Beachland Ballroom, Cleveland, Ohio
December 2, 2017
This review should not exist. I wasn’t supposed to be here. Many months ago, I had booked travel to Sheffield, England this weekend to attend the HRH XMAS ROCKA 2 Festival, featuring the likes of Satan, Raven, Diamond Head and Grim Reaper. Less than 24 hours before my flight to England, I was forced to scrap the entire trip because of some really crappy personal circumstances beyond my control. In the process, I let down some good friends and missed out on some really great music. So I was sitting around my house on the evening of Friday, December 1, despondent and feeling sorry for myself, when the phone rang. It was a close friend who encouraged me to go to Cleveland to see my pals in Night Demon record their live album the next night, as sort of a consolation prize for missing the England trip. Now, I live in Alabama, not exactly next door to Cleveland. I thought about it for a few minutes, then decided, “what the hell.” So I melted my credit card, sold my soul to United Airlines, booked a flight, and boarded an airplane headed north eight hours later. Not exactly the product of level-headed, reasoned decision-making, but so be it.
Thus, I found myself at the Beachland Ballroom in Cleveland, Ohio on a bright, sunny, unseasonably pleasant Saturday afternoon. Now, this wasn’t strictly a Night Demon gig. You see, the occasion was the ninth annual WCJU Metal Holiday Food Drive, a fundraiser for local charities such as the Greater Cleveland Food Bank. WCJU is a local radio station, and for some 35 years Bill Peters has been running his weekly “Metal on Metal” show on that station. Bill is the heart and soul of the Cleveland metal scene (not only for his radio show but also given his role as the founder of Auburn Records), and one of the all-time good guys in our community. How an “industry guy” can maintain such undiluted love of this music without becoming jaded or cynical after three and a half decades in the business is a mystery to me, but that’s the magic of Bill Peters. For the last few years, he’s organized a holiday concert / food drive to benefit those less fortunate and to celebrate another year of the music we all love so much. This time, Bill decided to pull out all the stops for an event, booking nine bands across two stages, including both national acts and legendary, long-dormant local acts. It was shaping up to be a special night, indeed. Admission was free (!!!), but patrons were encouraged to bring donations of cash and/or nonperishable food items. There were also various fundraising mechanisms in place at the venue, including extensive raffle options for cash and prizes. Metal cares, for sure. The Cleveland metal family turned out in full force tonight, ultimately stuffing the Beachland Ballroom to “sold-out” status. This is no mean feat because the Beachland is a sizeable venue, sporting a capacity of 500 in the main ballroom and approximately 150 in the smaller adjoining tavern (which includes a stage of its own). It’s a tribute to the strength and vibrancy of the Cleveland metal faithful, as well as the muscle and leadership of Bill Peters in marshaling his forces, that the Metal Holiday Food Drive turned out to be such a smashing, well-supported success.
The setup tonight called for seven hours of nonstop music, with bands alternating between the large ballroom stage and the tiny tavern stage (mere inches off the ground). Because I was not here in a journalist capacity, I did not manage to catch every single band; rather, I tried to balance the evening as best I could between rocking out to the music and socializing with the many cool people (and dear friends) who were in attendance. So this review is not comprehensive. (Apologies to the bands I missed seeing, including Granicus, Gluttons, and especially Olathia who I had every intention of watching but ended up missing because of an important conversation that I could not cut short.) Incidentally, the Beachland is a somewhat rundown venue that is maybe 10-15 minutes away from downtown Cleveland. There are ethnic scenes painted on the walls, presumably dating back to the building’s early function as the Croatian Liberty Home in the 1950s. I joked with a friend that the décor and vibe were somewhat reminiscent of the Tall Cedars venue outside of Baltimore, Maryland, where the Powermad Festival (the precursor to ProgPower USA and the place where I first witnessed amazing bands like Jag Panzer, Helstar, Steel Prophet, and Manilla Road) took place in the late 1990s.
The first band I watched closely tonight was RADIATRIX, a hotly tipped four-piece of thrash-crazed youngsters hailing from Canton, Ohio. These lads put on a wild, reckless, exuberant set of bristling energy, unbridled enthusiasm, and devil-may-care attitude. RadiatriX were like a runaway locomotive careening off the rails, just barely holding it together enough to make it through each song. That’s what made their set so much fun. Sure, it was raw and loose and riddled with technical difficulties ranging from drummer mishaps to broken guitar strings. But it was also pure and authentic and totally uncontrived. RadiatriX have studied their thrash history well, and have pretty well nailed the hallmarks of the genre from the Exodus/Vio-lence/Nuclear Assault/Vindicator school, including wicked speed riffing, rough yet understandable vocals, backing gang shouts, and socially aware lyrics decrying the likes of nuclear contamination, senseless conflict and “the United States of corporate America.” The boys looked to be having an absolute blast onstage, and what they lacked in polish and precision they more than compensated for in attitude and wild-eyed naivete. I’ll be interested to hear where RadiatriX go from here, but for now I was pleased to have witnessed their chaotic live attack firsthand. Setlist: Fiery Vengeance, Prisoner of War, Shadow, Time to Slaughter, Right to Remain Violent, Radiation City.
Until today, I had never actually witnessed a proper LADY BEAST show. To be sure, I was in attendance at the Legions of Metal Festival in Chicago this past May, where Lady Beast were performing; however, because of a scheduling snafu, I ended up watching another band on the second stage then walking in to the main hall in time to catch the last 90 seconds of Lady Beast’s performance. I was severely bummed at the time, because I love this Pittsburgh quintet’s fresh take on the classic metal sound and couldn’t believe I’d blown the chance to see them onstage. Tonight at the Beachland Ballroom, however, all was rectified. Let’s not mince words: Lady Beast are a superb live band. The twin flying V’s of Andy Ramage (former bassist of Pittsburgh trad/doom titans Argus) and Chris Tritschler are a thing of beauty to behold. But the focal point of Lady Beast’s live attack is diminutive, tattooed vocalist Deborah Levine, who just might be one of my favorite frontpersons in metal today. Not only does her unique voice cut through the din and give the songs a real edge and real character, but she rocks out with an unscripted, spontaneous, raw exuberance that puts most others to shame. Levine told me later that she doesn’t think about anything when she’s onstage, and it’s plain to see that she just lets go and lets the music take over. In an age where you sometimes see bands going through the motions and looking bored, it is awesome to see a performer obviously loving every second of it. That should be the whole point, right? The positive stage raps about holding onto your dreams, not letting others tear you down, believing that you can change the world, and even a dedication of “We are the Witches” to all the women in the house because “we’re all connected by the moon” were just the icing on the cake. From a setlist standpoint, Lady Beast delivered a perfectly balanced set giving due regard and attention (two tracks apiece) to each of their three studio albums as well as their 2016 EP. I know some were hoping for more material from the band’s outstanding 2017 release, Vicious Breed, but older stuff like “Forest of the Impaled” and “Go for the Bait” rocks mightily too. And it was very cool to see the live debuts of two Vicious Breed tunes, in the form of the title track and lyric video tune “Every Giant Shall Fall.” In short, Lady Beast are a true force to be reckoned with, onstage even more so than on tape (or wax or silver-pressed disc or whatever your format of choice might be). Setlist: Forest of the Impaled, Lady of the Battle, Vicious Breed, Go for the Bait, We Are the Witches, The Devil’s Due, Every Giant Shall Fall, Lady Beast.
Bill Peters is no fool. He knows that in order to maximize Cleveland-based support for the Metal Holiday Food Drive, he needs to have some legendary bands from the area in addition to the considerable out-of-town talent on the roster. So he dug into his 1980s Auburn Records treasure trove and lined up performances from two of the greatest Cleveland bands ever. Both acts rarely play live anymore. The first of these was SHOK PARIS, the classic U.S. metal band who brought us the likes of Go for the Throat in 1984 and Steel and Starlight in 1987. Shok Paris has remained a going concern in recent years, working on their long-rumored fourth album (to be called Full Metal Jacket) and doing sporadic live gigs such as a performance at the Warriors of Metal Fest outside Columbus, Ohio a few years ago. Of the classic lineup, only two members remain, but those are integral cogs in the form of guitarist Ken “Screamin’” Erb and Vic Hix. Despite the passage of time, both remain at the top of their game today. By the time Shok Paris took the stage and launched into the classic “On Your Feet,” the Beachland Ballroom was quite crowded, so obviously the locals had turned out in droves for their Auburn Records heroes. And Shok Paris went down extremely well (of course, they went down fighting too, haha!). The twin-guitar interplay between Screamin’ Erb and his colleague John Korzekwa was simply stellar all night long, and I loved the parts when they joined forces at center stage and worked their magic. As for Vic Hix – he of the blue bandanna, mirrored shades and half mikestand – he is a big man with an even bigger voice, with all the gravel and grit and fire and attitude he had 30+ years ago. It was also great to see bassist Ed Stephens (ex-Vindicator) pounding out the bass lines and working his way around the stage. The 50-minute set was strewn with highlights, so much so that I can’t decide whether my favorite part was the stretch of “Go for the Throat” / “Steel and Starlight” / “Concrete Killers” or the closing trilogy of “Go Down Fighting” / “Burn It Down” / “Run but Don’t Hide.” Wow! Shok Paris even treated us to three new songs from the forthcoming Full Metal Jacket opus (with Hix somewhat sheepishly acknowledging that the band had been saying this since 2010), all of which sounded very much up to par. It was definitely special for me to see Shok Paris again, especially to see them so vibrant and so strong. Setlist: On Your Feet, Streets of Pleasure, Go for the Throat, Steel and Starlight, Concrete Killers, Full Metal Jacket, Up the Hammers, Metal on Metal, Go Down Fighting, Burn It Down, Run but Don’t Hide.
The moment the Shok Paris set ended, I raced out of the ballroom, through the narrow connecting passageway adorned with raffle items and loiterers, and into the cramped tavern in time to see the mighty RESISTANCE. I’m not sure how many people know this, but the band’s Metal Machine album (released this summer via Greece’s No Remorse Records) is one of the best classic metal releases of 2017, so I was super-stoked to see them again. Resistance were hugely motivated for this show, so much so that they had flown in from southern California on their own dime just to be part of the Metal Holiday Food Drive. When I spoke to bassist Paul Shigo beforehand, he revealed that tonight was going to be a unique show for them because it marked their first gig with new live second guitarist Thane Farace (whom I recognized from his days in the Pennsylvania-based Ghost of War). Shigo told me that they’d never had a single rehearsal with Farace because of the geographic distances. I asked him if he was at all anxious or concerned, and in return Shigo flashed a confident smile that made it clear they had everything under control. And they did. Resistance did not miss a beat with Farace onstage. In terms of playing, look, attitude, everything, Farace seemed an ideal fit. It was funny, however, when vocalist Robbie Hett introduced him, because Hett alluded to the band’s former guitarist Burke Morris having vanished a couple of months ago, although he hastened to add that they knew Morris was still alive. Anyway, enough about lineup changes. Resistance were perfectly suited for the tiny tavern stage, seeming to relish the up-close interaction with their fans packed up against the stage, whether it was Hett leaning his microphone out into the audience and handing out personalized dogtags, or Shigo finger-picking his bass mere inches away from my headbanging skull. The seven-song setlist was weighted heavily in favor of the Metal Machine material and rightfully so, because these songs are fantastic. With wrecking-ball riffs, killer refrains and even the occasional audience participation bit (as in “Hail to the Horns”), the Metal Machine tracks are tailor made for the live setting. To shake things up, Resistance injected their superb cover of Riot’s “Swords and Tequila” smack dab in the middle of the metal. They had the crowd eating out of their hands from the first notes of “Metal Machine” until the final segue from “Hail to the Horns” into the closing section of “Heaven and Hell.” Bow down to the metal machine? Hell, bow down to Resistance. They were killer tonight. My only tiny gripe was not hearing my sentimental favorite “Hold the Line,” but no worries. Setlist: Metal Machine, Battle Scars, Rise and Defend, Swords and Tequila, Dirty Side Down, Heroes, Hail to the Horns (with excerpt from Heaven and Hell).
When I reentered the ballroom after Resistance’s performance at around 9:00 p.m., I was shok parised to find it absolutely teeming with humanity, with barely any room to maneuver. There is no question that BREAKER was the biggest draw tonight. Like Shok Paris, Breaker were an Auburn Records band, a staple of the Cleveland metal scene in the 1980s, and an act with the talent and songs to deserve international stardom that somehow eluded them. What made tonight’s Breaker performance particularly special was that it marked a reunion of the original lineup. With a giant Breaker banner behind them and two superfans in Breaker shirts sometimes helping to sing the choruses via a dedicated microphone stage left, the band played more than 60 minutes of classic Cleveland metal, including seven tracks from the seminal Get Tough! LP. There wasn’t a ton of movement on stage, with guitarists Don Depew and Michael Klein mostly remaining stoically in their respective corners, focused intently on the mighty riffs and ripping leads. But bald, goateed bassist Ian Shipley worked the stage a good bit, his face seemingly plastered with a permanent smile (understandably so, since he has relocated to Wisconsin and from what I gather hadn’t played with the band in many years). As for vocalist Jim Hamar, I always felt the man was a world-class talent, a singer of monumental skill with a voice as powerful, commanding and special as any of the greats of the genre. He still sounds fantastic, with only the smallest discernable dissipation in range and command (which is of course understandable with the passage of three decades in the interim). Given the similarity of our haircuts, I got a big chuckle out of hearing from a couple of people tonight that they saw a resemblance between Hamar and me, haha. I assured them that any similarity does not extend to vocal skills. Meanwhile, drummer Mark Klein was positively destroying that drum kit, hitting extremely hard and working up quite a lather. A lot of Breaker’s songs have a deep emotional connection with me, so I don’t think I can fully describe the goosebumps and spine-tingling shivers I felt upon hearing loud and proud renditions of tracks like “From the Heart” or “10 Seconds In” or “Action” or “Still Life.” Holy crap, these are some of the best U.S. metal songs ever written. The hell of it is that Breaker’s catalog is so compelling and so consistent in quality that there’s no way they could touch like thunder on all the songs I wanted to hear (notable omissions in my mind included “Black and White,” “Standing in the Light,” and “Touch Like Thunder”). But I’m not complaining. What they did play was fantastic. The crowd response was fantastic. And at the end of set closing “Still Life,” Depew abused his flying V by tossing it into the crowd, tossing it on the stage. A photo of the guitar posted on social media afterwards showed it with no strings, blood spattered all over the pick guard. From what I’ve heard there was more than a little blood on Mark Klein’s drum heads at the end of the night, as well. If you want Breaker and blood, Cleveland, you got it! Setlist: Get Tough, Life of Crime, From the Heart, Action, Afraid of the Dark, Behind Enemy Lines, Obsession, Lie to Me, 10 Seconds In, Blood Money, Still Life.
Between Breaker running over their allotted set time, the need to finish an important conversation with a friend I rarely see, and the desire to secure a good viewing spot for Night Demon, I reluctantly abandoned my plan of buzzing back over into the tavern area to watch OLATHIA, including my friend Chris E. on vocals, but the reports I heard about their performance were uniformly positive. For a bit more of a modern take on the metal we love by a contemporary Cleveland act stirring up a buzz in their hometown, give ‘em a listen.
When the idea arose for NIGHT DEMON to record a live album, the choice to record it in Cleveland was a no-brainer. Cleveland was the first city outside of their native Ventura, California to embrace the band, to welcome them as heroes and to treat them like family. From Night Demon’s perspective, Cleveland truly is the heart of it all. So Night Demon flew in from Ventura on a shoestring budget to play this free one-off charity show, with the idea of recording the entire gig for a double-live album to be entitled Live Darkness. There were a couple of stationary video cameras in the room; however, as I understand it, the intention is for this to be an audio-only release, in keeping with the band’s old-school aesthetic (and probably also in a practical concession to the fact that the band could not bring their full stage production on the airplane, such as their lights, scrims and most of their gear). Tonight Night Demon made a special request (honored to a greater or lesser extent by most of the audience) that fan photography or recording of their performance was not permitted, so as to enable the crowd to enjoy this special gig the way metalheads used to enjoy shows before the incursions of technology reduced audiences to a sea of screens held aloft. It was really cool to watch a show without the distractions of people constantly screwing around with their phones and cameras the whole time, and made me wish that such restrictions were in place at every gig.
In Night Demon’s blue-collar, hammer-down worldview, anything worth doing is worth overdoing. So rather than just picking out 10 or 12 of their best-loved tunes and banging out a short, sweet 45 minute live release, Night Demon opted for a sprawling 24-song set, spanning all but three of their own original songs (“Killer,” “Run for Your Life,” and “Livin’ Dangerous,” in case you’re keeping score at home) and also tacking on a pair of covers for good measure. Not only did they play the “hits” that have long been the staples of their live performances, but they also dug deep into Rocky’s crypts, exhuming rarely-played gems like my personal favorite “Ancient Evil” off the debut EP, “Save Me Now” off Curse of the Damned, and even the “Flight of the Manticore” instrumental from Darkness Remains. The result was a 100-minute set of relentless sweaty headbanging intensity shaking the Beachland Ballroom to its very foundations. (That endurance feat becomes all the more impressive when one considers that Night Demon ran through the bulk of their set, sans vocals, during soundcheck that afternoon, recording the whole enchilada, to give them alternate takes of the instrumental parts recorded on the same gear in the same hall on the same day as the actual live recordings, in the event that patch-ups were necessary. Having had the opportunity to watch the entire soundcheck, I’ll say it was fascinating to hear “karaoke” versions of these Night Demon songs I love so much. Without vocals, I picked out new details and nuggets of ear candy that I never knew were there before. Cool!)
Anyone who knows me knows I’m about the furthest thing from “objective” when it comes to Night Demon. So with that caveat, let me just stress how much they ruled tonight. A Night Demon show is always a heart-racing, high-energy celebration of old-school heavy metal music. They always give 100% and leave it all on the stage. From a songwriting perspective and a live performance perspective, they are at the top of the heap, as far as I’m concerned, and I’ve never seen a gig from them that made me think otherwise. But even with that context of lofty expectations and a uniformly superlative track record, Night Demon were off-the-charts amazing tonight. They sounded fantastic, from Dusty Squires’ galloping hooves and hammering beats to Armand John Anthony’s ridiculously impressive leadwork (the “Black Widow” solo still floors me every time) to Jarvis Leatherby’s expressive, powerful vocals and thundering bass lines. Every cylinder was firing tonight. They worked the stage with their usual professionalism, never staying still for a moment and lost in a swirl of headbanging, stage fog and ever-flashing stage lights. But tonight was different because I noticed a level of intensity, a degree of focus in their eyes and in their demeanor that I’m not sure I’ve ever seen before. Not like this. Night Demon knew the stakes were high. They knew they were making history tonight. And they were absolutely, positively bound and determined to claim their true destiny and make the most of the opportunity. And they did. The sheer volume of energy rolling off the stage could have powered all of Cuyahoga County tonight.
To lend depth and color to these accolades, let me add a few concrete details from the gig in no particular order. The crowd (while down slightly from Breaker’s capacity status) remained large, vocal and incredibly strong all night long. The “Night Demon” chants between songs came up fast and furious. A small moshpit opened up during “Hallowed Ground” and rocked and roiled sporadically throughout the rest of the gig, much to the annoyance of those around me but I guess that’s how some express their appreciation of the music. As usual, Jarvis elected to let the music do the talking, keeping between-song banter to a bare minimum, although he did offer heartfelt expressions of gratitude to Cleveland, said he hoped some of the youngsters in the audience would build a statue of Bill Peters someday, and joked with German emcee Iron Ingo’s plea for “one more song” that “that’s easy for him to say, all he’s had to do is stand around and drink beer all night,” or words to that effect. There was also a humorous intro to one song where Jarvis asked for a show of hands as to who owned the Darkness Remains album, then said that the one guy in the back who didn’t raise his hand must be the “Stranger in the Room,” haha. I didn’t see that coming. Technical issues plagued “Screams in the Night,” forcing the band to stop midsong and take it again from the top after a wry comment about the outtakes from the Kiss Unplugged sessions. In a brilliant move to embrace the Cleveland faithful, Night Demon performed a cover of local heroes Midnight’s “Evil Like a Knife,” even bringing out Midnight frontman Athenar (in his typical black hood and bullet belts) to assist on co-lead vocals with Jarvis. Mascot Rocky (played by your humble scribe) made his customary appearance during “The Chalice” to some success, although in the confusion of the tiny darkened sidestage area where he donned his costume with the assistance of a slightly tipsy Iron Ingo, he somehow managed to put the robe on inside out. And the band noticed. Oops. You know what they say, you can take the man out of Alabama but you can’t take Alabama out of the man, haha. And the final encore of Iron Maiden’s “Wasted Years” was enough to bring tears to my eyes as I reflected on the long journey, both in reality and metaphorically, that both the band and I had taken to reach this moment.
I don’t think I’ve ever been prouder of my friends in Night Demon than I was on this night. Hail Night Demon. Hail Bill Peters. Hail Cleveland. And hail heavy f**king metal music. Setlist: Welcome to the Night, Full Speed Ahead, Ritual, Curse of the Damned, Dawn Rider, Save Me Now, Hallowed Ground, Maiden Hell, Mastermind, On Your Own, Life on the Run, The Howling Man, Black Widow, Ancient Evil, Satan, Evil Like a Knife, Stranger in the Room, Screams in the Night, Flight of the Manticore, The Chalice, Darkness Remains. Encore: Heavy Metal Heat, Night Demon, Wasted Years.
Somewhere around 2 a.m., after the humming of the amplifiers had died down to a whisper in my eardrums, after everyone had gone home, after the stage had gone dark, and as exhaustion threatened to overtake me, I suddenly had a revelation, a moment of clarity. Contrary to what I said before, this night in Cleveland was not a consolation prize for missing out on my NWOBHM trip to England. It really wasn’t. No, this was exactly where I belonged. Whether by divine intervention or cosmic accident or whatever, I was always meant to be in Cleveland on this night to see these bands, have these experiences, and tell this tale. I wouldn’t have traded this night for anything, anywhere.
~ Review by Kit Ekman ~