By Adrien Begrand, Photos by Albert Mansour
Sometimes you have to see a particular band live in person before you can make the jump from polite admirer to complete fanboy. I’d been familiar with Athens, Ohio band Skeletonwitch ever since their self-released Worship the Witch EP showed up in my mail back in 2006, and since then I and many other metal geeks have seen them evolve into a very good band on record, starting with 2007’s Prosthetic debut Beyond the Permafrost and the rippingly good Breathing the Fire, which is set to come out in a couple weeks. So when it was announced that the hard-touring band was making its first trip out to Western Canada opening for Children of Bodom and the Black Dahlia Murder this fall, I was more than pleased to finally get a chance to truly see what all the fuss was about.
Three hours after leaving the packed, sweaty Odeon, ears continuing to buzz away, I’m still struck by just how much Skeletonwitch stole the show from their far more popular tour mates. They didn’t have the full power of the PA, they didn’t have the best sound mix (guitarist Scott Hedrick’s leads were drowned out), they only played for half an hour, they didn’t have any bells and whistles save for a couple cool deer skulls, but what they do have is immeasurably more valuable than some strategically placed strobe lights. One, something we already knew listening to their records, is those riffs that walk a nice line between thrash and black metal, all of which were tightly executed by Hedrick and Nate Garnett. But what I didn’t know they had before this night was presence. In metal, you have to get out there onstage and project power, simple as that, be it the headliner or the opening act, and with burly vocalist Chance Garnett leading the charge, beating his chest, throwing the horns, gesticulating madly, Skeletonwitch won the crowd over instantly. It doesn’t hurt, either, that their songs are economically short and relentlessly catchy, and they blazed through a good nine songs during their allotted time frame, including Permafrost faves “Fire From the Sky”, “Upon Wings of Black”, “Beyond the Permafrost”, and “Within My Blood”, along with three from Breathing the Fire (“Submit to the Suffering”, Crushed Beyond Dust”, “The Despoiler of Human Life”) and “Soul Thrashing Black Sorcery” from the forthcoming Brütal Legend videogame. They came, we saw, they conquered. Simple as that.
After Skeletonwitch’s revelatory, tragically brief set, the Black Dahlia Murder had a lot of momentum to follow up on, but while the Detroit quintet is very popular with the kids and they do possess one of the genre’s more unique frontmen in Trevor Strnad, the same old problems continued to plague the band as they tore into their 45 minute set. Simply put, for all of their technical skill, they’ve always had trouble creating genuinely memorable songs. When you watch a boisterous young crowd at a Black Dahlia Murder show, chances are they can’t hum a melody or imitate a riff if you asked them; everybody is just reacting to the physicality of the music, with little if any of the actual music ever sinking in. You don’t ever see people shouting along at a Black Dahlia Murder show. Everyone, from the band noodling away to the kids running around in those asinine circle pits, is just going through the motions. To be fair, though, the band is not completely incapable of mediocre songwriting. The new record Deflorate is easily their most consistent to date, and “Black Valor”, “Christ Deformed”, and especially the terrific “Necropolis” all held up tremendously on this night. Standouts from the 2005 breakthrough Miasma “Statutory Ape” and a “Vulgar Picture” were welcome additions as well, but aside from that performance tended to waver towards the monotonous. Not that the mosh pit kids cared; the band onstage pushed all the necessary buttons, some blasts here, a breakdown there, and everyone came away happy, or at the very least mildly complacent.
If there’s one band that fully deserves a “victory lap” tour, it’s Children of Bodom, who after a good dozen years plying their distinct brand of melodic extreme metal, is finally experiencing some significant success in North America. For most fans who live in the smaller centres, they best they could manage before was to catch Alexi Laiho and his booze-fueled band of flashy Finns as part of a package tour, be it the Unholy Alliance or Gigantour, which usually meant a measly eight or nine songs, maximum, and when a band has six studio albums under their belts, it’s tough to get some variety. So the venue was packed with fans hoping to get a huge dose of the old stuff, and that’s exactly what Bodom gave them.
Clearly relishing a chance to delve deeper into the back catalogue, the band’s hour and a half long set gave a token, two-song nod to last year’s Blooddrunk and focused most of the attention on their first four albums, which comprised three quarters of the show. There were the usual crowd-pleasers, of course, like “Angels Don’t Kill”, “Hate Me!”, and “Downfall”, with a pair of slick segues ranking among the highlights, as “Lake Bodom” seamlessly morphed into a raucous “Bodom After Midnight” and the underrated “Children of Decadence” launching into “Bodom Beach Terror” without losing a step. Typical of any Children of Bodom show, the sound was on the thin side, thanks primarily to such strong emphasis on the twin guitar harmonies of Laiho and Roope Latvala and the keyboard work of Janne Warman, but at the very least the mix was relatively clean. Oddly, the band was completely backlit, which made it difficult for the guitar geeks in the crowd to study the flamboyant Laiho’s shredding, an unusually low-key move for such a band. The encore of “Everytime I Die” and “Hate Crew Deathroll” brought the night to a rewarding conclusion, but while the two bigger bands merely met expectations, it was the little band of scruffy underdogs that wound up exceeding them, and when we’re thinking back on this tour a couple years from now, that’s who we’re going to be remembering the most vividly.