mind had only one more date in Minneapolis before returning to Europe. This being their first proper US tour—following three appearances at Progpower USA—I was not going to miss out.

Addison is another Chicago suburb, but is rather more western than southern and significantly less remote. The Pyramid Club turned out to be large and well-accommodated, featuring a full bar, dozens of pool tables, plenty of space to loiter, play barroom games, and eat. In sum, even more club-like than The Pearl Room, which leaves it poorly prepared as a metal venue. In one semi-enclosed corner of the club, it does have a full mixing table, some spotlights, and what technically is a stage, but nothing that is suitable for two internationally touring acts. Capacity near the stage is perhaps a few hundred, if very tightly packed, and the stage is a triangle stashed in a corner near the kitchen entrance; as bands filter onto the stage, waitresses hustle past carrying ketchup to their tables. On any given night, one could expect karaoke clubs, drink specials, or football games generating more draw than whatever act is slated to play.

Once I pulled up around the front door, though, there was no mistaking that this was the place. The prog and power metal crews—from the bespectacled teens to receding hairlines and leather pants of the veterans—loitered out front while Iron Maiden was blasting from the house stereo. Upon entering the venue, the song being played became clearer and I was surprised to realize that it wasn’t Iron Maiden on the house system, but rather the opening act Septer.

Septer (that’s ‘Scepter’ without the ‘c’) turned out to be more straightforward than Maiden in nearly every respect and, though the comparison is hardly fair, also less exciting. Dane McCartney’s soaring vocals carried well through the venue (as well as out the door) and brimmed with confidence, while local veteran Scott Davidson plowed away on his booming kit. The other members, however, weren’t especially compelling and the songwriting wasn’t memorable. True, the band’s mix was poor and they were forced to play on the floor in front of the stage, which will put a damper on any band’s live presence, but a second chance given to the band’s recorded material hasn’t offered up any revelations.

Following them was Sacred Dawn, another local act that’s been moving up in the past couple of years. Fronted by guitarist and vocalist Lothar Keller, Sacred Dawn purvey a well-crafted mixture of brooding hard rock riffs, belted power metal vibratos, and some progressive rhythm chops. Unfortunately, guitarist Michael Carpenter—perhaps the first metal guitarist I’ve seen use both Fender guitars and Fender amps—endured two separate string breaks during the set. To their credit, the band carried on without missing a beat, and the audience was patient and appreciative. At one point Lothar swapped out his guitar for a seven-string ESP to debut some new material from its forthcoming release, netting him a few more points as the only vocalist/guitarist of the night, and a good one to boot. As openers, they still have some room left to grow before they can really compete with headliners, but they are certainly of the better local choices to kick off shows of this kind.

With the audience warmed up, it was time for the half-hour openers to give way to the main attractions, and as Sacred Dawn played their last songs, telltale signs of Pagan’s Mind appeared: guitarist Jorn Viggo watched from near the sound booth while the band’s main tech Wayne tuned up Steinar’s six-string Ibanez BTB bass. During the following layover, the running crew reset all the gear, moving the monitors that had been the floor up onto the stage. Immediately, the crowd swelled forward, packing in so swiftly that the techs had to shout for everyone to step back and to give them space to work. This was done, grudgingly, but the time the band took the stage, most of us had squeezed our way back up. This put about a third of the audience outside of the reach of the PAs, which were angled more towards the back half of the room and left us only able to hear the band’s miked speakers and Nils’ vocal monitor. No one seemed to care. Being that close to a fully-engaged Pagan’s Mind—literally standing right in front of them, able to reach out to touch Jorn’s fretboard during his wild solos—was more exhilarating than hearing a perfect mix.

In short, they were devastating. Words with destructive qualities usually aren’t used to describe prog or power metal bands—instead, ‘mind-blowing’, ‘amazing’, ‘incredible’, etc.—but I can’t think of another melodic/prog band that rocks as hard as these five Norwegians. Drawing heavily from their newest release, ‘God’s Equation’, the 45 minute set was a constant barrage of headbanging riffs, precise and smashing percussion, Nils’ explosive vocals, and everyone—audience as well as band—seething with vitality. As Jorn would later say in interview, new Pagan’s Mind songs were written with the live environment in mind, and it certainly showed. From Jorn’s tight chugging to Nils’ almost violent incitement of the audience’s cheers and Ronny’s tongue-in-cheek displays, the band made every effort to engage the audience. That said, they entirely avoided the schlocky games so typical of power metal shows, such as left vs. right side cheering and mimicry. Pagan’s Mind simply ripped from start to finish and took us along for the ride.

Although the band’s on-stage presence is driven and enthusiastic, they aren’t so zoned in that they can’t have fun. Throughout the set, Jorn would scoot over to Steinar and kick him in the rear while he wasn’t looking. Ronny eventually got in on the joke and provided a distraction while Jorn would sneak up from the side. Steinar returned the favor a few times, even bumping into Jorn during one of his solo sections (which, for the record, didn’t cause him any trouble). In some ways, they still seemed like kids sort of new to the game: Jorn and Nils jumping up and down like pop rock stars, Ronny beaming and embracing his beer cans and keyboard in turn, Steinar grooving away looking simply jolly, and Stian slipping in stick twirls left and right for his own amusement.

There was nothing childish about their performance, however. From my spot, Nils and Jorn dominated in the mix, so I can’t speak as much to Ronny or Steinar’s technical performances, but by the looks and flashes of them that I heard, they were in fine form. For the rest of the set, it was all I could do to keep up with Jorn’s dazzling fretwork; with gut-punching riffs, racing lead harmonies with Ronny, and truly inspired solos, it seems that there is little he cannot do. Graceful legato, heavy tremolo arm sag, and tapping or harmonic flourishes are just a few tricks he employs in addition to that distinctive tone.

Just to his left was performing the equally virtuosic and diverse Nils, who, after warming up in the first couple songs, was matching Jorn’s high-flying leads. In a few cases, he even exceeded them. It’s common knowledge how Nils is inspired by King Diamond, but at this point it seems almost like the King could learn from Nils. Though Nils did not quite hit every high note—in this style, hardly anyone can, especially after two weeks on the road—but all were gracefully approached, none were badly missed, and a few of his high embellishing screams were simply astonishing. He seems to have largely overcome a habitual hand-drape over his chest for high notes, and instead spent most of his energy gesturing majestically towards the skies, throwing both his arms at the audience, or, for the ballsy grunt towards the end of ‘Alien Kamikaze’, thrusting his hips.

I typically am one to check my clock a number of times throughout the night to track the running order, but the thought never once crossed my mind during Pagan’s Mind. Their 45 minutes flew by more quickly than any other artist’s in my recent memory, even including their Progpower set from 2007, which was the first show of theirs I had seen. This set wasn’t tailored to the Progpower audience and therefore consisted mostly of new material, including the Bowie ‘Hallo Spaceboy’ cover that is a great live number and continues to grow on me. Other new songs included ‘Alien Kamikaze’, ‘God’s Equation’, ‘United Alliance’, and ‘Atomic Firelight’. They scattered in some instrumental passages, a solo spot for Jorn, and also reached back a few times—to ‘Enigmatic: Calling’ for ‘Enigmatic: Mission’ and to ‘Celestial Entrance’ for ‘Through Osiris’ Eyes’. In a perfect world they’d have played ‘Dreamscape Lucidity’ or ‘New World Order’, among others, but also in a perfect world they’d have played a two-hour set at an actual concert venue. Jorn said this show was one of the smallest they played, which is no surprise, but that the crowd response was tremendous. We were happy to oblige.

After that preemptive display, anything less than a pyrotechnical grand-scale masterpiece from Stratovarius would be a step down. Others seemed to feel this way, too, so I was not surprised to see the crowd thinning out as Pagan’s Mind left the stage. I, for one, spent most of Stratovarius’ set in interview with Jorn, so I only managed to see the final three songs of their set: ‘Eagleheart’, ‘Father Time’, and ‘Black Diamond’. Still, a fair number of fans remained, some sporting Stratovarius shirts for the new ‘Polaris’ album and many of whom were quite enthusiastic. Audience participation for the singalong parts was strong, and most were willing to play along with Timo’s games (“We were in Cleveland last night, and they were pretty loud…are you louder than them?”). Some fans simply stood and nodded along; others threw up their fists, and a couple even stood on booths, dancing and singing.

From that short sample, what impressed me most was that, even after almost 90 minutes of playing, Timo’s voice was strong, his falsetto assertive, and vibrato even. Stratovarius have a reputation of inconsistency, especially in the final years with Timo Tolkki in the band, but from their sound and the audience’s mood, it seemed that each performer was on this evening. Indeed, the band’s other members, including new guitarist Matias Kupiainen, all looked at ease as they raced along, though they did fall momentarily out of synch a few times. During a brief break, Jens put on a keyboard solo display with his characteristic neoclassical-meets-playful style, but it paled in comparison to what Jorn had laid down some two hours before. If they did surpass Pagan’s Mind in any regard, it was in their excellent mix, which was well balanced and respective of each instrument. This especially allowed Lauri Porra to shine, laying down finger-picked basslines and arpeggios straight from the Markus Grosskopf (Helloween) school, plus some of his own two-handed tapping flourishes.

Following some final crowd participation—counting to four in Finnish while the band drank—Timo bid us good evening and Stratovarius retired to earnest applause and cheers. Nonetheless, I was left with the distinct impression that Pagan’s Mind, as they are wont to do, stole the show. Post-show chatter, attention to their merch at the booth, and attendance for their set told the tale: Pagan’s Mind is a bone fide hit in the States, and these guys are ready to headline.

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