Reggie’s Rock Club, Chicago, IL
May 6-7, 2016
Ragnarokkr has quickly become one of my favorite U.S. festivals. First of all, it’s in Chicago. Chicago rules. On this visit alone, Jen and I hit downtown, West Loop, South Loop, Lincoln Park, Navy Pier, Riverwalk, Chinatown, DePaul University, Gino’s East, Wrigley Field, and the Polish Constitution Day Parade. I love Chicago. Second, the fest has an ideal venue: Reggie’s Rock Club. This cozy South Loop venue holds about 300 in the main room, with a handy downward-sloping floor so everyone has nice sightlines. As a pleasant surprise, the venue significantly upgraded the stage lighting in the main room between last year and this year, making for much more vibrant viewing conditions and better photo ops. There’s also a smaller, stripped-down room next to the kitchen, where second-stage bands play. (I’m not a huge fan of the two-stages-with-overlapping-bands format, but I’ve made my peace with it, even as I gnash my teeth when two prized bands’ timeslots clash and difficult decisions must be made.) Third, the fest organizers are knowledgeable dudes who put a great deal of thought and care into selecting each year’s lineup, and never fail to attract an interesting, diverse roster, mixing the old and the young, the foreign and the domestic, and the heavier and the more rockin’, all under the old-school metal banner. (No thrash this year, though, which I thought was kind of odd. Maybe the less-than-enthusiastic reception given to Nuclear Assault as last year’s headliner is to blame?) Fourth, the attendees are mostly great, cool folks, with many of them being long-time friends from the old WoM Fest days that we only see once per year. That lends a certain family reunion air to the festivities. And fifth, the fest is well-organized. It mostly runs on time like the Deutsche Bahn, and the amount of B.S. which festgoers must endure is minimal. So Ragnarokkr was a no-brainer this year.
Before getting into the nitty-gritty of the band reviews, let me offer my usual caveat. I didn’t get to see everybody. It’s simply not possible. Jen and I were ping-ponging between the two stages, trying to catch as much as we could; however, sometimes a chance conversation, a beer with a friend, a dinner break, or a desire not to cut a particular band short meant that we didn’t see a couple of really well received acts. Folks raved about Old Wolf and Chalice on the second stage. We missed ‘em both. As for Chicago’s War Cry, they played the main stage, and we were rushing over to the big room to see them mid-set when we bumped into a friend who wanted to talk. What we heard of War Cry through the walls sounded great, and their performance is ever more admirable given the revelation that their singer performed brilliantly despite being stricken with Parkinson’s disease. Wish we could have seen it, but the fact is we didn’t. The few other bands not referenced below were bands we didn’t witness, didn’t see enough of to evaluate, or dismissed as not really our thing. (For example, lots of people loved Winterhawk, but their Rush/Kansas stylings are a nonstarter for me, so I only stayed for a song or two.) With that in mind, and with no further ado, let’s get rolling …
Friday, May 6, 2016
Chicago’s own Damien Thorne kicked things off on the main stage at 5:30 p.m. Having seen these guys performing at Up the Hammers in Athens three years ago, I knew what to expect: Powerhouse vocals, classy melodic U.S. metal sort of in the Dio vein (although of course the older stuff is harder and faster). That’s exactly what we got. Setlist seemed to include enough of the classic ‘Sign of the Jackal’ LP to appease the die-hards, but the band also featured their fine new album, ‘Soul Stealer.’ We stayed long enough to hear “Salem,” “Sign of the Jackal,” and “Fire in the Sky.” Definitely enjoyed what we heard, but the second stage beckoned, so we reluctantly moved on.
We arrived at the second stage just in time for Canada’s Gatekeeper to fire up. Gatekeeper were a bit of an outlier on this festival billing because of their epic doomy stylings. I’ll be honest that, while the style is close to my heart, my efforts to get into the band’s debut EP, ‘Prophecy and Judgment,’ were hampered by the poor production values and dodgy vocals; however, all was remedied on this day. The band features in their ranks new singer Jean-Pierre Abboud (ex-Borrowed Time, Funeral Circle). Simply put, the swarthy, bearded frontman in the white Manowar tee is Lebanese as F**k (cue inside joke). Not only did he sing great, but he was a hoot to watch, with his props (a dagger here, a drinking horn there, a mini nail-spiked bat, and even a plastic-wrapped Dungeons & Dragons manual, hah) and his propensity for throwing Moorcock paperbacks into the audience. Guitarist Jeff Black looked to be having a blast as well. A substantial, enthusiastic crowd was amassed for their set, and they went berserk when Black unleashed the intro melody to Omen’s “Death Rider,” the first of two covers aired by Gatekeeper (the other being a steel-plated romp through Priest’s oft-overlooked “Some Heads are Gonna Roll”). Good stuff.
Next up on the second stage were another Canadian act, Riot City. This was my first experience with the young Canucks and I was blown away. The four-piece act (one guitarist also provides lead vocals) has the melodic speed/power sound down pat. They played with great energy and huge smiles on their faces, with an unruly crowd that mostly packed the second stage room. Riot City wisely included a pair of frenzy-inducing covers in their 40-minute set, including bang-up versions of Tokyo Blade’s “Night of the Blade” and a triumphant set-closing blast of Grim Reaper’s “See You in Hell,” which whipped up the audience to such a degree that Steve Grimmett must have been beaming with pride over his nightly cup of tea in jolly olde England. Long is the shadow of the Reaper, indeed. The only negative about Riot City is on me: I saw the singer in the main room the next day, shook his hand and said, “Man, Iron City, you guys ruled!” He gave me a funny look and said, “It’s Riot City, but thanks.” D’oh. Dude, I promise I knew the name of your band, it’s just that my mind was scrambled on metal overload at that point from two days of nonstop heavy metal. But yeah, I’ll own it, so there’s a party foul on me, complimenting a band while getting their name laughably wrong. Anyway, the singer also told me that Riot City are working on an EP. Watch for it, and remember the name Riot City!
From there, we jetted over to the main stage to catch four songs from the Ignitor performance already in progress. The Austin, Texas quintet brought an abundance of tough-as-nails, studs-and-leather-clad, powerful U.S. metal with banshee wailing vocals from Jason McMaster, an animated frontman who was obviously putting everything he had into the gig. The heavy-duty guitar firepower from shades-wearing mainman Stuart Laurence and relatively new addition Robert Williams was like a bulldozer, just one piledriving riff after another. McMaster’s throat-lacerating shrieks are an acquired taste, to be sure, but Ignitor put their best foot forward. Of the tracks we heard, two (“Island of the Damned” and “Shadow of the Needle”) were culled from 2010’s ‘Year of the Metal Tiger,’ while the other pair (“Throw Them from the Cliff” and “No Sanctuary”) are new songs made available from the band on a special Ragnarokkr-only EP for sale at the merch stand. In introducing “Throw Them from the Cliff,” McMaster joked that they couldn’t think of anything more metal than that, while “Shadow of the Needle” came with an admonition from the blond screamer to look up Cleopatra’s Needle, because it is real. Nothing like a little education to go with a late afternoon headbanging session.
Once again, we found ourselves racing through the narrow connecting passageway at Reggie’s to get back over to the second stage where North Carolina’s Salvacion were already underway. Their plan tonight was simple: Celebrate and promote the release of their new/old album, ‘Way More Unstoppable! Redux,’ which came out just days before the fest on Heaven and Hell Records. So Salvacion played the record from beginning to end, interspersing two covers (I’m noticing a pattern here for the second stage acts on Friday) in the form of UFO’s “Doctor Doctor” (which I guess this crowd knows mostly as ‘Maiden’s intro tape music’) and Riot’s “Swords and Tequila” (preceded by the obligatory tequila shot from all members of the band). I like these guys. The material on ‘Way More Unstoppable’ is strong, and it shines in a live setting, particularly the rockin’ “Let Us Prey” and the speedy “Faster than Hell.” It’s all traditional metal, sure, but it’s got a bit of southern rock swagger / boogie churning below the surface, like some of their other North Carolina compadres. New members Elliot Madre (vocals) and Reid Rogers (guitar) fit the band well, and it was cool to see the hulking bearded bass player sporting his black Night Demon EP shirt. I came away from Salvacion’s set suitably impressed, so I immediately wandered over to their table and snagged a t-shirt and koozie. Check ‘em out, won’t you?
This year’s fest was dealt a painful blow when German power/speed metal legends Scanner were forced to withdraw a couple months ago because of visa issues. A lesser fest might have crumbled with the adversity; however, the Ragnarokkr organizers turned lemons into lemonade by booking Ambush as the replacement act. The Swedish youngsters have released two highly-touted albums on Germany’s High Roller Records, and had never played the U.S. before. Jen and I hung out a bit this afternoon with drummer Linus Fritzson (wearing a Night shirt and sipping a Budweiser), a super-nice guy with an easy smile who said the band were thrilled to be in Chicago and were ready to hit us with everything they had. When I wandered upstairs to the merch area later in the day and saw three or four of the Ambushers collapsed on chairs/couches (no doubt bushwhacked from jetlag), I had my doubts. However, all questions were erased when Ambush stormed the main stage to their first album’s title track, “Firestorm.” The guys were a veritable blur of black leather and blond hair, guitarists Olof and Adam and bassist Ludwig logging more kilometers onstage than their national soccer team in the average practice. They simply never stood still, and went to the Accept/Scorpions well repeatedly with a boatload of cheesy-but-ever-so-fun synchronized stage moves. Rounding out the package was vocalist Oskar Jacobsson, shirtless but with a long-sleeved deep blue leather jacket. The energy, enthusiasm and excitement crackled off the stage, as if these guys were the Swedish nephews of Judas Priest or Accept, and the crowd reciprocated with an outpouring of affection.
The 10-song set passed way too quickly, with Jacobsson repeatedly thanking the audience for a wonderful evening and the band unable to hide their smiles behind macho metal poses. Four specific comments: (i) in one of the strangest song intros I’ve ever heard, Jacobsson asked if were “ready to kill some Russians” before they played “Heading East,” prompting a befuddled crowd response (sure, it relates to the lyrical content of the song, but we’re an international metal brotherhood, and no doubt there were some Russians or Russian descendants in the house); (ii) there was extra time, so the band added the awesome “Ambush” to the set even though it wasn’t on the handwritten setlist; (iii) the three stringed instrument players crisscrossed the stage so much that their cables became hopelessly, perilously knotted during “Don’t Shoot (Let ‘Em Burn),” leaving a frantic roadie to disentangle them mid-song while the band members continued to rock in ignorant bliss; and (iv) damn, Ambush have a lot of killer tunes, and stuff like “South Street Brotherhood,” “Natural Born Killers,” and “Rose of the Dawn” went down a storm live. Bottom line: Ambush were amazing, easily one of the best bands of the entire fest. Come back to the USA soon, guys. America needs more of this. Setlist: Firestorm, Possessed by Evil, Desecrator, The Chain Reaction, Rose of the Dawn, Natural Born Killers, Heading East, South Street Brotherhood, Ambush, Don’t Shoot (Let ‘Em Burn).
It was time for a big change of pace on the main stage, as Ashbury came on next. By now, the band’s story is well known in underground metal lore; however, for those who haven’t been paying attention, here’s a primer. In 1983, an Arizona quartet fronted by two brothers, Randy and Rob Davis, recorded an obscure gem of an album called ‘Endless Skies.’ It wasn’t really metal, as it featured prominent acoustic guitar, soothing vocals and a laidback approach. It’s really kind of a folky ‘70s hard rock sort of thing. Most people never heard (or even heard of) ‘Endless Skies’ at the time, and the Davis brothers languished in obscurity in Tucson for many years. Around three decades later, the strangest thing happened. The “keep-it-true” contingent of metalheads suddenly discovered Ashbury. It’s not that much of a stretch, really, with the mystical themes, Randy’s incisive lead guitar work, and the ascendant empowering feeling the music exudes. Before you knew it, the Davis brothers were being invited to appear at prestigious festivals like Keep It True, Muskelrock, Frost & Fire and yes Ragnarokkr. Tonight marked their second appearance at Ragnarokkr, and they were greeted like returning heroes. From the stage, Rob repeatedly thanked the “Ragnarokkr family” and the “Chicago family” for their support. In contrast to last time I saw them (in Ventura in October 2015), Ashbury were configured as a five-piece this time, with a third guitarist switching between electric and acoustic guitars from song to song (at least, until his acoustic broke a string late in the set) and contributing backing vocals to fill out the sound. But the Davis brothers were, rightfully, the stars of the show. They played everyone’s favorites from ‘Endless Skies,’ inducing goosebumps and tears and endless singalongs throughout the room. They played a couple songs from their second album (“Evacuation Time” and “Cold Light of Day”), a Blue Oyster Cult cover (“Don’t Fear the Reaper,” which fit in seamlessly with their originals really), and a brand-new song that Rob said nobody in the world has heard, called “He Plays a Good Guitar.” There’s a certain magic to an Ashbury show. I can’t really explain it. It isn’t metal. But it’s beautiful, it’s ascendant and everyone in the room feels it. Can’t wait to experience them again at Frost & Fire this fall. Setlist: The Warning, Take Your Love Away, Hard Fight, No Mourning, Mystery Man, Don’t Fear the Reaper, Madman, Evacuation Time, Endless Skies, Cold Light of Day, Vengeance, He Plays a Good Guitar.
The last time I saw Jag Panzer play in the USA was in 2005 at the BW&BK Six Pack Weekend in Cleveland. The last time I saw Jag Panzer play a headlining set anywhere was at Keep It True in Germany in 2008. The somewhat reclusive act only plays a few shows a year, and even fewer within their own nation’s borders. So Ragnarokkr’s booking of the Colorado titans to headline the main stage on Friday night was a major coup and without question the #1 draw to bring Jen and me to Chicago this year. The anticipation had been building for months to see one of my favorite bands, in my eyes the kings of U.S. Power Metal, on the Reggie’s stage. All of my expectations were exceeded. There’s really no other way to put it: Jag Panzer came out and laid waste to everything in their path for 90 minutes tonight. Vocalist Harry “The Tyrant” Conklin, dressed in his trademark JP shirt, leather pants, chains and armbands, remains perhaps the most gifted metal singer on the planet. The Tyrant’s golden voice appears impervious to the ravages of time. Even after all these years, he hits and holds those impossible high notes and makes it look easy, simultaneously exercising unrivaled power and control over his voice. Not sure I’ve ever heard him sound better than he did tonight. I had a spot on the rail right in front of lead guitarist Joey Tafolla, and marveled at his flashy playing all night long. The guy’s got a totally different style than Chris Broderick, but he’s amazingly talented and a beast on the stage as well, assuming one “rock god” stance after another. Then there’s rhythm guitarist Mark Briody, who was obviously chuffed to be there and more active and mobile on stage than I ever remember him being, coming over to visit Tafolla often during the instrumental breaks. The rhythm section of bassist John Tetley (a welcome sight on stage as he’s back from a shoulder injury in the winter of 2014-15 that sidelined him from last year’s JP live appearances abroad) and drummer Rikard Stjernquist is as solid and powerful as they come. The result is a live attack with no weak links, no one struggling to keep up, just a giant, unified panzer flattening everything before it.
Tonight Jag Panzer was all business. There were no boring solos, no extended singalongs, no B.S. Instead, the lads simply rolled out 19 U.S. metal classics one after another, with nary a pause for breath in between, other than the occasionally hilarious Conklin intro (talking about putting a spoon in the whiskey so the metal can melt the ice, getting a little R-rated before “Harder than Steel,” etc.). Nearly half the set was drawn from the ‘80s classics ‘Ample Destruction’ (6 songs) and the ‘Tyrants’ EP (3 songs), plus another 3 from ‘The Fourth Judgment’ and a sprinkling from several of the other records (though sadly nothing from ‘Mechanized Warfare’). Most bands would kill to have a catalog as littered with gold and precious gemstones as Jag Panzer’s, as one fantastic song bled into the next, from “Licensed to Kill” to “Black” to “Iron Eagle” to “Reign of the Tyrants” to “Chain of Command” and finally to “Generally Hostile.” Wow. The crowd lapped up every one, and with good reason. Jag Panzer are the kings. Sure, I heard a few grumbles around me that “Shadow Thief” was omitted (as it has been for some years now), and that the Broderick-era staple “Take to the Sky” was nowhere to be heard. I get that, really I do. If I were picking the setlist, those two songs plus a couple more from the Broderick period (“King at a Price,” for example) would have made the cut. But my god, man, they played 19 songs. They left it all on the stage. And they showed every other band the way U.S. Power Metal is supposed to be done. I won’t be forgetting this gig anytime soon. This one was special. All hail the kings! Setlist: Licensed to Kill, Let it Out, Call of the Wild, Black, Iron Eagle, The Mission, Reign of the Tyrants, Harder than Steel, Death Row, Fates Triumph, Future Shock, Symphony of Terror, Viper, Battle Zones, Warfare, Lustful and Free. Encores: Chain of Command, Metal Melts the Ice, Generally Hostile.
Saturday, May 7, 2016
As if Friday night were not ambitious enough (with 11 bands spread across two stages from 5:30 p.m. to 1 a.m.), Ragnarokkr had an even more expansive agenda for Saturday, with 14 bands beginning at 4:30 p.m. and ending at 1:30 a.m. Rather than resting the morning and early afternoon away, Jen and I started our day by meandering forth from our modest accommodations at the Chinatown Hotel into downtown Chicago. We were only looking for coffee; however, we were greeted by thousands of people wearing red and white, speaking a foreign language, and holding up signs whose text we could not decipher. It turns out they were celebrating Polish Constitution Day in Chicago that day, with a big parade going right down State Street. We hung around and watched the parade for a while, waving the flag and trying to sing along in solidarity with our Polish comrades, then doubled back into Chinatown to get a big meal before the show. Somehow we ended up in the basement of a mall, where there was a Chinese food court. The catch was that all signage at the food stalls was exclusively in Chinese characters, with no pictures of the food and no helpful hints for non-Chinese speakers. Tourist-friendly? Not at all. Authentic and cool as hell? Absolutely. Jen and I were the only non-Chinese people there, so we walked among the tables where diners were enjoying their lunch, glancing furtively at their food until we saw something that looked good. Then we disrupted that poor guy’s lunch, asking what he was eating and where he got it. He pointed us in the direction of Yummy Yummy Noodles, and even helped us order. We ended up with two steaming bowls of delicious noodles, costing something like $7 altogether. This was an authentic Chinatown dining experience, for sure. Duly fortified, we marched over to Reggie’s for Day 2 of the frivolity.
Midnight Chaser were up first on the main stage today. Their excellent new album, ‘Lion’s Choice,’ was recently released on Chicago’s own true metal label, Swords & Chains Records, and I was excited to see them live. Judging by the sizeable crowd assembled early in front of the main stage, I was not alone. Midnight Chaser were great. The quartet, recently relocated from the Bay Area to Pittsburgh to avoid the fiendishly high cost of living on the Bay, delivered an honest, powerful set of traditional, old-school metal, very much in the early 80s, NWoBHM mold that has become so popular these days. But it seemed completely genuine, honest and from the heart with these guys. Maybe because they’re older, maybe because they seem less gimmicky than many other purveyors of the style, Midnight Chaser really strike me as the genuine article, doing it for all the right reasons. They didn’t rely on flashy stage moves or cover tunes to gain acclaim, just compelling riffs, great vocals and killer good-time songs. Not much crowd interaction, although guitarist Stephen reached over and fist-bumped me after one song, but the audience loved them. And rightfully so. “Swords for Hire” was the perfect opener, and “Lion’s Choice” in turn was the perfect closer. Really hope to see and hear much more from this band in the future. We hung out later in the day with bassist/vocalist Josh and had dinner with guitarist Stephen, and were struck by how kind and interesting they were as people too. An early (and slightly unexpected) Saturday highlight, for sure! Setlist: Swords for Hire, Rollin, Awesome Party, White Denim, Down for Whatever, [unknown song], Lion’s Choice.
The day’s second main stage band was Impaler. I bought a copy of ‘If We Had Brains We’d Be Dangerous’ on Combat Records in the mid-80s, and always liked that record’s blend of metal, punk and shock rock; however, I confess that I haven’t followed the band’s career at all in the intervening 30 years. Vocalist Bill Lindsey and bassist “Commander” Court Howley are still soldiering on, amping up the shock-rock elements with the passage of time it seems. The quartet hit the stage with a decidedly ghoulish appearance, and rocked Reggie’s really hard. Visually there was a lot going on: The massive Lindsey commands an audience’s attention, and the leering guitarist in top hat would climb on a platform at the front of the stage to elevate himself. Musically, the songs were fun just like I remembered the ‘If We Had Brains’ record. Early on, they even played “Blood Bath” which was the lead track from that record. Four or five songs in, Impaler did a Motorhead tribute, which I applauded, although I wish they’d picked a song less predictable than “Ace of Spades.” Lindsey even said, “We know a thousand Motorhead songs, but we’re going to do ‘Ace of Spades.’” Why? The Ragnarokkr crowd knows all the deep Lemmy cuts, just like you. Everything was going swimmingly until “Tall Dark and Gruesome,” when Lindsey brought out a head on a pike and started chewing on the head and spreading its blood all around, saying things like, “Do I have something on my face?” Eh, sorry guys, you lost me. Fun set, but that’s my cue to leave the room. I heard it got much more “shocking” after that, with Lindsey “disemboweling” a female victim on stage. Definitely not my thing, but I know some people love that schtick. (Postscript: Several hours later, I saw the Impaler guitarist sitting at a table at Reggie’s eating dinner, still in full makeup and costume. Awesome.)
Fortunately, over on the second stage, Michigan’s Wulfhook were just about ready to fire up. Wulfhook delivered one of the all-time legendary performances in the history of the Warriors of Metal Festival several years ago, and followed that up with an outstanding debut album, ‘The Impaler,’ released on Divebomb Records last year. Musically, Wulfhook are all about speed/power mayhem, with air-raid siren vocals courtesy of Jeff Schlinz. On stage, I recognized Schlinz and dark-haired, bearded guitarist Matt Martin from the WoM Fest show, but the bassist and second guitarist were definitely different. Not sure about the drummer. In a cool touch, all five members were sporting a matching stylized “W” patch in the Wulfhook font on the upper right chest area of their vests/jackets. Wulfhook came out and ripped the roof off Reggie’s with a salvo of “The Impaler,” “Brutal Nightmare,” and “Sacrifice,” with Schlinz sounding amazing on the microphone, Martin a whirlwind of headbanging energy stage right, and the new short-haired bassist rocking out relentlessly and contributing backing vocals. Yep, this is the kind of face-melting experience I remember from seeing Wulfhook live in Ohio. The fourth song was introduced as “Burn the Casket,” which I’m guessing is a new track since I’m not familiar with it. Sadly, despite the massive amounts of ass Wulfhook were kicking, we had to leave now to head back over to the main stage for what was our most anticipated band of the day. (Editorial note: I understand why the fest organizers run the dual-stage format, but sometimes I do loathe it with a passion. Clashes and conflicts are inevitable, and great bands end up going unseen or witnessed only in little truncated bits as one tries to juggle the competing acts and conflicting priorities. /Rant.)
In 1990, Lethal released one of the greatest U.S. metal albums ever, ‘Programmed.’ To me, it was better than Queensryche, better than Heir Apparent, better than all the other bands specializing in that U.S. power/prog style at the time. The songs were magical, the guitarwork was divine, and the vocals of Tom Mallicoat were otherworldly. Before today, I had only seen Lethal once before, at one of the ill-fated Powermad fests in Baltimore in 1999. My (admittedly hazy) recollection of the Powermad gig is that they played a lot of their grungy Alice-in-Chains style material from the disappointing ‘Poison Seed’ album that followed ‘Programmed’ then gave us one exquisite ‘Programmed’ tune at the end. But I had heard wonderful reports of Lethal’s triumphant performance at Up the Hammers in Athens this spring, and I fully expected Lethal to own this day. I was partially right. The set featured five amazing ‘Programmed’ songs plus two terrific new songs (“Poet’s Knife,” “Invention”) very much in the ‘Programmed’ spirit. Five of the six band members performed gloriously. Lethal is now configured in a triple-axe attack. Original guitarist Eric Cook is sadly no longer with us, but the trinity of Dell Hull (who played on ‘Programmed’), Chris Brown and David McElfresh executed those magnificent guitar passages flawlessly, playing every note with skill and class. It was a joy to watch bassist Glen Cook, with his short hair, goatee and Lethal shirt, rocking out in front of the drums with a perpetual smile on his face, no doubt thinking how proud his brother would have been to be here. And ‘Programmed’ drummer Jerry Hartman is still in the fold and doing a stellar job. Musically, Lethal are absolutely at the top of their game, doing honor and justice to their master works of days gone by and even burnishing their legacy with excellent new songs in the same vein.
I wish I could stop here, really I do. I wish I could just say that the Lethal musicians brought songs like “Fire in Your Skin,” “Immune” and “Killing Machine” to life in a way that stirred my soul, warmed my heart and reminded me of the timeless power, beauty and grace of U.S. metal at its best, then move on to the next band. But I can’t. I have to talk about Tom Mallicoat. Don’t misunderstand me, there’s not a single thing wrong with his voice. When he wants to, he sounds almost exactly like he did on the ‘Programmed’ album, hitting every emotional note as if time had stood still for this past quarter century. But there’s something very much not right about the man. It would be easy to speculate what the problem is. I will not. Suffice it to say his stage behavior was tragically bizarre. He stumbled around, nearly falling down on occasion. He gave the crowd the finger repeatedly. He kept mumbling incoherently into the microphone in between songs, then trailing off. He appeared not to know which planet he was on. And, even weirder, on the chorus to “Killing Machine,” he sang what sounded like gibberish instead of the real lyrics (someone later told me he thought it was AC/DC lyrics). Several of his bandmates were visibly uncomfortable/unhappy. Before “Invention” was played, McElfresh (in front of whom I was standing) looked out front and said to those of us within earshot, “This is a new song. Better catch it while you can.” The whole thing was just heartbreaking. I don’t know what demons Mallicoat is fighting, but he appears to be losing the battle. My ardent hope is that he gets whatever help he needs now, before it’s too late. We’ve already lost way too many metal heroes before their time. Setlist: Fire in Your Skin, Programmed, Poet’s Knife, Immune, What They’ve Done, Invention, Killing Machine.
Oregon’s Spellcaster have been making some waves lately. Their self-titled second album was released to significant acclaim in 2014, and their third album, entitled ‘Night Hides the World,’ is due out on Prosthetic Records in July. I’m a big fan of the band, especially their second record, but never had a chance to see them live before, so I was eager to catch them on the main stage. Visually, the five-piece had a unique approach. Rather than avail themselves of the multifaceted lighting on the Reggie’s main stage, Spellcaster opted for a steady green the whole time. They had a smoke machine positioned next to one of the guitarists that constantly billowed stage fog throughout the entire performance. Many times the band members were mere silhouettes encased in a blanket of thick green fog. It was especially fascinating to watch the fog bursts envelop the stage-right dark-haired guitarist in front of me. He was standing so close to the machine that he was visibly exhaling stage fog from his nostrils after each blast. Badass, I’ve got to say. Meanwhile, the blond-haired lanky lead guitarist in the denim vest on stage left was a doppelganger for a young Dave Mustaine, not in terms of facial features but overall appearance. I mean, the resemblance was so uncanny that I kept doing a double-take when I looked over in that direction. It was like stepping into a time machine. “Ghost of My Memory” was a huge early highlight in Spellcaster’s set, as it’s my favorite tune of theirs. Also nice to hear “Bound” from the same self-titled album. “Chainsaw Champion” from the debut got the punters roiling furiously, including one Jarvis Leatherby (Night Demon) who worked his way to the front of the room to help vocalist Tyler Loney belt out the titular phrase. Spellcaster played a tight, energetic 40-minute set that undoubtedly made them many new fans amidst the Ragnarokkr faithful. My only reservation was that three of the eight songs they played were off the yet-to-be-released ‘Night Hides the World’ album, and thus the audience was unfamiliar with them. No matter how justifiably proud of your new material you are, it’s asking a lot of a festival audience to absorb three new songs in a short set. I will say, however, that the new songs sounded very much in line with darker, more dynamic vibe of the second album, which is a very good thing in my book. Well done, Spellcaster. Setlist: I Live Again, Power Rising, Ghost of My Memory, Betrayal, Chainsaw Champion, Bound, Night Hides the World, Spellcaster.
After a much-needed break for dinner and socializing, we returned to the main stage in time to see Satan’s Host. You see, Harry “The Tyrant” Conklin was pulling double-duty at Ragnarokkr this year. After last night’s world-beating performance fronting Jag Panzer, Conklin was back on stage with his evil extreme-metal other band. The Satan’s Host sound – which now involves blastbeats, black-metal styled riffage, hellish lyrical themes, and a wide range of mostly clean, high-pitched vocals – has never quite meshed with me, although I do love their ‘Metal from Hell’ debut which was much more in the classic metal style. That said, I have great respect for Satan’s Host’s work, and was quite interested in seeing how it would play out onstage. Conklin had traded in his JP shirt for a Satan’s Host tee tonight, and had drawn ridiculously exaggerated black arched eyebrows (which he referred to as “extraterrestrial eyebrows”) on his face. He also didn’t quite have all the lyrics mastered, and was using some technological help on stage to jog his memory fairly unobtrusively, especially on the ‘Pre-Dating God’ material; however, I don’t think anyone minded. Especially after he’d sung 19 Panzer songs the night before, it was understandable why he might not have every Satan’s Host lyric memorized. Harry’s partner tonight was Satan’s Host mainman/guitarist Patrick Evil, who looked as happy as an evil man can be, even if he was missing his trademark coffin guitar on this night. The band blasted out the gate with a superb run through “Metal from Hell,” then surprisingly segued into their Grim Reaper “See You in Hell” cover, a bonus track on ‘Pre-Dating God part 1.’ I thought it odd that they would play a cover at all, especially as their second song, though they couldn’t possibly have known that Riot City had played the same tune on the second stage the day before. It was funny to hear Harry flub the words a bit, and surreal to see him hold the microphone into the crowd so that his JP bandmate Mark Briody (standing in the second row) could sing the “See you in hell, my friend” tagline. After that, things shifted into much deathier/blacker realms. Musically, not so much my thing, but I’ll be damned if Conklin didn’t turn in another jaw-dropping, captivating performance. It was worth staying in the room just to listen to the man sing, especially as his Satan’s Host vocal lines are, if anything, crazier and more challenging than his JP vocal melodies, yet he nailed them, every one. What an incredible singer. I also really appreciated his stage banter where he observed how cool the Ragnarokkr fest is, how good it is to see metalheads enjoying such musical diversity on the lineup, and how the vibe seemed so peaceful and relaxed. He was exactly right. I wouldn’t call myself a big fan of Satan’s Host or anything, but I’m really happy I got to see them live. Setlist: Metal from Hell, See You in Hell, Pre-Dating God, Valley of Blood, By the Hands of the Devil, Fanning the Flames of Hell, Convictions.
In the summer of 2014, I saw Leather Leone play a mini-set of Chastain classics (backed by members of Benedictum) at the Warriors of Metal Fest. She was awesome. So I knew Leather could still pull it off, and my hopes were high for a memorable performance on the Reggie’s main stage. I never, ever could have dared to hope for a show that was this fantastic. I’ll say it plainly: Leather Leone owned day 2 of Ragnarokkr this year. Everything was perfect. Her backing band – consisting of shredder Jim Dofka on guitar, David Harbour (ex-King Diamond) on bass, and Brian Harris on drums – was fantastic. Dofka is one of the few guitarists I can think of who could come out and play a set laden with Chastain songs without anyone in the audience missing the great David T. Chastain (who apparently is not interested in touring or otherwise playing live anymore). Her setlist was exactly the right mix of Chastain evergreens, tracks from her 1989 solo album ‘Shock Waves,’ and more recent Chastain songs. And then there’s Leather herself: She looks fit, healthy and happy, and her distinctive powerful rasp hasn’t lost a single ounce of its bite or power over the years. Her obvious joy at being on stage performing these fabulous songs again was infectious, and she had the audience eating out of the palm of her hand all night long. It was a beautiful moment when, at the end of her set, the crowd was chanting her name, and she stood there admiring the scene, taking it all in, trying unsuccessfully to fight back the tears. Leather Leone is the American metal queen. May her reign be long and prosperous, and may I see her on another stage somewhere sometime soon. Setlist: We Bleed Metal, For Those Who Dare, Evil Awaits Us, Diamonds are for Real, Seventh of Never, Catastrophic Heaven, Shock Waves, Angel of Mercy, Ruler of the Wasteland, Voice of the Cult.
The penultimate band of the festival was Medieval Steel, who have the good fortune of owning one of the most epic metal songs ever written. I had heard that it’s sheer magic when the band tears into “Medieval Steel,” the audience singing every word and the glory of pure heavy metal crying out to the sky. But I’m getting ahead of myself. By this time of the night, unfortunately, the “ragers” were out in full force at Reggie’s. By that, I mean people who seemed more interested in being drunken idiots, throwing themselves into other people, exploding beer cans all over everyone around them, crowdsurfing, and pushing everyone else out of the way because “I’m such a rager.” Annoying. Still, I held fast with my position on the rail over at stage right. The crowd was rowdy for Medieval Steel from the word go, just waiting for that moment with the title track would be sung. The band sounded good, played well, and served up a nice handful of songs from their overlooked ‘Dark Castle’ record. Especially “The Man who Saw Tomorrow” sounded fantastic, but “Powersurge” and “American War Machine” also went over well. Less successful was the band’s decision to play three new songs (“Mountains Fall,” “Gods of Steel,” “White Warrior”) in a row late in their set. They must have known this would not sit well, as singer Bobby Franklin announced their intention to play these new songs then said if we didn’t like it, then he didn’t give a f**k. Well, okay, then. I was frankly surprised that so few of the old songs were aired, particularly when it was obvious that’s what the crowd wanted. Still, all was forgiven when “Medieval Steel” was played at the end of the show. The crowd went ballistic, there was magic in the air, and I got to belt out the “Laying down their lives” line when Franklin stuck the microphone in my face near the end of the song. Successful Medieval Steel gig? You bet. Setlist: American War Machine, Powersurge, Battle Beyond the Stars, To Kill a King, The Man who Saw Tomorrow, Mountains Fall, Gods of Steel, White Warrior, Medieval Steel.
At last, it all came down to this. Although I do love the ‘Spellbound’ album, I’ll confess to never being a huge Tygers of Pan Tang fan. I always gravitated more to the faster, heavier, more dangerous NWoBHM bands, rather than the bluesier, more rockin’ ones. Still, I was quite enthused with the notion of Tygers as a Ragnarokkr headliner, and was curious to see what founding member/guitarist Robb Weir and his recruits had up their sleeves for their American live debut, more than 35 years after the fact. I was not disappointed. The Tygers seemed overjoyed to be onstage, and brought loads of energy and fun to bear. Weir worked the stage like a pro, and the whole band seemed to be having a ball. Predictably, I most enjoyed hearing the four ‘Spellbound’ cuts (“Gangland,” “Tyger Bay,” “Don’t Stop By,” and encore “Hellbound”), but the entire set was a blast, except for the moron crowd-surfers. (Really, people? Crowd-surfing to bluesy English hard rock from 1980? What’s the matter with you?) This was a bona fide headliner set that was more than strong enough to win over even casual fans like me. I’d expected to stay up front for the first five or six songs, then recede into the crowd for the remainder of the set. I never budged, and never even gave it a thought after they started playing. Hail, Robb Weir and the indomitable Tygers of Pan Tang! Setlist: Euthanasia, Love Don’t Stay, Gangland, Paris By Air, Tyger Bay, Never Satisfied, Keeping Me Alive, Slave to Freedom, Rock’n’Roll Man, Rock Candy, Don’t Stop By, Suzie Smiled, Raised on Rock. Encores: Hellbound, Love Potion #9 (dedicated to Bob Byrne).
What a fantastic weekend in Chicago. Finally, after many years of struggling with poorly organized and/or poorly attended events, the U.S. metal scene is developing successful, well-supported domestic metal fests. (Not counting the anomaly of ProgPower USA, of course, which is an entity and an experience unto itself, not really comparable to any other fest anywhere else.) Sure, they may not have the cachet of a ticket to Keep It True in Konigshofen, Germany, but American festivals like Ragnarokkr, Frost & Fire, and Defenders of the Old are offering high-quality lineups (rivalling or exceeding their more prestigious overseas counterparts) at high-quality venues right here in the USA. Support these festivals! One thing’s for damn sure: Life’s a hell of a lot better for an American metalhead with the likes of Ragnarokkr than without. Hope to see you there next year.
~ Review by Kit Ekman ~