I suppose Kansas City audiences could feel slighted. Large metal shows roll through, but when they land at the tiny Riot Room, there are no grand backdrops, custom lighting rigs, or mountains of skulls and other gory B movie props to decorate the stage. I could feel cheated by the lack of a photo pit that would provide me the time and space to engineer magazine-quality portraits. But Kansas City shouldn't, and I don't. Instead Kansas City gets bands that play to thousands (or tens of thousands at festivals) performing in a club the size of a suburban living room. At the Riot Room there are no barricades. Fans and bands are one. The gimmick of metal is stripped away, and the energy and passion take over. Kansas City isn't getting short shrift – it's getting a gift.
Unless you're in Stonehaven – they're always taking it on the chin when the tour busses roll in, claiming the Riot Room stage with big amplifiers and bigger drum kits meant for theaters and music halls. Stonehaven, and other local acts, are left with a narrow pathway between the outsized gear and the edge of the low stage. On this night Stonehaven decided not to walk that tightrope, but instead set up on the floor. No monitors. No effects pedals. No lighting. (The latter being particularly irksome for a band that has spent considerable effort creating its medievalist image.) At 7:30 – a decidedly non-metal time, but a welcomed one for a Monday four-band bill – four men in metal helmets, tunics, chainmail, furs, and dangling axes stood on the sticky floor in front of the stage. They were lit from behind with red lights that quickly dissipated into the darkness of the club. A fifth member – the band's shirtless drummer – was well hidden in a corner behind a wall of speakers. His (presumably) battle-smeared corpse paint was mostly unseen by the forty fans that formed a semi-circle around the band. The sound was rough, still grooves occasionally developed from the brutal black metal din. Interesting guitar lines still perforated the grinding buzz. If there were leads, solos, or melodies, they remained hidden. I went looking for them, journeying from one side of the room to the other, ducking a swinging guitar during my fruitless odyssey. Vocalist Stephen Holdeman's gruff vocals remained constant during the band's thirty-five-minute set. Did he ever introduce the band? Were songs ever introduced? I don't remember either. The band set up, made its statement, and then the members took off their furs and carried their gear out the side door back to their cars. Bless them.
Longtime followers of Too Much Rock know my true love is power pop, and while I have deep knowledge and love for specific microgenres of metal, I'm only a tourist at most shows. I wasn't surprised that I'd never heard of the next act, Arsis. But I was surprised to read that James Malone has fronted the project for nearly twenty years and that he has released six full-length albums on labels like Nuclear Blast, Earache, and Candlelight. Sometimes I'm a bad tourist.
While Arsis prepared its gear, I scanned the audience. Although I was intently focused on a particularly indecipherable patch expertly sewn onto a patron's jean vest, when Shawn Priest began testing the double kick pedals, my head spun around. Fast. Tight. Almost robotic. Technical AF. So there was no surprise when the lights came up, the foursome sprang into action, and blast beats poured out of the PA. Instead my amazement was spent on the continuous bending solos and leads provided by guitarist Brandon Ellis. They were avant. Simultaneously confusing and enthralling. I stood eighteen inches from his fingers as they pulled and hammered on the strings of his Fernandes V-Hawk. Thank you, Riot Room. Malone's vocals were guttural. His delivery angry and hardcore. Between songs, however, he was genuine and, well, friendly. His rhythm guitar work was more conventional, his vocabulary focused and traditionally metal. How so? Well, when the band slid the intro of "Rock You Like a Hurricane" into its set I raised an eyebrow. When I watched bassist Noah Martin move about the stage, I understood that this technical death metal band contained some DNA from the hair metal I grew up with in the '80s. Nothing overt, but I've my suspicions that Malone and I could spend some time talking about Banshee.
Between acts I overheard a fan quiz the club's stage manager. The fan had never heard of the headliner, and wondered if Septicflesh was playing a full set. He wanted his money's worth. He wasn't alone. The Greek band has plenty of fans in Kansas City – many of which were made when the band played with Dark Funeral on this same stage last spring. Those fans were now pushing forward to the edge of the stage, or staking out positions in the wings, testing angles with phones already held aloft.
The wait wasn't long before the four members of Septicflesh walked onto the dark stage. While my recollection of its prior appearance was fuzzy, seeing the band's leather armor jogged my memory. Hearing frontman Seth Siro Anton repeatedly shout, "My friends!" brought back memories. And everything came flooding back as I watched Anton repeat, "On the count of three, we destroy! One! Two! Three!!" before launching into an explosive din of death. The quartet on stage was bolstered by both a symphony and choir of backing tracks. Melody is an enormous part of this band, and Anton is happy to sacrifice his role as bassist to lift his hands and conduct this invisible orchestra. He's an engaging frontman, easily able to whip the crowd into a unified sea of pumping fits. The attention he commands leaves the remainder of the band comparatively invisible. I suspect this is intentional. Of course, even though guitarist Christos Antoniou may be too focused on his riffs to move about the stage, it's impossible to miss his flying deadlocks. Invisible may be a stretch, but it was this balance of Anton's direct engagement with the audience, the workman performances of Antoniou, rhythm guitarist Sotiris Vayenas, and drummer Kerim "Krimh" Lechner, and the band's grandiose soundtrack that enveloped the audience for 45 epic minutes.
As I alluded to earlier, there are some microgenres of metal that I adore. All of them make my wife roll her eyes, but none more than "Viking metal." To be honest, even bands that are lumped into the genre tend to disassociate themselves from the tag. Like most taxonomies, it doesn't make much sense except to those that find value in it. But for what it's worth, Ensiferum are one of my favorite bands in the genre. This was the band's first trip to Kansas City.
The vantage point I had held all night wasn't the best for sound, and it didn't provide me with much of a view of the far side of the stage, but it remained calm enough for my camerawork. Compromise. It also just so happened to provide me with a privileged view as the members of Helsinki's Ensiferum slipped in through the stage and pooled at the site of the stage. I counted drummer Janne Parviainen, bassist Sami Hinkka (looking every bit the Viking one might expect), wiry vocalist and guitarist Petri Lindroos, guitarist and founding member Markus Toivonen, and then, disappointment. While accordionist Netta Skog left the band nearly a year ago, I remained hopeful that the band would replace her with another female vocalist and keyboardist. The band has chosen not to, so as with Septicflesh before them, the melodic keyboard lines would come from backing tracks. The clean backing vocals would be passed on to Hinkka and Toivonen.
As the foursome began its set of galloping metal, rife with folk melodies and tales of Nordic heroes, those canned backing tracks fell flat to the point of distraction. Unable to lose myself in the band's world, I instead focused on my camera, snapping photo after photo of Toivonen. He is surely the happiest man in metal. This sets Ensiferum apart from other bands in the larger genre of extreme metal – there's nothing evil or dark or diabolic about Ensiferum. Nothing misanthropic. The folk melodies that wind through the band's music are light, bouncing, and made for dancing. Sure, they're offset with the crunch of electric guitars and unrelenting drums, but that smorgasbord only gave the Riot Room audience license to dance however they wanted. Every song inspired jigs and mosh pits and sometimes jigs in the mosh pit. I watched from my post as the audience quickly gave way to sweat, as crazed fans clapped and bounced and shouted and pumped devil horns.
Whether the sound was sorted, or I somehow slipped into harmonious alignment with the band and venue, after four songs I was no longer distracted by the backing tracks. By this point, Toivonen's melodies had become transportive, Lindroos's harsh vocals lifting, and the resplendent shouts of "Hey" from the audience offered camaraderie. As the band ended what would have been the last number of its 90-minute set, Lindroos announced he was in no mood to wait out in the cold for the audience's cries of encore. Instead the band launched directly into the three remaining songs on the setlist: "Guardians of Fate," "In My Sword I Trust," and "Iron." Afterwards, seemingly agreeing that the night deserved more, Toivonen continued into a fractured guitar solo played behind his head. Soon the solo morphed into a familiar riff, and then launched the entire band into a cover of "Sweet Child O' Mine." While not unique to Kansas City, the cover felt organic. It felt inspired by the night. By all of us in there together. By the sweat. By the room. By the Riot Room. Kansas City, we're definitely lucky.