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Tuesday August 29th, 2023 at The Bottleneck in Lawrence, KS
Cloak, The Soiled Doves, & Varlok

If you're a Too Much Rock regular then you're aware of my curious predilection for black metal. My tastes aren't exactly broad, but they're varied. That is to say, my heart belongs to all sorts of micro genres that exist within subgenres of subgenres. So I shouldn't say I love black metal, but rather I love black metal built from specific waves further delineated by production quality, geography, tempo, lyrical and melodic intent and more. Explaining that intersection would be overkill when all that is required is a short recollection of a Tuesday night trip to The Bottleneck in Lawrence, Kansas to see three bands.

The night began with locals Varlok. If there's a better black metal band in the area, I want to know about it. The quartet checks all the right boxes for me. First, its members are imposing. Singer and bassist "Jotanar" is tall, he has a long beard, and longer hair. He growls. He might be a Wookiee. Like the rest of the band, he wears corpse paint. Not too crisp. Not too smeared. He's joined by "Beithir" and "Strigoi" on rhythm and lead guitars. The three ghouls bury their riffs deep under fast tremolo picking and shifting chords. Even as the trio moves in unison, there is no wall of punishing noise, instead they leave space for leads that are neither ugly nor sing-song, and melodies that somehow bubble to the top. How they do it, I don't know. Another box checked. Drummer "Ghargoyle" is ponderous. Although he noted earlier in the day that he was feeling ill, he still amazed throughout the band's 25-minute set. His lines are always changing. Tempos are held, and beats never dropped, but every measure seemed to be realized by a different combination of drums and cymbals. His floor tom was a war drum. His kick, the attacking hoards. He saved one final face-melting, double kick speed bonanza to punctuate the finale. Only Jotnar spoke during the set. And then only to speak the name of the song that would follow. He did it in the same throaty growl he uses to deliver his vocals. There's not much variety in his delivery – no witchy shrieks or bombastic grunts – but they tell the story well. The band's stage show is minimal. The players offer no flash or histrionics. The stage is free of theatrical pentagrams and human sacrifices. Instead, the show is just the corpse paint, low lights, and four guys delivering the goods.

Between acts, I found my way to a table on the raised mezzanine level of the club. It wasn't hard. The $18 Tuesday night show had only drawn two dozen fans. Most were long-haired dudes wearing black concert t-shirts. My friend Jona wore a white shirt with bright stripes under her bibbed overalls. Never has a person stood out more.

The night continued with Topeka's The Soiled Doves. The quintet has experimented with multiple genres since its inception in 2010, with both post-hardcore and progressive metal figuring prominently into the mix today. Singer Chris Copp paced the stage like a hardcore vocalist, shouting with a tight Zack de la Rocha-esque cadence and adding impressive metal screams. It was all simple enough, until he reached for the effects box, suddenly adding interesting echoes that moved the band's sound beyond the mosh pit. Guitarists Cale Michael and Zeke Calabrese are conversant with the crunching hardcore and false harmonics of acts like Quicksand, as well as the progressive space inhabited by Tool and its ilk. Calabrese also added big bending leads and plenty of two-handed finger tapping to the stew. Bassist Travis Olden not only avoided flash but also the audience, playing only to drummer Matt Shiflett. The audience couldn't see much of Shiflett – only the top of his bald head that poked out above the impressive array of cymbals that capped his large kit. The two of them needed to be sync to lead the band through its complicated time changes and shifting time signatures that made my head spin. The band covered too much ground in its 35-minute set for me to fully grok its mission, but picking up its new EP Revenant Spirits might be a good first step for me.

Thanks to earlier backlining work, there was only a fifteen-minute lull before the headlining set began. That time was used to unfurl banners and backdrops and place metal racks on each side of the drum kit to hold animal skulls, flickering candles and smoking incense. Then macabre atmospheric music rolled out of the PA, summoning four leather-clad men to the stage.

Cloak is an Atlanta-based band of the black & roll variety. In theory, adherents of the micro genre revel in the dark intensity of black metal but add in the riffs and hooks of more traditional heavy metal. In reality, the tag can be applied to nearly any band, with artists as diverse as Venom, Motorhead, and Darkthrone often cited as progenitors. Few bands (Cloak included) embrace the term; as such, the descriptor is only useful when metal nerds (like me) need something to argue about. But if any band deserves to be part of the argument it is Cloak.

The band is fronted by vocalist/guitarist Scott Taysom. Neither he nor anyone else in the band use evil pseudonyms. No one wore corpse paint. There were no spiked gauntlets or capes, just lots of hair, black leather, and boots. The workmanlike appearance seemed to be at odds with the stage accoutrement, but the band prides itself on walking its own path, and I wouldn't challenge them to a fight.

The band's sound is defined by the riff-happy playing of founding members Taysom and lead guitarist Max Brigham. There was traditional black metal tremolo buzzing and occasional down beat crunching, but it's the hummable riffs that set the band apart. Riffs often played in the style of Slayer's Jeff Hanneman. While Cloak favors mid-tempo songs with doomy breakdowns, a blistering thrash song in the middle of set further illustrated the band's admirations for that particular monster of rock.

Taysom's vocals were delivered in a forceful growl with animalistic grunts punctuating the stanzas. He didn't speak to the audience at all. There were no thank yous, no suggestions that we visit the merch table, and no song titles. Instead, the breaks between songs were bridged with atmospheric music, and the sounds of gnostic chants, falling footsteps, and clanking chains. While Taysom does provide many licks and leads, it was Brigham who strode to the edge of the stage with his Gibson Flying V to solo for the crowd. Bassist Billy Robinson also provided a bit of showmanship as he flipped his long hair and propped a cowboy-booted leg up on the monitor. He earned his bravado by playing uncharacteristically active melodic bass lines and even delivering leads of his own. Drummer Sean Bruneau's bag of tricks contained everything from traditional blast beats to swinging grooves, but his best trick might have been what he didn't play. Bruneau left plenty of room for songs to develop, and even dropped out entirely at times allowing the guitars to create eerie accent moments.

The band's 40-minute set culminated in a big trash can ending with all three guitarists holding their instruments aloft and playing them above their heads. As the drums crashed around them, the band played the most famous riff in extreme metal – the refrain from "Raining Blood." This sly admission made me smile. US black metal bands will forever suffer an identity crisis; bands are either dismissed for mimicking the Norwegian second wave acts or damned for incorporating new elements. By nodding to American act Slayer, Cloak laid claim to its own black metal. One aware of the genre's European roots, but grown from American soil and crosspollinated by dozens of tours across the country. In doing so, the band has found its way directly to my heart. Like I said, I love black metal.