You never know exactly how a night is going to turn out, and this one started with disappointment. I arrived at the club fifteen minutes before the music was to start, only to watch the first band wrapping up its set. Later I'd confirm that the opener was asked to go on at 8:30 rather than 9:00. So, apologies to Limb Dealer, we just got screwed by the rarest of all flyer lies – the show that starts earlier than advertised.
It was 9:19 when a hobbled two-piece version of Nephilim (often N3philim, to avoid confusion with a different Kansas City area black metal band from the '90s) took the stage. Having just parted ways with their bassist days earlier, the band was reduced to vocalist/guitarist Jordan Bywaters-Mpwo, drummer Tony Fresia, an iPod that provided moody introductory music or dialog between songs, and a goat skull on a table surrounded by flickering (LED) candles. The set began with the iPod, deep red stage lighting, and Bywaters-Mpwo slowly lifting the goat skull as an offering to the audience that filled the room. Then the blasts came and the audience was buried in fiendish screams, crashing drums, and chugging riffs accented by quick leads and moments of tremolo picking. The audience liked what it heard. Later in the set, Bywaters-Mpwo switched guitars, generating more active leads and introducing finger tap gymnastics. They, also, were well received. Although not the band's goal, the short-staffed version of Nephilim did have its advantages. Bywaters-Mpwo's guitar sounded extra jagged and sharp in the spaces vacated by the bass, faithfully recreating the raw abandon of black metal's second wave. The lack of a bassist was missed most during sonic shifts, when some continuity was required to provide coverage for the guitar as it moved to a new cycle. But even without the bass, the band was surprisingly heavy. This was largely the result of Fresia who often slowed down his drumming to halftime beats, adding a head-nodding intensity to songs. Of course when he wanted speedy blast beats he had those as well, and he offered plenty of fills and even took a short solo in one song. Throughout the set Bywaters-Mpwo's vocals were screeched as the genre mandates. He maintained the witchy voice when introducing songs, making the anguished "This one's called 'Burning Churches for Satan'" as scary as the modest corpse paint worn by the duo. It may not have been the show Nephilm wanted to play, but the audience was sold and it turned my night around.
Headlining the evening was Goatwhore. The New Orleans band may not be progenitors of any specific extreme metal style, but for 25 years its members have been excellent students, plucking elements from multiple subgenres to create a unique sound that appeals to metal fans across the board. That maximalism has put the band on the enormous festival stages including multiple Ozzfest tours alongside metal's biggest acts. Somehow it also led the band to the tiny MiniBar in Kansas City on a Tuesday night. Some bands take that stage with a chip on their shoulder.
Before the set began, frontman Ben Falgoust asked for the red stage lights to be turned green, "in honor of [Type O-Negative's] Pete Steele." No band looks good in green lights, but Goatwhore did. Actually, no band looks good on the MiniBar stage, but Goatwhore did. Had they taken the time to arrange the minimal lighting rig to highlight their stations on stage? I don't know, but something was different. The small stage was loaded with gear, but lacked the backdrops and banners that similarly sized bands often travel with – there simply isn't room. The band was loud and the guitar tone from founder Sammy Duet was amazing. The house sound engineer met that volume, creating the best live sound I'd ever heard at MiniBar. Every hit the swole Zack Simmons made on his drums was perfectly punctuated. Every note played by bassist Robert "Trans Am" Coleman was crystal clear. Soon I lost myself in the performance, forgetting entirely I needed to take notes for this recap.
The band's thirteen-song setlist has been consistent for this tour, drawing mostly from its recent album, Angels Hung from the Arches of Heaven, with additional highlights pulled evenly from previous works. The result was an hour-long set that had a bit of everything. The album's title track was pure black metal with tremolo picking. "Baring Teeth for Revolt" was highlighted by a solo that paid homage to '80s thrash metal godfathers. Songs moved quickly from plodding doom to galloping heavy metal over double-time drums to manic moshes, all the while offering riffs so infectious that they could please a classic rock fan. Falgoust's vocals were roared for power or dropped deeper into his throat for sickening accents. He moved from one side of the stage to the other throughout the set, his gloved hands always clenching his microphone just above the crowd. During instrumental solos he played air guitar, making his stankiest guitar-player faces as he reached for high imaginary notes. Between songs, he fistbumped and high fived every person in the room. Even the self-conscious and disassociating were soon pulled into the now. Duet and Coleman both played wireless gear, allowing them to swap sides throughout the set, and always to step to the edge of the stage (and on a stage this small, it really is only two or three steps) to engage with the undulating crowd.
Between songs, Falgoust face softened as he offered excited but casual banter. It was as if the band were playing a party in their best friend's basement (or attic, as the Louisiana natives explained). In fact, Falgoust made everyone in MiniBar feel as though they were best friends with the band and each other. Near the end of the night Duet offered his own banter, calling for an apolitical and micro-genre-free appreciation of metal, noting that we (both the band and its fans) were there for the music and no one should allow that to be dismantled. He was right – the crowd had a bit of everything in it, from ghouls in corpse paint and spiked gauntlets to girls in short leather skirts adorned with chains to long-haired rockers in jean jackets with Megadeth back patches. Regardless of tribe, the entire audience was pressed against the stage, not engaged in push pits, but rather bouncing, smiling, and throwing devil horns. So many devil horns. I've been to a lot of shows at MiniBar, but this one was positively the best. You never know how a night is going to turn out.