REDD BARRON Barron’s Here … To Rock!
(Heaven and Hell 2018)
It’s a challenge for those hardworking record labels scouring the heavy metal universe for forgotten gems from the 1980s and early 1990s. To be sure, there was plenty of amazing talent buried in the underground during those magical times. But meticulous industry scouts have been actively seeking out and reissuing those albums for decades. The field has been picked over. As a result, it’s becoming harder and harder for a label to unearth a truly special band that deserves the reissue treatment in 2018. That said, I am pleased to report that Heaven & Hell Records has struck gold here. Redd Barron from Romeoville, Illinois (a small suburb of Chicago) recorded a four-song self-titled demo in 1987 and a six-song cassette entitled The Barron’s Here to Rock in 1990, then vanished like a phantom a couple of years later. A few grizzled old-timers in the Midwest may fondly recall those recordings, but they never attained a wide commercial release until now. Heaven & Hell has collected the 1987 demo and 1990 cassette on a single disc, with typically superb remastering by Jamie King, detailed and informative liner notes, and an eye-catching cover painting. It’s the complete package done right.
Redd Barron played a melodic brand of U.S. heavy metal with a slightly commercial edge, especially on the later tracks, without ever descending into glam or hair metal territory. The label’s comparison to Leatherwolf is not far off the mark, and you can also hear bits and pieces of everything from Dio and Queensryche to Shok Paris and Lizzy Borden. I’ve also seen a Dokken reference or two regarding Redd Barron, which makes some sense given that vocalist Brian Lee can be likened to a slightly hoarse Don Dokken; however, Redd Barron was a generally grittier, less flashy outfit than the dream warriors. Not surprisingly, the 1987 tracks are significantly heavier, faster and more “true metal” than their 1990 counterparts, even touching on the U.S. power metal style a la Jag Panzer, albeit perhaps also more naïve and derivative than the “mature” effort that followed. It’s actually fascinating to hear the evolution of the band between the two recordings, both of which have merit. More importantly, Redd Barron were a kick-ass band, from both a writing and a performance standpoint. Guitarist Pete Alvarez (joined on the 1990 cassette by second guitar player, Greg Eichelberger) had a fiery yet tasteful style. Lee’s voice had real character and power, especially on the 1987 cuts where he even unleashed superb screams from time to time, although the liner notes explain his less satisfying performance on the 1990 songs as the product of rushing into the studio too quickly after severely damaging his voice. Many of the songs hold up well today, particularly the likes of my favorite “Kill or Be Killed” and the galloping “Search for Love” off the 1987 demo, as well as the band’s anthem “The Barron’s Here to Rock” (complete with awesome “this is your brain – this is your brain on Redd Barron” spoken-word intro) and the two-part ode to the criminal (in)justice system (“Truth vs. Justice” and “Blind Date”) off the 1990 cassette. To top it all off, the recordings sound remarkably clear and vibrant, particularly taking into account the low-budget recording conditions and the intervening passage of decades.
In sum, Barron’s Here … to Rock! is an excellent anthology that can be enthusiastically recommended to all U.S. metal maniacs and historians. Heaven & Hell Records has done us all a solid by excavating these terrific recordings and affording them a proper release. But wait: It gets better. Redd Barron are reuniting to perform at the Legions of Metal Festival in Chicago later this month. When I say “reuniting,” I mean really reuniting, with all five members of the classic lineup slated to participate. It promises to be a special moment. I’ve grown really fond of these songs, and can’t wait to hear them played live before a packed house at Reggie’s Rock Club next week. See you there?
~ Review by Kit Ekman ~
GRAVESHADOW Ambition’s Price
Like many True Metal Lives readers, I suspect, my musical tastes hover in a pretty narrow range, rarely crossing beyond the cozy confines of the old-school and the traditional. It’s not that I’m intolerant, it’s just that I know what I like. Occasionally, however, I’ll stumble across something outside my comfort zone that catches my ear and captures my fancy. Such is the case for California’s Graveshadow, whose sound is something of a melting pot with elements of power metal, symphonic metal, gothic metal, and even bits of extreme metal and traditional metal too. The intriguing sonic package is bound together by the alternately beguiling and bewitching vocals of Heather Michele (ex-Helion Prime), who careens from a confident rock swagger to a vicious rasp like the deathly breath of Hecate herself at the drop of a hat. Left to my own devices, it’s honestly not the sort of thing I would ever check out. You know, comfort zones and all that. But last spring, I was on the road with Night Demon for a handful of shows on their US tour with Anvil, and Graveshadow were also on the bill. Night after night, Graveshadow won me over with their energetic performances and catchy songs like “Lycan Lust” and “Blood and Fire.” That said, I found their 2015 debut album, Nocturnal Resurrection, not to fully capture the power and intensity of Graveshadow’s live attack, too often getting bogged down in a murky sound and overbearing (for my taste, at least) keyboards.
Now signed to Marco Barbieri’s M-Theory label, Graveshadow have just released their second album, Ambition’s Price, an altogether more professional, polished and accomplished album than its predecessor. From the packaging itself, Ambition’s Price reveals a band ready to up its game and play for keeps. The striking cover painting from the marvelous Dusan Markovic perfectly captures the dark vibe and haunting spirit of the album, the band photography in the booklet uses light and shadow quite effectively, and there’s even a cool handwriting font for song titles and band members’ names. The same level of attentiveness, care and professionalism carries over to the music, as well. The songwriting is compelling from top to bottom, as Graveshadow have come up with an excellent batch of memorable tunes devoid of self-indulgent fluff or filler. Tracks like the awesome “Warchief,” “Widow and the Raven,” and “Hero of Time” are pure earworms that will embed their way into your brain from the first time you hear them. (Interesting side note: Graveshadow do not have a main songwriter, as Ambition’s Price features distinct songwriting contributions from each member, with a patchwork of disparate writing credits for each song like a recent Iron Maiden album, yet the whole thing hangs together beautifully.) Lead guitarist Aaron Robitsch, making his recording debut with Graveshadow on this album, did a superb job writing orchestrations that embellish, color and accent the songs without overwhelming them. And Heather Michele again impresses with a top-shelf performance that displays remarkable versatility, range and expressiveness at all points on the beauty/beast spectrum. Not to be overlooked in the plaudits is the studio wizardry of Night Demon guitarist Armand John Anthony, who expertly produced and mixed the album in a manner that enables Graveshadow to shine their brightest and showcase their strengths in a clean, powerful, uncluttered fashion. (Fun fact: the idea for Armand’s collaboration with Graveshadow on this record was actually hatched in my living room on a night off from the tour when both bands were crashing at my place. Not that I’m taking credit or anything: I just provided a couch, a boombox, and a hell of a lot of beer.)
I’m never going to be a gothic guy or a death-vocals guy, but none of that really matters when it comes to Ambition’s Price. Graveshadow have effectively cut across all those constraining subgenres and delivered an immensely listenable, enjoyable, rewarding album that may find favor with a wide variety of metalheads. Even if you’re a narrow-minded bastard like me, give Ambition’s Price a chance. Against all odds, I’ve been enjoying the hell out of this album. Give Ambition’s Price a chance, and you just might find yourself falling under Graveshadow’s enchanting spell, as well.
~ Review by Kit Ekman ~
THRUST Harvest of Souls
(Pure Steel 2018)
Thrust needs little introduction. After all, the band made an indelible mark in the heavy metal underground back in 1984 with their Metal Blade debut album, Fist Held High, which is rightfully regarded as a minor classic of raw, uncompromising, fist-to-the-face Chicago heavy metal. Songs like the title track, “Metallic Attack,” and “Posers Will Die” are revered in the hearts of many as evergreen, essential ‘80s metal anthems. Only guitarist Ron Cooke remains from that era of the band; however, he moved to Los Angeles, where he has been playing for many years under the Thrust banner with a stable lineup consisting of Joe Rezendes (drums), Ray Gervais (bass), and Angel Rodriguez (guitars). A couple of years ago, vocalist Eric Claro joined the fold, and the fellowship was complete. This iteration of Thrust has become a mainstay on the underground festival circuit, thrilling old fans, converting new ones, and striking fear in the hearts of posers everywhere from Keep It True to Up the Hammers to Frost and Fire and Spring Bash. It was only natural that the topic of new material would bubble to the surface eventually, and now Thrust proudly unveil Harvest of Souls, due for worldwide release on Germany’s Pure Steel Records on April 27, 2018.
In terms of style, Harvest of Souls remains very much true to the original Fist Held High aesthetic. What does that mean? Thrust’s calling card, their claim to fame, was that their music represented traditional metal at its absolute heaviest. Not thrash metal, not death metal, but old-school midpaced metal delivered heavier, heavier than hell (to quote a song from Fist Held High). Back in the day, we used to compare Thrust to a slowed-down, more precise Exciter. Thankfully, all of this still holds true on Harvest of Souls. The first thing that stands out from the time you push play and “Deceiver” kicks in are those monolithic, skull-crushing Cooke/Rodriguez riffs, with a deliciously raw and suitably vicious guitar tone calculated to tear your head clean off. Those riffs meld brilliantly with Gervais’ leaden bass lines (featured prominently in the mix for maximum impact and maximum heaviness) and Rezendes’ pounding hooves to create this lumbering, juddering, lurching beast of metal laying waste to everything in its path. The album’s production is appropriately clear and powerful, allowing each instrument to shine and pummeling the listener in a way that many tin-eared old-school albums these days do not. No punches are pulled, folks. Harvest of Souls is like a bruising heavyweight boxer in a prize fight. It’s here to do damage, and it comes out swinging from the opening bell until the inevitable TKO. Over the top of it all, vocalist Claro’s gritty delivery suits the music well, but exudes just enough melody and personality to set the hooks, reel the listener in and prevent the songs from devolving into a faceless slugfest.
Pre-release singles “Sorceress” (for which a video has also been released) and “Feel the Pain” will be familiar to many Thrust fans because they’ve been featured in the live set for some time. Not coincidentally, they are also two of the more immediately catchy and melodic songs on the album, without sacrificing an ounce of Thrust’s signature heaviness. “Sorceress,” in particular, is one of Thrust’s best tracks ever, just an absolute hammer of a song. Other highlights include opener “Deceiver” and closer “One Step from the Grave,” both of which feature bludgeoning riffs and gang-shouted choruses tailor-made for the live arena. I’ve also grown quite fond of “Kill or Be Killed,” which starts with a rumbling Gervais bass intro then rides a Rezendes stomping drum pattern, an impressive soaring vocal from Claro, and a fist-pounding refrain to the heavy metal promised land. Overall, the material is quite consistent throughout. Thrust are seasoned veterans. They know where their strengths lie, and they stick to what they do best, without any surprises or experiments, unless you count the haunting atmospheric intro to “Shadow of the Cross” (reminiscent of something Grave Digger might do) before yet another scorching riff in the Exciter mold pegs the heaviness factor back to the redline.
If there’s a quibble to be had with Harvest of Souls, it’s that Thrust maybe are a bit too one-dimensional in their mode of attack, with little variation in tempos and song structures throughout the 10-song, 44-minute playing time. At the same time, however, that weakness can also be viewed as a strength because it reveals a purity of heart, a singlemindedness of purpose, and a clarity of focus. Thrust know exactly what they’re doing on Harvest of Souls. Old-school metalheads take note: Thrust are back. With their fists held high, they can take command. And the forecast isn’t looking too rosy for the posers.
~ Review by Kit Ekman ~
JUDICATOR The Last Emperor
Don’t look now, but power metal seems to be enjoying a bit of a creative resurgence in the underground of late. Oh, I know it never really went away, but if we’re honest, it did become depressingly stale and stagnant for a time. In recent months, however, I’ve written reviews spotlighting a pair of young German bands, Evertale and Don’t Drop the Sword, each of whom deliver a fresh and exciting take on the revered early Blind Guardian sound. That phenomenon is not confined to the other side of the pond either. Witness The Last Emperor, the new album from Arizona/Utah-based Judicator. To be sure, Judicator are no newbies to the power metal sweepstakes. On the contrary, The Last Emperor is their fourth album in the last six years. All have been of high quality, and some observers have labeled Judicator (along with Seven Kingdoms) the best, greatest hope for power metal in the USA. But, to my ears at least, Judicator have stepped up their game during the three-year gap preceding The Last Emperor’s release. From a production standpoint, Judicator have never sounded better than they do here. Plus, this album showcases a purer, more refined iteration of the band. Certain elements (occasional dirty vocals, self-indulgent progressive tendencies) that distracted from previous releases have been pared back or jettisoned altogether this time around, leaving Judicator’s core sound in its most concentrated, streamlined form.
What is that core sound? Well, you won’t get far describing Judicator’s music without mentioning the bards from Krefeld, so let’s go ahead and get that out of the way. The comparison should come as no surprise given that Judicator’s principals, vocalist John Yelland and guitarist Tony Cordisco, famously met at a Blind Guardian concert. Yelland’s voice bears more than a twinge of Hansi Kursch’s timbre and character, so much so that some reviewers have indicated they scarcely noticed Kursch’s guest appearance on the track “Spiritual Treason,” the most BG-esque number on display. Yelland is certainly not a Hansi clone on the order of Jens Carlsson (Persuader/Savage Circus), but the resemblance is unmistakable. The formative Blind Guardian influence also shines through in the album’s heavy reliance on layered choir vocals, the dynamics of the music (the nine-minute “The Queen of All Cities” takes the listener on a winding journey through ancient realms far off in the distance), and the superb riffs. Let’s pause there, because to me the guitars are the most important and appealing element of Judicator’s sound.
When I go back and listen to Battalions of Fear or Follow the Blind, or Helloween’s mini-LP or Walls of Jericho, or Not Fragile’s Hard to Be Alive, or some of my other embryonic German power metal favorites, I am blown away by how aggressive and intense the rhythm guitar playing was. Cordisco and Judicator have taken this lesson to heart. Much of the riffing on The Last Emperor is blindingly fast and heavy, steeped in the thrash tradition of bands like Paradox, Artillery, Heathen and Agent Steel, yet without forsaking melody. And it’s glorious, a riff maven’s paradise. So even though this record is properly classified as power metal, eradicate all thoughts of flowers and puppy dogs and tra-la-la (although, in the spirit of full disclosure, “Take Up Your Cross,” “The Queen of All Cities” and “Antioch” all quite literally have “la-la-la” interludes guaranteed to elicit a hearty scowl of disapproval from crusty old-schoolers like me). The Last Emperor has a delightful, ripping, old-school, thrashy edge running through it, with songs like the jaw-dropping “Raining Gold” (a gold-plated song-of-the-year candidate that is right in my wheelhouse), the aforementioned “Spiritual Treason” and the galloping “It Falls to Jerusalem” perfecting the balance of triumphant melody, attacking energy, and pulverizing speed innovated by the likes of Andre Olbrich and Kai Hansen so many years ago but so often forgotten today by both younger bands and the pioneers themselves. The Last Emperor is worth its weight in gold for the riffs alone, not even counting the intricate vocal melodies, choir arrangements, and killer songwriting.
A couple other aspects of this album deserve attention. Lyrically, Judicator have rightfully cultivated a reputation of exploring historical topics on past albums, from Napoleon Bonaparte on the King of Rome debut to Frederick the Great of Prussia on Sleepy Plessow. (Album #3, At the Expense of Humanity, is an anomaly with its deeply personal lyrical theme.) That tradition is carried forward here, with Yelland tackling a Crusades theme. Also, as a special bonus, Judicator have wisely re-recorded perhaps their best-known song to date, “King of Rome,” for inclusion on The Last Emperor. The magnificent “King of Rome” showcases Judicator at their absolute catchiest, and goes down a storm in the live setting with its tailor-made audience singalong (as I learned firsthand when I saw the band at the DeLand Rock & Metal Festival in November 2014). Its inclusion here may not be essential for those who own the debut album, but it is welcomed nonetheless because of the infinitely more powerful, professional sound achieved on the re-recording. The sonic facelift makes this great song shine even brighter.
When the final ballots are tallied, it’s a clear call that this album is Judicator’s finest effort in a discography teeming with outstanding albums. Is it too early to pronounce The Last Emperor the power metal album of 2018? Maybe so. But for the kind of power metal to which I gravitate – you know, the guitar-centric, fast, thrashy, ballsy kind – it’s almost inconceivable that anyone could top Judicator this year. This one’s mandatory, folks. Here’s hoping more live performances are in the offing, as these songs would really come to life onstage.
~ Review by Kit Ekman ~
OLD WOLF Faustian Mass
This one came out a couple months ago; however, I fear it might have escaped the gaze of even ardent metalheads still nursing their Christmas/New Year’s Day hangover bangovers. To my ears, this album is one of most exciting new releases of the first quarter of 2018, so I’m doubling back to shine a light on it. The name Old Wolf may not ring a bell, but that’s understandable, as they’ve kept a pretty low profile thus far. Based in Somerset, Kentucky of all places (home state to the mighty Savage Master!), Old Wolf released a superb 3-song demo in late 2015. A year later, the good folks at Divebomb Records did the world a favor by including the entire demo on its Masters of Metal: Vol. 1 compilation CD (which also featured demos from Riot City, Crypt Sermon and Hellrazor). Somehow, Old Wolf was temporarily derailed in 2016 / early 2017 by what they described on their Facebook page as an “agonizingly long hiatus,” but they successfully rallied and regrouped in the first half of last year. At that time, the band recorded their full-length debut album, Faustian Mass, which finally saw the light of day in CD format via Divebomb Records in early January 2018.
Make no bones about it: Old Wolf are waving the flag proudly for classic, old-school heavy metal. They describe their influences as including the whole NWOBHM movement, as well as the usual suspects like Sabbath, Priest and Thin Lizzy. Old Wolf distill these fairly run-of-the-mine ingredients into something special. The twin guitars of Jake Wilson and Jerome Peters are nothing short of spellbinding, showcasing a remarkable sense of melody and exquisite harmony of the Maiden / Thin Lizzy variety. Moreover, Old Wolf are blessed with an outstanding vocalist in the form of Ric Langford, whose mid-range, unpolished voice isn’t really similar to anyone else’s. There’s an emotional quality to the vocals, as Langford strains to reach for those powerful high notes. It works really well. Songwriting is compact and straightforward, with most of the songs hovering around the four-minute mark. A notable exception is the seven-minute closer “Howl,” where Old Wolf indulge an extended instrumental break in the middle section and the Wilson/Peters combo truly shines. Speed mavens be forewarned: Old Wolf do not step on the accelerator. Rather, Faustian Mass is perpetually locked into a comfortable midtempo, riding those timeless riffs as the rhythm section rumbles and lumbers menacingly beneath. There are no gimmicks, fancy tricks or whiz-bang bells and whistles at work here, just a five-piece band rocking out, playing old-fashioned, unpretentious, blue-collar heavy metal from the heart. That’s good enough for me. The material is uniformly strong, but I’m especially partial to “Your Keeper,” which was my favorite song from the demo and unsurprisingly enough is my favorite here as well. That said, new cuts like the superb “Executioner’s Hymn,” “Faustian Mass” and the aforementioned “Howl” absolutely hold up their end of the bargain and earn their keep(er).
If you need a benchmark comparison for Old Wolf, I might say they sound like Argus without the doom elements, or High Spirits without the fast happy parts. The label also says Faustian Mass is recommended for fans of bands like Grand Magus, Eternal Champion, and Visigoth, and I can see that as well, although there are significant differences between Old Wolf and each of those acts. The simplest way to put it is like this: Those who appreciate and enjoy the new wave of traditional heavy metal (and particularly the American variant) really owe it to themselves to check out Faustian Mass. It’s right up your alley. I only have a couple of nits. First, all three demo songs are included on the album, which means both that my ears naturally gravitate to those tracks because I already love them and that there are only five proper new songs (as well as a spoken-word intro and a short instrumental). Second, there are some fairly prominent atmospheric synth parts in a few places. For my personal tastes, the tunes would be stronger and more potent without them, but that’s just my anti-keyboard bias rearing its ugly head. None of that detracts from the main conclusion, which is that Old Wolf kick ass and Faustian Mass is a great example of old-school heavy metal done right. They’re on the prowl, hear them howl!
~ Review by Kit Ekman ~
KNIGHTMARE Walk through the Fire
It’s so cool to see a band grow into their potential, especially when the band consists of genuinely good dudes for whom you’ve been rooting as both musicians and people for a long time. Such is the case for North Carolina’s Knightmare. The Raleigh-based quartet was formed by high-school best friends more than a decade ago. Other than the loss of drummer Peter Lemieux (also of Widow, Walpyrgus and more recently Blade Killer) to a cross-country move, the original lineup remains intact to this day. (Lemieux is ably replaced on this album by Spencer Hughes, whose dynamic powerhouse style fits Knightmare perfectly.) Over the course of three albums, Knightmare have learned and refined their craft as players, as songwriters, and as a band. They’ve figured out their sound and, importantly, have finally learned to use their influences as a point of departure rather than an end game in itself. The results of all this evolution, growth, and maturation are readily apparent on Knightmare’s brand-new album, Walk through the Fire, which reveals a band poised to make the leap from local support band to national/international status. Mark my words: On the strength of Walk through the Fire, I’d be stunned if Knightmare remain unsigned, under-the-radar, and undiscovered by the industry powers that be for much longer.
A fair description of Walk through the Fire would be traditional heavy metal with a compelling, distinctive underlying hard rock edge. Of course, that label applies to many acts in the heralded “North Carolina sound,” such as Widow or Salvacion or Walpyrgus or Make It Dark Twisted Tower Dire or what have you. But Knightmare have distilled and developed that sound in a different manner than their peers. There’s certainly still a lot of classic Iron Maiden visible in Knightmare’s songwriting and arrangements, as evidenced on the blazing title track or the instrumental section of “Supermoon,” my favorite song on an album that is loaded with killers. That Maiden influence is tempered by bucketloads of early Riot, Thin Lizzy and even ‘70s KISS to make a tasty stew that is more than the sum of its parts, and a unique take on a well-worn set of influences. A real strength of the band is the gritty, bluesy, rock’n’roll delivery of lead vocalist Anthony Micale, who has worked hard to become one hell of a singer over the years, and the multi-part backing vocals. Then there’s the guitar duo of Reid Rogers and Jared Mountz, who should receive a freaking medal for their work on Walk through the Fire. They know how to shred, but they also know how to rock. They know to scream, but they also know how to groove. They are technically proficient, yet they constantly ooze feel and vibe. Their tasteful playing always serves the song, rather than the other way around. And they’re totally locked in with each other. You can’t teach this kind of six-string (well, 12 strings, to be accurate) alchemy, folks. Either you have it or you don’t. Knightmare have it in spades, and they wisely let these tracks breathe for five or six minutes apiece so as to allow Rogers and Mountz to weave their magic. As great as the vocal hooks and choruses are, I can’t wait for the instrumental breaks because that’s where Knightmare shines the brightest.
For an example of all these ingredients coming together brilliantly, just listen to “Spirits of the Night,” which the band wisely selected as a pre-release advance track. It’s a simple rock’n’roll song, yet it’s catchy as an airborne virus on Bourbon Street. Micale sings his ass off, I mean, really sells the song, the backing vocals are the ideal complement, Hughes’ drumming is on-point, and then the Rogers/Mountz guitar tandem elevates everything to the next level before a glorious breakdown section allows all four guys to shine vocally and instrumentally to ride the song out to its conclusion. Another standout cut is “Supermoon.” Yeah, I gotta highlight that song. I first heard “Supermoon” when Knightmare played it at the Legions of Metal Fest in Chicago last year, and I was instantly mesmerized. The marching-cadence verses go from glorious harmony guitars, to bass-and-drums alone, to intricate melody, with awesome lead vocals about hyperactive hyperdrives and spectacular molecular events. A mysterious, quiet, clean guitar bit with sci-fi voiceover leads into a triumphant Maidenesque section, with Rogers and Mountz in full guitar hero mode and Micale and Hughes galloping away underneath. Sublime, I’m telling you. Even more killer, dynamic instrumental parts follow. The only disappointing thing about “Supermoon” is that it ends.
It also bears mention that for a self-financed album, Walk through the Fire comes across as a highly professional release. The production values are high, and producer Ian Millard has helped Knightmare achieve a great-sounding record that is both powerful and organic. A couple of the keyboard flourishes sound a bit heavy-handed, but otherwise the sound job is top-notch. Cover artwork, band photography, everything is ace. The future of North Carolina heavy metal is here. Walk through the Fire is a triumphant achievement, and I’m both immensely impressed and proud of what Knightmare have accomplished. I know it’s only mid-March, but this record will be on my top 10 list of 2018. No question about it.
~ Review by Kit Ekman ~
The Parish at House of Blues, New Orleans, LA
March 11, 2018
I’ll admit that it gives me a rush to see a big band playing on a small stage. Take away all the fancy lights, elaborate backdrops, scrims, video screens, platforms, CO2 jets, barricades, walls of cabinets, drum risers and stage production, and you’re left with just the music, which is of course what it’s all about. The concert experience is reduced to its undiluted essence, the intensely personal one-on-one connection between band and fan, an energy exchange forged in sweat and blood, making direct eye contact, bumping fists, singing along at the top of your lungs, banging heads, and generally being bonded together by the indomitable power of heavy metal.
Such was the scene in the French Quarter last Sunday evening, when the mighty EXODUS rolled into town. Fresh off their 14-date Mr. Pickles tour with Municipal Waste that had concluded the previous night in Atlanta, Exodus tacked on the New Orleans gig as a stand-alone solo headliner show, a victory lap of sorts, and consequently the final night of the tour (as evidenced by the $10 blowout pricing on tour shirts at the merch counter). They were playing at House of Blues, but not the 850-capacity room downstairs. No sir, tonight Exodus were rocking The Parish room, an intimate upstairs space that holds 250 at most. And if truth be told, The Parish wasn’t packed. After all, it was a rainy Sunday evening, and New Orleans ain’t the most metal town on the planet even in the best of circumstances. Still, roughly 200 old-school thrashers turned out for the occasion, and they showed up ready to rage.
I found a good spot in the second row in front of where I expected guitarist Lee Altus to be, although the knee-high stage was so compact that I was basically in front of all of stage right. (For her part, Jen – ever the wise one – opted for a vantage point along the side wall, still close to the stage but safely out of harm’s way.) There was no photo pit, no visible security presence, and no barrier of any kind separating fans from the stage. Nonetheless, this five-foot-tall photographer woman with her camera on a pole rudely tried to elbow past me, muttering, “I’ll only be in your way for the first three songs.” Lady, I don’t want you to be in my way at all. I’m here to rock. So I stood my ground and just kind of smiled because I knew what was going to happen once the gig started. At 10:00 p.m., the house lights dimmed and the intro music (Def Leppard’s “Let It Go,” of all things) cranked up loud. After a minor technical glitch, the band hit the stage and launched directly into “Bonded by Blood,” vocalist Steve “Zetro” Souza exhorting the crowd, “sing it with me!” It was like striking a match to dynamite. The Parish exploded with energy, an undulating, swirling pit of flailing, fistbanging bodies consuming the entire floor as the madness erupted onstage. (Interestingly, though, no stage divers. Not a single one all night long. Not that I’m complaining – boots to the head were never my favorite.) And the camera-on-a-pole lady standing next to me? Yeah, she got pummeled by the circle-pit mayhem. It’s amazing her camera didn’t get smashed to bits. Instant karma.
Meanwhile, up onstage, Exodus proved they were out for blood by tearing directly from “Bonded by Blood” into “Blood In Blood Out,” the title track off the last record. I had been very curious as to how the band would approach this gig. For one thing, they had to be exhausted from the grueling travel itinerary of the Mr. Pickles tour, which featured long driving distances and mostly crappy winter weather. For another, they’re accustomed to playing much bigger places and much bigger stages in front of much bigger audiences than this. Would they just go through the motions like rockstars, collect their fee and slink off into the night? Not a chance. They seemed revved up by the occasion, energized by up-close-and-personal interaction with the adoring audience members who were all losing their collective minds. Particularly Altus and Souza were all smiles and energy, looking you right in the eye and giving it everything they had. Even guitarist/mainman Gary Holt seemed to be in a good mood, nodding with approval, taking in the scene and working himself into a lather as the crowd went ballistic. There wasn’t much room to move around the small stage, but the four guys across the front did the best they could, with Holt and Altus making a point of coming together at center stage for some of the key guitar interplay bits. Perhaps it was just that Exodus could see the finish line from a tough tour? Perhaps they’re just consummate professionals who can rely on 30+ years of experience to put on a killer show whether they’re feeling it or not? Or maybe, just maybe, this was a cool, fun night for them, a chance for a final blowout in the Big Easy in a room buzzing with old-school thrash metal vibes, the sort of environment where they don’t often get to play anymore because they’re mostly booked in big, antiseptic halls. Whatever the case may be, Zetro’s stage raps seemed heartfelt and genuine. He said this night reminded him of when this music was born, that thrash metal came from this. He remarked that people ask him what it was like in the Bay Area scene in the ‘80s, and the answer is that it was just like this gig tonight. High praise, indeed. Zetro also expressed affection for the Crescent City, said how happy they were to be back in the French Quarter, and told a funny story about discovering the Hurricane (a very potent local rum concoction) when Exodus played here on the Headbangers Ball Tour in 1989. He said he didn’t know what a Hurricane was back in those days, so he chugged five of them (not a wise move – two would probably put me in a coma). Later on, he said, his bandmates were frantically pouring water on him to try to sober him up to do the gig.
Regardless of how the band members felt about it, tonight was awesome for me. I’ve seen Exodus many times over the years, but almost always in large clubs or theaters. My only prior Exodus experience I could compare to this was at the Middle East in Cambridge, Massachusetts in August 1997 with Paul Baloff at the helm. Small stage, small room, killer energy. Just like tonight. The vibe carried over into the setlist as well. Zetro kept promising an old-school set for this old-school crowd, and that’s exactly what we got. There were six diamonds from Bonded by Blood, including the rarely-performed (and my personal favorite) “Metal Command” and even “Piranha,” which wasn’t listed on the printed setlist taped to the floor. It was also a treat to hear “Fabulous Disaster” – not sure if I’ve heard them do that one live since the aforementioned ’89 Headbangers Ball tour, when I was but a wee and impressionable lad. More recent stuff like “Blacklist” and “War is My Shepherd” are staples of the Exodus live set these days, but they rule too. All in all, it was a 13-song, 75-minute journey through old-school Bay Area thrash bliss. When the last notes of “Strike of the Beast” (first time in awhile I haven’t seen them bring out the Wall of Death on this one, but the room was probably too small to even attempt it or maybe the House of Blues put the kibosh on the stunt for liability reasons) rang out and the band said their good nights, Tom Hunting went to the microphone to offer up some unexpectedly kind words for the New Orleans audience. He said they were going back to California tomorrow, but with this show and this crowd tonight, they felt like they were already home. Yeah, I reckon this was a special gig for Exodus after all. As I collected myself and wandered back over to the side wall where Jen was standing, she took one look and asked if someone had spilled their drink on me. Haha, I was drenched. But no, it was all sweat. What an amazing old-school night with Exodus. Thrash metal lives!
Setlist: Bonded by Blood, Blood In Blood Out, Iconoclasm, And Then There Were None, Fabulous Disaster, Body Harvest, Metal Command, A Lesson in Violence, Blacklist, Piranha, War is my Shepherd, Toxic Waltz, Strike of the Beast.
~ Review by Kit Ekman ~
STEEL AGGRESSOR Blackguard Hollow
They say idle hands are the devil’s workshop. If that old adage is correct, then Indiana’s Steel Aggressor have nothing to worry about. After all, Blackguard Hollow, the band’s fourth full-length effort, follows approximately one year on the heels of its predecessor, A Rival of the Fittest, and Steel Aggressor have already been posting studio updates from the recording sessions for their forthcoming fifth opus. The work ethic is impressive. These facts are rendered all the more remarkable when one recognizes that, in contrast to their prior albums (all of which were released via Stormspell Records), Steel Aggressor handled everything in-house on Blackguard Hollow, with no label assistance or financial backing. The kicker is that Steel Aggressor is essentially a one-man band. Mastermind Rick Cope singlehandedly wrote, performed and recorded this entire album himself, albeit with contributions from Jonathan McCannless on drums and (for one song) lead guitars. It’s a labor of love, indeed. I’ve stood alongside Cope in the front row at the Legions of Metal Festival in Chicago, banging heads to the likes of Armored Saint and Diamond Head, and there’s no doubt he’s a bona fide, dyed-in-the-wool metal lifer.
For the uninitiated, Steel Aggressor play a sort of muscular, aggressive form of true metal with elements from the American and European schools. The most helpful frame of reference would be Iced Earth, especially in Cope’s vocal lines, which range from a Jon Schaffer-style roar to a higher-pitched clean voice that recalls Matt Barlow. For all the heaviness and chugging speed, the guitars are actually quite melodic, and would appear to be more reminiscent of German power metal than anything else. In my review of A Rival of the Fittest, I pointed out the challenges that Cope faced in trying to balance the energetic, straightforward songs with more layered, nuanced Blind Guardian-type stuff, the latter of which suffered sonically from budgetary and production limitations. Steel Aggressor seem to have reached the same conclusion, as Blackguard Hollow feels like a more cohesive, no-nonsense, hammer-down affair. Aside from the well-executed acoustic interlude “A Secret Passage” and an excellent folky Blind Guardian campfire number called “Weary Traveler” (which includes a tin whistle and lyrics about pulling swords from stones and slaying dragons), this album strikes hard and strikes fast throughout its 8-song, 36-minute duration. The hooks become more evident on repeated listens and things really come to life. After many listens, I’d say my favorite track on Blackguard Hollow is “White Knights in Black,” with its catchy “whoahh-ohhh” vocal chant and brilliant guitar melody, wrapped in a song that ebbs and flows so effectively. Also particularly noteworthy is “Throw Down the Gauntlet,” which features a NWOBHM-inspired opening riff and a pounding mid-tempo swagger, before morphing into a speedy romp just shy of the three-minute mark. But the whole album is strong, with Cope having many interesting musical ideas and a great sense of melody and songwriting dynamics.
The caveat to all of this is that Steel Aggressor are a niche band whose appeal will be confined to a narrow segment of the true metal underground. Recording quality and production values are decidedly rough and tumble, more demo level than anything. So if you’re looking for a pristine Nuclear Blast-sounding record, move right along. You could nitpick the sonics of this thing to death if you wanted, from the occasionally distracting keyboards too high in the mix to the abrupt ending of “Blackguard Hollow” to the overall murkiness of the thing. But why would you want to? It’s way more fun to crank up your stereo and enjoy these fine tunes for what they are. To my taste, Blackguard Hollow is a marked improvement on A Rival of the Fittest and shows that Steel Aggressor continue to develop and perfect their craft. I bow down to Rick Cope in respect and admiration for the skill, dedication, and sheer volume of man-hours he devoted to Blackguard Hollow. If you’d like to hear an unpretentious, truly underground, high-octane, warts’n’all take on Iced Earth style heavy power metal, then Steel Aggressor come highly recommended. As for me, I’ll continue to enjoy Blackguard Hollow for the next few months, but with a watchful eye on the horizon for the inevitable forthcoming fifth installment of the Steel Aggressor saga.
~ Review by Kit Ekman ~
True Metal Lives
The Voice Of The Underground