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Gut Rumbling, Spine Crushing Heavy Metal!

Tuesday August 30, 2005

I've been to a lot of heavy metal festivals, ranging from the godly great (ProgPower) to unfathomably lame (Milwaukee Metalfest), but I have never been to a festival as well organized and flawlessly executed as the travelling Gigantour ticket, which visited Reading, PA this weekend. Gigantour is Dave Mustaine's answer to Ozzfest, featuring, of course, Megadeth in the headlining slot (with direct, pseduo-co-headlining support from Dream Theater) and a diverse host of (mostly) lesser known and (mostly) underground acts playing before on two stages.

I had been warned to get there early if I wanted to see Nevermore, so I made it a point to marshall my posse to the venue in time for doors-open. This was, in retrospect, not necessarily the best idea, but it was in fact wise to err on the side of promptess, as I will explain. It wasn't a minute after we were admitted to the Sovereign Center that the first band took the second (eg the emaller) stage : Bobaflex. I had heard good things about them, but from a person whose tastes are suspect. As it is, Bobaflex are terrible. They play a sort of generic nu-metal that's not commercial enough to gain widespread attention and not heavy enough to reach an underground crossover audience. Imagine Mudvayne crossed with Mushroomhead, if you will. Or don't bother. We did not stay long in the presence of this terrible, terrible band, but during the couple songs I watched, I saw two things : a retarded man-child bassist trying too hard to be the Flea of the nu-metal age, and a guitarist whose sole trick was spitting in the air and catching said spittle again in his mouth. He did this no less than 6 times in two songs! Frankly, this sort of behavior is inexcusable, so we excused ourselves to the encircling lobby area of the venue to begin drinking.

The Sovereign Center is a minor-league hockey arena with a capacity of about 8000 (or so I was told by one of my cohorts, who actually works in Reading for Sovereign Bank.) The two stages were at opposite ends of the floor. The ticketing arrangement was great, I thought : there were two levels of general admission seating. The cheap ticket bought you access to any of the seats in the arena, while the more expensive ticket bought that much, plus access to the seatless floor. The system worked great - you could wriggle your way to the front for those bands that were worth seeing up close, and when fatigue set in, there were always plenty of seats available for the taking-off of loads. The hallway areas, as in all sports arenas, offered for sale various beers and expensive fatty foods, not to mention a partial respite from the noise of the main hall.

The two stage system effectively eliminated the wait between bands to which all concertgoers have become accustomed, so that within two minutes of Bobaflex's none-too-soon departure, Nevermore took to the main stage. I like Nevermore a lot, and I wanted to see them, which is why I was there so early, but at the same time, this band pisses me off. Their setlists are terribly predictable. Granted, I have seen them probably 10 times in the past seven or eight years, and they'd have to pull out some interesting tunes to surprise me, but really, anyone who has seen this band twice has seen them enough to know they don't exactly mine their deep catalog on stage. They're adequately energetic onstage, and it's always a pleasure to watch Van Williams behind the kit, but I was definitely disappointed that new guitarist and noted band-whore Steve Smyth couldn't be bothered to learn the harmonies to the awesome second solo in "Enemies of Reality." Chris Broderick played them on the last tour, and it was the highlight of the set, so why not Steve? Anyway, as expected the band's set was quite short, maybe 25 minutes, and lacking any surprises at all. I could have even guess which new songs they would play.

I didn't even have time to get off the floor before the next band, Dry Kill Logic, mounted the second stage. Like Bobaflex, DKL are a band that wants desperately to become a massive sensation in pandering nu metal. Like Bobaflex, DKL will never achieve their goals. I watched less than one song before hitting the hallways. I'm told there was much booing by the end of the band's set. Serves them right.

Next up on the main stage was The Dillinger Escape Plan. I love this band. Their recorded music is extraordinarily challenging, but it doesn't take a lot of effort to enjoy them on stage. At least I thought so. The DEP illustrated a sad truth about the current metal scene, though : most metal "fans" don't actually want any diversity in their musical diet. Gigantour brought a terrific mix of metal styles together under one roof, on two stages. There was nu-metal, death metal, prog and power metal, industrial metal, and good old fashioned thrash on offer, but the average fan seemed interested in two or no more than three of the above, and of all the bands on the bill, the DEP was the most extreme - stylistically, technically, and attitudinally. I loved it, but many did not. The singer actually asked, "How many of you really hate this?" and was greeted with significant applause, to which he replied, "That's okay, because you're old." Any heckling was met in kind by the short and burly singer, who duelled with some unhappy concertgoer for most of the band's set. Here are a few quotes from the highlight reel:

"You're fat."

"You probably have a collection of swords hanging on the wall in your mom's basement, where you live."

"You want to fight me? Dude, you're not wearing chainmail. You can't just whip a mace out of your pocket."

"Nice moustache! How long did it take you to grow it?" (at which point the band started chanting, "Served! Served! Served!"

"Seriously, you guys were the best audience ever. Except for that guy, who is the shittiest guy ever."

The beleaguered fat guy also had a full bottle of water hurled at him from a short distance. I never saw this sad victim - he was on the other side of the pit, but the interaction was without a doubt the highlight of the entire festival. Musically, the band was as on-fire as they always are, and while I'm used to the spastic, destructive energy of a Dillinger show, this set was exemplary in its violence. Cymbals, mike stands, guitars, even amp cabinets were hurled about the stage. The singer climbed pretty much every surface he could find, singing from atop drums, amps, PA speakers, etc. The set focused on the band's most recent disc, but they played at least a couple songs from the band's breakthrough album Calculating Infinity, and everything was played with the unrivaled intensity for which the band is justly famed. Dillinger's set was over too soon.

And as soon as it was over, Symphony X started up on the second stage. I should have been exicted to see them play - they're a great band full of astounding musicians who write fantastic songs. And yet, after the DEP, Sym X's brand of proggy neoclassical power metal felt quaint and old fashioned, and the classic-rock posturing of singer extraordinaire Russell Allen felt outdated and trite. In DEP I had seen the future of heavy metal, and in Symphony X I was forced to confront the obsolescence of a still proud but waning movement. It was a little sad, actually. Also, Symphony X, like Nevermore, do not reward those who have seen them before. They didn't play a single song I hadn't seen them play before, and while the band and Russell sounded good, it was not the best show I'd ever seen them play. I watched the whole set, but if I hadn't, I wouldn't have missed anything. Pity.

Fear Factory started up their set and I was finally beginning to feel the fatigue of the festival. Three bands, back-to-back-to-back was too much. I watched the band play a couple songs and then fled to the periphery of the venue for a rest, knowing that I wouldn't miss much. I've seen Fear Factory close to a dozen times, and they're just not a very entertaining live band. Plus, I never bought or even heard their last album, and I was not too interested in whatever preview they would offer of their new album. I heard "Martyr" (surprisingly, their second song) and that was enough.

I didn't even go back into the venue for Life of Agony. Why would I? I already saw them earlier this year, and that was just an act of moral support for my brother-in-law, who liked them back in the day. I've never liked Life of Agony, and I don't intend to start now. You can say that River Runs Red is a classic of the 90s, but I can also say that you don't know what you're talking about. And I'll be right.

While Dream Theater surely could have started immediately after Life of Agony wrapped up, of course they didn't. They're headliners! Big stars! They go on when they're ready to go on! The wait wasn't long, maybe a half hour, but it felt like a betrayal to the ethos of the festival to make us wait at all. In the interim, I ran into a classmate from high school, who reported on the greatness of the System of a Down show in Philly the night before. Some beers were had. By the time Dream Theater came on, I was feeling pretty sleepy. I had been at the studio until 2:30 the night before, which means I didn't get home until about 5:00. I slept until 10:30, but that five hours was not enough. We found seats for Dream Theater, and in short order I was sleeping. The set was boring anyway, at least what I can remember of it. They played a small number of very long songs, mostly from the last two albums. I should have been excited to hear "Lie" and "The Mirror" from Awake, but I wasn't. This band is just plain dull onstage. The only guy who looks to be having any fun at all is drummer Mike Portnoy, who spits even more than that dude from Bobaflex (although to his credit, he spits out, not up, and he does not ever reclaim his spittle from the skies). Keyboardist Jordan Rudess has a keyboard on a swivelling stand which he pushes in circles seemingly to stay awake. He walks in circles like Conan, mirthlessly and without purpose. He seriously makes his job look like a drag. Singer James LaBrie is one of the least personable singers on stage that I can think of. He hits his notes and then leaves when the band goes into an instrumental section. Again, he makes it look like a chore. Bassist John Myung, of course, is famous for his passionless performances, and while guitarist John Petrucci at least has the manners to smile while he plays, he does little else, moving back and forth between his side stage nook and a spot close to, if not exactly all the way at, center stage, a spot which he apparently felt was reserved only for the most challenging-looking solos. Yawn. The encore was the obligatory "Pull Me Under," although 3/4 of the way through it turned into "Metropolis part 1." Double yawn. I know I'm sounding like a broken record when I note that I've seen this band a gazillion times and this performance simply didn't rate. Why do I go to these concerts at all? Increasingly, I have more fun between bands, just hanging out with my friends, than I do actually watching the music. This is a failure of heavy metal, I think. It's not my fault. There are still great bands out there (as The Dillinger Escape Plan proved), but most of the old guard is just going through the motions.

And on that note: Megadeth. With the notable addition of pyro, (and the song "She-Wolf"), this set was identical to the one I saw earlier this year. And the pyro didn't do much for me. Pyro is something that a band should only turn to out of need, when their stage show simply can't get anymore outrageous and fun without explosives. Megadeth used them like a crutch. The explosions and fire were the only interesting aspects of the band's set, but they felt out of place. It didn't help that I still can't trick myself into believing that the mercenaries on stage with Dave Mustaine are actually Megadeth. They're just a bunch of cronies who will be replaced. Sure, Dave Elefson was never the best bassist, but he was still a vital part of that band, and the Drover brothers are sad placeholders for the likes of Chris Poland, Marty Friedman, Gar Samuelson, and Nick Menza. It was getting late and everyone in my party was getting tired, so after about an hour we left Dave and hired company to do what they do in peace. We didn't see "Peace Sells" or "Holy Wars," but I didn't miss them. Gigantour was fun, but I'd had enough, so I got out while the gettin' was good. I never even saw the merchandise counter and so was not tempted to buy a $35 t-shirt. What a great day!

Posted by Matt at 08:38 PM | Comments (4)

R.I.P. Denis D'Amour

Monday August 29, 2005

On Friday at 11:45 pm, Denis D'Amour, stage name : Piggy, died of cancer. Piggy was one of the most innovative and influential guitar players heavy metal has ever known, and his passing is terribly sad to me. Voivod is a band that I've loved for many years and for many reasons, Piggy's playing certainly not the least. I never met the man, but I saw him in concert three times, in 1993, 1997, and 2004, and he always put on a great show. He would occasionally play his guitar with a toy raygun - the beeps and whoops somehow made it through the pickups and out his amp. It was a neat trick, and he would make funny faces while he did it, which always made me laugh. I transcribed a Voivod song for a friend once, and let me tell you, it was not easy. I'm sure I did it wrong, too, but the point is that his style was so different from everyone else's that nearly all of his riffs seemed inscrutably difficult for me to figure out and play. While a lot of players learned a thing or two from Piggy, no one ever sounded just like him or Voivod, because the only way to do that would be to actually cover Voivod songs. Piggy and his band were both truly unique, and the world is a lesser place for his absence.

Posted by Matt at 06:26 PM

In the absence of inspirado...

Friday August 26, 2005

...a link. The Outbursts of Everett True is a comic I can really relate to. The format is simple and to the point : in panel one, someone upsets or annoys the protagonist. In panel two, the protagonist lays a savage beating on that someone. The strip ran for a few decades at the turn of the last century, and was apparently even adapted into a few silent films (none of which exist any longer, sadly.) Enjoy this, if you can, while I wait for the inspiration to write about something else. I have material : I went on vacation, my house is (mostly) repainted, my brother got in a knife fight, and yet I just don't feel like writing about any of that right now. I blame laziness. Can I do that?

Posted by Matt at 06:42 PM | Comments (1)

Blogging from Afar

Wednesday August 3, 2005

Read the stultifying account of the four ways I have found to commute from home to work in my guest entry on The Wonderful and Mysterious Obnubes's Travel Blog! While you're there, make sure to read Mr. X's commute story. It's hillarious!

Posted by Matt at 07:15 PM | Comments (1)

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