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Tuesday February 27th, 2024 at Bottleneck in Lawrence, KS
Mental Cruelty, Ov Sulfur, Ghost Bath, Extermination Dismemberment, & Aprilmist

I'm not sure I belong in the metal scene. As I waited in line outside of The Bottleneck, waiting for the doors to open, I overhead a conversation started by a haggard old guy who was intrigued by the tattoos of an equally haggard young guy. He started off announcing, "I'm a Christian," then inquired if the kid knew anything about "white magic." A matter-of-fact conversation then began where the second explained "all magic is grey," insisting that it's how the magic is used which makes it white or black. The first wasn't so sure about this. I always assumed we were in on the fun when metal bands called out to Satan, but for these two, demons were just as real as baseball and apple pie. As I stood there agape, another member of the queue rolled his eyes and announced, "I need a beer." They all belong in the metal scene.

The night began early with Aprilmist. A local opener tacked onto a packaged tour can't expect much, but the deep stage at the Bottleneck is accommodating and so were the fans that lined the stage from the moment the doors opened. From there on out, whatever happened would be up to the band. Any number of adjectives and qualifiers can be applied to the Aprilmist's take on black metal. If you wanted to call them blackened post-rock or post-black metal or even blackgaze I'm sure the band wouldn't fight you. Actually, the band don't look much like fighters so you could probably get away with most descriptions. Still, they too belong in the metal scene. The quartet is made up of Jon Houst (vocals/guitar), Dustin Albright (guitar/vocals), Ben Chipman (bass), & Jeff Wymer (drums). The act's roots stretch back ten years when it was a Houst solo project, although its current album (Homesick) is a good representation of what the band is currently about and would serve as the focus of its half-hour set. In that time, the band played four or five epic compositions, each with multiple melodic movements rife with tuneful solos, shifting tremolo lines, and quietly picked interludes. Dynamics are key to the band's sound, as are the complementary vocal screeches of Houst and deathly roars of Albright. While the formula is established, there was room held for interesting departures throughout the set, such as the masterful heavy metal solo Albright played in "Fragments," or when Chipman slid a Maiden-esque galloping bass in one song, or when Wymer proffered a brutal double bass intro that was just vicious. There's lots happening with Aprilmist and every bit of it deserves your attention.

Then came the touring acts. First was Extermination Dismemberment. The name is a horrible mouthful, but the band are from Belarus, and I can't fault an act for picking foreign words that sound cool to its ears. The band is made up of vocalist Vladislav Martirosov and guitarist/vocalist Arseny Kovalchuk, and backed by Viktor Kanashevich (bass) and Alexandr Kazakov (drums). It describes itself as "brutal slamming deathcore." I could parse that for you, but the band only had a half-hour set so we haven't got time. Just know that those adjectives were all spot on, as death growls (from both Martirosov and Kovalchuk), chugging hardcore guitar, and pounding double bass dominated the short set. Martirosov was high energy with lots of jumps, and a preponderance of canned banter that sounded both ridiculous and fantastic in his thick accent. He pulled out all the tricks, asking the audience in profanity punctuated pleas for a wall of death, for "the biggest circle pit this room have ever seen," for everyone to jump as high as they could, and then, in the end, for a photo to commemorate the night with his metal family. Kovalchuk and Kanashevich stomped in unison with their legs spread wide – left foot, right foot, left foot, right foot – with Kovalchuck shifting his guitar each time unintentionally making it look like he was paddling a canoe. Oh, did I mention he was wearing a bulletproof vest? He was wearing a bulletproof vest. When not stomping, Kanashevich played doubled over, his bass often hanging below his knees. Triggers augmented Kazakov's drums and samples offered occasional synth lines. One sample added the dancy "unst unst" to "Corpsepit." While the genre does nothing for me, the band's over-the-top stage show was exceptional, and every bit of that energy was picked up by the audience who delivered the biggest pit of the night. Who knows, maybe even the biggest circle pit The Bottleneck has ever seen. That would have been metal.

In my argument for inclusion in the metal scene, North Dakota's Ghost Bath could be exhibit A. The five-piece features Nameless (aka Dennis Mikula) on vocals and guitar, additional guitarists Tim Church and John Oliver, bassist Josh Jaye, and drummer Chris Piette. They look like an indie rock band, play Fender guitars, wear Nirvana shirts, sound check with bits (of?) alt rock songs, avoid all crowd-baiting, and yet deliver unassailable black metal. They definitely belong in the metal scene so maybe I do too? Red lights and fog set the scene. Or more precisely, they obscured the scene, making Piette nearly invisible. But rest assured, his drums were audible – often as clicking, trigger-happy double bass, but occasionally as slowed atmospheric half time swings. Samples joined in to add spooky synth or even curious bouncing pop melodies that mixed with the pervasive leads provided performed by each of the three guitarists. Occasionally those leads were delivered as finger taps. While this is certainly nothing new in metal, Ghost Bath don't play Yngwie Malmsteen-brand taps, but rather something more often heard in Midwest emo. Jaye must have been feeling that all-ages, Knights of Columbus hardcore show energy as he thrashed about the stage with abandon. It was only Nameless who remained stationary, tethered to the microphone, delivering the shredded screeches of the core blacken oeuvre. Although the band's four albums earn "post-" and "-gaze" signifiers, the live set left nothing to chance, and nothing on the table, and it was amazing.

As the band cleared their gear from the stage, I pondered this package tour. There were the usual trappings – large busses with attached trailers lining the curb in front the building, advertised $100 meet-and-greet autograph sessions, architecturally significant merch booths, in-ear monitors with custom mixes, and more – but there was also Ghost Bath schlepping their own gear, no backdrops, and most the musicians on the tour mixed with the crowd throughout the night. The balance felt about right, and whoever was running the show had it down to a science. With the help of shared gear and those preset monitor mixes, it was never more than fifteen minutes between acts. That's good because the front-of-the-house sound guy played the most bizarre shuffle of songs he could imagine during those pauses. From the reggae of Sister Nancy to the power pop of Fountains of Wayne, the audience heard it all. I learned that the sound guy feels Miley Cyrus belongs in metal.

The tour is billed as a co-headlining tour, and on this night Ov Sulfur would play the supporting role. The band is a deathcore act from Las Vegas fronted by Ricky Hoover's vocals, and the guitar and backing vocals of Chase Wilson. Behind them is Ding (James William) on bass, Leviathan (Levi Meyers) on drums, and new guitarist Tre Perdue. Hoover is a hulk of a man covered in tattoos. All eyes were on this Jason Momoa look-alike as he screamed and growled and (most shockingly) sang his vocals. Wilson also sang his backing vocals, further cementing the fact that the band was not interested in genre purity tests. With the rules already broken, it came as no real surprise when moments of groove, curious technical breaks, and synthesized (even orchestrated!) samples appeared alongside the genre's foundational dense guitars and pounding drums. Yet, as interesting as the musical variances might have been, the audience remained intently focused on Hoover. Throughout the 40-minute set he prowled the stage and towered over the audience. He tried to keep the energy high, always motioning for the fans to circle pit during the songs and requesting to see "those horns" between numbers. He did this while fighting a battle on two fronts: The first enemy was his in-ear monitor which ended in a tie – he sounded good but could never actually hear himself to know that. The second fight saw him lose a skirmish with a microphone that gave him a bloody nose. So, for the back half of the set, he dripped blood across the stage, and when he stood on the riser leaning above the audience, down onto the fans as well. With some caution he assured the crowd that his blood was clean, but quickly added that blood was pretty metal. It was. Blood belongs in the metal scene.

Germany's Mental Cruelty won the headlining slot. Like their compatriots, the band is rooted in deathcore although it too chose not to play by all of its rules. The band lines up as Lukas Nicolai (vocals), Nahuel Lozano and Marvin Kessler (guitars), Viktor Dick (bass), and Danny Strasser (drums). The pink lights that did Ov Sulfur no favors were replaced with blue ones that generated hot whites for Nicoli, and deep shadows for the rest of the band. Nicolai is new to the act, and his screeches are suited for the symphonic direction the act seems to be headed in. I'm sure in some corner of the Internet there is a forum of metalheads that have big opinions on this, but for those in the audience it didn't seem to matter if his barks, growls, and squeals represented the right type of beast for the band's back catalog. That said, I guess trolls belong in metal too.

For most of Mental Cruelty's 40-minutes on stage, deathcore kept the audience slamming, while it was the contrasting tremolo picking and sweeping leads that mesmerized me. And the cowl worn by Dick. I was into that cowl. Sadly, most of the chapters outlined in the Complete Handbook of Banter for Deathcore and other Metal Frontmen had already been pilfered earlier in the evening, leaving Nicolai with little to say that the audience had not already heard. He did, however, pull out one trick from the appendix. As the band began the blackened "Symphony of a Dying Star" from last year's Zwielicht, Nicolai asked the audience to hold up their phones and turn on the flashlights to create a sea of stars. Sampled strings bolstered this epic composition, dancing merrily behind a medieval folk melody. The entirety of "Avgang" was also prerecorded, allowing the band a water break before launching into the brutal "Ultima Hypocrita." Sadly, the song's completely gonzo solo (performed by guest guitarist Yo Onityan on the album) was not part of the live show.

At 10:20 it was all over. I quickly packed up my camera then slipped out the front door only to be enveloped in a snow squall. Earlier in the day it had been nearly 80°. While the meteorologists talked about fronts and isobars, I knew better, this was the doing of one of those haggard wizards. This was black magic perpetrated against me. For eavesdropping earlier. For doubting the validity of magic. For wearing a green t-shirt depicting a cartoon bear riding a scooter to the deathcore show. I guess that answers my question – I don't belong in the metal scene.