Reggies, Chicago, IL
May 18-20, 2017
Over the last few years, the Ragnarokkr Fest held every spring at Reggies in Chicago, Illinois had become one of the premiere traditional metal festivals in the United States, featuring an impeccably selected roster of bands, an intimate venue, a first-class city, and an awesome bunch of metalheads from around the country and around the world. Jen and I attended the 2015 and 2016 installments of Ragnarokkr and had a blast each time, and were eagerly anticipating the 2017 iteration, for which bands had been announced and tickets had been purchased. Without wallowing too heavily in drama, suffice it to say the Ragnarokkr organizer abruptly pulled the plug on the event for reasons of his own in November 2016 (albeit he did refund my ticket monies within two days). Not only were fans shocked and saddened, but some had purchased airline tickets or even pooled funds to book flights for an international band (Killer from Belgium) to perform. Somehow, through all the disappointment, a plan was hatched to resuscitate the festival. There is plenty of credit to go around, but as I understand it, the principal saviors were Reggies (the venue’s owners and staff not only found the event profitable, but loved the music, the vibe and the crowd), my friend Bob Byrne (who had a huge behind-the-scenes hand in Ragnarokkr’s success), and a longtime local metal booking agent named Shane Merrill. Together, they created a new festival, christened Legions of Metal, as the musical, spiritual and practical successor to Ragnarokkr.
For the most part, the Legions of Metal concept hews closely to that of its predecessor: Two full days and nights of high-quality traditional heavy metal music, spread across two stages in the Reggies venue, with bands both old and new, foreign and domestic, revered and unknown. Tickets were priced at a fan-friendly $70 for a two-day pass (bumping up to $100 for the VIP version, about which more will be said forthwith). The previously announced dates of May 19-20 were retained to preserve all pre-existing flight arrangements, and there was considerable overlap in the band announcements from those previously made for Ragnarokkr. To the greatest extent possible, then, Legions of Metal was designed to fit seamlessly into the void created by Ragnarokkr’s sudden implosion. That is precisely what it achieved. Venue, music selection, format, and audience were, for all intents and purposes, aligned with what Ragnarokkr had been. For most of the weekend, it felt like Legions was the very same festival that Ragnarokk was. And that’s a good thing.
But there were a few noteworthy differences/upgrades. For starters, because of Reggies’ financial backing and a professional booking agent’s participation, the caliber of headliners (Ross the Boss on Friday, and especially Armored Saint and Diamond Head on Saturday) was a step up from the Ragnarokkr days. Also, the traditional Thursday evening pre-party was expanded, relocated to Reggies and reimagined as a proper live event with a proper headliner (NWOBHM legends Raven) and a separate $18 admission charge. The overall vibe of the event seemed more relaxed and laid-back. There was no time-wasting, annoying raffle. Reggies had noticeably upgraded the small second stage with better lighting and (if I’m not mistaken) a larger stage area. And for an extra $30, you could (and Jen and I did) purchase a VIP ticket for the weekend that allowed unrestricted access to a buffet from Reggies’ kitchen, featuring hot dogs, quesadillas, mac and cheese, fries, sliders, wings, and whatever else the cooks came up with; as well as a small event poster and the opportunity to attend meet and greet sessions with various artists upstairs. In truth, the meet-and-greets seemed unnecessary, and I didn’t participate in a single one because (i) aside from Armored Saint and Diamond Head, every other band who performed at the fest roamed freely about the venue and was easy to meet, have stuff signed, get photos snapped, etc., without the need for a formal meet and greet; and (ii) with live music on two stages simultaneously, plus dear friends (old and new) from around the world congregating below, who’s got time for a meet and greet? Maybe some people thought the meet and greet benefit was great (a few buddies boasted that they got to meet Diamond Head that way), but the perk was meaningless to me. Still, overall the incremental price of the VIP ticket was well worth it for the buffet alone, which allowed me to grab an impromptu bite to eat on a moment’s notice without missing any bands.
All of that said, despite being well organized and well executed, Legions of Metal wasn’t perfect. Most importantly for me, the two-stage setup still sticks in my craw. There were some absolutely brutal conflicts, with bands I really wanted to see (and rarely, if ever, get to see) playing on both stages simultaneously. Set times were supposed to be staggered, so that you could always catch 10 or 15 minutes of a band’s set because no one was competing against them on the other stage. But it didn’t always work out that way. It’s not that the stages ran late; to the contrary, the stage managers kept the festival running remarkably on time all weekend long. The problem was it seemed that many bands (particularly early in the day) started early or did not use their full allotment of time, such that they would actually be finishing five or ten minutes early. I don’t know if the stage manager was rushing them off, or if they hadn’t prepared enough material, or what the deal is. This was especially problematic, not only for the stage-clash problem discussed above but also for the overall set lengths of early bands. A disconcerting number of bands played 30 minutes or even less. That’s too short a set time, especially for a band with multiple albums and/or an extensive pedigree/history. Also, there did seem to be some differences in the crowd this year. Although the main room filled up nicely at night for the last few bands (albeit not to Reggies’ 400-person capacity and apparently not as crowded as past years), both rooms were noticeably less populated during the day than in years past. A distressing number of excellent acts played to small crowds. Then there was a big influx of locals who showed up at night just to see Armored Saint (for example) without seeming to pay attention to the festival. That’s certainly nobody’s fault, and a ticket sale’s a ticket sale, but it was kind of a bummer nonetheless. My only other major beef concerned the weather. Chicago was cold, windy and rainy for most of the weekend. What’s up with that, Bob? Odin always got us nice weather for Ragnarokkr, at least the times that I went. Planned Reggies rooftop events on Friday and Saturday to precede the fest were either dampened (on Friday) or scuttled altogether (on Sunday) because of the miserable weather. Fix that shit next year, okay?
All of my other concerns with Legions of Metal’s execution this year were minor. Why was the second-stage room boiling hot and the main-stage room mostly chilly? Why were set times not announced until the night before the festival began? Why did it seem like security and stage crew weren’t there or weren’t paying attention in the second-stage room on those few occasions when problems arose? And why is it so damned hard to get a reasonably priced hotel room near the venue? The answer to the last question is that a large anime convention was going on nearby, causing many local hotels to double (or more) their rates from previous years, leaving festgoers with vanishingly few close-by, affordable lodging alternatives.
By the way, I don’t mean for any of the foregoing to sound like bitching. I’m not, and it isn’t. Legions of Metal ruled. It was one of my favorite metal fests I’ve ever attended. I tip my cap and bow in sincere gratitude to Bob, Shane and the Reggies crew and staff. But I did want to offer some constructive feedback with this platform, rather than simply gushing about how kick-ass the entire experience really was. Having done that, it’s now time to commence gushing on a band-by-band basis, but not before offering one final caveat. At Legions of Metal, it was literally, 100% impossible to watch every set from every band. The aforementioned stage conflicts are a pain in the ass. Also, there were times when I missed a band I had intended to see because I became engrossed in conversation with a friend, bellied up to the bar for a drink, hit the buffet for some grub, or otherwise became distracted by the swirl of it all. Every single band I saw was, for my tastes, at least good. Some were much better than that. But I didn’t get to see everybody. So if I miss out on discussing your band (or your favorite band) in this review, please forgive me. Apologies to Rival, Avalon Steel, Ice Sword, Legendry and Helion Prime for missing your sets. I heard great reports about all of you. I make no pretense of being a professional anything. I’m just a guy who likes music. I did the best I could, and I promise it wasn’t an intentional slight. Cheers.
Thursday, May 18, 2017
Jen and I landed arrived at Chicago Midway Airport at around 2:00 p.m. After the traditional photo op in front of the Douglas SBD Dauntless fighter aircraft suspended from the terminal ceiling, we hopped the CTA orange line into the downtown area, stocked up on groceries and beer at Jewel-Osco, then made our way on foot to picturesque (not really) Chinatown to check into our luxurious (not really) hotel accommodations. A short time later we joined friends at Gino’s East to gorge ourselves on Chicago deep-dish pizza and fuel up for tonight’s pre-party event. This show, featuring three local bands and the mighty Raven, was held in the main room at Reggies. While attendance was not spectacular, it was solid, prompting one Chicago local to comment that he had never seen Raven play to such a big crowd in the Windy City before. Anyway, this night of music was a wonderful bonus from our perspective, and caused Jen and me to change our pre-existing plans to spend time with non-metal friends and relatives in the Chicago metro area on Thursday night. Instead, we came out to Reggies to rock, and kick off the Legions weekend on the right foot. A rule of thumb that has served me well in life is never to miss a Raven gig if at all possible, so I let that be my guiding principle this evening.
We made it to Reggies on time; however, I was detained at some length outside by a prolonged conversation with my verbose Australian pal, David Barling, so I missed most of the first band, who had this kind of 3 Inches of Blood vibe going, at least vocally. Made it inside in time to see LETHAL SHOCK take the stage. Even though the trio all wore sunglasses, stage lights remained dim throughout their performance, enhancing the darkness of the atmosphere. Lethal Shock specialize in a brand of blackened thrash that owes much to Venom and Motorhead, and frankly isn’t a million miles removed from the territory that Midnight mine so effectively. Songs were short and punchy, with the bassist’s raspy vocals cutting through the din. I wasn’t familiar with their material, so I couldn’t tell you what they played, except that near the end of their set Lethal Shock offered up a ripping cover of Accept’s “Fast as a Shark,” with appropriate stylistic modifications. It was a cool cover, and Lethal Shock are a cool live band. I will make a point of checking out their recent Evil Aggressor album on Witches Brew Records.
Next up was a rare live performance from Chicago’s own AMULANCE. The band are quite properly held in high regard for the Feel the Pain album they released via New Renaissance Records in 1988, so it was a thrill to hear no fewer than six cuts off that classic LP tonight. Burly vocalist Rik Baez still sings with power and conviction, and the rest of the band was more than capable. Early on, Baez announced that when the band played “Death Wish” as their opening number tonight, it was the first time he and guitarist Bob Luman had played the song live since 1991 (I think). So it was a special night for Amulance. Their performance was well-received and they certainly did old-school Chicago heavy metal proud. Setlist: Death Wish, At Your Grave, Feel the Pain, Violent Victory, Witch’s Sin, 7th Son, Dearly Departed, Black Moon Rising.
At 11:00 p.m., the moment we had been waiting for was here. It was time for RAVEN, one of my all-time favorite live acts. There had been a bit of a lull since I last saw Raven in September 2015, so I was itching for some athletic rock. That said, tonight was one of the more unusual Raven gigs you’ll ever witness. You see, three days ago, longtime drummer Joe “The Baron” Hasselvander suffered a heart attack. Thankfully, with the aid of a stent, The Baron is recuperating, and will hopefully be fully recovered soon to rock us until we drop many many years from now. But his sudden health crisis created a dilemma for the Gallagher brothers. A less determined (less stubborn, perhaps?) band would have simply canceled the gig, and no one would have looked askance at them for doing so. Not Raven. Those guys hate to cancel shows. (Hell, back in 2013, I saw them do a gig in Athens, Greece, with borrowed gear and three borrowed Greek drummers when Hasselvander’s flight was delayed because of a snowstorm, playing essentially on the fly with zero rehearsal whatsoever. Raven don’t cancel.) So Mark and John somehow found a Chicago drummer named Jimmy Mess, rehearsed with him one time on Wednesday, and did the gig on Thursday. When I looked at Jimmy, I thought the show might be a fiasco. His attire, hairstyle, face tattoo, etc. marked him as a glam/sleaze guy, not a NWOBHM guy, so I feared the worst. I was wrong. Jimmy did a pretty spectacular job under the circumstances. Sure, some of the transitions were rough, there were a few noticeable messy patches, and I missed Hasselvander’s flair, but Jimmy Mess rocked this set, providing a solid, dependable foundation for the Gallaghers to work their magic. When I thanked/congratulated him after the set, Jimmy said that while he was always a Raven fan, there were 5-6 songs they played tonight that he’d never heard before yesterday. How did he pull it off? Well, his face was a mask of concentration while he played, his eyes focused clearly on his bandmates. They in turn were giving him cues, both in terms of what notes they played and with hand signals and whatnot. It worked. It really did. To their credit, both Mark and John Gallagher were effusive in their praise of Jimmy Mess from the stage. He made this gig happen, period. And he did it as a one-off, because Raven had already lined up other drummers for their immediate touring obligations in the U.S. and Europe. Thank you, Jimmy!
So, other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play? It was actually really good. Mark and John may be in their late 50s now, but they show no signs of slowing down. Their passion for their music appears to burn as brightly as ever, and their stagecraft and chemistry are unmatched. It always brings me such joy to see John thumping that bass, hopping around the stage and letting out those signature wails, while his brother Mark attacks that axe and reenacts the Mad EP cover with a never-ending series of goofy facial expressions. Tonight was a very good Raven gig, no doubt about it. During the opening number, “Destroy All Monsters,” John gave Jen and me (we were both upfront, right against the stage) a quick pat on the head, duck-duck-goose style, to acknowledge our presence, haha. And later on he stopped the set to praise Reggies as one of the best venues Raven have played in the entire world, in all departments. Classy move, that, but then again Raven are always classy. There were a few notable surprises in the setlist, likely as a result of the hasty circumstances of rehearsing a new drummer. No “Live at the Inferno” was a bit of a shock, and I’m so used to hearing “Speed of the Reflex” that its absence was noteworthy. On the flipside, it was a stunner when the band played “Stay Hard” in its entirety rather than just the first verse and chorus as they typically do. Surprise gave way to elation when John went through a lengthy introduction about what it’s like to drink 74 beers, get mixed up with the wrong female company, then come home to one’s significant other, only to find her waiting with a frying pan to give you the ol’ crash bang wallop. That’s right: They played “Crash Bang Wallop”!!! In the roughly 12 times I’ve seen Raven, I don’t believe I’ve ever witnessed them play that tune, one of my all-time favorite Raven cuts. The icing on the cake was the rarely-aired “I Don’t Need Your Money Honey” (as Lars Ulrich would call it), which made the crowd go insane. As usual, both Mark and John took extended solo spots, and the night ended with the “Break the Chain” medley that incorporated everything from the “War Pigs” solo to “Roadhouse Blues” to “Bad Boy Boogie” to “I Don’t Need No Doctor” to “Born to Be Wild.” As the band took their final bows and acknowledged Jimmy Mess’s contributions one more time, Mark pressed a custom pick into my hand. Cool, I’ve never gotten a Raven pick before, other than the Kickstarter one. Afterwards, the lads came out and chatted, mugged for photos and hung out with everyone who stuck around, just as they always do. It was lovely to visit with Mark and John again, even though Mark somehow got confused as to who I was, prompting John to correct his brother, “No, that’s not him. That’s Kit.” We took some pictures, I bought another new Raven shirt to add to the collection, and the evening was complete.
Setlist: Destroy All Monsters, Hard Ride, All for One, Stay Hard, Rock Until You Drop, Mark guitar solo, Mind Over Metal, Tank Treads (The Blood Runs Read), Crash Bang Wallop, I Don’t Need Your Money, John bass solo, On and On. Encore: Break the Chains with medley.
Friday, May 19, 2017
The day got off to an inauspicious start. Yesterday, the Windy City had bestowed gorgeous weather on us: sunshine, 80 degrees, nice breeze. This morning, it was dark and overcast, with temperatures in the low 40s, a biting wind, and occasional rain showers. Bummer. Jen and I hadn’t brought heavy coats, and our Gulf Coast-residing bodies are not acclimated to chilly temperatures at all. Nonetheless, we got out and about for several hours, trooping all around some of our favorite downtown Chicago spots, like Grant Park, Buckingham Fountain, Millenial Park, the Bean, and so on. Also hit a nice New Orleans-inspired local coffee spot near Chinatown which not only poured a delicious cup of joe but got us out the chill long enough to warm up our fingers and toes. Yeah, I know. We’re wimps. But you try living in the Deep South for more than a decade and see what that does to your cold-weather tolerance.
Festival organizers had planned a rooftop party today beginning at 2:00 p.m., with the idea being that people would head up to the Reggies rooftop bar, order food and drinks, and hang out whilst metal tunes were played over a sound system. Great idea, but not today. The crappy weather meant that when Jen and I reached the rooftop at 4:00 p.m. or thereabout, there were only a handful of folks up there, hanging and listening to the likes of Stratovarius and Yngwie J. Malmsteen from somebody’s laptop computer. With more favorable weather, the rooftop pre-game event could have been a smashing success, so I do hope the organizers will revive this idea for next year’s festival if the weather gods are a bit less capricious.
The Reggies staff set out the VIP buffet in the second-stage room shortly before 5:00 p.m., which was great because Jen and I were ravenously hungry as we’d not eaten anything all day. Our idea was to wolf down some food then beat feet into the main-stage room in time to catch the first performance beginning at 5:20 p.m. Unfortunately, things got a bit disorganized at this juncture. To enter the main-stage room, one first had to check in at the front door, have one’s ticket scanned and ID checked, and receive the requisite wristbands. The front door wasn’t open at 5; indeed, it didn’t open until 5:10 or later. We ended up having to stand in line and miss the first couple of songs before we got into the venue. Not a huge deal, but it would have helped to open the doors and have the check-in process begin with more than a few minutes’ cushion before live music commenced.
By the time we reached the mainstage, Massachusetts speed metal rippers SEAX were already a couple songs into their brief 30-minute set. For fans of speed/thrash metal with a punky edge, Seax are highly recommended. They’ve improved greatly over the years as a live band, and their latest album, Speed Metal Mania, is a whole lot of fun. Today I was able to hear them do four songs from Speed Metal Mania, as well as a smashing cover of Kreator’s “Tormentor,” complete with vocalist Carmine Blades jumping off stage during the solo and running into the crowd to start a microburst mosh pit before returning to the stage and his microphone without ever missing a line. For a high-energy, no-BS start to the fest, you really couldn’t ask for better than Seax. Partial Setlist (only saw last five songs): Forged by Metal, Fall to the Hammer, Nuclear Overdose, Tormentor (Kreator cover), Speed Forever.
As soon as Seax finished, we dashed over to the second-stage room (which I’ll call the Music Joint from here on out because that’s its official name) to see KNIGHTMARE, who are part of North Carolina’s burgeoning traditional metal scene. The only time I’d ever seen Knightmare before was back in August 2012 when I was on the road with Widow, who were touring with Icarus Witch and White Wizzard. Knightmare (who at that time featured then-Widow drummer Peter Lemieux in their ranks) were the local openers on the Raleigh date of that tour. Well, Knightmare have come a long way from those humble beginnings. They’ve evolved into excellent live performers. Reid Rogers (who also plays in Salvacion and Cerebus) is an outstanding lead guitarist, and bassist/vocalist Anthony Micale is a strong singer and frontman. Sound-wise, Knightmare start from a base of traditional metal, sprinkle in some North Carolina magic (think Widow and Twisted Tower Dire circa Make It Dark) along with a healthy dose of Iron Maiden and Thin Lizzy, and boom, there you are. They played a few songs off their Wolves of Retribution album, as well as some tracks from their forthcoming third album. My original plan was to stay for just 20 minutes or so, then sprint over to the Main Stage to see Lady Beast, who were on at the same time. Knightmare were so good that they ruined my plan. At the appointed time to move on, I looked at Jen and said, “I love Lady Beast, but I can’t leave this.” So we stuck around until the end of Knightmare’s set. No regrets. They were fantastic, a real burning star ascending the North Carolina night sky. Setlist: Walk through the Fire, Banshee, Days of the King, Spirits of the Night, Wolves of Retribution, Supermoon, Savage, Do Anything.
Knightmare finished their set at around 6:35 p.m. Oh, good. LADY BEAST were scheduled to play on the Main Stage until 6:45, so there was still time to catch the last couple of songs of their set. I love Lady Beast. Both of their albums and their new Metal Immortal EP on Inferno Records are excellent. And I’d never gotten the opportunity to see the Pittsburgh quintet before. Unfortunately, when I raved over to the Main Stage room, I recognized the song they had just started playing. It was “Lady Beast,” their namesake tune. Oh crap, I thought, this’ll be Lady Beast’s last song. And it was, such that their set wrapped up five or six minutes early. But the band sounded excellent, vocalist Deborah Levine was a fireball of energy, and the song flat-out rules. I only got a taste of Lady Beast tonight, but I will do everything in my power to find them again on a stage somewhere sometime soon, conflicts be damned. It is my heavy metal destiny.
The next clash was between Rival and Substratum, who were going head-to-head with almost no conflict-free parts of either set. I like Rival and hadn’t seen them in 15 years, but I chose SUBSTRATUM over on the Music Joint stage instead. The reason is simple: Substratum are one of the best new bands I’ve heard in years, their full-length debut album on Swords & Chains Records is fantastic, and I’d never seen them before. Many others made the same choice I did, as the Music Joint room was as full for Substratum as it was all weekend long. I’m pleased to report that the Substratum attack translates very well in a live setting. The guitar tandem of Johnny Haynes (he of the Ramones haircut and Enforcer tee) and Max Nazaryan (he of the bald head and Riot tee) are a joy to watch, just chock full of killer riffs and interesting leads. But the unquestioned focal point of the band is singer Amy Lee Carlson, a commanding frontwoman with a powerful voice who rates among the best new singers (regardless of gender) in metal today. Right out of the gate, Substratum hit hard with two of the standout tracks from the album, the amazing “Last Voyage” (my favorite Substratum cut) and “Who Am I.” After that, they delved into a series of songs from their demo tapes, which I’ve not heard so I wasn’t familiar with the material. But everything sounded great, just crushing U.S. metal all the way. Regrettably, Substratum’s set was marred by an older dude with a backpack who was obviously wasted on something and totally out of his mind. At first, he just climbed up onstage and stood there, defying Carlson’s directives to get the hell off. After an awkward interval, he finally vacated the stage, prompting Carlson to invite him to meet her outside after the set. I wouldn’t mess with her, really I wouldn’t. But this idiot didn’t take the hint. A couple songs later, he threw himself into people at the front of the stage, knocked one of the monitors down on the floor, sent people (including me) sprawling, and generally made a nuisance of himself. It would have been nice if venue security had seized and ejected this jackass, but they hadn’t. Where were you, security? So the crowd had to police the situation. Led by hulking Vanlade drummer Nolan Weber, the situation was addressed and, as Saxon would say, the band played on. Their only other comment about it was to acknowledge, after playing the song “Permission to Rock,” that that guy definitely did not have permission to rock, haha. All in all, it was a stellar performance by Substratum. Even with a last-minute fill-in bass player, the band rocked hard, kicked ass and took names. I stand by my original assessment that Substratum are one of the best up’n’coming bands in the world today. Go see them if you can. They’ll be at the Frost & Fire fest in Ventura, CA in October. Setlist: Last Voyage, Who Am I, Rough Justice, Permission to Rock, Babehammer, plus one more song whose title I didn’t catch.
After socializing for a bit with friends, I worked my way back over to the Main Stage to catch some of SLAUTER XSTROYES. As I walked in at 8:20 p.m. or so, I was pleased to note for the first time all day that the room had filled up, the crowds had come out, and the audience seemed quite respectable indeed. I’d been concerned about that earlier. From what I’m told, Slauter Xstroyes play semi-regularly in the Chicago area, but mostly in out-of-the-way or inconvenient places on the South Side so locals don’t get to see them much. And I know many people are quite enthralled with their Winter Kill album from 1985. As for me, I never really followed the band, but I was impressed by what I saw and heard from them tonight. The order of the day was dark 80s U.S. power metal with slight progressive tendencies and a wailing singer of the King Diamond variety. They sounded really good, and I loved the parts where the guitarist and bass player would come to the front of the stage together and rock out. The crowd seemed highly receptive to Slauter Xstroyes, giving them a great response. Good stuff.
Next up on the Main Stage were San Francisco cult metal act BROCAS HELM. For many people, Brocas Helm were one of the main – if not *the* main – attraction of the entire festival. So many underground metalheads speak of the band in hushed, reverential tones, placing them on a par with the likes of Manilla Road or Cirith Ungol in the heavy metal pantheon. I was never really a fan. They always struck me as a bit too esoteric, too weird, too stylistically jumbled to keep my attention. Blasphemy, I know, but that’s my take. If there’d been a band of much interest playing in the Music Joint, I would have skipped Brocas Helm entirely, but there wasn’t, at least not right away. I didn’t have anything else to do, so I hung out and watched the first half of their set. And you know what? I found it really entertaining. The drummer’s a dead ringer for Bilbo Baggins (the older one) from the Lord of the Rings movies, and pulls some pretty amazing faces while he plays. The bassist has a bushy walrus moustache, round spectacles and a military style hat, and he rocks hard. (At one point the singer exclaimed, “Look at that guy, he’s looks good for his age. He’s 70 years old, as old as Jimmy Page!”) And the guitarist/vocalist with his backwards Giants ballcap reminds me of no one so much as Lips from Anvil, complete with goofy banter, such as where he introduced the wrong song, where he claimed that the Defenders of the Crown album came out in 1972, or where he said “I like to fly high sometimes, so this is ‘Fly High.’” Some of the songs irritated me, but others like “Drink and Drive” or “Drink the Blood of the Priest” were actually pretty damn cool. Overall, the songs I heard them play included “Black Death,” “Defender of the Crown,” “Drink and Drive,” “Ghost Story,” “Fly High,” and “Drink the Blood of the Priest.” I’ll probably never be a fan of Brocas Helm, but I walked away from this partial gig with a renewed appreciation for why so many people were raving about them.
The Chicago band HESSLER had a difficult assignment tonight over on the Music Joint stage. They had been added to the bill roughly 24 hours earlier, when festival organizers ran an online poll to see what local bands people might want to have replace Battleaxe, who sadly were forced to drop off the bill at the eleventh hour because of a health issue for one of the members. Hessler (who had actually played the inaugural Ragnarokkr event back in 2011) saw the poll and shared it with their fan base, who drove up Hessler’s numbers enormously and earned them an invite. The trouble was, most of the aforesaid Hessler fans did not actually come out to the gig. Nearly everybody was next door watching Brocas Helm, or outside hanging out. Hessler are a bit different stylistically than the other bands on the bill, perhaps too modern or sleaze-metal (perhaps a touch too close to the likes of, I dunno, Bullet for My Valentine or Trivium mixed with something like Hardcore Superstar) in their orientation to appeal to some of the more closeminded Legions festgoers. So they found themselves playing a last-second gig in front of not many people. Bummer. But if that bothered Hessler, they didn’t let it show. They came out and delivered a high-energy, hard-rocking set with powerful vocals, twin guitars and catchy songs. Hessler long featured female lead vocalists; however, recently, they shook things up and now male guitarist Igz Kingcaid does the singing. Hessler works well as a four-piece, including guitarist Erik Michael who could win an Alexi Laiho lookalike contest. I thought the songs were cool, and the performances were heartfelt and earnest. It was too bad that Kincaid had tuning problems with both of his guitars along the way, but he powered through. At one point, he traded a Hessler CD for a sweatband that someone in the crowd lent him to keep the sweat off his guitar. And Hessler stumped me with their choice of a cover song, which ended up being Golden Earring “Twilight Zone.” The song’s not exactly metal, but hey, why not? Kudos to Hessler for making the best of a tough situation all the way around. Setlist: Bad Blood, Intruder, Ghost Dance, From the Dead, King of Sting, Twilight Zone (Golden Earring cover), Never Lost My Way, Windy City Wild Child, Killing Machine.
By the time I worked my way back over to the Main Stage, Belgium’s legendary power-trio KILLER were already on the third song of their set. Many had feared that Killer wouldn’t make it tonight, not only because of the difficulty of getting international bands into the U.S. (see Loudness and Evil Invaders for recent examples), but also because their bassist had a serious health issue arise that prevented him from doing the gig. Rather than canceling, Killer recruited their original bass player, Spooky, who held down that role from 1980-87 and on brief intervals since, for this show. That, my friends, is how you convert a negative into a positive. I could have watched Killer all night long just to see the silver-haired Spooky bounding across the stage. The guy was clearly having the time of his life, just rocking out, grinning from ear to ear, contributing backing and occasional lead vocals in addition to those rumbling bass lines. His happiness and energy were infectious. Of course, you can’t talk about Killer without mentioning the mustachioed guitar-slinging frontman, Paul “Shorty” Van Camp. He played and sang great, and his accented stage raps came across as very genuine and heartfelt, as he talked about how happy they were to be here, how proud they were to be a going concern some 37 years after they formed, how some of these songs came about, and how much Motorhead meant to them, the last evidenced most strongly by the convincing “Ace of Spades” cover that closed out their set. In fact, Killer had intended to play two Motorhead covers at the end of the night, but time constraints forced them to axe “Overkill” just as they were about to launch into it as a mini-encore. Killer had a large, supportive crowd that definitely knew the material (especially the early stuff), and it was just a wonderful feel-good moment all the way around to have them on the Reggies stage. Many thanks to Callae Goltz and the other sponsors who made it possible for all of us to have this cool experience. Approximate Setlist: Blinded, Shock Waves, Bodies and Bones, Steel Meets Steel, Kleptomania, No Future, Back to the Roots, Wall of Sound, Ready for Hell, Ace of Spades.
I had no idea what to expect from ROSS THE BOSS tonight. In my formative years, Manowar were always a very special band to me. I vividly remember receiving a handwritten note from Joey DeMaio on Manowar letterhead (enclosing Joey and Ross picks) when I was in high school in response to a fan-club letter I had sent. If memory serves (and it does), Joey began his note by writing, “What a fucking killer letter. You are truly a man, hail!” It was my most prized possession at the time, and I know I still have it in a box somewhere. Anyway, you get the point. I love Manowar, especially those first six magic circles. The idea of Ross the Boss with basically a cover band playing those classic songs could have been magical, or it could have been catastrophic. I tried not to get my hopes up, but still wedged myself up against the front of the stage before their set. They came out to “Blood of the Kings,” and all doubts and questions were immediately erased. For the next 90 or so minutes, I lost my mind and my voice. So did everyone around me. It was glorious. It was triumphant. It was everything I ever imagined in my mind an ‘80s vintage Manowar show would have been, minus all the egos and B.S. that have infiltrated and consumed that band’s performances in recent years.
Let’s start with Ross himself. The guy still plays great, looks good (love the baseball diamond tattooed on one arm), and seems genuinely thrilled to be onstage. The band with whom he has surrounded himself is stacked with all-stars and ringers. Placid bassist Mike LePond handles those meaty DeMaio basslines with ease, playing them with his fingers no less! Kenny “Rhino” Earl is a monster drummer who spiced up those rudimentary Columbus drum parts with interesting but tasteful fills. And then there’s Marc Lopes. Holy hell. The most difficult task for any band covering Manowar songs is the vocals, right? In his prime, Eric Adams was an unearthly talent, a superhuman vocalist whose combination of power, emotion, and range was unparalleled by anyone in the metal realm. Most Manowar covers fall flat because the vocals fall short. Not here. Not tonight. Lopes (whom some may recognize as the vocalist on the last Meliah Rage album) was not intimidated, he was not cowed, and he attacked these songs. I swear, the guy nailed every of those spine-tingling Eric Adams screams, and he poured his heart into the performance, pumping his fist, stalking the stage, banging his head, getting right up close with the people upfront. Afterwards, I had the pleasure of talking with Marc for a few minutes. He told me he’d always been a huge Manowar fan and he doesn’t try to copy Adams because he knows that would be impossible. Instead, he just does what he does, and tries to do justice to those songs. Well, he succeeds brilliantly. He also told me that there were a few times in the set where he “forgot where he was” (in the song being played), so he had looked to me to get him back on track with the lyrics, haha. Yes, I know all the words to all those songs by heart. People around me started laughing when I was doing the Orson Welles voiceover during “Dark Avenger.” If that makes me a nerd, I don’t care. Those songs rule, and they helped me survive high school and college way back when, so damn right every word is engraved on my heart.
Did I mention the setlist? No? It ruled. I mean, it ruled. Ross the Boss touched on each of the first six albums, including four from Battle Hymns and the first three from Hail to England. There were more accessible numbers like “Fighting the World” nestled alongside epic beasts like “Thor (the Powerhead)” and “Dark Avenger.” The mighty “Battle Hymn” itself caused me to well up with tears because it was just so damn glorious to hear it played live this well with such a passionate audience all around me. Even the legendary DawnOwar was in the house. I remember in the very early days of the Internet, trying to figure out what was going on with Manowar. Well, DawnOwar was their biggest fan on the planet, and she wrote a blog (I guess they didn’t call them blogs back then) describing their concerts and her experiences on the road with them. How cool to get to meet and hang out with DawnOwar after all these years, and thank her for keeping the Manowar flame burning at a time when it was impossible to find out anything about them. More generally, the crowd knew their Manowar material and were singing along loud and proud throughout. That part was great. The part where people kept smashing into my back really really hard (it wasn’t a mosh pit, I don’t know what the hell was going on behind me) was not so great, but I held my ground, ignored it, and killed with power. (It also wasn’t great to hear so many people coming up to Ross after the show bitching “you should have played this song” or that song. What the hell, people? Show some respect and some gratitude. That setlist ruled!) Oh, by the way, just a tip if you see Ross the Boss live someday. Don’t do the Manowar salute of clasping your hands over your head. Ross doesn’t like that, and is trying to replace with a new salute he calls “Heart and Hammer.” You make a fist with your right hand and place it over your heart, while extending your left arm. That’s the heart and hammer. Tonight, Ross the Boss and his band brought both the heart and the hammer, and I couldn’t have been more ecstatic. Only bummer was at the end of the night when I bought a cool Ross the Boss Discipline of Steel Tour shirt to commemorate the event, then got back to my hotel room and realized the dude had given me a girlie shirt. Damn! So Jen now has a very cool Ross the Boss shirt, and I have none. Oh well … it was still an absolutely perfect gig to cap off an amazing day of heavy metal.
Setlist: Blood of the Kings, Death Tone, The Oath, Blood of My Enemies, Kill with Power, Thor (the Powerhead), Each Dawn I Die, Gloves of Metal, Sign of the Hammer, Dark Avenger, Metal Daze, Fighting the World, Battle Hymn, Hail and Kill.
Saturday, May 20, 2017
We awakened on Saturday morning to even crappier weather than Friday. It was a few degrees warmer, but there were thunderstorms. No sense venturing out in that mess, and the planned Reggies rooftop brunch was canceled because of the adverse weather conditions. So we hung out in our plush hotel accommodations and hunted rats and roaches while we waited for the gig to start. (There weren’t really rats and roaches, by the way, and the hotel, while no-frills and basic, was perfectly acceptable. Just a little poetic license to jazz up the tale.) By 1:00 p.m., we were back inside the dry, cozy confines of Reggies, ready for one more massive day of metal. We were duly fortified, not only by the excellent VIP buffet, but also by the smorgasbord of delicious Wisconsin/Michigan donuts that our friends Ty (also a rock star in his own right, with fangirls and everything), Michelle and Jonathan brought for us to sample. Thanks, y’all.
The first band of today was STEEL AGGRESSOR from Indiana, playing the Main Stage after some last-minute reshuffling of the schedule. I felt some responsibility for this one because I had suggested to Bob Byrne that he book them after really enjoying their third album, A Rival of the Fittest, on Stormspell Records. Steel Aggressor is Rick Cope’s brainchild, his hobby and his passion. Despite having three albums released (and a fourth on the way), Steel Aggressor is mostly a studio project, so it was a stretch, and a massive investment of time and effort, for Cope to pull together a live band to present at Legions of Metal. The three-piece act delivered a short, five-song set with one song (“Lost in Centauri”) off the latest album, three from the debut, and a cover of Iron Maiden’s “Flash of the Blade.” Cope played bass and handled the bulk of the lead vocals, but the guitarist also sang a fair bit, including all lead vocals on the Maiden cover. Under the circumstances, I thought Steel Aggressor acquitted themselves well. They sounded good and they were received well by the small but appreciative audience that had turned up early to see them. My constructive suggestion for the band would be to pay attention to visuals a bit more. The guitarist left his guitar case on the floor in the center of the stage for the whole gig, near an errant cymbal stand that was just sitting there. But no way am I going to nitpick this thing. Cheers to Rick Cope and his band for pulling off this gig! Setlist: Sword and Sorcery, Living in the Shadows, Flash of the Blade, Lost in Centauri, From Ruins to Dust.
One of my most eagerly anticipated bands going into the weekend was WALPYRGUS. After all, Twisted Tower Dire always have had and always will have a special place in my heart. They’re one of the greatest American heavy metal bands ever, and they were a beacon of light during a very dark time in the U.S. metal scene. For those not in the know, Walpyrgus is essentially an extension/offshoot of TTD (who are still active and, according to vocalist Johnny Aune, well into the process of writing and recording a new album). Three members (Aune, guitarist Scott Waldrop, and bassist Jim Hunter) of Walpyrgus are also in TTD, and to my ears the band have more or less taken the sound of the latter’s Make It Dark record and run with it. What that means is that Walpyrgus deliver hard rockin’ old-fashioned melodic metal with breathtaking twin guitars all over the place and Aune’s distinctive, powerful high-pitched voice over the top. This ain’t epic, dungeons-and-dragons metal, folks, but it rocks, it’s fun and it’s catchy as all hell. Fans of bands like rockin’ Riot or High Spirits or Widow or the aforementioned Make It Dark should love this. The band’s visual presentation is cool too, with the guys coming out all in black shirts with necklaces bearing the “W” emblem of Walpyrgus. As I watched these consummate professionals dish out a killer set in the middle of the afternoon before a room that was more empty than full, I was struck by the notion that in a just world Walpyrgus would be much bigger than they are. Great players, great songs, a sound that could and should appeal to a wide range of metal fans and could cross over to mainstream rock fans as well. Perhaps their new album, Walpyrgus Nights, forthcoming in a couple of weeks, from which they played four great songs today, will raise their profile. I hope so. For now, I enjoyed every minute of their set, which also included two cuts from their 2014 EP and a sensational version of Mercyful Fate’s “Doomed by the Living Dead.” One of the best bands of the festival for me, hands down. Setlist: Dead Girls, Cold Cold Ground, Palmystry, We Are the Wolves, Dead of Night, Doomed by the Living Dead, Walpyrgus Nights.
To me, VANLADE are one of the great hopefuls in the U.S. metal scene today. The Kansas City natives have been slugging it out for some time now, with two strong albums and a cool covers EP to their credit, with a third full-length on the way in relatively near future. They absolutely lit up the Frost & Fire Festival in Ventura with a scorching performance last October, and they brought more of the same today. Soundwise, Vanlade stood out from most of their peers on the Legions of Metal billing because their traditional metal sound incorporates a good bit of that raw early Metallica Kill ‘Em All thrashy energy. No, Vanlade aren’t a thrash band per se, but they have that intensity to ramp up their U.S. power metal / true metal foundation. Today marked my first time seeing them with their new bassist, who fit in perfectly with his colleagues both musically and in terms of stage presence. Speaking of the latter, Vanlade are constantly flying around the stage, which was shrouded in buckets of stage fog so thick it was hard to see their banner or big Nolan Weber back there pounding away on the drums. Guitarist Zach Vanlade is cultivating a bit of a metal outlaw look these days, with white dress shirt, vest and cowboy hat to go along with his studded gauntlets. Vanlade tore through an all-too-brief four-song set (plus intro) as if their hair were on fire, playing with enough drive and intensity to illuminate the entire South Side of Chicago. We got two new songs, the speed rush of “Jaws of Life,” and my favorite Vanlade song (and one of the best songs of the last decade if you ask me), “Hail the Protector.” Holy hell, that song rules. It makes the hair on my arms stand up every time I hear it. This mighty epic is a bona fide classic and deserved its spot in the Vanlade setlist even though, at a hefty 8 and a half minutes, it crowded out a couple of other tunes they could have played. Incidentally, here’s a bit of trivia: Zach told me last night that Manowar’s “Spirit Horse of the Cherokee” was the inspiration for “Hail the Protector.” (Hope I didn’t just give away a closely guarded secret or anything, Zach, but it’s such a cool detail that I had to include it.) I wouldn’t have guessed that, but I hear it now that I know, with one important caveat: “Hail the Protector” is better, haha. Support Vanlade. They rule. Setlist: Intro, Ghost Dance, Jaws of Life, Faster than the Speed of Steel, Hail the Protector.
By now, the first band of the day was playing over on the Music Joint stage. As Jen and I walked through the connecting hallway to get there, we bumped into Glacier Mike and got to visit with him for a few minutes. Good guy. Then Bob Byrne saw us and encouraged us to get into the Music Joint to behold what was transpiring therein. It was SACRED LEATHER from Indiana. We entered the packed, stiflingly hot room to have our eardrums assaulted by what had to be the loudest band of the entire weekend. Their amps definitely went to 11. The band onstage were decked out in more leather than I’ve ever seen in one place before. You know the promo picture in Running Wild’s Gates to Purgatory? Or the front cover of Unleashed in the East? Think way more leather than that. In terms of music, I only heard a few songs but it sounded like mid-paced true metal at its absolute purest, with rough-hewn vocals to match. Could have lived without the stage banter about there being “not enough pussy under this roof” as I’m standing next to my wife, but I guess it’s all part of the show. Everything about this band, from music to image to attitude, is completely 100% over the top. Many people who caught Sacred Leather’s entire set gave it glowing praise, and I’m looking forward to hearing their full-length debut on Cruz del Sur Records later this year.
We couldn’t linger in the Music Joint, because we had to get back over to the Main Stage to see IRONFLAME. If the name doesn’t sound familiar, you’re not alone. Ironflame are a brand-new band, the brainchild of Andrew D’Cagna, whom some will recognize as the excellent vocalist on the Dofka Humanity Bleak album from 2010. (He also sings in Brimstone Coven.) As I understand it, D’Cagna singlehandedly wrote and recorded (with the help of a few guest lead guirarists) a batch of mostly uptempo, twin-guitar U.S. power metal songs under the banner Ironflame, and released those tunes as an album entitled Lightning Strike the Crown to coincide with their appearance at Legions of Metal. He assembled a superb backing band to assist him with the live presentation of these songs, including the illustrious Jim Dofka and Quinn Lukas (Icarus Witch) on guitar, plus James Babcock from the Dofka band on bass. Like pretty much everybody, I guess, I hadn’t heard the songs before today, but wow, Ironflame sounded fantastic. Great vocals from the diminutive, tattooed D’Cagna (who I was pleased to note was wearing a Vindicator shirt, hi Vic), and truly magnificent guitarwork from Dofka and Lukas, who earned the award for my favorite guitar tandem of the festival. Songs seemed excellent too, just fast, melodic, guitar-driven power metal, U.S. style. Given the band’s 40-minute set, Ironflame were able to run through the entire album, or close to it. I was highly impressed by what I heard, and look forward to sinking my teeth into Lightning Strikes the Crown (which was being sold at the Fest in a CD / Vinyl combo for $25). My only disappointment about Ironflame’s set was the relative dearth of spectators, with people either too wrapped up in Sacred Leather or not taking a chance on an unknown new band. They missed out, because Ironflame were terrific.
It was a real coup that Legions of Metal was able to book DEVIL IN DISGUISE for a U.S. exclusive. For those who may be unaware, Devil in Disguise is a revival/homage to Glacier, who released one of the greatest EPs in heavy metal history in 1985. Mike Podrybau sang on three of those songs, giving him an absolutely legitimate connection to the Glacier legacy, and recently formed a band with a quartet of Chicago-based musicians for the purpose of bringing the classic Glacier material back to life. They call themselves Devil in Disguise (after one of the songs on the EP), and their set at Keep It True in April 2017 was widely lauded as a standout performance in that fabled fest. To say I was stoked to see Devil in Disguise at Legions of Metal would be a vast understatement, even more so after we spent some time hanging out with Mike this weekend. The band exceeded my expectations. Podrybau’s voice defies the space-time continuum, because he has somehow retained all the range and character of the old days. His band sounded fantastic, and really seemed to have gelled as a unit. They were visibly rocking out and having fun, which doesn’t always happen with these kind of gigs where a name musician Frankensteins together a backing band for a couple of special-occasion shows. On a humorous note, guitarist Petey Mendoza was being openly heckled by his friends in the audience, with his cheering section belting out a “poser” chant at one point, to much mirth and laughter from stage and crowd alike. Devil in Disguise played the full 5-song Glacier EP plus two classic-era demo tracks (“Live for the Whip” and “Eastern Guns”) that were every bit as strong as the EP cuts. The whole thing was over in the blink of an eye, but honestly it was worth it to come to Chicago just to see that set. I do hope I have another opportunity to Podrybau and Devil in Disguise play the Glacier songs again, but if not I’ll always be grateful for this experience. The musty, dusty past came alive on the Reggies stage, and it was amazing. Setlist: Ready for Battle, Devil in Disguise, Heaven’s at Hand, Live for the Whip, Vendetta, Eastern Guns, Speak No Evil.
From here, it was back over to the Music Joint stage to see CARRIAGE, whose set was already in progress. Earlier today, we’d seen the band loading in their gear and, more importantly, their stage props, which included two full-size coffins and a huge pulpit adorned with skulls, an inverted cross, a lantern, and so on. I recognized a couple of the band members (including the singer and one guitarist) from the old Warriors of Metal Fest days when they played in a speed/thrash band called Possessor; however, Carriage are a completely different beast, having gone all-in with the King Diamond horror motif. Unfortunately, we entered the room just as Carriage’s set came to a screeching halt because of technical difficulties, with the band asking if anyone had a spare guitar they could borrow. After a few minutes, the technical issues were sorted, a loaner guitar was acquired, and the show went on. The oversized stage props dominated the cozy Music Joint stage. One coffin was standing upright on each side of the stage, with flashing lights illuminating a skeleton skull within. The pulpit/lectern dwarfed the center stage area, with the vocalist standing on a plastic merch bin to be seen. From time to time, thick stage fog emerged from the mouths and eyes of the skulls adorning the pulpit. The band also had compressed air / CO2 jets on the floor which they would shoot off, bathed in eerie red light. It all looked very cool, even though it was probably way too much for such a small stage. All the props obscured the band members themselves. Anyway, when the band got started again, the singer said something about wanting to have a drink but all he had was blood. He then solicited volunteers to drink red liquid from a bowl, communion-style, albeit without anyone wiping the lip of the bowl after each person took a drink. Predictably, the remainder of the stage blood ended up all over the singer’s face and white button-down shirt, adding to the campy shock-rock aura. Equally predictably, my squeamish Jen was not amused, so we didn’t remain long before moving back over to the big room. Still, I give Carriage credit for thinking big and going for broke with the stage design. Their songs on one of the recent Divebomb Records Masters of Metal compilations are quite good, and they have a full-length on the way, so keep your eyes peeled if creepy, theatrical metal is your bag.
By now, SYRUS were in full swing on the Main Stage. The San Antonio, Texas quintet have that classic Texas metal sound and a pedigree that dates back more than 30 years. A few years ago, the band (building around founding members and guitarists AL Berlanga and John Castilleja) reformed and began performing again. Earlier this year, they self-released a very strong album of re-recordings of classic material entitled Tales of War. Unfortunately, I got there too late to hear my favorite Syrus song, “Midnight Chimes,” but what I did hear was excellent, no-nonsense Texas heavy metal with a small but extremely enthusiastic crowd, prompting the singer to comment at one point that he had no idea there were so many Hispanics in Chicago. Extra points to the bass player for wearing a Mercyful Fate Melissa shirt too. I only caught the last four songs of their set (“City in the Sky,” “Unbroken Rhymes,” “Blitzkrieg,” and “Mirror Mirror”) but Syrus did a fine job and represented their home state well at Legions of Metal.
The biggest scoop that Legions of Metal achieved this year was the first show in a quarter century for North Carolina’s CEREBUS, best known for the fantastic Too Late to Pray album on New Renaissance Records in 1986. The album was reissued by the Greek Cult Metal Classics label in 2006 (with liner notes from Bart Gabriel), but is also the subject of a 2017 reissue campaign on Heaven and Hell Records. Both Too Late to Pray and the 1991 EP, Regression Progression, as well as various demo tracks are included on those new CD releases, which coincided with Cerebus’s appearance at Legions of Metal. Two-fifths of the band’s classic lineup (vocalist Scott Board and bassist Eric Burgess) were joined by a new guitar duo, Elio Romero and Knightmare’s Reid Rogers, as well as drummer Stephen Arnold who had previously been in the band in the late 1980s. Cerebus have already been confirmed for Keep It True 2018, and rightfully so. Not only is Too Late to Pray loaded with fantastic heavy songs that stand the test of time (my favorites being the speedy “Running Out of Time” and “Catch Me if You Can”), but the band’s live energy and power are undeniable. I got a kick out of watching Burgess (the man who wrote most of these songs) bop around the stage with a smile on his face, and Arnold was a maniac behind the drum kit – I thought he might spontaneously combust at any moment. The blond-maned Board’s voice has held up well over the years, his sole concession to age being the device at his feet he was using to help him with the lyrics. Romero and particularly Rogers did a fantastic job, with Rogers having a dedicated cheering section of band mates and friends (myself included) right in front of him. This gig may be the moment that marks Rogers’ emergence as a bona fide guitar hero. The guy was amazing. I heard lots of nicknames being tossed around afterwards, like Reid “Speed” Rogers or Reid “Riff” Rogers. They all fit. I’m proud to call Reid my friend and it’s amazing how much he’s progressed as a player and performer in the five years I’ve known him. Cerebus played most of the Too Late to Pray album, including the cassette bonus track “She Burns.” Highlights included “Distant Eyes” (a poignant moment because the song was dedicated to late guitarist Chris Pennell, who passed away in 2010) and “Taking Your Chances” living day by day, which Board dedicated to Bob Byrne as his favorite Cerebus song. The triumphant set concluded with a fitting cover of Saxon’s “Motorcycle Man.” Several friends of mine pronounced Cerebus the best band of the entire weekend, and not without reason. They rocked the house down, for sure. Believe the hype, folks. Lots of ‘80s band reunions miss the mark, but not this one. Cerebus are re-energized and ready to strike. They’ve got excellent songs and excellent players. Go see ‘em at Keep It True and (hopefully) other festivals next year. And for goodness sake, go buy those Heaven and Hell Records reissues. Setlist: Too Late to Pray, Running Out of Time, Rock the House Down, Distant Eyes, Catch Me if You Can, Taking Your Chances, She Burns, Talk is Cheap, Motorcycle Man.
When Cerebus’s set ended, I found myself with a great spot in the front row, right near center stage. This was a stroke of luck because I had noticed that many people seemed to have arrived in the last hour or two for the sole purpose of seeing one or both of tonight’s headliners, and had parked themselves upfront for that purpose. I resolved to cling to my front-row perch for the remainder of the evening. The downside to this plan, of course, was that there was still one band left to go in Music Joint, HELION PRIME. Much as I like the band and think they’re one of the standout power metal acts in the US, I was unwilling to relinquish my prized spot, so I missed them; however, I dispatched my spies to do some reconnaissance. They informed me that the new singer is excellent, but that there were significant technical problems that dragged down Helion Prime’s set, as well as one song for which they all donned brightly-colored leggings. Can’t say I’m a huge fan of the men’s leggings fashion trend in metal. Still, I wish I’d seen Helion Prime. Next time, for sure.
Believe it or not, despite seeing hundreds of shows around the globe in the last 31 years, I had never witnessed DIAMOND HEAD before tonight. Like anyone else who grew up hugging a copy of Lightning to the Nations, I was really looking forward to seeing them. And I was not disappointed in the slightest. To be sure, they started slow out of the gate, with the curious choices of “Wild on the Streets” and “Borrowed Time” to begin the gig, with little audience buzz. But then they kicked it into gear with the awesome “Bones” from the new album, and most of the remainder of the set was devoted to fine new songs and legendary old songs. My vantage point was just a few feet away from guitarist Brian Tatler, and it was unbelievable to be watching the architect of all these amazing, foundational, seminal riffs churning them out so close that I could reach out and touch him. Despite this show being “just” a tour stop, Brian and the lads looked very happy to be in Chicago, and more than pleased with the stellar crowd response they received. The guitar tandem of Tatler and Andy Abberley was on-point for the entire 60-minute set, often meeting center stage for the instrumental parts. Special mention goes out to bald frontman Rasmus Bom Andersen, who looks to be a generation younger than his counterparts but has a perfect voice ideally suited for the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, while retaining a character and personality of his own. Ras sang great, and endeared himself to the crowd by repeatedly placing himself in precarious positions, with one foot on the monitor wedge and one foot on the railing, standing tall and belting out the choruses as close to the audience as possible. New single “Diamonds” (coincidentally, my favorite song off the new album) showed up early in the night to great effect, but what people really wanted to hear was the Lightning to the Nations material. And Diamond Head obliged with a searing five tracks off that magnificent opus. All sounded fantastic, with Ras changing some of the lyrics in “Lightning …” to reference Chicago. And does it get any better than “Am I Evil?” Not for me. Fittingly, this was the final song of Diamond Head’s set, and drove the crowd (which was probably the largest of the entire festival) into a state of delirious joy. As it ended, Tatler stood on stage smiling amiably, surveying the audience and hopefully feeling satisfaction and pride that his songs still bring such happiness to so many people after all these years. It was a truly great gig. Diamonds are forever, indeed. My only regret was that by the time I made it back to the merch area after Armored Saint’s set, Diamond Head had already packed up their stuff and vacated the premises, so I was unable to score an elusive DH shirt. Setlist: Wild on the Streets, Borrowed Time, Bones, Lightning to the Nations, Diamonds, The Prince, Set My Soul on Fire, Heat of the Night, Helpless, Shoot Out the Lights, It’s Electric, Am I Evil?
A lot of great bands had played the Legions of Metal Festival, “but we’re going to end it now,” said John Bush from the stage early in ARMORED SAINT’s set. Opportunities to see the Saint march on as a headliner are few and far between these days, so I was ecstatic when they were announced for this festival. Thirty-plus years into their career, the Los Angeles quintet remain one of the most formidable live acts on the planet. Much of that comes back to Bush, the mighty man with a throat like a lion. He was decked out tonight in a garishly embroidered outfit that looked like a matador’s costume, and metaphorically speaking he waved that red flag in front of the bull all night long. The guy’s voice hasn’t lost a step. If anything, he sings with more power and more intensity than he did in the Delirious Nomad days. Incredible! After the opening one-two punch of “Win Hands Down” and “March of the Saint,” sweat was streaming from Bush’s bald head and I was gasping for air after trying to sing along at full power myself. How does the guy do it? The band seemed to be in a really good mood tonight, fit and rested and ready to attack. It helps that this date wasn’t part of a tour, just a small handful of gigs in the Midwest built around the Reggies gig. Guitarists Phil Sandoval and Jeff Duncan made frequent eye contact with the front rows of the crowd, and moved around the stage constantly, with Phil even dropping to his knees at center stage from time to time. Meanwhile, I was positioned directly in front of bassist Joey Vera for much of the gig. Good spot to be in. In addition to being a stellar player, Vera radiates intensity and positive energy with everything he does. Add in the mighty Gonzo behind the drums, and you have a lineup with no weak links, just fantastic players and performers, all the way around.
Lots of interesting things happened during Saint’s set tonight. The first unusual bit was when Duncan started “Nervous Man” after “March of the Saint.” Bush came over and said something to him and he stopped. But the cat was out of the bag and there was no going back now, so they went ahead and did the tune. At the end of the song, it appeared that Duncan apologized to Bush, who responded “that’s okay” according to my lip reading skills. When I got a setlist at the end of the night, I saw that “Nervous Man” had been scratched out and replaced with “Long Before I Die,” so they weren’t supposed to play it at all, and Jeff had just forgotten. I was happy though, because “Nervous Man” rules. Also interesting was that during several tunes, Bush brought out what must have been the most metal set of maracas in the world, a gleaming silver tube that he shook during instrumental bits to make, well, maraca sounds I guess. Bush was extremely interactive with the crowd tonight. After a rendition of “Stricken by Fate” off the first record, Bush was chiding an audience member for not getting the title right the first time. “Nice Riot shirt,” he added, to eliminate all doubt as to who he was talking to. At one point, an audience member called out for “Saturday Night Special,” prompting a visible look of surprise and a “wow” from the band, saying they hadn’t played that one since 1987, haha. Cue spontaneous Skynyrd noodling from Sandoval. “Right band, wrong song,” said Bush. Then, as everyone else joined in, he laughed, “Where are we going with this?” No, they didn’t play any Skynyrd, thank god. Later on, he spotted somebody in a Grim Reaper shirt and called out the names “Nick Bowcott” (applause) and “Steve Grimmett” (huge applause). People started calling out things about the Hell on Wheels Tour in different cities, prompting Bush to go down memory lane. When people yelled that they’d done two nights in Chicago on that tour, Bush said he didn’t remember that. What he did remember, though, was that they played one of their earliest shows in the Windy City in 1984 supporting Whitesnake and Quiet Riot, so they have always had a special affinity for Chicago. “We didn’t know anything, but we knew how to rock,” he said. Before “Symbol of Salvation,” the band paused to remember the late, great Dave Prichard, who died of leukemia in 1990. Bush was saying how Dave is always with them, then he turned around and saw the Armored Saint banner illuminated in red (apparently unplanned), and said there was Dave right there (he was, of course, famous for his red hair). It was a very touching, very genuine moment. Another genuine moment was when Bush briefly referenced his time “with another band,” prompting all sorts of shouts from crowd and band mates alike, including that “only one band matters.” Bush seemed to take umbrage at that, stating emphatically that he spent 12 years of his life in Anthrax and “I don’t want it to not mean something.” Seems like we touched a nerve there.
From my vantage point, the coolest thing about Armored Saint’s gig was that I got to play bass. No really, I did. Now, I don’t play bass. I couldn’t play bass if my life depended on it. During “Left Hook from Right Field,” however, Vera came right up to the front of the stage, just inches from me, gestured at his bass mid-song and said something obviously to me. He was asking if I wanted to play. I kind of backed away because I wasn’t sure what was going on. You don’t touch a musician’s instrument while he’s playing his gig. “C’mon,” he said, and pointed at his bass again. So during the next chorus, I strummed the strings, he held the fretboard and we made a beautiful noise together. It was maybe the coolest thing that’s ever happened to me during a live gig. Afterwards, I thrust my arms skyward in victory and everyone around me gave me a clap on the back. When the song ended, Joey gave me a “thumbs up.” Sadly, Jen missed the whole thing, but I swear it happened, and it was cool as hell. As if that’s not enough, I had direct and personal interaction with Bush after “Reign of Fire” and before the encores. The band didn’t leave the stage. They stayed out there and Bush started saying that this was the part where bands usually walk off because – and then he paused for a second. Without even thinking, I spontaneously yelled out, “That’s what you do.” Bush smiled, looked right at me, nodded and said, “That’s what you do.” He then continued with a monologue about the futility of encores, looking straight at me the whole time, saying how wouldn’t it be good if sometime the whole audience left when the band went off stage, so they had to play encores for just the crew and bartenders. I didn’t dare say anything else. I’m usually not a loudmouth at shows but it just kind of slipped out. Somehow, when the gig ended, both Sandoval and Duncan handed me a guitar pick, Vera (who plays bass with his fingers) handed me one of his picks, and Gonzo gave me a badly splintered drum stick. I’ve been to a million gigs before and never got a pick from every guitarist, bassist and drummer from the same band at the same show before. Cool. Oh, and I got Joey’s printed setlist too.
The Armored Saint setlist was unusual, I thought. Four songs from March of the Saint (the first album), four songs from Win Hands Down (the last album), a surprising “Paydirt” (which rules, especially the line, “I’m sidestepping your phony idols”) from Revelation, and nothing at all from Raising Fear, which I’ve always believed to be one of their best albums with some of their most classic songs (“Book of Blood,” “Chemical Euphoria,” the title track, “Underdogs,” “Human Vulture,” “The Legacy,” etc.) What they did play, however, was excellent. Armored Saint aren’t just limping along. They are stronger and better than ever, one of the best live bands on Earth for sure, and the perfect way to cap off a stellar festival. Setlist: Win Hands Down, March of the Saint, Nervous Man, That Was Then Way Back When, Stricken by Fate, In an Instant, Last Train Home, Symbol of Salvation, Paydirt, Mess, Aftermath, Left Hook from Right Field, Reign of Fire. Encores: Can U Deliver, Madhouse.
Overall, the Legions of Metal Festival was one of the greatest festival experiences in recent memory, just a spectacular weekend. If you missed it, I’ve got good news for you. A 2018 installment has been greenlighted. It will happen. Watch for details to be announced in the coming months and make plans to join us at Reggies in Chicago next spring. Overseas festivals like Keep It True and Up the Hammers are great, but we’ve got comparable experiences on our own shores now. Support them and make them prosper. If the abrupt demise of the Ragnarokkr Fest proves anything, it’s that nothing is promised, and nothing is guaranteed, so let’s make the most of what we have while we have it. Realize we’re living in the golden years …
~ Review by Kit Ekman ~