Monday, September 08, 2008

Live death

On Saturday night I saw enough death metal (at the Carcass-headlined show) to keep me sated for quite a while. Death is one of my least favorite metal subgenres because the songs get too samey for my taste (that's where you can tell I'm an amateur), and the so-called "technical" subsubgenre is beyond boring. That said, I actually spent a pretty good evening at Nokia, especially since I was able to snag a chair at the balcony and calmly read between sets (Richard Hughes' In Hazard, a wonderful 1939 novel about a steamship stuck in a mammoth hurricane).

First of all, I was wrong when I wrote that it would be a five-band bill: There were actually six—Rotten Sound, Aborted, 1349, Necrophagist, Suffocation and Carcass. But true to metal form everything was running super-smoothly and the show was on schedule from beginning to end: I left after an hour of Carcass and it was only 12:30am.

Of Rotten Sound and Aborted there is little to say: by-the-numbers death, and the most interesting thing was that Rotten Sound's singer had a weird quasi-Scottish burr even though he's Finnish.

I had loved 1349 when I saw them at BB's two years ago but last night's set was completely lackluster—it was like a different band altogether. The lone black-metal band on the bill, 1349 stuck out when they showed up in spikes and corpsepaint, which made for a refreshing change from the others' nondescript outfits. Alas, the guitar was weirdly low in the mix and the energy level was decidedly flagging. Not a kvlt night for the Norwegians.

Necrophagist is a very techy death band that looks and sounds like a side project from members of a science club. They all wore cargo pants (the 2008 geek's version of the pocket protector) and played guitars that had, like, 25 strings. Lots of crazy fretboard action—even the bassist did a little tapping interlude. Ugh. The highlight of Necrophagist's set: a ten-second quote from Prokofiev's "Dance of the Knights" at the end of a song. It was completely random and pretty great.

Suffocation, on the other hand, showed you can be death and alive: These guys put on a hell of an old-school spectacle. It helps considerably that they have a real showman in singer Frank Mullen, who's often credited as one of the pioneers of the death growl but does a lot more onstage, whipping up the crowd between songs with earthy Long Island humor. (Suffocation also has two African-American members, drummer Mike Smith and guitarist Terrance Hobbs, which means the band has something like half of all the black musicians in death metal.)

My favorite thing about Carcass (other than they looked like they had stepped out of a vintage Sabbath video, with their flared jeans) was Bill Steer's guitar. He was playing a white Les Paul, an instrument you almost never see in extreme metal, which is all about axes that could poke your eye out if you just look at them the wrong way. In addition to a tone warmer than the brittle one more common in death, Steer and Mike Amott offered a unique combo of technical speed and catchy riffing. The latter is crucial because a lot of the death bands that followed in Carcass' wake just focused on the extreme technicity and forgot about the riff side, producing uncommonly sterile music. (An exception to my mind would be Nile, a super-techy band that's still entertaining because of its nutty obsession with Egyptian lore.)

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