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  Reviews - Nuclear Holocaust Festival

Unread Yesterday, 01:47 AM

Nuclear Holocaust Festival
The Abbey Pub: Chicago
By Dave Burns

Photos by Johnny Vomit
September 17, 2005

The Abbey Pub is one of the best venues for live music in Chicago—hassle-free parking, a perfectly positioned stage, and ample space for sitting, standing and roaming. On the west side of the building is the pub itself, a standard sit-down restaurant-bar with ornamental brass rails, televisions tuned to college football, and the usual decorations. To the east is a spacious stage area with nary a TV in sight, faux rock castle walls on the first floor, a roomy upper level ringed with metal railings to keep drunkards from plunging to a painful landing below, and a cubbyhole in back where bartenders furiously fill the orders of a thirsty horde.

But metal shows are not a common occurrence at the Abbey, a staid establishment that normally hosts artistes shooting for a spread in Spin, modern folk and bluegrass outfits, experimental hip-hop funk collectives, or bands who can be accurately compared to the “laid-back rock” of Big Head Todd and the Monsters. Facts driven home by the hastily scrawled signs reading, “NO: stage diving, slam dancing, crowd surfing, moshing. You will be thrown out!” taped to the left and right sides of the colonnade-style woodwork framing the stage and the lone security guard who nervously glances about the room as it fills up with denim and leather denizens.

These palpable fears, however, prove to be unfounded (only one individual tests the warning signs, a bald-headed, heavily-tattooed, wife-beater-wearing aggro-spastic who takes a dive during Ares Kingdom’s set and is promptly shown the door, and another, whipped into a frenzy by the sight of Deceased, momentarily thinks about tempting fate, but is quickly talked out of crawling on stage by King Fowley), since the crowd gathered for tonight’s festivities is delighted to witness what The Chasm’s Daniel Corchado correctly declares to be “the best fucking show of the year.” In fact, the assembled metalheads are downright giddy and express their euphoria by performing impromptu joshing jigs, clasping hands over the shared bond of a band name on a t-shirt, playfully pushing one another in a mocking observance of the “no slam dancing” edict, and wearing radiant rictus grins while headbanging to the heavy-as-it-goddamn-fucking-gets-metal surging from the stage with enough power to overload electric grids throughout the region.

Malas, a local act, open the festival, and a significant number of the people who decided to turn out before the more well-known bands appear gather around the stage to see what is in store. The band receives an enthusiastic response for their efforts, but to the uninitiated ear Malas’ starchy death and thrash mix falls a bit flat at the outset. Erik Pertl (bass/vocals) growls his lines with the proper aplomb, Alex McIntire strangles the notes from his guitar with violent stabs, and Dan Chairez pummels his kit with a crashing confidence, yet the sum of all these well-oiled parts fail to congeal into a satisfying sound. For the constant slicing, dicing, and mincing beats reverberate like a jukebox struggling repeatedly to leap over a deep and fundamental scratch in a 45 that has “Jesus Saves” and “Zombie Ritual” etched on top of one another in all the grooves.

This repetitive barrage of death-infused speed continues unabated for the first half of the band’s set, and when it finally seems as if Malas will ease up to inject some variation into the proceedings with a rotund and retching riff during “In Terror,” the song comes to an abrupt end, leaving the air pregnant with squandered possibilities. However, around the middle of the set, Malas launch into “Sacred Graves,” a hopped-up, stein-thumping tune that channels the spirit of Onkel Tom Angelripper through Tom G. Warrior and do not look back. From this point on, Malas begin bursting out of what appeared to be a dull death metal straitjacket and air a succession of songs that are nuanced and judicious in pace and close with a cover of “Outbreak of Evil” that convincingly caps what proves to be a promising outing.

Next up: Ares Kingdom, a direct decedent of Order from Chaos and a unit that instantly clicks with many unfamiliar with the band. With Doug Overbay (Bass) holding down the left flank in a Voivod shirt and Chuck Keller (Guitar) shoring up the right in a sleeveless Bathory shirt, the sartorial signaling of influences makes something intricate and impressive imperative—and Ares Kingdom does not fail to deliver. Alex Blume steps up to the mic and rasps out a greeting (he stays in charred vocal character, shouting out gravelly thanks and croaking the names of the songs) as his cohorts start cranking out a premium blend of blackened, blitzing thrash and mid-paced, magisterial heavy metal that is invigorating and intriguing. Moreover, the power of the music to marvel and mystify compensates for the somewhat stilted stage presence of Ares Kingdom (Keller’s mangling of his guitar is something that demands consideration from time to time though) that leaves a fleeting visual imprint—but the nose-to-the-grindstone approach does mirror the intense and weighty song structures.

For example, “A Dream of Armageddon” is a panoramic passage through an iron-scarred landscape that begins with a mournful and purposeful decent on the back of a rolling, tolling drum beat from harmonic heights into a volatile vale where roughshod riffs, solos, and leads pound the soil into dust, leaving only hardpan behind as a cliff-climbing corrosive crescendo lifts the listener above and beyond the roiling devastation on the floor below. It almost goes without saying that observing such a progressively primal display in a live setting is a revelation, and tonight’s show provides abundant evidence for anyone wanting to claim that Ares Kingdom is a band well worth watching and following in the coming years.

After Ares Kingdom finish, the respectable amount of bodies clustered around the stage up to this point slowly swells until there is a solid throng of onlookers from front to back that is on pins and needles for the heavy hitters at the upper portion of the bill to commence. It has been years since Deceased has played Chicago, and the audience is instantly gripped and violently shaken by a collective metal mania when the band kick off their set with the bogged-down, concrete-sawing riffs of “Sick Thrash.” From here on out, it's nothing more than heads-down, damn-the-torpedoes heavy metal as Deceased frenetically plow through a set of primeval and present-day tunes that is as evenhanded as a band with two decades underneath its belt can ever hope to be. Because old, moss-covered numbers like “Fading Survival” segue seamlessly into new-fangled, sleek thrashers like “The Funeral Parlor’s Secret” to form a comprehensive set that leaves absolutely no room for regret or disappointment.

Something that is more than apparent to anyone watching the fine-tuned attack and the well-calibrated chaos that unfolds while Deceased rage across the stage this evening. Les Snyder, a first-rate bassist who does not often receive due attention, settles into a low-to-the-ground, backward-leaning crouch and lets loose with a barrage of booming and backfiring bazooka beats that turn the air down front into something tangible that pulsates with the solid strength of palpitating heart muscle. Every now and again, Snyder makes his away around Mark Adams, who is ripping and ravaging in a determined fashion in front of him, to provide some hefty, hoarse accentuating vocals at the proper points. To the right, Mike Smith stands almost immobile in the thrall of a sepulchral musical séance that imparts a trancelike quality to his performance. But the sober and serious surface is in direct contrast to the music issuing from Smith’s instrument—a fiery flood of molten licks and riffs that leap and hop around the venue like a horned toad on a hot piece of heavy metal—making the ease with which he blazes through the complex and convoluted songs an uncanny confluence of circumstances that borders on the supernatural.

The most flamboyant and extroverted guitar wielding wizard, however, would be hard-pressed to exert a presence as large as King Fowley—one of the best and most expressive frontmen in metal’s history. Fowley bounces about the stage like an enraged and deranged metal patient in an asylum cell, punching himself in the head, clawing at the empty air while wearing a grimace from the grave, seizing a stick and bashing on the cymbals in a music-conductor-gone-stark-raving-mad manner during “Fearless Undead Machines,” and frantically pulling at his hair as Deceased churn out their tales of horror and dread. But the menacing, disturbing gestures that match the lyrical subjects are interspersed with some antics. For Fowley injects periodic bursts of impish humor into the proceedings by jesting with his bandmates—pointing the mic towards Smith during the boisterous cover of “Black Metal” in a fruitless effort to get him to join the mass sing-along and comically shrugging and smiling when the somber Smith does not react; gleefully grasping at Snyder's goatee to give it a tug; and showing an exaggerated and animated admiration of Adams’ stellar shredding. But all this clowning is done in a spirit of camaraderie forged in a furnace full of lead and steel, producing a cohesive mightiness obvious to all attending and underscored by Fowley’s solemn and heartfelt chest-thumping dedication of the closing cover of “Voivod” to Piggy’s memory: A gesture that increases the density of the first few rows and sends the crowd into seizures, bringing a phenomenal set to its logical end with a respectful and apt honoring of the character and ability of one of metal’s greatest guitarists by one of its most dedicated band of warriors.

A tough act to follow if there ever was one, and The Chasm are put in the unfortunate position of playing in the wake of the emotional and energetic collective high Deceased generated in the audience. Something Daniel Corchado senses as he good-naturedly informs the crowd to “don’t get fucking tired on us, because this is only the beginning,” and the crashed crowd does rally to a certain extent, since it is impossible to remain indifferent as The Chasm blast away at the metallic mob with their superb and distinctive “heavy metal of death.” Opening with the initial salvo of “From the Curse, a Scourge…,” an intro that sets a titanic tone and makes for a succinct statement of the band’s stock-in-trade with its intricate, serpentine leads that flow into chopping, clipped riffs that manage to still swing and sway, The Chasm waste little time with theatrics, beyond a stunning synchronized frontline thrashing that is remarkable, for Corchado’s crew moves rapidly, doling out epic and expansive songs with a minimum of fanfare in-between.

One thing that does emerge through the elaborate tightness of the delivery and the face-shearing sharpness of the heaviness on display, however, is that The Chasm thoroughly enjoy what they are doing, and the hard-ass demeanor normally associated with death metal is exchanged for a contagious and festive Día de los Muertos atmosphere. And it is hard not to join in the fun when Corchado declares that everyone should “get ready to break your fucking necks” before The Chasm wrap up with “Dark Cloud,” a scorching, and stomping reworking of Slayer’s speed metal insanity (complete with a opening “Angel of Death” lungs-straining scream) that charges through the room with the elemental force of a body-blistering bolt of lightning.

At long last, Usurper finally take the stage to utilize the drums (every band used the same base kit, which cut the time between acts) bearing their logo’s “U” and the words “apocalyptic” and “warlord” on the left and right bass heads. Many members of the hometown crowd have been restlessly awaiting this moment and each time a glimpse is caught of the band before the set a ripple of anticipatory excitement passes through the people milling around down front and a few cries of “Carcass Chris” are raised. And to call the reception Usurper receives thunderous would be a disservice to the metalheads going nine-kinds-of-rabid during the band’s set that is chock full of honest-to-the-masters metal fortified with hearty doses of old-school thrash and death.

Usurper feeds on the adulation and fire off a savage show that would reduce any posers who happened to get caught in the crossfire into mush. Rick Sprague is almost schizophrenic, torn between the menacing mugging the vitriol of the music inspires in him and the irrepressible joy that dances across his face as he absorbs the elated emotions his brainchild evokes out in the darkened hall. Caught up in similar crosscurrents, Jon Woodring flails at his bass and shakes as if he has made contact with a wet third rail on the “L” and smiles like he has survived a near-death experience between songs. But the member of Usurper who is most affected by the rapturous reaction is Dan Lawson, and Usurper’s vocalist rewards the audience by incorporating them into the ranks of the band every step of the way as he belts out the weird tales and militant odes to metal that are Usurper’s specialty,

Continually calling for crowd participation during the choruses of the metal anthems that abound (“I am Usurper,” “Kill for Metal,” and “Warriors of Iron and Rust”) and constantly sticking the mic out into the front rows so individuals can bellow out a word or phrase, Lawson ranges across the stage in the throes of a manic moment that becomes a mutually orchestrated performance as the band and fans meld into one metallic mass. In fact, Lawson is so taken aback by the sustained passion that he is moved enough to testify that he once stood shoulder to shoulder with the audience, since he was a faithful follower of the band before he joined, chipping away at the walls normally separating fans and bands as he becomes immersed in the magic that an unforeseen turn of events can engender. And it is infectious, since Joe Schaeffer stands up behind his kit, sticks out his tongue and raises his hands in the air in excitement when Lawson announces the final crushing blow of “Metal Lust,” which uncorks the Abbey, letting loose a swirling full-on-metal maelstrom that consumes the venue until the last round of “Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey!...” and chants of “metal lust” fade in ringing eardrums.

After Usurper’s riotous showing, Sabbat take the stage in front of a crowd that has visibly thinned over the course of a long foot-throbbing, neck-cramping, and throat-rasping evening. Nevertheless, those that remain would constitute a sizable draw at any true metal show in the States, and the trio of heavy metal samurais receive a heroes’ welcome from metalheads who have waited many years to see the band in a live setting. Gezol, looking wizened yet callow, also senses the importance of the gig as he surveys the fanatical scene before him with a pleased and maniacal gaze, and proceeds to pull out all the stops once the sabbatical ones get underway.

Clad in his regular bare buttocks sumo-style attire, Gezol bounds all over the stage, placing one foot on the monitor and fixing the front row with addled expressions, rubbing his bass on the top of the heads of metallers while lunging out into the crowd, caterwauling his vocals with an unhinged vehemence, and flicking his tongue out and about like an incensed iguana. On Gezol’s left, Temis Osmond cuts a dapper figure in his sharp tux top with tails and spandex pants combo as he flails and flogs away at his guitar in a frenzied fashion and wails into the mic like a high-pitched banshee with bronchitis.

The songs within the set are nothing less than spectacular and accurately reflect the fact that Sabbat has 20 years of expertise and material to draw upon—even if their labors have been met with a stony silence and shrouded in the all-enveloping secrecy a dearth of coverage produces. And numerous rare gems are trotted out for inspection: “Splatter,” a staccato, windmill-slapping scorcher with brimstone-bopping breaks that shudder and shake; “Gok Kan Ma,” a rousing and ripping speedy Maiden-on-methamphetamines marathon run in half the time, replete with tasteful neoclassical noodling; “Evil Nations,” a gritty, grating slab of flash-rockin’ thrash infused with a low-fidelity blackened ethos that bubbles up to the surface sporadically; and “Charisma,” a soaring and wind-burning epic that skillfully maneuvers through pockets of up-tempo turbulence on sparse chainsaw-sputtering riffs. These songs also hammer home an important point: what some see as simplistic and overworked musical ruts are, in reality, complex and innovative additions to a genre that many regard as stagnant and barren, a knee-jerk judgment Sabbat’s set refutes many times over.

Similar conclusions can be drawn from the music and careers of each and every big-name act on the bill tonight. Deceased is a band which has remained firmly within the orbit of traditional eighties metal and employed the influences of the golden era to fashion a niche that is all their own; The Chasm’s straddling of numerous offshoots of metal is also something exceptional, since the band unerringly locates the strand that links each one to the foundational matrix known as heavy metal to create a sprawling and startling sound; and Usurper has always been in forward perpetual motion, moving well beyond their Frostian roots to embrace a multifaceted approach that puts a unique stamp on the familiar ground the necrocult traverses. However, the main lesson the bands of the Nuclear Holocaust Festival impart to listeners is simple, and one any metalhead worth his or her salt already knows: heavy metal is not a passing fad, a retro-trend, or a nostalgia trip, but a living, breathing and thinking entity that remains a relevant and robust form of music in spite of the crippling baggage detractors and sophisticates try to load it down with in a futile attempt to break its steely spine.

Last edited by BOSWELL : Yesterday at 02:31 AM.
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