Reggie’s Rock Club, Chicago, Illinois
May 1-2, 2015
The Ragnarokkr festival has been on my radar screen for several years; however, for various reasons, the planets had never aligned for Jen and me to make the journey to the Windy City for this fest until now. Ragnarokkr has evolved into a successful, well-run event that combines a stellar roster with a first-class venue in a world-class city, and has managed to attract an excellent fanbase of knowledgeable, discerning and mostly cool diehard metalheads in the process. What’s not to love?
The host venue, Reggie’s Rock Club, is located in the South Loop area of Chicago, roughly a two-mile walk from downtown in a sketchy neighborhood at the edge of Chinatown. Honestly, Reggie’s is one of the better music venues I’ve visited in recent memory. The main music hall features a downward sloping floor; a generous, deep stage; good equipment; pro staff; and even an upstairs balcony area where vendors hawk their wares. Honestly, my only beef about the music room setup was the stage lighting was poor, insufficient and too heavily reliant on reds. Between the omnipresent shadows and the dastardly red lighting along the front of the stage, it was murder trying to get a decent photo of the bands, as anyone perusing any attendee’s Facebook newsfeed can attest. At any rate, a narrow corridor (where additional vendors set up shop) connects the music hall to the restaurant side of the venue, which houses a second, low, tiny stage in the rear corner. The Reggie’s restaurant food was tasty and reasonably priced, and there was a fine beer list with some intriguing Chicago offerings (Half Acre Daisy Cutter for the win!) plus enticing specials (Friday was $3.50 for a can of Founders IPA all night long, so that’s what I drank). Capacity for the main stage is probably in the 300-350 range, and you’d be hard-pressed to cram 75 people around the restaurant stage because of all the tables and chairs in the way. The festival was not completely sold out, but the rooms were generally pretty full throughout the event. Ragnarokkr used both stages with overlapping set times in order to fit in 27 bands over a two-day event that ran from approximately 4:30 p.m. until just after 1:00 a.m. each night. Set changes were kept to an efficient 15 minutes, and both stages consistently ran on time all weekend long, with a minimum of technical difficulties experienced by any of the bands along the way. It really felt like a well-oiled machine, functioning far more efficiently than certain better known US metal festivals whose names will not be mentioned here. Band members were readily accessible, and were often seen strolling around the venue all weekend long, chatting with fans, watching other bands, signing autographs and taking pictures without the need for formal signing sessions. (Without even trying, I bumped into and had pleasant conversations with members of Liege Lord, Attacker, High Spirits, Twisted Tower Dire, Skelator, Ostrogoth, Hessian, Walpyrgus and others over the course of the weekend.) It all adds up to a kind of family atmosphere that is unique among U.S. metal festivals.
Much to my chagrin, I didn’t get to see all of the bands at Ragnarokkr this year. It was impossible. An unfortunate byproduct of the two-stage setup is that there were recurring and often painful clashes. Multiple times, I found myself facing the unenviable decision of staying in the room where I was to finish watching the set of a band playing great, or dashing out in the middle of said band’s set to race over to the other room to see a part of the set of another band. There were casualties, most prominently Cleveland’s Wretch, who I had been really excited to see but whose set time conflicted with both Attacker and The Rods. That sucks. I could not tear myself away from those marquee bands even to check out Wretch for a few minutes: Regrettably, it simply wasn’t in the cards. For certain other bands, I only managed to catch a snippet of their set because I was either in the other room watching the other band, stopping to chat with a friend or a band member, trying to get a bartender’s attention to get a beer, wolfing down some grub, or using the loo. There was simply no downtime during the entire fest. Any moment you weren’t watching a band, you were missing a band. Still, I did my best to experience as much live music as I possibly could, subject to those constraints. Here’s what I saw …
Friday, May 1, 2015
Promptly at 5:00 p.m., the main stage lit up with Chicago’s own Satan’s Hallow, performing their first official gig under their own name. (They apparently did a show under a pseudonym a few weeks earlier in an attempt to remain incognito while garnering some much-needed live experience.) The five-piece played an energetic, old-school, heavily NWOBHM influenced twin-guitar style of metal, with the twist being that their lead vocalist is a tough-talking, headbanging woman with a powerful rock’n’roll set of pipes and a propensity for dropping f-bombs at every opportunity. Most attendees (including me) were unfamiliar with Satan’s Hallow’s music, which is understandable given that the band’s oeuvre consists of a brand-new two-song cassette demo available on Swords and Chains Records. Moreover, the band’s inexperience as a live act was readily visible in their tentative onstage demeanor and somewhat forced and choppy stage banter. That’s to be expected, really. For all that, though, Satan’s Hallow made a hell of a ruckus, packing their 30-minute set with highly enjoyable old-school heavy metal. And the singer did deliver one gem of a line. As the last notes of killer set-closer “Waiting for the Night” rang out through the venue, she simply said in a defiant voice, “Welcome to Chicago!” and the band walked offstage. Yes, the Satan’s Hallow performance was a proper Chicago welcome to the numerous far-flung attendees (I spoke with patrons from all over the USA, plus Canada, Belgium and even Australia) at Ragnarokkr. As for the band, I will be eagerly awaiting their release of a full-length album on some non-crappy format (i.e., anything other than cassette), hopefully sooner rather than later.
The second mainstage act of the day was Twisted Tower Dire, the pride of the mid-Atlantic and one of the original flag bearers for the resurgence of traditional heavy metal in the USA. I was a bit miffed that TTD were placed so early in the running order. Given the band’s pedigree, influence and deep catalogue of ass-kicking songs, surely they deserved more than 30 minutes and a higher slot on the bill than some of the less accomplished acts that followed them. Oh well, c’est la vie …. I’ve always loved Twisted Tower Dire as a live band, and their endearing traits were on full display this evening. The guitars of Scott Waldrop and Dave Boyd were locked in, and the combination of powerful riffs and thrilling harmonies was a joy to behold. And singer Johnny Aune (now sporting a rather righteous beard) sang superbly while raising his fist and breaking into that infectious grin of his. TTD’s approach to the setlist was interesting, given the drastic time constraints. Rather than hitting shorter songs to squeeze in as many tracks as possible, Twisted Tower Dire opted to feature two, lengthy older cuts (“Isle of Hydra,” “Final Stand”) in their set, meaning that their entire performance consisted of just five songs (plus traditional short instrumental opener “Battle Cry”). Even more curious, only one song was aired from their most recent (and broadly acclaimed) album, ‘Make It Dark,’ with everything else being from the Tony Taylor (R.I.P.) era of the band, most of those being drawn from the ‘Isle of Hydra’ opus. Still, if they had to limit themselves to just one ‘Make It Dark’ song, TTD made a wise choice in offering up the crowd-pleasing “Snow Leopard,” which happens to be Jen’s favorite Twisted Tower Dire song and probably one of her favorite metal songs period. Seeing her smile and listening to her whoops of joy while “Snow Leopard” was being played was well worth the trip to Chicago all by itself for me. Oh, by the way, guitarist Dave Boyd told me later that the band have six songs written for their next album, and that they’re going for more of a dark and heavy feel this time, both as a reaction to ‘Make It Dark’’s brighter/cheerier approach, and to distinguish TTD’s output from that of its baby brother, Walpyrgus (more about them below). With any luck, the metal gods will grace us with a new Twisted Tower Dire platter by the end of 2015. Fingers crossed, as we are long overdue. Setlist: Battle Cry (intro), Isle of Hydra, Dagger’s Blade, Snow Leopard, Final Stand, Axes and Honor. (The printed setlist also listed the classic “The Witch’s Eyes,” but sadly that song was cut because of time constraints.)
Next up on the mainstage were Vatican, a 1980s cult metal band from Ohio with two demos to their credit. I was largely unfamiliar with Vatican going into the Ragnarokkr weekend, so my plan was to check out a few of their songs, then dash over to the small stage to catch as much of Hessian’s set as possible. Well, that notion was effectively scuttled because Vatican were so impressive that I did not want to leave the room. Playing a brand of energetic traditional metal with high-pitched and sometimes screechy vocals courtesy of the bass player (who looked like a cross between Howard Stern and Jon Oliva, and sounded a bit like Raven’s John Gallagher), Vatican won me (and the rest of the Ragnarokkr audience) over with strong songs like “5th of Metal,” “Power is Obsession,” “Ride the Lightning” (not a Metallica cover), “The Power Lord” and “Dragons without Fire.” Special note also should be made of the blond-haired guitarist wielding the yellow axe on stage right who played great, provided terrific stage presence and energy, and somehow managed to resemble actor Gary Busey. I own a copy of their ‘Metalmorphosis’ compilation album released on Greece’s Cult Metal Classics label last year, and look forward to familiarizing myself with Vatican’s material (it appears they played nearly all of their old demo songs at Ragnarokkr) in the coming days. Cool find!
The hell of it all was that, even as I was happily rocking out to my Vatican discovery, the Hessian set was proceeding unabated over on the second stage. Crap! The moment Vatican finished, I sprinted to the other room to catch the tail end (two songs) of Hessian’s performance. For the record, those two songs were “Funeral Disco” and “Witch Road,” and holy hell, they were fantastic! Hessian features two guitar players, one a mustached, bespectacled dude wearing shiny gold lamé trousers and the other a woman rockin’ a Les Paul, with both supplying vocals. Songs were old-school, rockin’, honest stuff, and I was immediately captivated. It’s a real shame I missed so much of the Hessian gig, but this is an inevitable byproduct of a multi-stage festival setup. Still, I was so impressed by the band that I marched over to their merch table and picked up a shirt and a CD (their ‘Older Every Day’ release, as I already owned their current ‘Bachelor of the Black Arts’ disc). Here’s hoping I have another opportunity to catch this Maine-based juggernaut soon. Guitarist Angus McFarland assured me that Hessian are road dogs and they intend to tour constantly. That’s great news, as far as I’m concerned. Keep your eyes peeled for Hessian, and don’t miss ‘em if they hit a dive bar near you.
By this time, we had already missed the first 10 minutes or so of Dantesco on the mainstage, so we hustled back down the corridor and into the big room. Dantesco are a known quantity to us, as we’ve seen the Puerto Rican epic operatic doom/trad metal masters grace the stage at a couple of Warriors of Metal festivals; however, vocalist/mastermind Erico La Bestia alerted me beforehand that tonight’s gig would be something special because tonight marked the first time all members of Dantesco were performing together on U.S. soil, without the need for fill-in musicians because one member or another couldn’t make the trek. By the time we walked in the room, Erico was just announcing “At the Hill of Ravens,” and we also heard tracks like “Guerrero” and classics such as “Mi Veganza” off the 2005 debut album. Sonically, this band are all about the towering powerful guitar riffs melded with Erico’s soaring operatic vocals. Visually, they are all about Erico himself, clad in heavy woolen embroidered clergyman’s robes festooned with upside down crosses and whatnot, stretching his arms to the sky and pouring his heart into every word. Dantesco are a formidable live act, and they proved it once again this evening with an utterly enjoyable performance. Once again, we found ourselves late for the next band, so we dashed back over to the second stage to watch the last five songs of Kantation, who were using Ragnarokkr as the launch of their second album, ‘Nephilim.’ We had bumped into two of the band members at our hotel (the oh-so-plush Chinatown Hotel, which is every bit as luxurious as its name implies, which is to say not at all) earlier, and had promised to check out their performance. Besides, I had already pre-ordered ‘Nephilim’ from vocalist Martin DeBourge, so it seemed wise to hear the new songs live. Kantation were a bit different from most of the other bands playing this festival, inasmuch as their sound is more modern than the old-school 80s stuff, featuring thick riffs and heavy grooves, while still maintaining melody and clean vocals. The sheer heaviness of the Kantation attack was impressive, and all five members seemed locked in. When we walked in, I recognized the song being played as “The Maze” off the debut album, which was followed up by another song from that platter, “Make Your Mark.” Two new tunes (including the strong “Green River”) followed, before Kantation dipped into covers territory in the form of Saxon’s “The Power and the Glory.” If I’m not mistaken, it was the only cover song I heard performed by any band all weekend long, which is really quite extraordinary for an old-school heavy metal festival. If you’re only going to hear one cover all weekend, Saxon is a great choice, and Kantation absolutely did justice to the song. My only niggling criticism of the Kantation gig was that DeBourge was reading the lyrics off his phone, via some contraption attached to his microphone stand. I know it can be difficult to remember lyrics, especially for a band that probably doesn’t get to play live very often and is supporting a brand-new album, but it sure was distracting to see his device and watch him fumble with it every so often to scroll to the next set of lyrics. I think a better, less obtrusive approach would be to use lyric sheets taped to the floor, as many metal singers do, but that’s just me.
Continuing our mad flip-flopping escapades, Jen and I immediately returned to the main hall to catch the second half of the Salem’s Wych gig. I’m not going to lie: I had never heard a single note of this band’s music before, but I know some attendees had been hailing this band as a major coup and a can’t-miss act at Ragnarokkr 2015, so I wanted to check them out. From what I gather, Salem’s Wych are a Michigan band who released a revered cult LP entitled ‘Betrayer of Kings’ back in 1986 that to this day has never seen an official CD reissue. From what people said afterwards, Salem’s Wych played the entire ‘Betrayer’ album from top to bottom, which for some was a positively magical experience. As a person unfamiliar with the band who walked in midway through their performance after having listened to loud music for nearly four hours straight from six other bands, I guess I didn’t quite get what the fuss was about. While the heavyset vocalist was absolutely correct in saying that this music “doesn’t have an age limit,” a couple of the guys didn’t quite look the part anymore. Not their fault, of course, and I agree wholeheartedly that no one should age out of being a metalhead (after all, I damn sure am no spring chicken anymore), but it does affect the visual aspect of the performance. As for the songs, the only track I heard (again, I only caught the last 4-5 songs) that really jumped out at me was set closer “Fight ‘Till the End,” a well-crafted piece of traditional U.S. steel with a memorable (albeit oft-repeated) refrain. So I guess I’ll leave it like this: I wasn’t bowled over by Salem’s Wych’s live performance, but I know many in the room were. Please take my tepid reaction with a grain of salt, particularly since I only witnessed a few songs of what the band had to offer. By now it was 9:15 p.m. Jen and I were in need of dinner, and I was absolutely in need of another Founders IPA. So we headed to the restaurant / second stage side of the venue, where Beyond Fallen had already cranked up their performance. We casually listened to Beyond Fallen from a distance while quaffing our beer, talking with a couple of acquaintances, and chowing down on a pretty bitchin’ grilled cheese sandwich, but really didn’t give them a focused, up close’n’personal investigation. I will say this, though: Beyond Fallen sounded way better tonight than I recall them being at last year’s Warriors of Metal Fest. I definitely need to give the band a closer listen, and I understand they played some new material this evening that will hopefully surface on a new studio album soon. I will definitely check that album out, as it appears to have been an unwise decision to use Beyond Fallen as a dinner / socialize band. Sorry, guys.
When we finally finished our dinner and our conversations, it was shortly before 10:00 p.m., and Q5 were midway through their set on the mainstage. We strolled over to check them out. I guess I didn’t feel any urgency about it because, outside of “Steel the Light” (which I knew from Powergod’s killer cover on their mindblowing 2001 metal covers album) I really had not bothered with this band’s music before. The reason is this: Like many young metalheads in the 1980s, I viewed it as a war: Us versus them, metalheads versus poseurs. Everything I ever read or heard about Q5 back in those days suggested that they were more of a glam rock band than a metal band, and especially their second album was widely panned as disposable pop music. So I never gave them a chance. From what I saw of Q5’s performance tonight, I actually quite liked the band. There was an undeniable energy and conviction to them, and they all sounded great, moved around the stage and looked cool (okay, maybe not the weird mohawk thing clipped to the bass player’s bald head). Guitarist had chops for miles. Singer had enough grit and personality to pull it off. Some songs sounded fantastic, others ehhhhh not so much. Really the microcosm of my feelings toward Q5 is captured by the last two songs. “Teenage Runaway” is the sort of glammy radio-friendly 80s song that the 15-year old version of me would have smashed with a sledgehammer or melted in a bonfire rather than listen to, and the band chose to have a lengthy singalong to accompany it. By contrast, “Steel the Light” was simply brilliant, and I felt shivers down my spine when the whole room erupted with the “Turning darkness into light” line in the chorus. At the end of the day, my opinion really doesn’t matter. I heard over and over again all weekend from the people whose opinions do matter – the long-term fans of the band – that, in their view, Q5 were not only the strongest band of the entire festival, but that their performance will live on in their hearts and minds forever. Now, who am I to argue with that, crusty narrow-minded rivethead that I am?
Hailing all the way from Belgium were Ostrogoth, a legendary 1980s band whom I never ever expected to see on U.S. shores. It turns out that I almost didn’t get to see them this time either. When Jen and I met affable singer Josey Hindrix outside the venue earlier this afternoon, he regaled us at length with the tale of their travel misadventures which resulted in their landing in Chicago quite late the night before after something like 26 hours on the road. There were train mishaps, flight rebookings, vanishing drummers who inadvertently walked outside the airport security zone to use the bathroom then couldn’t get in … just insanity. The important thing, though, is that Ostrogoth made it. And they ruled Day 1 of Ragnarokkr in my book, garnering an overwhelming positive and enthusiastic reaction from the audience throughout their 1-hour set as they cranked out one stellar song after another. Back in the old days, Ostrogoth had that early 80s NWOBHM sound down pat (at least until they lost their way on some of the later recordings), but they also had a stable of remarkable songs. Tonight, Ostrogoth had a pitch-perfect sense of what songs from their catalog to play. It was all killer, no filler. Brilliantly, all four gems from the ‘Full Moon’s Eyes’ EP were featured in the setlist, each sounding better and more welcome to the last. There was the obligatory “Queen of Desire” (dedicated to recently fallen guitarist Rudy ‘WhiteShark’ Vercruysse, with the band skipping the intro solo to honor his memory), the pounding “Ecstasy and Danger,” the charming “Samurai” (complete with two guitarists facing each other and bowing, Japanese-style), the arena-ready “Too Hot,” and even a couple of new songs. It was a flawless setlist with nary a weak link in the bunch. Even better, the members of Ostrogoth had stage presence aplenty, roaming the stage, headbanging, interacting with the crowd and each other, and basically coming across as consummate pros performing at an extremely high level. Black-haired bassist Stripe was particularly fun to watch as he worked the stage, rocked out and fired up the crowd. All in all, Ostrogoth’s performance was a triumph, a master stroke, and a lesson in old-school metal done right. Also, extra points go to the new guitarist who was wearing a t-shirt sporting the word “Remember” above a picture of a shark. Just a lovely tribute to Vercruysse. Somehow I think “WhiteShark” would have been extraordinarily proud of his bandmates tonight, rockin’ the USA and keeping his music alive. I know I was. Setlist: Scream Out, Ecstasy and Danger, Clouds, Too Hot, Paris by Night, Samurai, Heroes Museum, Full Moon’s Eyes, Last Tribe Standing, Queen of Desire, Rock Fever.
Now, all that remained of the Friday evening entertainment was Connecticut’s Liege Lord. Having seen the band in March at the Defenders of the Old Fest in Brooklyn, I knew what to expect. To vary things up for myself, I stood over on Tony Truglio’s side of the stage tonight, rather than stage left as I had done in Brooklyn. This way I could hear and see Truglio’s playing up close’n’personal, which I had not been able to do previously. There was some trepidation before the Liege Lord gig, as rumors were flying around the venue that singer Joe Comeau had laryngitis and that the band might not be able to perform at all. When I ran into bassist / nice guy Matt Vinci this afternoon (he recognized me from Brooklyn and we had a nice chat), he indicated that Joe was sick but that Liege Lord had every intention of soldiering on and giving the best show they possibly could tonight. And that’s exactly what happened. As it turns out, Comeau did not have laryngitis, but he obviously was not feeling great and his voice wasn’t quite as strong as it was at the Defenders show. Frankly, I’m not sure most people noticed because his performance was more than satisfactory. In a wise move, Liege Lord juggled their (excellent) setlist from March, shuffling around the order of the tracks to keep it from being a carbon copy of the Defenders show, even though most of the songs were the same. Tonight they opened with “Fear Itself,” which I’ve always felt is a splendid opener, rather than “Vials of Wrath” as they did in March. The only additional songs on the setlist tonight that were not aired previously were “Rapture” off ‘Master Control’ and “Speed of Sound,” an inspired choice indeed and always my favorite cut off the ‘Burn to My Touch’ album. Both sounded superb tonight, and were welcome additions to the set. The band also chipped in a Frank Gilchriest drum solo late in the set for good measure. I’ve never been much for drum solos, but the dude can play. Before “Kill the King,” Comeau offered kind words for the late, great Ronnie James Dio, explaining that he did not know the man personally, but had met him in an elevator once and had been impressed by how kind, humble and generous Dio had been even in that chance encounter. It was a touching tribute. Elsewhere, Comeau repeatedly expressed disappointment at the (frankly, rather lame) crowd energy. He was right, but I wish he hadn’t verbalized his unhappiness, particularly with some of is giving the band every ounce of energy in our bodies. Not sure why Chicago didn’t show up for Liege Lord tonight, as lesser bands over the course of the weekend received a hero’s welcome. Whatever the cause, it certainly wasn’t Liege Lord’s fault. They kicked ass, sounded great, and played some classic, classic U.S. metal tunes, even though they had a singer who was under the weather and perhaps a bit grumpy. What more could you want? I left the hall a very tired but happy camper, indeed. Setlist: Fear Itself, Eye of the Storm, Dark Tale, Cast Out, Kill the King, Feel the Blade, Rapture, Speed of Sound, Rage of Angels, Vials of Wrath, Master Control. Encore: Wielding Iron Fists, Fallout.
Saturday, May 2, 2015
We devoted Saturday morning and afternoon to tourist pursuits in the Windy City on a very warm, sun-soaked day. The NFL Draft was going on in Grant Park, so we walked the 1.5 miles or so from our hotel into Grant Park and soon found ourselves completely immersed in Draft Town. There were team mascots, cheerleaders, memorabilia, vendors, thousands of people wearing the jerseys of their favorite team / player (with a preponderance of Bears regalia, imagine that?), demonstrations, and hey, free Skittles and Mountain Dew. Fun times. Then we visited legendary Chicago pizza joint Lou Malnati’s where we gorged ourselves on amazing deep dish before waddling our sunburnt, overfed selves back to the venue in time for the 4:30 p.m. start time.
I walked inside Reggie’s just as the first notes rang out from the main stage. It was Savage Master, the hotly tipped five-piece from Kentucky. This band’s a sight to behold, with a completely over-the-top visual regalia. The singer, Stacey Savage, is a petite, scantily clad young woman wearing what is basically leather and chains lingerie. Her four male bandmates are dressed as executioners, wearing black hoods encircled with chains, exposed pale (and in some cases, hairy and flabby) bellies, and black trousers. I’ve never seen a band that looked quite like Savage Master. Obviously, the punters approved, as I was struck by (a) how many people had shown up early for the first band of the second day, a notoriously terrible time slot for multi-day festivals; and (b) how many men kept their phones/ cameras out throughout the Savage Master gig, with lenses trained on Savage the entire time. Heh, maybe that’s not so surprising at all. For me, I thought the gimmick was effective, even if it was bordering on camp (perhaps intentionally so). Guitarist Adam Neal wears his glasses under his hood, so the lenses and frame sort of poke out from the eye holes. Poor bassist Steve Curtsinger was having terrible problems with his hood, which was too loose and kept shifting out place while he headbanged, such that he was constantly having to adjust it to keep from being blindfolded with his nose jutting out of the eye holes. Such are the hazards of rocking out in executioner’s gear, I suppose. Despite their short 30-minute set, Savage Master raced through nearly their entire ‘Mask of the Devil’ album (which has just a 29-minute running time), excluding only “Kill without Warning” unless I’m mistaken. They also included a brand new song called “Black Hooves” that they plan to release as a single later this year. All of this material translates well live, the simple energetic riffs and memorable choruses coalescing with the visuals for an excellent experience. “The Ripper in Black” and “Death Rides the Highway” were the obvious highlights for me, but the whole gig was strong. Whatever you may think of the costumes and the “hail Satan” lyrical content, Savage Master are a talented band that should have a bright future ahead of them.
Next up on the main stage were longtime Chicago favorites ZUUL. Now, I had never seen Zuul before, but I enjoy the hell out of their two albums, and two Zuul members (wildman bassist Bob Scott and guitarist Mike Bushur) are also part of the High Spirits live band. As the band took the stage, Scott came to the front of the stage and mouthed, “This is the last time.” So the rumors were true. This was indeed to be Zuul’s final performance after nine years of being a band. I could tell the Chicago natives in the room were saddened to be losing such a local metal institution, but I was just happy to get the chance to see these guys. Sounding very much like a heavier version of High Spirits with somewhat gruffer vocals courtesy of polo-shirt wearing Brett Batteau, Zuul played a terrific set. They opened with my favorite Zuul tune, “Guillotine,” and whipped through the likes of “Show No Mercy,” “Skullsplitter” and “Ride Ride,” all to thunderous applause. After far too short a time, Batteau announced that this was the last song Zuul would ever play. It was “Warhammer” off the debut. If you have to go out, that’s the way to do it. A great set from a Chicago band that deserved bigger and better things than it got. Setlist: Guillotine, Return to Yagi, Skullsplitter, Show No Mercy, Warrior, Ride Ride, Warhammer.
Staying put in the main room, we soon welcomed the mighty Skelator to the stage. The Seattle natives were an excellent change of pace on the Ragnarokkr roster, being the only band sporting prominent true metal influences from the likes of Manowar and Sacred Steel. I had seen them nearly 5 years ago at the Warriors of Metal Fest, and was astonished by their leaps-and-bounds improvement in the interim. Of course, a large part of it is the songs, and Skelator’s new album ‘King of Fear’ easily boasts the strongest batch of tunes the band have ever released. But the live performance also benefited from the members’ liveliness on stage and interaction with the fans and each other. For 30 minutes, Skelator blew the roof off of Reggie’s with a top-notch display of true metal, whether they were playing new songs like “Stronger than Steel” or older favorites like the immortal “Death to the False.” Everything worked brilliantly for Skelator tonight, but it’s a shame that the crowd was decidedly sparse and listless for singer Jason Conde-Houston and his minions. When I spoke to Conde-Houston after the set, one of the topics was his singing duties for Mexico’s Split Heaven. He sounded extremely enthusiastic about the material and production values, so hopefully the new Split Heaven will make a big splash when it sees the light of day later in 2015. For now, though, Skelator slayed Chicago! Setlist: King of Fear, Stronger than Steel, Test the Metal, Sword of the Dawn, Death to the False, Rhythm of the Chain.
Skullview are something of an enigma in the underground metal world, the sort of kult metal band that few people have heard and even fewer understand, but that nonetheless inspire rabid devotion and loyalty in their small circle of diehard fans. I own the Skullview discography, but had never seen them before. I don’t think I could really imagine what Skullview are like as a live band without seeing them myself. The visual and sonic focal point is singer Quimby Lewis, a clumsy giant of a man who lurches across the stage wielding studded leather gauntlets and pierces the air with unholy high-pitched yowls even as he careens about with reckless abandon. The guy really seems unhinged, and I don’t think it’s an act. Everyone else is pretty stationary, with bald, denim-vested mainman / guitarist Dean Tavernier presiding over the proceedings from stage left. This kind of punishing metal assault was not for the faint of heart, and it showed, as once again the room was far less crowded and far less rockin’ than one might have expected. One funny moment that had Jen in stitches was when Quimby asked if anyone had a beer they might share with him. No one offered, so he mumbled something and went back to the music. Not halfway through the next song, no fewer than five people at the front of the stage (including Erico from Dantesco) were holding aloft full, cold cans of beer for Quimby to quaff. Jen compared it to the loaves and the fishes, probably the only time Skullview have ever had their live act likened to a Biblical lesson. Setlist: Time for Violence, Night of Metalkill, Blood on the Blade, Kings of the Universe, Hand of Zeus, Skullview (Warrior). (Was I the only one who thought it odd that Skullview did not play a single song from their most recent album, 2010’s ‘Metalkill the World’? Wonder what was up with that.)
By staying until the end of Skullview’s set in the main room, we kind of screwed ourselves, because Canadian hopefuls Hrom had cranked up on the second stage 10 or 15 minutes before the end of Skullview’s set. When we arrived at the second stage, we were surprised to see how crowded the room was. Obviously, Hrom had a certain buzz, perhaps in part because they were using Ragnarokkr as a launching pad for their second album ‘Legends of Powerheart Part 1.’ Whatever the reason, the fact is that these five youngsters were on fire on the second stage, keeping the music loud, fast, melodic and high-energy from pillar to post. This is the kind of high-velocity, exciting power metal that is near and dear to my heart, high-pitched vocals and all, and it was absolutely a treat to hear a young band performing the style so masterfully in front of an enthusiastic audience. Wow! Hrom were one of the great second-stage highlights of the weekend, and I regret not having witnessed more of their killer performance. Needless to say, I made a beeline to Hrom’s merch table immediately after their gig to snap up a copy of their ‘Legends of Powerheart Part 1’ CD. Oh, and kudos to the short-haired guitarist for rockin’ the old-school Riot baseball jersey. You can never have enough Riot in your life.
For once, we actually took a short 15-minute break after Hrom’s set, choosing to forego Aftermath in the main room (who, according to reports, delivered a fine thrashy set) for a breather, a beer and a little conversation before tapping into Walpyrgus on the second stage. For those who don’t know, Walpyrgus is essentially Twisted Tower Dire’s little brother, with no fewer than three TTD members: vocalist Johnny Aune, guitarist/songwriter Scott Waldrop, and bassist Jim Hunter. Our good friend Peter Lemieux (ex-Widow drummer) is also in the band, and it was wonderful to see him this weekend for the first time in 18 months; however, Jen and I were both stupefied to see him on guitar rather than drums. He explained to us later that he normally plays drums in Walpyrgus, but was pressed into service on second guitar instead tonight. Be that as it may, Peter nailed his portion of the twin-guitar magic, and his voice combined perfectly with Aune’s on many of the vocal lines (not just choruses). Interesting to see that Walpyrgus are going for a unified look, with all four men across the front of the stage wearing black sleeveless t-shirts and necklaces with a pendant bearing the stylized “W” from the Walpyrgus logo. Some people find these kinds of “uniforms” to be offputting, but I thought it looked cool. Musically, all these songs were new to me, as the band have released only a 3-song EP to date. To my ears, though, the tunes bore marked similarity to ‘Make It Dark’ in terms of being more rockin’ and cheerful, rather than crushingly heavy or sinister. If anything, it sounds to me like Waldrop is steering the Walpyrgus ship one step further in the rockin’ spectrum than ‘Make It Dark’ was, which is a good thing. Don’t remember all the tracks, but song titles included “We Are the Wolves,” “Cold Cold Ground,” “The Sisters,” and “Walpyrgus Night.” I’m eager to hear a full-length whenever the band get around to releasing one!
With one song remaining in the Walpyrgus set, we tore ourselves away and blasted back to the mainstage for one of our most eagerly anticipated bands of the weekend, Chicago’s own High Spirits. In a surprisingly short timespan, these guys have ascended the hierarchy to become one of the best live acts on the underground traditional metal circuit. Their simple, feel-good, singalong, rockin’ metal tunes are delivered with a kind of manic energy, power and enthusiasm that makes it literally impossible not to have fun at a High Spirits show. They’re another “uniformed” band, with every member clad in black t-shirt and white jeans; however, Jen became very concerned when we walked into the room, because all members were onstage making final gig preparations but not in uniform. Hell, bassist Bob was barely wearing any clothes at all, standing there in his boxer briefs and socks. (Yeah, nobody really needed to see that.) When at last the final technical preparations were made, the quintet darted offstage and reappeared moments later, decked out in black and white. When vocalist/mastermind Chris Black took off his glasses and set them down on the drum riser, we knew it was time to rock. Whoooosh! Off we went, for 45 minutes of singing and laughing and banging our heads and jumping up and down. The large, exuberant crowd was positively giddy with enjoyment of their hometown heroes’ performance, and we let ourselves be swept along in the adrenaline and, well, high spirits of it all. Setlist was almost exactly the same as it was in Brooklyn two months ago, except that two songs were traded out. “I Need to Know” and “Midnight Sun” were out, and “Nights in Black” (one of my favorite three tracks on ‘Another Night’ and one I’d never heard them play live before) and “I Will Run” (a highlight from ‘You Are Here’) were added. Nice to see them change things up a little. Also, High Spirits (much like Liege Lord the night before) juggled the order of the songs, so that it felt like a completely different set than the Defenders of the Old gig even though most of the tunes were the same. It was a bit of a risk to open with “This is the Night,” a new song that isn’t on any of their albums, but the audience seemed to know it by heart. And it was sheer, spine-tingling genius to close out the performance with “High Spirits.” After all the musical accompaniment was over, and the other four members had left the stage, Chris Black remained onstage alone, singing the chorus a capella with audience over and over again. It was a beautiful moment, and High Spirits flat-out rule. Go see them wherever you can whenever you can. I love this band. Setlist: This is the Night, When the Lights Go Down, I Need Your Love, Full Power, Demons at the Door, Nights in Black, Wanted Dead, I Will Run, Another Night in the City, High Spirits.
By now it was 9:15 p.m., and all killer no filler on the mainstage from here on out. The next band was Attacker from New Jersey. Because of band member health issues (including a freak accident involving drummer Mike Sabatini), the last couple of times I thought I was going to see Attacker, it hadn’t happened. So I was quite excited that the pride of Hoboken were in the house and ready to go. There was really nothing fancy about Attacker’s live assault: They just put their heads down and cranked out the old-school, heavy, no-frills U.S. metal, song after song after song. The twin guitars of lefty Pat Marinelli and Mike Benatatos weaved pure metallic bliss, Sabatini was easily one of the best drummers of the weekend, new bassist “Smitty” held down the bottom end, and singer Bobby “Leather Lungs” Lucas was on-point with the grit, the fire and the wail in the vocal lines. These guys didn’t move around much onstage, but it didn’t matter: The music did the talking. All eras of the band were represented, from the delightful trip down memory lane with opener “The Hermit” and classic anthem “(Call On) The Attacker” to three cuts from the band’s most recent, terrific ‘Giants of Canaan’ offering, to even a brand-new song. I heard some minor bitching about the setlist from certain quarters after the fact, but these people are full of it. This setlist was great. The only problem is that Attacker have way too many great songs to be confined to just 50 minutes. Favorite moment for me? No question, set closer “Glen of the Ghost.” This is a haunting, epic, emotional song from ‘Giants of Canaan’ and I never in a million years dared dream that they would play it tonight. But they did, with Benatatos even using a separate clean amp that he soundchecked beforehand to capture the more delicate passages of the song. “Glen of the Ghost” was and is amazing, and it (like the entire Attacker show) was a gift I felt quite fortunate to have received on this night. Call on the Attacker!!! Setlist: The Hermit, Tortured Existence, Steel Vengeance, Lords of Thunder, The Hammer, Revelations of Evil, Choice of Weapons (new song), This is Power, (Call on) The Attacker, Glen of the Ghost. The Rods had a lot to answer to tonight. Their performance at Defenders of the Old in Brooklyn in March was widely panned, in many ways unfairly so, because the band’s downfall that night was a catastrophic equipment failure during their first song rather than any performance shortcoming on their part. Still, social media was harsh on The Rods after that night. I can’t tell you how many people I spoke to earlier this weekend in Chicago would ask me who I was looking forward to seeing, then say “but I heard they were terrible in Brooklyn” when I responded, “The Rods.” That’s okay, though. This was a new day, a new beginning, a new chance to win over the crowd. And I knew what The Rods were capable of, having seen them absolutely destroy a festival audience in Madrid last May. Tonight, they were even better than that night in Spain. The classic rockin’ power trio fired on all cylinders from beginning to end, and showed every punter in attendance exactly how it’s done. The Rods really are an ideal power trio because there are no weak links and they complement each other’s skills, sounds and musicianship to perfection. There’s diminutive vocalist/guitarist David “Rock” Feinstein, belting out the rugged vocal lines and coaxing every bit of rock’n’roll attitude from his axe. Then there’s floppy gray-haired bassist/vocalist Garry Bordonaro, a smiling Energizer bunny in constant motion around the stage and contributing complementary higher-pitched vocals to Feinstein’s low-end snarl. Then there’s drummer Carl Canedy, the glue that binds the locomotive together, pounding his skins with a relaxed, confident air, raising his fists, flipping the bird, and adding a showy drum solo to the mix. The best part is the interaction of Feinstein and Bordonaro. They have a seemingly endless variety of synchronized movements, working in lockstep with each other like a single, unified beast, and even both ending up on the floor in a tangled mess during the “Power Lover” crescendo. The selection of songs was impeccable, drawing on The Rods’ vast catalog for one, feel-good rock’n’roller after another. To fit more songs into their 60-minute time slot, The Rods do resort to medleys and truncated versions of some songs, which I know some find irritating, but I don’t care. What I do care about is that this was a triumphant bout of vindication for The Rods, a masterful performance on U.S. soil that people will be talking about for many years to come. They enjoyed a more crowded room than I think any other band received all weekend long, and a strong, enthusiastic audience response. I saw lots of people smiling, and not a single person walk out during their killer set. Highlight for many was, no doubt, “Hurricane,” when the lunatics upfront even got a mini-mosh pit going, but every song was great. Long live rock’n’roll, and long live The Rods. Long live Ronnie James Dio too. At one point, Feinstein mentioned that it was nearly five years since his famous cousin’s death. “I think about him all the time,” he exclaimed. “Listen to his words,” Feinstein exhorted. “He’s trying to tell you something.” Wise man. Setlist: Evil in Me, Devil’s Child, Let Them Eat Metal, Born to Rock, The Night Lives to Rock, Violation, drum solo, Hold On to Your Life, Burned By Love, Hurricane, Wild Dogs, Hot City, Cold Sweat and Blood, Nothing Going On in the City, Crank It Up, Power Lover.
And now, the moment was here, the time for the very last band of Ragnarokkr 2015. And boy, was it a doozie. Nuclear Assault were a staple of my concertgoing days in Boston in the late 80s and early 90s. I saw them repeatedly on the ‘Handle with Care’ tour, watched them play on the ‘Out of Order’ tour during Game 7 of the 1991 World Series (with John Connelly offering periodic score updates from the stage in those Jurassic pre-Internet days), even saw them play a really crappy venue for the ‘Something Wicked’ tour. They were never what you might call a tight live band, but Nuclear Assault knew how to rage, how to tap into that energy, how to make a crowd go nuts, and how to deliver an uncompromising wall of sound. Tonight, it was as if time stood still, or more accurately, as if I had been transported back 25 years to those ‘Handle with Care’ shows. Sure, guitarist Anthony Bramante is no longer in the band (having been replaced by a short-haired guy wearing a baseball cap and a shitload of tattoos). Drummer Glenn Evans’ hair is white as snow now. Hulking lanky bassist Dan Lilker has bald spots. And fireball singer/guitarist John Connelly has chopped his hair and added what looks like 30 or 40 pounds to his frame. But sonically, Nuclear Assault sound exactly the same. The first seven or eight songs, especially, were a trip down memory lane, a sampling of highlights from ‘Survive’ and ‘Handle with Care,’ with a couple of tunes from ‘The Plague’ EP (dammit, no “Justice,” though) and ‘Game Over.’ Okay, it sounded a little sloppy, and Connelly kept dropping his guitar pick, fishing a new one out of his pocket, sticking it between his teeth, and trying to sing through clenched teeth. He sheepishly explained that his arthritis makes it difficult for him to hold a guitar pick, before declaring, “Getting old sucks.” Yes, indeed. A funny moment happened 40-45 minutes into the proceedings when Connelly said it was a little weird for them tonight because they were used to people coming up on stage with them, helping them sing and whatnot, but it wasn’t happening tonight. Needless to say, that opened the floodgates. For the next few songs, a near-constant parade of stage divers leapt up on stage, helped sing a few words (sometimes incorrectly, so you could tell who didn’t know the material) and then did a flip, a jump, or a swan dive into the moshers below. That’s much more like the Nuclear Assault gigs I remember in Boston. The crowd seemed to love Nuclear Assault. The moshpit was huge and roiling. Me, I was just happy to be carried back in time to listen to a band that meant more to me than I probably remembered or give them credit for today. Mutants for nukes! If this is their Final Assault, as the band have ominously proclaimed, then I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to bash things out with them one last time. Setlist: Rise from the Ashes, Brainwashed, F#, New Song, Critical Mass, Game Over, Buttf**k, Sin, Betrayal, Analog Man in a Digital World, Died in Your Arms, Price of Freedom, Wake Up, When Freedom Dies, My America / Hang the Pope / Lesbians (what, no “Mothers Day”????), Trail of Tears, Technology.
Thus concluded Ragnarokkr 2015. It was an amazingly fun and successful festival from top to bottom, with the added benefit of being in one of the greatest cities in the USA. I heard so much great music and hung out with so many great friends (old and new) that I have a sneaking suspicion this won’t be Jen’s and my last Ragnarokkr experience.
~ Review by Kit Ekman ~