MESMERIZED BY FIRE IN DIXIELAND:
Enforcer / Warbringer / Exmortus / Cauldron Tour Report
February 14-15, 2016
Dallas, Texas and New Orleans, Louisiana
It was the kind of tour package that makes an underground American metal maniac salivate, a multinational joining of forces that encompasses the genres of trad metal, thrash metal, power metal, old-fashioned metal, shred, and even a touch of death metal. The bill featured Swedish traditional metal heroes Enforcer, California thrash stalwarts Warbringer, California genre-bending shred merchants Exmortus, and Canadian retro metal masters Cauldron crisscrossing the USA and Canada for more than six weeks to kick off the new year. I couldn’t pass up this tour, and I knew I had to see it more than once. So Jen and I took advantage of the President’s Day holiday weekend, hopped in the rental car, and drove 600 miles to see the show on Valentine’s Day night in Dallas, TX, before trekking an additional 500 miles to New Orleans, LA the following day to experience the spectacle once again. Here’s how it all went down …
February 14, 2016, Trees, Dallas, TX
As darkness descended on the Texas horizon on Valentine’s Day, Jen and I found ourselves in Dallas’s Deep Ellum entertainment district, walking past blocks of bars, restaurants, coffee shops, tattoo parlors and music venues on Elm Street until we found our destination for tonight. Trees is a two-level converted furniture factory/showroom that now hosts rock and metal tours on a regular basis. For example, Queensryche was just here a couple of weeks ago, and the Primal Fear / Rhapsody tour will blow through here in May. The professional, courteous staff told us that the place holds 800 people, approximately 350 downstairs and 450 upstairs. There wouldn’t be anywhere near those kind of numbers tonight, as my guess would be 70 or 80 punters turned out for the gig. As a live venue, everything about Trees was pro: stage (roughly five feet off the ground), lighting, sound, décor, staff, everything. But it sure seemed like a mistake to book this tour here because the cavernous hall felt so empty the whole night. Nonetheless, I bought a draft Shiner Bock from the bar, visited with my pal Andrew Bansal (selling merch for Warbringer and Exmortus) and settled in for the night’s events.
There being no local openers, Cauldron took the stage promptly at 8:00 p.m. Though I’ve long been a fan, this was my first chance to witness the Toronto-based old-school trio in action. Even with their far-too-short 30-minute set length, Cauldron’s performance was worth the drive to Texas all by itself. The eight songs aired included many of the finest tunes in Cauldron’s discography, such as the brilliant “No Return” and “Burning at Both Ends” off their new ‘In Ruin’ album, the blistering “Nitebreaker” from the ‘Tomorrow’s Lost’ record, and my favorite “All or Nothing” from ‘Burning Fortune.’ I was a touch disappointed not to hear anything from Cauldron’s stellar ‘Chained to the Nite’ debut, but what they did play was so good that it seems foolish to quibble with the set. Hulking lead guitarist Ian Chains, sporting a Nasty Savage logo shirt, rocked out with reckless abandon and bassist / vocalist Jason Decay sounded great as he belted out the tunes in his distinctive NWOBHM-style voice. Mention must also be given to drummer Myles Deck, who battered his skins and contributed on-point backing vocals to round out the sound. Some of my favorite moments in the set were when Chains and Decay joined up at the front of the stage to do a few choreographed moves, a la Widow or (for someone a bit more famous) Accept. After the sixth song of their set, the soundman informed Cauldron that they had 3 minutes left. That didn’t stop the band from bashing through two more songs, bringing the set to a triumphant (if slightly over-running) conclusion with the combo of “Burning Fortune” and “All or Nothing.” Cauldron really are one of the best bands out there playing this old-fashioned, no-frills, honest heavy metal, and they were great tonight. Setlist: Burning at Both Ends, Empress, End of Time, Nitebreaker, Queen of Fire, No Return, Burning Fortune, All or Nothing.
Next up were Exmortus. Going into the night, I wouldn’t have classified myself as a big fan of the band, although I do own (and enjoy) their two most recent releases, ‘Ride Forth’ and ‘Slave to the Sword.’ Describing the band’s sound in a concise way is difficult because there’s so much going on. The centerpiece is the twin guitars of Conan Gonzalez and David Rivera, who tear up their fretboards in guitar hero fashion at high-velocity with aggression and attitude. Conan’s vocals are gruff but inoffensive, sort of along the lines of Amon Amarth’s Johan Hegg. Tempos are consistently fast but melodies (and often classical melodies) are persistent, making the songs easy to latch onto despite the blinding speed and harsh vocal delivery. Live these guys were a hell of a lot of fun. Just watching Gonzalez and Rivera’s blazing skills and flailing hair would have been entertaining enough, but the band took it to the next level with a full-on classical instrumental in the form of “Moonlight Sonata (Act 3),” with Conan asking, “Any fans of classical music here?” At another point, Conan said what probably every single person at Trees was thinking, which was that “tonight some men love their woman, but we love heavy fucking metal music.” Couldn’t have said it better really. And during set closer “Metal is King,” Exmortus pulled out a few goodies from their bag of tricks, including a segment in which Gonzalez and Rivera hunched over each other to play each other’s guitars strapped around their backs. (I’d only ever witnessed mental Indiana speed worshipers Zephaniah pull off that particular stunt before.) Then Gonzalez turned around, back facing the audience, fell to his knees and played his guitar behind his head. Not to be outdone, Rivera did some good old-fashioned tooth pickin’, playing his guitar with his teeth. The whole gig was a blast. Perhaps the best compliment I can give Exmortus is this: Jen’s patience for death vocals is notoriously meager, but she was grinning from ear to ear throughout their 30-minute set and raved for days that Exmortus were her surprise hit of the night. There ya go. Setlist: For the Horde, Immortality Made Flesh, Foe Hammer, Moonlight Sonata (Act 3), Hymn of Hate, Metal is King.
I must confess that Warbringer’s inclusion in this tour package as co-headliner was initially a bit of a head-scratcher for me. Don’t misunderstand me: I respect the band and know that many love their take on thrash with both classic and modern elements. But their most recent album came out in 2013, so they didn’t have anything new to plug and the band’s touring lineup included at least a couple of stand-ins borrowed from other bands, including most notably Conan Gonzalez from Exmortus doing double-duty on guitar. Well, after witnessing Warbringer’s devastating 60-minute performance in Dallas tonight, I can unequivocally say that the band has earned every bit of its co-headlining status. Really Warbringer acquitted themselves well from top to bottom tonight. The riffs were fast and mighty, the drums exploded like artillery shells, the performances were energetic and aggressive, and vocalist John Kevill is an imposing and engaging frontman. On disc, I’ve found Warbringer to be a bit of a slog at times because of Kevill’s extremely harsh, one-dimensional vocals, but live it’s a different story as there’s always something going on to keep your attention, whether it’s all-out thrash on cuts like “Total War” or the awesome “Hunter Seeker” or something a bit more nuanced like the guitar melody in “Black Sun Black Moon.” Lots of good stuff going on here, and a rather vigorous circle pit sprang up in Trees from time to time (often with encouragement from Kevill). After 45 minutes or so, the Trees curtain closed on Warbringer, only to reopen a minute later as the band ripped through a crushing three-song encore that included “Living Weapon,” “Living in a Whirlwind,” and traditional closer “Combat Shock.” It’s tough to find any fault with that. Partial/Approximate Setlist: Total War, Severed Reality, Scars Remain, Future Ages Gone, Turning of the Gears, Black Sun Black Moon, Hunter Seeker, Towers of the Serpent, Living Weapon, Living in a Whirlwind, Combat Shock.
My #1 reason for being here was Enforcer. The Swedes are one of my favorite new acts of the last 10 years or so, and the only time I’d ever seen them live before was in Germany at last summer’s Bang Your Head Festival. To say I was eagerly awaiting their performance tonight would be a massive understatement. But not only did Enforcer meet my expectations, they surpassed them by a wide margin. In the span of a little under an hour, Olof Wikstrand and his troops pretty much delivered everything I love about heavy metal concerts. For starters, the stage looked great, with a massive Enforcer logo banner across the back of the stage, a pair of ‘From Beyond’ cover art scrims covering the amps, and a cool set of color-changing floor lights to add production value to the stage’s appearance. It’s something that bands like Night Demon have figured out: If you put a little time and effort into making your stage look killer, it can pay dividends by enhancing the live show immensely. The tousled-blond haired, bare-chested frontman Wikstrand certainly looked the part too, with leather boots, studded leather trousers, and a leather vest. Visuals aside, Enforcer also score top marks for stage presence and energy. These lads understand that a metal concert is supposed to be a show. You’re not supposed to stand still and look at your shoes while you play your guitar. You’re supposed to go crazy. And that’s exactly what Wikstrand, guitarist Joseph Tholl and bassist Tobias Lindqvist did. I don’t think the three of them ever stood still. When Wikstrand had to be tethered to a mike, Tholl and Lindqvist continually crossed the stage, getting right up front and bringing their metal to the people. Lindqvist, especially, was a mop-topped finger-picking ball of energy, stopping only long enough to give me a quick fist-bump during “Undying Evil.” Despite his guitar and vocal duties, Wikstrand moved around whenever he could, and had a habit of bending down to be face-to-face, eye-to-eye with front-row audience members like me to sing the choruses and key vocal passages. It was awesome. Even the replacement drummer got in on the act. Drummer Jonas Wikstrand was unable to participate in the tour because of visa issues, so Enforcer pressed into service a fill-in named Chris Steve, who played drums on Cauldron’s ‘Burning Fortune’ album a few years ago. Steve was totally high-energy behind the kit, banging his head and playing the songs with a physicality that fit right in with his adopted bandmates’ demeanor.
From a setlist standpoint, the 12 songs included in Enforcer’s 55-minute set tonight were pretty much flawless. Obviously speed is a primary ingredient of Enforcer’s sound, so there were many sublime barnburners, from the opening “Destroyer” through the exhilarating “Live for the Night” through the hammer-down “Death Rides this Night” and so on. There were also a couple of moodier cuts, in the form of the haunting midtempo “From Beyond” (with Cauldron’s merch guy Henry Yuan coming onstage to help with the backing vocals) and the half-ballad / half-speedster “Below the Slumber.” “Scream of the Savage” was presented as an ode to Valentine’s Day. Singalong anthems were well-represented too, with “Undying Evil,” “Take Me Out of this Nightmare” (Cauldron’s Jason Decay chipping in backing vocals) and closer “Midnight Vice” fitting that bill nicely. Then, for the piece de resistance, there was the six-minute epic “Katana,” my favorite Enforcer tune, delivered in all its peerless and incomparable glory, including the instrumental mid-section finding all three axemen standing with at the rear of the stage with their backs to the audience for dramatic effect. Needless to say, the set passed by in a flash, with Enforcer’s incendiary energy blowing the roof off the joint and making me fall in love with heavy metal music all over again on Valentine’s Day. The band seemed to love it too, as all traces of weariness and road-burnt feelings vanished while they were on stage. The excitement seemed genuine, as at one point Wikstrand got so amped up with his stage banter that his English words became jumbled and he just dissolved into a scream and said, “Are you ready to get loud?” It was a heart-warming, unscripted moment by a non-native English speaker getting so fired up about what he was doing that he simply lost the words.
Maybe somewhere, somehow I’ll see a better gig in 2016 than Enforcer played at Trees. But that’s going to be a tall order. It was that good, folks. Setlist: Destroyer, Undying Evil, Mesmerized by Fire, Live for the Night, (Bells of Hades tape), Death Rides This Night, From Beyond, Scream of the Savage, Below the Slumber, Run for Your Life, Take Me Out of this Nightmare, Katana, Midnight Vice.
With that, we visited for a few minutes with Olof, who was gracious, quiet and accommodating to all the fans who wanted photos/autographs/a moment of his time after the gig. I asked for a photo and he obliged, then politely corrected Jen when her finger partially blocked the flash and asked her to take it again. It was hard to believe that this low-key humble guy was the same man who had just gone wild on the Trees stage as a heavy metal frontman. Anyway, after that we said our goodnights to Andrew and departed the venue. The last thing we did before leaving was tell Cauldron’s merch guy Henry, “See you tomorrow.” Then we dashed over to the train station and caught the DART back to our friends’ abode for a few hours below the slumber before tomorrow’s drive to Cajun Country.
February 15, 2016, Siberia, New Orleans, LA
We spent the early morning hours in Dallas with friends munching on breakfast tacos and cinnamon-flavored coffee to fuel up before today’s long drive across Texas and Louisiana. The drive was more arduous, stressful and time-consuming than we could have imagined. It took us more than nine hours to get from Dallas to New Orleans, as we were besieged by heavy weather, torrential downpours, treacherous road conditions and hellacious traffic for the second half of the drive. It was around 6:30 p.m. when we finally pulled up to the familiar environs of Sibera, an unassuming little venue on St. Claude Street in a revitalized neighborhood of NOLA.
Breathing a huge sigh of relief and with high spirits, we went aside (the venue also serves as a restaurant and bar, so we could walk right in even though the doors for the show had not opened yet) to greet our friends. Our positive feelings were dashed immediately when we learned that Cauldron had had a serious accident on the overnight drive from Dallas. We were told that their van had flipped twice, and that guitarist Ian Chains was in ICU in a hospital somewhere in Texas. We immediately thought of Henry and our parting words from the night before that we would “see him tomorrow.” It never happened. The news had obviously reached the other bands and members of the touring party just a little while before we walked in. Everyone seemed dazed and shellshocked by the tragedy. The mood was somber and the room eerily quiet as members of the tour party milled about with blank looks on their faces, huddling around their smartphones waiting for more details to trickle in. Within 15 minutes after we walked in, Cauldron had posted a Facebook status update reassuring their friends and fans that Ian is expected to make a full recovery and that they’re all just happy to be alive. While that news provided some measure of comfort to us all, it did not shake the somber pall that was cast over Siberia for the duration of the night. Without question, the thoughts of every single band and crew member in the house were fixed on Cauldron all night long. By some strange coincidence, a box of Cauldron merch (cool black baseball jerseys with white sleeves) had been delivered to Siberia earlier that day to replenish the band’s stocks. Enforcer’s merch guy took it upon himself to set those baseball jerseys out for sale, sort of an impromptu fundraiser for Cauldron. And multiple band and crew members were seen sporting those jerseys offstage as the night wore on.
Even though we were reeling from the sad news, we didn’t come all the way to New Orleans to mourn. We came to rock. So Jen and I rallied, and became more determined than ever to salvage whatever fun we could on this night. Lord knows that’s what Cauldron would want us to do. Siberia is kind of a funky little place, emphasis on “little.” Yes, it’s a small room. I can’t imagine it could hold more than 100 people in the front music room. Stage is low to the ground and so tiny that there’s no way Enforcer’s full production (or, hell, even their giant logo banner) could fit. Lighting was minimal, acoustics were iffy. We’ve been to Siberia multiple times in the last couple of years (for Raven, Night Demon, Striker and Artillery gigs). It may leave something to be desired as a music venue, but what it does have is simply delicious food. The kitchen serves some kind of Slavic soul food, and man is it incredible. So Jen and I partook of some Slavic soul delicacies, drank a local Bayou Teche brew, hung out with our pal Andrew, and waited for the show to start. The waiting … oh, yeah, that’s another thing about Siberia. Shows always seem to run late here. The bands were none too thrilled about all the waiting around, and with good reason. They had to drive to Tampa, Florida (around 650 miles) after the gig for tomorrow’s show, so they wanted to hit the road. We overheard Warbringer’s singer John negotiating with venue staff, adamant that the band would not wait until midnight to go onstage as Siberia was requesting to accommodate an expected “service industry crowd” arriving late night.
It was after 8:45 p.m. when the first band of the night, a local opener, started playing. The band was painful to listen to. The vocals sounded like a baby seal getting clubbed to death. Really. And the music was a jumbled, incoherent mess. Not sure what the point of adding them to this bill was, as they did not appear to have any following or to attract any patrons to the show. Next up were Exmortus, who delivered an identical 30-minute set to the one they’d played in Dallas. There couldn’t have been more than a few dozen people in the room when they were playing and the audience’s reaction was muted (at best), but Exmortus were professional and high-energy nonetheless. Guitarist David Rivera amused himself by putting his guitar inches away from the face of an overzealous phone videographer whose smartphone was emanating an annoying steady white light to illuminate the recording. Conan had a bit of difficulty with the close confines of the stage, inadvertently knocking over the backing vocal mike stand with the neck of his guitar at one point. (An alert fan caught it and repositioned it, causing Conan to mouth “thank you” with a quick smile.) And of course, Exmortus announced Cauldron’s van accident for the benefit of any attendees who might not have been aware, and offered the band’s support and good vibes from the stage. In all, it was another solid performance from Exmortus.
The co-headliners had flip-flopped tonight, so Enforcer followed Exmortus. The band members came out, set up their gear quickly and professionally (although Olof was clearly agitated by the poor monitors and the lack of vocals emanating from them). Interestingly, they didn’t even try to hang their big logo banner tonight, instead opting for a smaller backdrop, nor did they bring out their extra lighting and ‘From Beyond’ scrims. As soon as everything was ready, Enforcer walked off the stage and back across the venue to the backstage area, guitars still strapped on, even though their intro music (Judas Priest’s “Diamonds and Rust”) was already blaring over the PA. They barely had time to reach the backstage area before they had to turn around and come back to the stage. (Y’know, “Diamonds and Rust” is not a lengthy song.) I guess they wanted to make a dramatic entrance, hitting the boards just in time to blast into the opening notes of “Destroyer.”
Tonight’s Enforcer performance felt much different than last night’s. In Dallas, Enforcer looked like a pro band with pro production on a pro stage. In New Orleans, it was much more of a sweaty-bar vibe. Lighting was minimal, so the band members were mostly bathed in semi-darkness. To be sure, Tholl, Lindqvist and Wikstrom moved around as much as they could to execute the choreographed stage moves, but with such a small stage there really wasn’t anywhere to go. So they just bashed out a fast, heavy, intense, no-nonsense, sweatsoaked gig. Olof eschewed the black leather vest tonight in favor of a faded, cutoff gray Destruction ‘Release from Agony’ tee (same one I saw him wear at Bang Your Head Festival in Germany last year, if I’m not mistaken). The same guy who videoed Exmortus on his phone (with bright white light) tried to film Enforcer, but with a much different result. Bassist Lindqvist, visibly annoyed by the white light in his face, slapped away at the dude’s phone with a scowl, making it clear he didn’t appreciate the dude’s videography efforts. Sure enough, the phone and the dude disappeared moments later. Stage patter was mostly the same, revealing that Olof uses some canned phrases between songs (probably helpful to him because of his shaky command of English. I’m not poking fun, by the way. It must be incredibly daunting to address an audience in a foreign tongue, particularly if one is not particularly confident about his language skills, so using scripted phrases and banter between songs makes sense). What was surprising to me, however, was just how much shorter Enforcer’s set was tonight. They cut no fewer than three songs (“Death Rides This Night,” “Below the Slumber,” and “Katana”) they’d played in Dallas the night before. In addition to shortening the set to a lean 40 minutes or so, these deletions stripped away some of the dynamics from the set, leaving Enforcer with mostly full-speed blasters (no semiballad like “Below the Slumber” and no epic like “Katana” to shake things up). While I missed hearing these three tracks (which are among the band’s best), it seemed somehow appropriate. On this sad night on this tiny stage in this tiny venue with this small and mostly indifferent audience, it made sense for Enforcer to hit as hard and fast as they could, working up a righteous lather, then get the hell out. That’s exactly what they did. Personally, I loved the show. It was in-your-face, it was high-velocity, and the band was on fire. But it was too short. And it made me a little bummed to see Olof and the boys over by the merch stand afterwards, hanging around waiting to greet mostly nonexistent fans. Eventually, Olof went backstage, changed clothes, and emerged with his guitar case, walking through the venue unnoticed and unmolested out the front door to go back on the BandWagon. Not exactly glamorous, eh? Setlist: Destroyer, Undying Evil, Mesmerized by Fire, Live for the Night, From Beyond, Scream of the Savage, Run for Your Life, Take Me Out of this Nightmare, Midnight Vice.
Closing out the proceedings tonight were Warbringer. The most remarkable thing that happened with their set occurred before they even took the stage. They used Cauldron’s “No Return” as their intro music. It sent chills down my spine. Such a classy, heartfelt gesture. It was simply pitch-perfect. This gig couldn’t have been fun for Warbringer. In addition to their thoughts of Cauldron (and John Kevill had some touching, appropriate words from the stage on the subject), the band were going on at 11:30 p.m. with a crowd of maybe 50 people, tops, with no sign of a circle pit or physical audience participation whatsoever. People stood around, with very little headbanging, fistpumping, cheering or other signs of appreciation. Notwithstanding everything, Warbringer played like pros. Sure, they cut probably 15 minutes off their set from last night, but they thrashed with power and precision, seemingly putting everything into their gig whether anyone cared or not. As the final notes of “Combat Shock” rang out at around 12:20 a.m., the PA again turned to a couple of selections from Cauldron’s ‘In Ruin’ album in tribute to the tour’s lost comrades.
All in all, the New Orleans show had to be a tough night for everyone involved in this tour. It made me happy I’d seen the tour twice, as it was amazing how different tonight felt from last night for reasons related both to the venue and, of course, the Cauldron accident. My bottom-line conclusion, though, is that this tour package was simply stellar and North America was fortunate to get it. Let’s hope for more events of a similar magnitude and quality in the months and years to come, albeit with no further van calamities or casualties along the way. Get well soon, Ian Chains!
~ Review by Kit Ekman ~
CAULDRON In Ruin
(The End 2015)
Y’know, I don’t think Cauldron get the credit they deserve. We live in an age of plenty, where quality traditional / throwback metal bands are seething from the woodwork like termites after the Orkin man visits. I’m not knocking these new bands steeped in the ways of the olde; to the contrary, many of them are amazing and appear to be doing it for the right reasons. I am thankful for every single one of those younger acts playing old-fashioned music with heart and skill. In times of prosperity, it’s easy to forget that it wasn’t always like this. In the not-too-distant past, there were precious few bands mining the territory of the NWOBHM masters, and those who were doing so faced a tough slog in an indifferent marketplace. Those determined warriors kept the flame burning bright when no one else did, and we owe them a debt of gratitude. I’m talking about the Twisted Tower Dires, the Widows, and yes, the Cauldrons of the world. Remember, Cauldron’s debut, ‘Chained to the Nite,’ came out seven years ago, and they’ve been out there chipping away ever since.
‘In Ruin’ marks the Canadian trio’s fourth platter overall, and their first release through The End Records. Given The End’s dodgy roster (from a narrow-minded traditional metalhead’s perspective), it was hard to see how Cauldron fit there. Thankfully, nothing has changed on ‘In Ruin,’ unless you’re counting the new drummer, Myles Deck, who blends in seamlessly. By every metric, Cauldron continue to walk the same path they always have, their signature sound fully intact and undiluted. One of the benefits of experience is that Cauldron are not trying to define their identity or develop their own sound – they already have an identity and an “own sound,” as the Europeans like to say. The quirky vocals of Jason Decay are instantly recognizable and sound like an old friend as they blast from the speakers. The production values, Ian Chains’ guitar tone, and the arrangements remain unapologetically old-school and unabashedly Cauldron, through and through. Perhaps that makes them quaint by today’s standards but to me, that just makes ‘In Ruin’ sound all the more authentic. And maybe that’s the best word to describe Cauldron right there: authentic. There’s a certain restraint in the performances that lets the songs breathe. Cauldron aren’t trying to show off. They came to rock, that’s all. They’ve got some cool songs and, yes, an authentic vibe to carry you through.
I realize that the above description could apply with equal force to any of Cauldron’s albums (that’s actually kind of the point), so how about a few words specific to ‘In Ruin’? The songcraft on this record is impressive throughout. “Burning at Both Ends” and “Santa Mira” are terrific uptempo (by Cauldron standards) tracks with addictive choruses and killer riffs. “No Return” has a good chance of being enshrined as a definitive Cauldron anthem (akin to “All or Nothing” off the ‘Burning Fortune’ album), encapsulating everything awesome about this band in the span of less than four minutes (before giving way to the gentle “In Ruin” instrumental coda for 90 seconds or so). “Empress,” “Outrance” … the list of quality tracks goes on and on. Let’s leave it at this: At this point, it’s an open question whether ‘In Ruin’ can topple ‘Burning Fortune’ as my favorite entrant in the Cauldron discography. It’s that good. So if you’ve ever liked Cauldron before, ‘In Ruin’ is an absolute no-brainer. And if you haven’t heard Cauldron but love all these new bands playing old metal, you owe it to yourself to check out ‘In Ruin,’ a strong effort by pioneers from the first wave of the musical renaissance we are all now enjoying.
~ Review by Kit Ekman ~
True Metal Lives
The Voice Of The Underground