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An Esteemed Visitor

Wednesday November 23, 2005

In case you didn't notice, my Bolt Thrower appreciation thread was visited by none other than once-and-future BT singer Karl Willets! Karl is actually the first "stranger" to post a comment on my blog - what a way to break through to the world! He posted a comment relating his take on the G. Williker's riot of '91, which you can read here :


Thanks, Karl, for stopping by. You've made my month!

Posted by Matt at 10:46 AM


Monday November 21, 2005

I've said it before and I'll say it again - The Khyber is a total dump. If the band you're seeing has no fans and the place is empty, it's alright. But if you see any group with some popular support, you're fucked. It's a stuffy, smokey hole in the wall that punishes you at every step. Why do I keep going back?

I went on Friday to see a couple of bands I passingly enjoy : Kayo Dot and Starkweather. Kayo Dot, formerly known as Maudlin of the Well, is a group of many people trying to make modern classical music in the post-rock idiom. Their music is heady and sometimes inscrutable, and honestly, I don't much enjoy listening to their albums, but there's something very appealing to me about this band. On friday, they played in a seven piece format : three guitars, bass (upright and electric), drums, horns, and violin. They only played two songs, but their set was at least 25 minutes long. I especially liked when, after the first song, the horn player Forbees Graham announced that the next song would be their last for the night. Funny! I would have really enjoyed Kayo Dot's set, had they perhaps been the headliner and the crowd a little more polite. This music is very dynamic and sometimes very quiet, and between the thumping bass from the dance music upstairs and the loud talking of the drunken sods around me, it was hard to concentrate on the music. The best setting for a Kayo Dot show would be something more like a classical concert. While the band is playing, no one should be talking. Oh well. It was still a good performance, and I enjoyed it. Nancy, it should be noted, did not care for Kayo Dot at all.

We timed the whole evening badly. We got to the Khyber early enough to see most of the first band, Gregor Samsa, before Kayo Dot played. Then we stayed at the club while waiting for Starkweather, when we really should have found something else to do in old city for an hour or so while The Bad Vibes played. This band sucked a dick. They're a totally generic NY-style hardcore band playing music that would have sounded sloppy and amateurish in 1986. The drummer broke a stick a few songs into their set, and apparetly he didn't have another one! Unfortunately, he played the rest of the set with a broken stick. Moron. There were a surprising number of people at the Khyber apparently into this band, but the crowd was painfully lame. It was a gaggle of hipsters, bearded oafs, and fat skinheads. Not a good scene. At least someone had the sense to heckle The Bad Vibes, repeatedly demanding that they announce who they were (which they never did. Presumably they're too fucking hardcore for that.)

Starkweather are a recently reunited Philadelphia group that I saw a few times "back in the day." I have their two CDs, and I remembered them being pretty good when I saw them in the mid 90s, but I'd hardly call myself a Starkweather fanboy. And frankly, I was surprised to see so many of what I can only assume were Starkweather fanboys! When the band went on, the crowd in the main room swelled like a sponge tossed in the bathtub, and in a matter of minutes, it was so crowded that I couldn't even stand next to Nancy because someone had wedged themselves in between us. Listening to Starkweather, I had to marvel at how clearly ahead of their time they were - they sounded like the primal archetype for pretty much all of the mathy metalcore that's sprung up in the last few years. I had always attributed that phenomenon to The Dillinger Escape Plan, but now I'm pretty sure that The DEP owes their existence to Starkweather, and the screaming/singing duality of frontman Renny has become de rigeur in the last couple years (see: Into the Moat, Between the Buried and Me, every band on Tribunal Records, etc.)

The guitar sound was atrocious, but the band was pretty insane nonetheless, and I was VERY impressed by the rhythm section (especially the bass player in the too-cool vintage Thought Industry shirt.) About five or ten minutes into their set, the band blew the main circuit, and everything went dark and quiet. Pretty cool! It didn't take long for the sound guy to get everything back up and running, but by that point, I was pretty exasperated with the general conditions in the club. It was hot, cramped, smokey, and smelly, and while I was enjoying Starkweather, the sound was too bad and the audience too dense for me to really have a good time. After about a half hour of music, I pulled the plug on our evening of entertainment and we bailed. Because they're a local band, I expect I'll have more and better opportunities to see Starkweather again under better circumstances. And hopefully then they'll have their new album for sale.

The best part of the night was the slice of mushroom pizza we got from the new place just next door to The Khyber. There's nothing like a half-heated slice of pie when you're tired and cold, let me tell you! Ah well, another Friday, another show, another frustrating experience in another divey hellhole. This is my life!

Posted by Matt at 09:34 AM | Comments (2)

Into the Eye of Chaos...

Wednesday November 16, 2005

I distinctly remember where I first read the name "Bolt Thrower" - I was in my mom's minivan (the light beige one with faux wood trim that I would later total in an accident only four months after I got my license) reading some metal magazine (I'm tempted to say it was Metal Mania, but it might have been Thrash Metal). The article was a profile of the then-new British label, Earache Records. The bands on that label played something called "grindcore" and they had the best names ever: Napalm Death, Carcass, Morbid Angel. And Bolt Thrower. What a name! My 14 year old mind was agog with the awesomeness of that moniker. Bolt Thrower! What did it mean? I originally envisioned some horrible science fictiony machine that hurled hex bolts at high velocities. I always imagined it operating on the same principles as a lawnmower tossing whatever crap was hidden under the grass out the side - something fast, random, and totally violent. When I first saw Bolt Thrower (on which more later), the ticket had a little cartoon of a Zeus-like hand holding lightning. As it happens, the name was inspired by the ancient siege weapon called the ballista, which was basically a giant crossbow (and if you'll recall, crossbows shoot bolts, not arrows, for some reason). Bolt Thrower! They had just released their first album for Earache, called Realm of Chaos, and you have to see this to believe it:

Realm of Chaos

Check out that logo! Check out the giant pile of space guys, shooting lasers! Clearly this was the greatest metal band of all time, I thought. It wasn't long before I begged my mom to drive me to South Street in Philadelphia to hit Rock 'N' Roll Plus, the one store I knew carried obscure heavy metal. (Sadly, Rock 'N' Roll Plus finally closed in the last couple of months. I didn't buy a lot from them anymore, but I would always stop in if I was on South Street. It's very sad for me to see it all boarded up.) I believe my friends Vanessa Danese and Dave Comeau came along for the trip. I remember the look on everyone's face when we popped my brand new Bolt Thrower cassette in the player on the way home. It was fast, and heavy, and totally insane. It was awesome.

I damned near wore that tape out. I'd probably still have it today, if it wasn't taken from me on the bus in high school by this rotten kid named Jeff, whose (equally lame) stamp-collecting dad was shacked up for years with my friend Rich's mom. I never got it back from Jeff because he decapitated himself in a motorcycle accident. Good riddance (and not just because he took my tape - he was a real blight on humanity.)

Since that day, long ago, when I first heard Bolt Thrower, I've held them to be one of my very favorite metal bands. I was lucky enough to see them once, in 1991, at a dive in a bad part of a bad city (Pennsauken, NJ.) This particular dive was a haunt of the local skinhead gangs, who apparently made trouble at every show. They were doing their stupid fucking zeig-heil arm wave through the band's set and picking fights with surly metalheads who really just wanted to thrash and headbang and enjoy Bolt Thrower. About a half hour into the set, a circle pit opened up, but it wasn't for moshing. The skins were brutally beating and kicking a guy who was lying on the floor in the fetal position, trying to protect himself from the boots. A tall, skinny skinhead ran off to the back of the club, and when he came back, he had a baseball bat, which he used to pound this poor guy's head into mush. The PA was unplugged. The band kept playing, but the crowd erupted into a proper riot. Bolt Thrower's singer, Karl, jumped into the crowd to pound on skinheads, god bless him. My friend Evan and I hightailed it out of the venue, which was already being surrounded by the police, who were putting up cones to block off the street from other cars. I have always assumed that the guy on the floor died - I mean, his head was completely smashed up! but I don't know for sure. That was the last time I saw Bolt Thrower. I bought a ticket to see them in Pittsburgh when I was a freshman at University of Pittsburgh, but the tour was cut short for some reason that I have since forgotten, if I ever knew it.

The art for the Realm of Chaos album was taken from a game called Warhammer 40,000, a tabletop miniatures war game system made by Games Workshop. Owing to Bolt Thrower, I have spent a lot of money and time over the years collecting and painting tiny lead figures not unlike the characters pictured in Realm of Chaos Except for Evan (who didn't care for the painting), and my friend Joe, I never really met anyone else into the game, and as a result, I did a lot more painting than playing.

Suffice it to say, Bolt Thrower has had a pretty significant impact on my life, for better or worse. I've had the opportunity to interview the band twice, for their 1998 album Mercenary and for their 2001 disappointment Honour - Valour - Pride (the only album to feature a singer other than Karl). I own a not-inconsiderable number of Bolt Thrower shirts (and I used to own more - a very nice In Battle There Is No Law shirt was cut off me when I got into a car accident my senior year in high school.) I've collected every disc and single they've put out, a few bootlegs, and I even have a 7" with an unreleased recording from some German fanzine in the 80s. So it should go without saying that the release of a new Bolt Thrower album is a special event for me, and yesterday, I received my German import copy of the limited edition digipack (with bonus track) of the band's first release in four years, Those Once Loyal. I'm not going to go into details about the album itself, except to say that it's good and I like it. (For my full take on the album itself, have a look here.) I just wanted to muse for a while on the subject of a great inspiration in my life. I'll freely admit that my love of Bolt Thrower is inextricably wound in nostalgia, but for once, it's the kind of nostalgia that only makes me happy.

Posted by Matt at 02:47 PM | Comments (14)

Funny 40 years ago, funny today

Monday November 14, 2005

I went to a comedy club for the first time this weekend. Gary and I had to go to Washington DC for some Pharaoh-related activity, and Nancy came because the trip was not just about the studio, but also to celebrate the 30th birthday of our friend Angela. It was a fairly big group (maybe 15 people), and we first went to a schticky Italian place where I tastest the blandest beer ever made, called Moretti. It's like Coors Light, only not so bold. Ick. The food was not very good, either, although it also wasn't terrible, and the profiterol was tasty and not too sweet.

After dinner, we went to a comedy club called Wiseacres, which is situated on the first floor of a Best Western. It wasn't a very big room, but it was surprisingly full, and while I expected the worst, I tried to keep an open mind. I've watched standups on television and marvelled that anyone was lauging at their "jokes," but I was told by various veteran comedy club goers that when you're actually in the audience, you laugh at things you wouldn't ordinarily laugh at. This is not true, however, as I learned when the emcee did his brief introductory set. I don't remember his name, but this guy's stage persona could best be described as "ironic flamer" - thriftstore jacket, floppy hair, lispy voice, the whole deal. His stage guise was a sad and unfunny collection of stereotypes that felt like a last-ditch insurance policy for his routine, which might generously be described as the opposite of funny. He was so bad that I was embarassed for him, and I might have even felt bad for him if it weren't for his inept, sassy attempts at heckler rebuff (which he employed fairly mysteriously, as the very polite crowd never heckled him!) At one point, he started a bit with, "So, did anyone watch the last season of Big Brother?" Silence ensued. It was actually a little scary, this solidarity of the audience in mute opposition to the very idea of bad reality TV. But no silence is enough to deter our comically homosexual emcee, who soldiered on with a series of jokes that surely wouldn't have been funny, even if any of us had watched Big Brother.

His act went on for about ten long minutes before he introduced the first booked comic of the night, Brian Fischler, or "The Blind Comedian" as he would be known. But see, he's not totally blind, just legally blind. Funny, no? No. His jokes were, on the whole, no funnier than the emcee's, but his performance was at least earnest, and in the end, I was able to feel bad for him. While this may not be the reaction he was looking for, I can now say for a fact that a comic can do worse!

I was despairing for the state of travelling comedy by this point, and I wasn't even able to drown my sorrows in drink. The waitstaff was shockingly inefficient, such that during the whole show I was only able to procure two drinks, neither of which ranked as "stiff." Thankfully, the next comedian, Larry XL, was pretty funny. His routine was mainly filled out with "white people are funny because..." "black people are funny because..." humor, which is admittedly a little tired, but his jokes were funny and he even mentioned Slayer, which made me happy. Many times he had me laughing out loud, and since I wasn't drunk, I have to assume it's because his jokes were actually hilarious. Larry XL saved the day!

The headlining comic was Melanie Maloy, who is much more attractive in person than her publicity shot would suggest. Her stage character was odd, something like stoner-chick-with-ADD. A lot of her jokes were based on, and often at the expense of, the people in the front. I appreciate that she's able to think on her feet like that and make good jokes, but I'm also quite glad I wasn't up front. Nancy liked her more than she liked Larry XL, and I thought she was pretty good, but there was something very offputting about her very put-on schtick, and I found myself wishing she would rely on the strength of her material instead of coasting by on a zany persona.

By the time the weekend was over, I was glad I didn't get shitfaced on Saturday night, as I had a day of heartbreaking tragedy to endure on Sunday, when the audio drive of Matt's new ProTools machine crashed, sacrificing two solos and two nearly final mixes to the data gods. I think that would have been a lot harder to deal with if I had been nursing a hangover.

Sunday night, as a capper to a mostly fun but partly tragic weekend, Nancy, Gary, and I hit the Recher Theatre in Towson, MD for the Darkane, Strapping Young Lad, Soilwork, and Fear Factory show. The Recher is a nice venue, as it turns out, with a nice high stage and good sound. It holds 700 people, according to the website, and the crowd was pretty big, if also incredibly lame. I haven't been among so many mooks, meatheads, oafs, and posers since Ozzfest. There was some asswipe behind us in line that spent pretty much all of his waiting time punching and insulting his retarded brother. Nice. I saw a guy in an Orphaned Land shirt, but other than that, it was all Slipknot, System of a Down, and Ozzfest shirts. I felt like I had stumbled into a regional sales meeting for Hot Topic.

We only stayed long enough to see Darkane, as we'd all seen the other bands more times than anyone needs, and they're all WAY past their prime at this point. Darkane, though, are still good (with a terrific new disc) and have never toured the US before, so it was essential that I see them. Yes, we paid $20 for 30 minutes of music, but it was totally worth it. The sound was astonishing - all of the instruments were clear and defined. If you go to many shows, you'll understand just how extraordinary this was. They played one song from Rusted Angel, two songs from Expanding Senses, and about four songs from the new one, Layers of Lies. I would have liked to hear something from Insanity, but with only 30 minutes, they didn't have room for many songs, and everything they played was great, except for the subpar "Innocence Gone," from the disappointing Expanding Senses. The crowd in front of us gave them a great reception, so hopefully they'll make it back to the US sometime in the future.

It was incredibly satisfying to leave a show without extreme foot pain or terminal boredom, especially last night, as I was coming down with a cold and Gary has been nursing one for a week or more. We got home by 10:00, but I still stayed up long enough to see Squidbillies at 12:00. I don't care what anyone says, this is a funny show. If only it was on earlier! I feel like an old man now.

Posted by Matt at 02:41 PM | Comments (5)

Halloween Never Felt So Boring!

Wednesday November 2, 2005

Defying the odds, I appear now before you offering tidings of stultifying dullness and senseless repetition. Could it be anything other than the Into Eternity/Nevermore/Opeth show at the TLA (which stands for Theater of Living Arts, but which I've lately taken to pronouncing phonetically) to which I referred in my last post? Why did I go to this show again? Can someone remind me? The last time I saw Into Eternity (not long ago, I should say - they've been touring more or less all year), guitarist Tim Roth promised that he would put me on the guest list. Both he and Century Media publicist Heather Smith (who was rightly impressed by the Coroner shirt I was wearing at the time) seemed shocked and amazed that I paid to get into the show. Hence the promise of a much-deserved guest-listing. But if there is one thing I've learned in all my years of mooching off record labels, it is this : don't count on the guest list. I bought tickets for Nancy and me, and thank god I did, because of course when I presented myself to the drone at the ticket window, I was told that there was no Matt Johnsen +1 on Into Eternity's guest list. Shocking. I had promised the free ticket to my friend Gary, who was already in the city at that point, but he didn't seem too upset about missing the show. Little did I know how right he was! Actually, I had a pretty good idea, even then, but I tried not to think about it. Full-price tickets in hand, Nancy and I plunged into the belly of the TLA.

The TLA is a nice venue in a lot of ways. It was an actual theater at some point in the past; my mom could tell me tales to that effect, if I cared to ask. The sound and lights are good, and the stage is wide and more than adequately tall, making it easy to see the bands from any vantage. An added aid to the good line-of-sight is the slope of the floor (like in a theater - see how it's all coming together?), but the slight grade and hard concrete of the floor is punishment on the soles. Standing for one band gets to be fairly uncomfortable, so standing for three amounts to torture. (This is what they call foreshadowing.) But having just gotten there, my feet were not yet complaining, so we moved pretty close to the stage for Into Eternity. This was the band I was most excited to see - they're a fantastic group, and they put on a good show. But christ, is it too much to ask for them to play a few different songs? I've seen them maybe five times, and every setlist has more or less been a subset of these songs : "Splintered Visions," "Embraced by Desolation," "Beginning of the End," "Point of Uncertainty," "Spiraling Into Depression," and "Isolation" from their latest album, Buried in Oblivion, and "Absolution of the Soul" from their second album, Dead or Dreaming. I do understand the point of promoting your newest album, but for fuck's sake! Dead or Dreaming is a great album that's readily available in the US (unlike their self titled debut, from which it would still be nice to occasionally hear a song). And on top of the clockwork predictability of the setlist, these guys have not, in five tours of the US, produced a shirt that was not just a giant print of the Buried in Oblivion cover. How can I support one of my favorite bands if they refuse to offer attractive merchandise? As for the show, it was great anyway. It was the first night for Into Eternity, who joined the Opeth/Nevermore bill midway through that tour. Singer Stew sounded very good, and although his pitch is still a bit shaky, he makes up for it onstage with heaps of cheesy charisma. I just hope he can perform to the band's high standards in the studio. Later in the evening, I tried to track down Tim to give him a hard time about the guest list, and I was just behind him in a press of people heading to the lobby after Nevermore, but I couldn't catch him before he left the venue (which I couldn't do). I saw him later watching the Opeth show from backstage, and I never managed to talk to him. Oh well.

I always think of Nevermore as a great live band, and maybe they are, but like Into Eternity, their setlists have always been predictable. They tend to play mostly songs from their new album, which is fine when you've only got two discs, or when your new album is good. But Nevermore have six albums now, and their best is three albums ago, not that you'd even know they had more than three albums, as their setlist on Halloween included only one song from Dead Heart in a Dead World (the excellent "River Dragon," easily the best song on that very overrated album), two songs from Enemies of Reality (the dull "Never Purify," and the title track, on which more later), and then a bunch of tracks from the disappointing new album, This Godless Endeavor. Nevermore are catching on with a younger crowd, and I'm happy for their well-deserved success, but their setlists for the last two or three tours have conveyed the following subtext: "Hey, all you long-time fans who bought our albums and came to our shows when nobody knew who we were - thanks and fuck off!" Warrell Dane is still a good frontman (if not the world's best singer), and it's always worth the trip to see Van Williams play drums. This guy is ridiculously good, one of the absolute best players in metal right now. Main guitarist Jeff Loomis is also an impressive talent, and I like his lead style, but his riffs just keep getting simpler and lamer. That seven string guitar has been very bad for him. The guy that really pisses me off, though, is new guitarist Steve Smyth. He's a bit of a band whore (having spent some unimpressive time in Vicious Rumors and Testament), and he's not even that good. When Chris Broderick of Jag Panzer filled in the second guitar slot for Nevermore last year, at least he had the skills to play the harmony to the awesome second solo in "Enemies of Reality," but not Smyth, whose only tangible contributions to Nevermore so far have been a couple of boring songs on the new album, and a silly looking guitar. The band's set was remarkably short, under 45 minutes I believe, which surprised me. I assumed it would be more of a co-headlining affair than it turned out to be. The first time Opeth toured the states, it was opening for Nevermore, who gave them at least a forty-five minute set, and this was years ago, before Opeth were the underground juggernaut they are now. Ingrates.

And as for Opeth - Jesus, is there a more boring live band? (The answer is "yes," but that doesn't change the fact that Opeth are indeed quite dull onstage.) I kinda like Opeth when I listen to their discs. I appreciate the originality of their music and the impressive skill evident in their craft, but when you get down to it, Mikael Åkerfeldt just can't write a good song. Back in the day, Opeth never repeated parts in a song, so once a part was over, it was over, never to be heard again. In that context, I can almost understand why you'd play your riff 16 times in a row. It's a good riff, and you're gonna miss it when it's gone, so best to make the most of the brief time you have together. But lately, Åkerfeldt has started trying on some more conventional song-structures for size, going so far as to arrange his material with actual verses and choruses. Yet despite this development, he still insists on running every riff into the ground, every time he trots it out. If you ever hear the song "The Grand Conjuration" from the new album Ghost Reveries, you'll know exactly what I mean. They'll wheel out a pretty cool riff, and you'll start grooving on it, thinking, "This is a pretty cool riff!" but after a minute or so, you'll be thinking, "Fucking hell! Put this riff to BED already!" And the whole set was like that! Opeth, to their credit, do seem to change up their setlist pretty dramatically from tour to tour, but when every song sounds exactly like every other song, the variety in titles doesn't do much to alleviate the boredom.

Nancy and I would have gladly left after a couple songs, but we were giving our friend Roman a ride back to his car at the train station, and Roman loves Opeth, so we stuck it out for his benefit. He seemed to enjoy the show. Nancy and I were dying, however. Opeth played for nearly two hours, so by the time they finished, I felt like someone had spent the last four hours hitting my feet with hammers. It never felt so good to get out of a concert as it did on Halloween, let me tell you.

I'd like to say that I've learned some valuable lessons from this show (namely, stop going to Nevermore and Opeth shows), but I doubt that I have. I'm a glutton for punishment, and I'm sure this is not the first time I've vowed never to see Opeth again. In fact, I know it's not. But the only thing that jogs my memory on this matter is, unfortunately, seeing another Opeth show. So it goes, so it goes. What would I write about if I only went to shows I really wanted to see?

Posted by Matt at 11:45 AM | Comments (5)

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