I've been traveling a lot for work. I'm usually only in Boston two days a week which leaves me with little time and less motivation to head out to a local show. It does, however, leave me with plenty of time in strange cities with little else to do. That being the case, I not only spent most of Monday traveling, but I spent a good portion of it playing phone tag with various publicists trying to line up a pass for a Tuesday show in Kansas City. I was unsuccessful working under such short notice, but decided to go to the show anyway. I figured I'd just bullshit my way into a photopass.
I had forgotten how wonderfully laid-back things are in Kansas. A sign on the front of The Granada said "No Audio. No Video. Cameras Allowed." Amazing. I paid my $22 cover and walked up to the front of the stage. No barricades. In fact, no people either. The $22 price tag is terribly high for Lawrence, Kansas, something that surely contributed to the small turnout. Well, that and it is Lawrence, Kansas after all. Oh, and I was there an hour early.
At about 7:30 the ominous war drums of Kataklysm's intro music replaced the nameless death metal pounding from the club's PA, and thus brought the small audience to life. My tastes in underground metal are firmly based in the ridiculous theatrics of black metal – the costumes, the props and accessories, the epic orchestration, and most of all, the corpse paint. When you're hoping for the fantasy, watching a true death metal band like Kataklsym walk onto the stage can be a bit disappointing, This longhaired lot from Montreal wasn't otherworldly or evil, but simply rough-looking working class Joes.
Singer Maurizio Iacono wore olive shorts, nondescript black boots, and a black t-shirt. I imagine that in high school he was the guy who spent most of his time in auto shop. He was big, but not a bully or an athlete – too much of an outcast for either. That identification as an outsider may be the only consistency across the metal subgenres. As I thought about it more, I came to the conclusion that although the band was neither kitschy nor frightening, it was somewhat reassuring that these guys were mortals and even peers. It was easy to envision guitarist Jean-Francois Dagenais with his long hair pulled back in a ponytail, wearing khakis and a button up shirt, fixing a printer or copier in your office during the day and then gathering up his guitar and amp to play a show that night. I wanted to be this band's friend.
That perceived visual honesty was sublimely represented in the band's music. Kataklysm plays classic death metal with no flourishes or gimmicks. It's straightforward, unrelenting and brutal. The band's only guitarist produces never-ending buzz, forsaking flashy solos and, in most cases, even melodic leads. While this basic approach was highly effective, the band's newer material is more approachable with occasional moments of crunch and even intermittent leads. As such, the band's current single and video clip, "As I Slither," was probably my favourite of the night.
The real oddity in the band's short 30 minute set was the drum solo. Twenty minutes into the set, the members of the band vanished behind the curtain partitions designed to obscure their amps, leaving new drummer Martin Maurais to wail about on his shockingly small (for the genre at least) five-piece kit. Throughout the night I was perplexed by Maurais' playing. While both legs pumped a single kick drum at a quick pace during the entire set, his tom, snare and cymbal work were relaxed and slow. Along with the guitar, his kick provided only a sonic backdrop, leaving the bass guitar to propel songs forward, and the vocals and occasional tom or cymbal work to provide interest and accent respectively. Not surprisingly, when given time to solo, Maurais wasn't full of sweeping strokes and big fills, instead choosing to focus on the basics. Most specifically, his stick work on the snare was phenomenal. I'd be shocked if Maurais hasn't had formal training, or doesn't currently teach percussion.
If the members of Kataklysm are seasoned veterans in the death metal scene (they're currently preparing a DVD release to celebrate their 15th anniversary), then Chicago's Macabre are senior citizens. When Macabre began in 1985, it had no choice but to blaze a new path in underground metal. In the resulting 20 years, the band has created a signature sound that blends thrash, death and doom as well as classic metal. However, it isn't a musical approach that has defined the band, but rather a lyrical one. The band earned its reputation by writing dozens of songs about serial killers, and, when that topic was exhausted, the various victims of serial killers. Macabre generally relies on what can best be described as a nursery rhyme-meets-metal approach. These songs are defined by silly, affected vocals, corny rhyming lyrics, and simple singsong melodies. This is truly a style they can call their own.
The band is led by vocalist/guitarist "Corporate Death." He's an unlikely front man for an underground metal band. First, he appears to be in his early forties, with brown hair giving way to male-pattern baldness. What hair he does have, is tightly permed, fashioned into a mullet, and wetted as if it were a jheri curl. If anyone remembers Dennis DeYoung in the late 70s, you know the exact look. Second, while Corporate Death's peers spend their time on stage whipping their hair about or pacing angrily, Corporate Death is animated, comical and mobile. And just as Macabre is often not taken seriously due to its droll approach to metal, it is impossible to take Corporate Death seriously when he performs wearing a headset microphone as if he were Brittany Spears. Thankfully, he doesn't ask to be taken seriously; Corporate Death's stage persona isn't tough or menacing, but instead he hams it up, making Jim Carry-styled animated faces in reaction to his own perverse lyrics. The remaining members of the band are humorous only in ways the entire genre is amusing: bassist "Nefarious" plays a six-string bass, while drummer "Dennis the Menace" sits obscured behind an obscenely mammoth eight-piece drum kit.
During Macabre's set, 200 fans stood at the front of the stage, while another 200 ambled about the club. Most of those who had made their way forward were ardent Macabre supporters, a few others were merely determined to get their money's worth, and even more were protecting their real estate for the later acts. Although a few may have been traditional death metal fans enjoying the rare moments of straightforward music in Macabre's set, those crossover fans were rare. Much of that crowd could be seen cringing between songs when Corporate Death would strum his modified "Flying V," producing otherworldly synth swells. If done well it might have resembled the passages and introductions used by King Diamond; it was not, however, done well. The high pinging bass from Nefarious also provided a puzzling deviance from what the audience has come to expect from underground metal. While I was definitely not a fan, in Macabre's defense, the band drew the largest crowd of the night.
While extreme metal is a relatively new genre, one wouldn't have gotten that impression from the night's bill of veterans. England's Napalm Death formed 23 years ago, and has had nearly as many members, who, upon exiting, founded nearly that many bands, including big names such as Cathedral, Carcass, and Godflesh. Napalm Death single-handedly created the grindcore genre (and named it for that matter), and has always been the genre's flag bearer. It is impossible to over-estimate its importance to underground metal.
Unlike death metal bands, Napalm Death's bleak imagery doesn't dwell in the occult, the sadistic or the grotesque. The band's lyrics have always been politically progressive, eschewing racism and sexism, as well lambasting the evils of unchecked capitalism, religion, and conservative social politics. Vocalist Barney Greenway's stage banter and song introductions spoke to those same morals, both deriding President Bush and making a special point of introducing the band's cover of The Dead Kennedy's "Nazi Punks Fuck Off." While understanding Greenway's lyrics is impossible, a quick glance at Greenway makes it obvious that this band has little in common with its peers. Greenway strode the stage in a plain black t-shirt, shorts, and white trainers. He held the microphone tightly as he anxiously paced the stage, stopping at various points to emit noise (more so than sing) to the pressed fans that lined the stage. When he stopped moving, his head shook tightly to the blast beats. It didn't look so much like head banging, but more like a Parkinson's tremor. While Greenway did bounce about the stage a bit, his mobility was limited by the neoprene brace that supported his right knee. Still, his tall athletic build and stage presence recalled Youth of Today much more than any extreme metal band.
While the rest of the band didn't share quite that contrast, they were disparate in their own ways. Bassist Shane Embury has the massive mane required by the genre, but it was full of broad curls rather than simply long and stringy. And when he would bend over his bass, his thinning hair was unmistakable. He looked like someone's dear uncle, and, although he didn't say a word, the self-effacing way he acknowledged the crowd with a sideways nod and puffed out cheeks was both adorable and endearing.
Of course, I may be the only person ever to describe Napalm Death as adorable. I'm certain the undulating mass of moshers behind me wasn't thinking of Embury playing Father Christmas at the family holiday celebration, but rather losing itself in the utterly unrelenting noise. Napalm Death songs are typically under two minutes in length, allowing for a 35-minute set of just as many songs. The short breaks between sonic surges provided the audience a chance to regain solid footing, as well as providing a quick respite for guitarist Mitch Harris, whose whirring and buzzing guitar puts the grind in Napalm Death's grindcore. When the quintet finished its set, I was drained and exhausted. Not only was it as if I had received a pummeling (which I had), but it was also like the glowing exhaustion following great sex. Thankfully smoking is no longer allowed in Lawrence clubs, or we might have all suffocated when the entire club lit up in a post-coital reflex.
Just as Napalm Death's music is the archetype of grindcore, Buffalo's Cannibal Corpse has defined American death metal for more than 15 years. It has arguably the highest profile of any band in the genre, and certainly the reputation as the most gruesome. Album covers are littered with decomposing corpses in ghoulish poses, and song titles like "Blunt Force Castration," "Frantic Disembowelment, "Meat Hook Sodomy," "Fucked With a Knife," and "Stripped, Raped and Strangled" tell all that needs to be told. Cannibal Corpse found its gore niche long ago, and has not strayed from it in any way.
The quintet has even defined the look of the quintessential death metal band. The members all wear the standard uniform of black concert t-shirts (the two closest to me promoting Black Witches and Black Sabbath) and black cargo pants tucked into black combat boots. Save new guitarist Jeremy Turner's shaved head, the entire band has long, dark hair. When I saw the band a decade ago I was mesmerized by what I can only explain as pinwheel hypnosis – four members at the front of the stage, all head-banging in a circular motion, all moving the same direction, each sending their hair spinning around like a pinwheel. With that much hair held to its full length by its inertia, it was impossible not to gape in amazement. While Turner does leave the team one short, the rest of the band (and particularly vocalist George "Corpsegrinder" Fisher) do their best to keep the pinwheel hypnosis effect alive.
Sadly, flipping hair was the one trick this pony knew. For the entirety of the performance, Fisher assumed one of two poses: The first involved him standing at the center of the stage, two hands grasping the microphone in front of his chest, his back arched. I believe the beefy Danzig popularized this "modified crucifixion" pose. The second (and far more common) found Fisher standing with his left knee bent, foot resting on the monitor, his right hand holding the microphone up to his hair-concealed face. The rest of the band was even less dynamic in its movements. Well, except for that pinwheel thing.
Contrary to the defining politics of Napalm Death, Cannibal Corpse is officially apolitical. When an audience member repeatedly shouted up "Fuck George Bush," Fisher told the fan that politics had nothing to do with death metal. The crowd chuckled and the dejected (but witty) fan retorted, "I guess you told me." How could a band that has been the subject of such fierce censorship, that has been ignored by a monopolistic media be apolitical? Who knows? Maybe Cannibal Corpse needs that "moral" iron fist to have something to rebel against. Maybe the band understands that its fans are often born as a result of an alienating evangelical force. Or maybe the band is pro-life. That's a joke people. A really, really, really funny one.
Of course that does beg a question. Despite the gruesome and misogynist song lyrics, Fisher and other members of the band do wear wedding bands. What are these gents like at home? While it was easy to imagine Kataklsym as part of the public at large, Cannibal Corpse is larger than life. Somehow it's more difficult to visualize the band members cradling their own babies than it is to see the members mutilating them. Although Fisher did dedicate a song to the women in the audience, it was hard to understand that tribute's origin. When an audience member responded by shouting, "Show us your tits," Fisher glommed onto that idea and repeated it to the crowd (being sure to state it was someone else's idea, not his own.) Later in the night, a young crowdsurfing gal was passed up towards the stage. I imagined her as an offering for the band. I was so engrossed in the fantasy of Cannibal Corpse that, just for a second, I wondered if she would be devoured.
As one might guess, the joy of seeing Cannibal Corpse live is simply that – seeing them. The musical elements are exactly as one might expect from the band's CDs – loud, powerful, and brutal. Dual guitars buzz at an incredible pace, each taking turns running through quick soloettes throughout the compositions. While neither the drumming nor the bass playing is flashy, they each deserve accolades for the sheer speed at which they're presented. Fisher's vocals shift between a commanding Cookie Monster-styled growl and a high, clean scream. Regardless of his delivery, his lyrics remain thoroughly incomprehensible. That isn't to say that the vocals aren't interesting. In fact, they are intensely visceral and riveting, just completely unintelligible. Besides, would you really want to hear the lyrics to a song entitled "Entrails Ripped from a Virgin's Cunt" or "I Cum Blood?"
After getting manhandled by overzealous fans for four hours, earning what would turn out to be a few lovely stage-height bruises on my thighs and receiving a few too many elbows to my back, I decided to abandon my front-row spot. From a new location further back in the club I watched the pit circulate, small girls get bounced around, stage divers tumble, and the couple next to me engage in some heavy petting. After playing what the band announced would be its final song, Fisher returned to the microphone amidst the continuing strains of guitar feedback and rolling percussion. There, he proclaimed proudly – almost perversely – "I said that was our last song€ I lied!" The band then played what was its actual finale. This was indeed the band's most diabolical act of the night. That's it. No corpses were dug up to fornicate with, no women were sliced or sacrificed, and brains were not eaten from a freshly opened skull. Cannibal Corpse simply played a planned encore, and that is, evidently, as evil as death metal gets in Lawrence, Kansas.