By Adrien Begrand
To Sonic Unyon, having two of the Hamilton label’s most prized metal signees play a rare show together is something special, a neat little showcase for the wide range of styles it promises to bring to Canadian and international audiences. For local concertgoers in Saskatoon, however, the pairing of thrash upstarts Untimely Demise and doom/noise duo Mares of Thrace seemed a little surreal. Never mind the fact that both bands are plenty capable of attracting a sizeable audience at Amigos on their own, but quirkily, each band has its own specific fanbase in the prairie city. True, there’s plenty of crossover, as yours truly and plenty others attend any remotely heavy show that plays in Saskatoon, be it underground, avant-garde, mainstream, or good, old-fashioned traditional metal, but despite the fact that the local metal scene is rapidly broadening, there was no denying there was a bit of a clash of scenes on this night, a palpable divide.
Some might have grumbled about the lack of subgenre consistency in the four-band bill of headliners Untimely Demise, Winnipeg progsters Grand Master, Mares of Thrace, and local youngsters Agony Spawn, but if you asked me, a guy who loves variety at a metal show, this was right up my alley. And as I hiked up a bustling Friday night Broadway Avenue, turned left, and walked one block east to the cozy, familiar confines of Amigos, the most beloved live music venue in the city, just in time to see the likeable Agony Spawn shredding onstage, it bode well for the entire night.
Of all the metal bands in Saskatoon, the one with the most mainstream appeal is Agony Spawn. Formed in 2010 and tailor-made for the Sirius Liquid Metal demographic, the quintet’s sound is a tidy blend of the more accessible side of Death and the swagger of Lamb of God, and already with just one self-released EP under their belts they’ve proven to be a very strong live act as well as good songwriters. Led by vocalist Bart Caldwell, who barks out his lyrics in a Jens Kidman-style roar, and propelled by the outstanding drumming of Lexie Miller, they’d already attracted a sizeable crowd up front and were clearly going over extremely well. Having played a lot of local shows lately, they’re honing their chops in impressive fashion, and if they have enough ambition they could wind up following in Untimely Demise’s footsteps. If only they’d ditch the MySpace player and get the hell on Bandcamp and Soundcloud – music writers do not listen to MySpace anymore, kids, trust me – then they could really start to get the word out more.
To have Calgary’s Mares of Thrace play second on a four-band bill is odd, especially considering just how well-liked the band is in Saskatoon, but seeing how this was originally booked as Grand Master’s headlining show, it was only fair. And credit guitarist Therese Lanz and drummer Stefani MacKichan for being total professionals and delivering their most crushing, intense live set in this city to date. The chemistry between the two in a live setting has always been there and is integral to their unique sound – the tension created by Lanz’s punishing riffs and cathartic screams and MacKichan’s jazzy but alarmingly powerful drumming is remarkable in person – but we had not heard them sound this devastatingly heavy before. Lanz’s much-ballyhooed new baritone guitar, custom made by the great Kurt Ballou, boasts both a bass and guitar pickup that allows Lanz to make her already massive riffs sound even heavier. Couple that with the fact that their new Sanford Parker-produced album The Pilgrimage is far more intense and visceral than their promising debut The Moulting, and you’ve got yourself a jaw-dropping set.
Opening with a jam that segued into the menacing “The Gallwasp”, Lanz and MacKichan tore through a swift set including “Mandible”, “Act 1: David Glimpses Bathsheba”, “The Perpetrator”, and most notably, The Moulting fave “General Sherman”, which was transformed into a slower, brooding doom track, its climactic last few bars rendered even more harrowing. Ending with a frenetic reading of “Act III: A Curse Falls on the House of David”, Mares of Thrace left the audience, which had swelled to a sizeable blend of longtime devotees and people simply blown away by how these two musicians could create something so forceful, wanting more.
Having initially endeared themselves to Saskatoon’s indie crowd rather than the metal scene, though, much of Mares of Thrace’s core audience in Saskatoon isn’t very inclined to follow a half hour of forward-thinking extreme music with staunchly traditional heavy metal, and they either left or hung out at the back of the room with their backs to the stage when Grand Master came on. It was an odd situation as the trio kicked into selections from their new album The Dream Alive to a handful of people up front, but eventually the metal crowd started trickling in the longer the set wore on. Grand Master has always shown promise, and indeed they sounded better than when I last saw them play a year ago, the new songs a tidy blend of NWOBHM influences and Dream Theater-style flash. A band like Grand Master needs a lead singer who can hit the high notes with power, but bassist/vocalist Alec Schaefer continues to hold his own capably enough.
By the end of Grand Master’s 45-minute set, the audience at Amigos had transformed from the eclectic blend of indie scenesters, curious metalheads, and noncommittal music fans to a straight-up hesher fest, leather jackets, black t-shirts, and long hair becoming the norm as the venue started to fill in anticipation of Untimely Demise. The trio has steadily earned a very strong local grassroots following, and it’s gratifying to see them now able to fill a venue on their own. An incredibly taut live act led by the Cuthbertson brothers, guitarist/vocalist Matt and bassist Murray and driven by the precise yet low-key drumming of Scott Cross, the trio specializes in a unique brand of thrash, technically sound yet hugely indebted to 1980s bands, coming across as a combination of Death. Megadeth, and Destruction, and as their 2010 full-length debut City of Steel has proven, it holds up alongside any thrash record that’s come out in the last year and a half. And even more remarkably, it translates extraordinarily well live, thanks mainly to Matt’s guitar work, which is manic, nimble, and authoritative. He can shred with the best of them, as he showed on this night during such live staples as “Virtue in Death”, “City of Steel”, and “The Unmaker”. Most thrash bands need two guitarists, but Matt is so adept at shifting from rhythm riff to solo to rhythm riff so well, and deliver lead vocals without missing a step, that you hardly notice they’re a rare thrash trio.
As Untimely Demise prepare to head back in the studio with former Megadeth guitarist Glen Drover once again this summer, they’ve got a wealth of new material, and the songs they unveiled on this night – the blistering “Somali Pirates” and the tentatively-titled “Time Falls Through the Hourglass” – instantly clicked with the exuberant audience, a clear indication that the band is ready to elevate their game on album number two.
As Untimely Demise’s set, which also featured a spirited cover of Death’s “Misanthrope”, wound down, the polite crowd of two hours prior was replaced by beered-up, mosh-happy dudes merrily pulverizing each other to their hearts’ content. Sadly, if only Mares of Thrace had played later in the bill they might have won over more of those punters and created some serious momentum for Untimely Demise to feed off of. Nevertheless it was a great night of heavy music of different varieties, even though this show was a bit on the disjointed side and not quite as unifying as I’d expected. Indie kids, there’s nothing wrong with embracing the goofiness of traditional metal! Join the fun; most metal folk are nice people. Meanwhile, when The Pilgrimage wins the 2013 Metal/Hard Music Juno Award, those who hung outside or intentionally showed up late will swear they were there when Mares of Thrace tore the roof off Amigos that night in May 2012.