I don't generally find myself in this situation. Generally when I travel for work I'm sequestered in a small town, well beyond the siren call of rock clubs and touring bands. However for the next month I'm in Elgin, IL – still a small town, but only an hour from Chicago's clubs and the bands that fill them. And although my alarm clock still goes off at 5:45, the temptation is there. When I heard that Abigail Williams would be a secret guest on the Anagnorsis show at Cobra Lounge, I did enough math to realize that I wouldn't even get four hours of sleep, declared the trip foolhardy, and then got in my rental car anyway. What would Satan do?
Chicago traffic is always bad – especially so when the city is digging out from a series of snowstorms punctuated by a polar vortex. Still I got to the club in time for the advertised 9pm start time and paid my $8, only to be told the doors (really a red velvet curtain) weren't open to the room yet. I hung out in the bar, recalculating sleep schedules and polishing my lenses. (This is not a euphemism.) At 9:30 the curtain was pushed aside, allowing the handful of locals into the inner sanctuary of the club. Five minutes later the opener began its set.
Habit of Force are a local metal band from the far-south suburbs of Chicago. The seven-year old project has survived a number of line-up changes, leaving the gruff vocals and whammy-bar-rich solos of Rich "Big Truck" Collins as the lone survivor. In a 30-minute set, Collin's lead his current trio through a collection of songs drawn from grunge (a lot of Soundgarden), hard rock, and groove metal. It wasn't hard to discover the band members' influences: from the Iron Maiden shirt worn by the drummer, to the fingered and slapped bass worn high on the chest of the bassist, to the Collins' own banter asking "Do we have any Pantera fans in the audience?" It turns out we didn't – a fact that disappointed Collins. Presumably the band played a Pantera cover after that, but as one of the many non-fans of Pantera in attendance, I couldn't say. While the proverbial "not my thing" applied, I did find the no-bullshit, workmanlike stage persona of Collins refreshing in a genre where egos and gimmicks often outshine talent. Habit of Force definitely have more of the latter.
Despite a set change that required replacing one epic drum kit with another, the stage was soon turned over to Toledo's Mobile Deathcamp. Led by Todd Evans (portrayer of GWAR's Beefcake the Mighty throughout the 2000s), this thrash metal trio ripped through a set built on speed, musicianship, mosh parts, and embarrassing riches of guitar solos. While Evans and drummer Chad Smith aped for my camera, bassist Boe Skadeland contorted and jerked his bass around, losing himself in the unrelenting speed, and no doubt focusing on his fingered bass lines. Behind the microphone, Evans was a seasoned frontman, offering up curious non sequitur trivia items about Chicago ("The Ice Cream Cone Capital of the World.") and diet ("In your lifetime you'll eat seven spiders while you sleep.") And while the first isn't even a claim of Chicago (much less a verifiable one), and the second has been proven to be urban legend, the audience was none-the-less entertained. Hey, I remembered it, didn't I?
At this point in the account you might expect grand pronouncements about the state of the US black metal scene. You wont find it. The USBM scene is distinct from its European cousins, pushing the boundaries in ways that are entirely different than its progenitors, and no more or less relevant. That said, I do miss corpse paint.
Abigail Williams frontman Ken Sorceron gave one instruction to the club before launching into a forty-minute set: lots of fog. So as the mist rolled in from the back of the stage, the quartet launched into a 40-minute set that combined the ugly brutality of black metal's first wave, the lush orchestration of its second (through the magic of backing tracks), and the crushing beauty of the current crop of (so-called) post-black metal acts. Although several songs contained moments of each, a collection of yet-untitled songs certainly skewed toward the latter. These songs developed organically with air and atmosphere providing a spooky tension that built through Sorceron's much-improved shrieks. The band is ready for an explosion similar to the 2013 Deafhaven surprise, so catch them now.
Louisville's Anagnorisis is a step ahead of Abigail Williams, having released its opus Beyond All Light over the summer. That album is built on six expansive tracks that push black metal into melodic territory that is as familiar as pop yet genuinely frightening – particularly when performed live where the audience gets a good look at the cold eyes of frontman Zachary Kerr. Although he never addressed the audience, I still felt that Kerr hated us all. Let's just say that this man goes to a dark place when he performs. Somehow Kerr's persona stole the show from ingenious guitar work of Zak Benham, the inventive 6-string bass of Josh Mumford, the popping double bass and monstrous drum fills of Chris Smith (the keyboard work of Samuel Hartman either blended so perfectly as to not be noticeable as keyboard or simply never made it through the PA system). While the cartoon of corpse paint employed by other acts makes for fun evil, one couldn't help but consider what the five true-to-life men of Anagnorisis might actually be capable of.
The band closed its short 30-minute set with the "Forever Night" – an epic track that also closes its latest album. After the squall died down I cautiously approached Chris Smith to let him know that the band's PR agent had sent me to cover the show, and to let him know where my photos of the night would appear. Thankfully the combination of a post-performance brightly lit stage and Smith's warm southern drawl assured me that the real danger facing me wasn't from Anagnorisis but rather the Illinois State Police writing speeding tickets on I-90.