The 120 Tavern, Marietta, Georgia
November 5, 2016
Atlanta-area promoter Hoyt Parris, who runs Pathfinder Promotions, has a stellar reputation for assembling high-quality, diverse lineups featuring local, regional, and sometimes national and even international metal bands. His events are consistently held at the 120 Tavern in Marietta, Georgia, ten or fifteen miles north of Atlanta on I-75. The 120 Tavern is an ideal venue for a number of reasons. It has a dedicated music room nestled inside a larger sports bar. The stage, sound and lights in the music room are excellent, and the room has its own bar where thirsty metalheads can slake their thirst without mingling with the outside world. Another bonus of attending Pathfinder events is that we always see friends (expected and otherwise) from the Atlanta area and elsewhere, so Pathfinder gigs are a great opportunity to catch up with old friends and meet new ones. Marietta is nearly 350 miles away from home for Jen and me, but we’ve been attending Pathfinder events for years whenever time and circumstances allow, and we’ve always had a great time. Tonight was no exception.
The ambitious, six-band package kicked off promptly at 6:30 p.m. with Bridges to Burn, a heretofore unknown (to me) act from Nashville, Tennessee. I was surprised to see their vocalist sitting in a chair onstage throughout their performance because I had seen him walking around the venue; however, he apologetically explained early on that he’d been experiencing back issues and therefore had to sit during the show. The mostly gray-bearded five-piece moved between traditional metal fare and more modernish grungy kind of stuff, with a highlight being a crowd-pleasing rendition of Dio’s “Holy Diver.” The playing was solid (especially in the lead guitar department), singer had a raspy voice that at times recalled Oliva or Rytkonen (Morgana LeFay) and the band did a more than adequate job jump-starting the evening’s entertainment.
The Atlanta-area band Thundershield have something of a chequered past. I can’t say they impressed me when I saw them multiple times a few years ago, as the over-the-top Steel Panther stage wear, sometimes patchy playing (I recall one gig when they used a drummer who clearly did not know the material), and a former lead singer with significant ego/attitude issues really hurt the band. But Thundershield have regrouped with a new, short-haired, heavily tattooed singer who has an excellent mid-range voice. They’ve dropped the neon spandex, zebra prints, and bright pink accoutrements, in favor of a more traditional denim, leather and t-shirts image. They’ve tightened up the performance side of the equation. And they’ve got a brand-new, self-titled debut album to promote, the CD version of which I understand will be released by Stormspell Records later this month. Thundershield are a dual-guitar act specializing in classic metal, heavily influenced by the likes of Iron Maiden circa the Number of the Beast / Piece of Mind / Powerslave era. Nothing wrong with that. The originals that Thundershield played went over quite well, especially “Hammerhead” (about a mythical beast) and “Crown of Blood” (an ode to Vlad the Impaler). Their “Powerslave” cover (I told you they liked Iron Maiden) was quite well executed. And set closer “Punch the Sun,” which I’m guessing is a new song because it is not featured on the album, is a fantastic track notwithstanding the awkward title. In short, Thundershield did a fantastic job tonight and were significantly better than I’ve ever seen them before. Keep an eye out for that debut CD when Stormspell unleashes it shortly. Really the only knock on Thundershield tonight was that they played one song longer than their allotted set time, resulting in an overrun that someone else would have to make up later in the evening. Approximate Setlist: Done Dirty, Hammerhead, The Doctor is In, Chalice of Blood, Powerslave (Iron Maiden cover), Punch the Sun.
Metro Atlanta is a long way from Calgary, Alberta, but the wacky Canadians in Scythia were back for their second appearance at a Pathfinder event in the last 18 months. That said, a few things had changed in the interim. On the positive side, Scythia have released a new album, the excellent ‘Lineage,’ from which three songs were culled for tonight’s setlist. On the negative side, the band have gone from being a five-piece to being a three-piece, having lost their keyboard player and lead guitarist in the interim. Onstage, the band joked before playing “Rise of the Kraken” that said mythical beast had eaten the other two members, so they obviously took it in good humor. From the standpoint of the band’s live energy, the absent members were not noticeable. Guitarist/vocalist David Khan and bassist/growler Terry Savage combined to work the front of the stage brilliantly, with drummer Celine Derval holding down the back end by pounding the living hell out of her drums and contributing fantastic backing vocals. Visually, Scythia are quite a spectacle for the uninitiated. Khan and Savage wear leather armor, with Savage’s accented by fur trim. Savage also wears war paint on one side of his face, and both men wear skirts (although I assume they would prefer to call them kilts or some such nonsense). And I won’t even mention the plastic swords and scythes they have tucked into their gear to engage each other in mock battle during the set. Like I say, it’s quite a spectacle. Even Derval gets in on the act with a bit of warpaint on her face as well. (Turns out the band’s armor can come in handy at unexpected times. After Scythia’s gig, Jen and I were at the bar when the bartender lost control of the ballpoint pen he was idly tossing in the air. Much to the bartender’s horror, the pen flew ten or twelve feet across the room and whapped into Khan’s breastplate before bouncing harmlessly to the floor. For his part, Khan didn’t even notice but kept on with his conversation unabated. So in addition to looking cool, stage armor can be quite practical to avoid suffering the errant slings and arrows of clumsy southern bartenders.) Scythia’s set was riotously fun, whether the audience was dancing jigs in “Bear Claw Tavern” (with Khan stating in breathless excitement how happy the band were to be playing an actual tavern tonight) or things were getting damn near progressive on “Adamantium” (an old song that the band were dusting off for the first time in many years). Fantasy-based power metal was the order of the day, with a relatively even mix of clean and growled vocals. Scythia looked to be having a great time, as the band were all smiles and Khan in particular saying how happy they were to be sweating in the south instead of freezing into ice cubes back home. The only damper on Scythia’s performance was their backing tracks, which were quite loud in the mix and sometimes distracting. Certainly, they were a necessary evil because of the aforementioned departure of two band members, but I wish the live sound had more prominently featured the players onstage than the prerecorded tracks. But that’s a minor gripe, likely beyond the band’s control. Scythia were excellent. Setlist: Eternal Oath, Bear Claw Tavern, Rise of the Kraken, Black Death, Red Wizard (which could have been called “Green Bad Guy” for all the band cared, quipped Khan), Barbarian, Adamantium, Soldier’s Lament, Into the Storm.
Pittsburgh’s Vermithrax were a long way from home, having driven down especially for this show and facing the prospect of a 650-mile drive overnight to get back to Pittsburgh in time to play the Brewtal Beer Fest tomorrow. In another way, however, Vermithrax were actually coming home tonight. You see, frontman Chris Roy was a longtime beloved member of the ProgPower USA crew until 2010, when life’s demands forced him to end his direct involvement with the fest. Of course, ProgPower USA also happens in Atlanta each year, so predictably many members of the extended ProgPower family (including promoter Glenn Harveston) were on-hand to welcome Roy back to this area and witness the live ferocity of Vermithrax. And holy crap, ferocious they were. Vermithrax are purveyors of the seven-string, two-guitar, slightly progressive modern thrash, sounding a good bit like classic Nevermore with a pinch of, say, modern Exodus. The riffs are savage, the tempos are relentless, and the hulking Roy tempers his angry shout with enough melody and character to keep the vocals interesting. Everything about Vermithrax’s stage presence and songs screamed professionalism. They were tight as hell, and took no prisoners on songs like “Submersus (Drowned in Blood)” and “Architect of Fear.” Vermithrax were just a precision killing machine from beginning to end. Moody modern thrash rarely hits the spot for me, but this gig was fantastic. The only disappointment was that Vermithrax were forced to cut a couple of songs off their scheduled 45-minute set-time to make up for time overruns from earlier in the evening.
We missed local death/thrashers Legion X because we hadn’t eaten dinner yet and The 120 Tavern’s kitchen was about to close. Also, Jen wanted to go watch the riveting, scoreless Alabama/LSU game for a while, and even donned her Alabama ballcap for the occasion. Add a few conversations with friends, a $4 Blue Moon tallboy (not my favorite, but the price was right), and a sweaty hug from Chris Roy, and the dinner break passed in a heartbeat. When we re-entered the music room in time for Seven Kingdoms’ headlining set, we were a bit bummed to note that the crowd had thinned out markedly. Attendance had been solid (though not ideal and certainly not what this collection of bands deserved) all night long, but unfortunately people were leaving early, as happens far too frequently at underground metal club shows everywhere. By the time Seven Kingdoms finished, the numbers had dwindled to a couple dozen, max, which is a real shame.
The pride of Deland, Florida, Seven Kingdoms were hitting the Atlanta area for the first time in roughly three years. The band had a freshly released EP, ‘In the Walls,’ to promote, with the prospect of their fourth full-length album to follow in early 2017. In the realm of fast, guitar-driven Euro styled power metal with female vocals and fantasy lyrics, Seven Kingdoms are at the top of the heap in my book, and they showed why tonight, playing an hourlong, 10-song set that was simply masterful. The guitar duo of Camden Cruz and Keith Byrd (the latter of whom has slimmed down to the point of being nearly unrecognizable – the guy looks fantastic, his playing imbued with new energy and vitality as a result) were locked in all night long, dishing out the glorious speed riffs, the old-time Blind Guardian melodic runs, and the ripping solos. Bassist Aaron Sluss has come into his own onstage, moving around more, interacting with the crowd, headbanging like a maniac, and even coming over to fistbump me at the end of “King of the North” after we belted out the “Mercy! Mercy!” parts together. Drummer Keith Byrd is a beast behind the drums, maintaining the torrid tempos with an ever-present smile on his face and even punching in a short drum solo. Then there’s diminutive blonde-haired singer Sabrina Cruz, who has always had a massive voice but has grown immensely in her stage presence and her confidence as a frontwoman over the years. Put all the pieces together, and Seven Kingdoms are a great live band now, to the point where they seemed unfazed by technical issues that seemed to render it difficult for them to hear themselves on stage tonight. (Camden in particular spent a good chunk of the set at the back of the stage by his amp, I’m guessing because he was having trouble hearing himself otherwise.) In terms of a setlist, the band expertly selected four highlights from their superb ‘The Fire Is Mine’ opus, kicked in three songs from the new ‘In the Walls’ EP (including a remake of old chestnut “The Bloody Meadow” from their ‘Brothers of the Night’ debut before Sabrina even joined the band), played two brand-new killer uptempo songs from their forthcoming album that nobody’s heard yet (“Kingslayer” and “The Faceless Hero,” the latter being an ode to Professor Snape from the Harry Potter series), and the beloved “Into the Darkness” from their 2010 sophomore album. It was an all-killer, no-filler set, for sure. And much as I love ‘The Fire Is Mine’ and much as it warms my heart to hear songs from that album played live, I have a hunch the new stuff is going to top it in the long run. “In the Walls” (which draws lyrical inspiration from a 1923 H.P. Lovecraft short story about a man driven insane by rats in the walls) may be the greatest song I’ve ever heard from Seven Kingdoms, and the other new tunes are monsters too. Watch out, heavy metal universe. Seven Kingdoms are coming for you in 2017, armed with a pro stage presence and a bucketload of killer songs. Keep an eye out for their forthcoming Kickstarter campaign to preorder the new album and accompanying goodies, and definitely try to catch the band on the road in North America in spring 2017 opening for Evergrey. All hail Seven Kingdoms! Setlist: After the Fall, Flame of Olympus, Undying, Fragile Minds Collapse, The Bloody Meadow, Kingslayer, The Faceless Hero, King of the North, Into the Darkness, In the Walls.
Top to bottom, tonight was one of the best Pathfinder events in recent memory. Sincere thanks to Hoyt Parris and the Pathfinder team for a job well done, to all of the bands for bringing their A game to the 120 Tavern, to our friends from around the Southeast (and Cincinnati, Ohio) for being awesome, and to the Marietta Diner for staying open well past 2:00 a.m., for never running out of coffee, and for serving the most ridiculous oversized slices of cake I’ve ever seen in my life.
~ Review by Kit Ekman ~