They say write what you know. Well hell. I stepped into The Riot Room on a Friday night not knowing much about the bands I'd see. I knew the bands were roughly death metal, but that didn't tell me much. Metal is a wide-ranging, fragmented world, and the ins and outs of death metal's variations are not part of my life. So just a quick note to memorialize this show, and apologies to the aficionados in the KC death scene, as I'm likely to get all the details wrong.
KC's Kohnerah kicked off the show with blast beats and death metal growls. The audience was packed with friends who showed an overexuberance usually reserved for a first show or a reunion. Movement around the crowd was tight, and though the pit fraught, it was not lethal. Headbangers, not moshers. The five-piece featured two guitars, but the sound wasn't great so the intricacies (if any) were lost. The bearded vocalist, baseball cap worn backwards (until it flew off), stomped about the stage. Theatrics and camp played no part in the band's true metal.
Another local, Migrator, followed. After a quick line check, the vocalist asked for the lights to be cut. My photos suffered, but the set required dim, red lights. Migrator is slow. And heavy. A sort of doom but sprinkled with the brutality of death, the atmospherics of black metal, and the carefully sculpted soundscapes of post-metal. Bits of dialogue snipped from movies and more introduced songs. They may have carried on through the track, but if so, I wasn't able to discern them in the mix. Once again, vocals were roared by a man in a baseball cap. The drummer wore a tee shirt for the Kansas City Chiefs. Persona and pretense don't play a part in the band's stage show.
The lights and speed returned for Sedlac Ossuary. With a vengeance. The vocalist growled and screeched while formidable double bass pounded. The band lines up as a four piece, though without a bass player. The missing low end was noticeable, as both guitars provided leads, neither concerned with being an anchor. But much of their art and interplay was lost in the mix, leaving me to watch fast fingers stretching across fretboards, but not reaping the aural rewards. The pacing vocalist pumped up the crowd through the set. The histrionics were outsized, but they seemed to work. Particularly for one girl at the edge of the stage pantomiming every lyric, gesticulating wildly. I wanted to be her.
Before the headliner, the crowd shifted. Of course, the vast majority of the audience was still twenty-something guys in black hoodies, but suddenly there were normies. Co-workers or friends from outside the scene. Friends of girlfriends. This band has a different draw.
Existem hangs its hat on the "progressive metal" descriptor. Uninitiated, I anticipated the same complicated, grandiose, virtuosic, and heady elements that separate progressive rock from its libido-driven progenitor. And while the band's music does diverge from the purely prurient, this only resulted in neutered metal. There's a litany of contributing factors, but the inclusion of clean vocals leads the list. That isn't to say the band was Third Eye Blind, but I've always been drawn to the extreme (if not cartoonish) elements of metal, and the nice-guy four-piece never felt menacing, evil, or even dangerous. My applecart of expectations was overturned with every number. Yet, as the band prepared to end its set with two new songs, my prejudices must have sufficiently faded. In one of these songs, a particularly smart, clean part, more indie than metal, emerged. I liked it. A new direction? A new appreciation? Who knows, but it soon was over, and although the band stood on the stage for a moment exchanging communicative glances, there was no encore.
While packing up my camera bag, I listened to the late-arriving girls. One told her friend "I didn't hate it." I didn't either. But one of us should have. For me, metal isn't a genre of nuance — it should be big and frightening and obvious. Metal, and death metal in particular, should live up to the challenge of repulsion. Not having the general public hate it is a loss. But again, maybe I did get it all wrong. You were warned.