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Saturday October 24th, 2009 at The Riot Room in Kansas City, MO
Moonspell, Divine Heresy, Secrets of the Moon, & Night Creation
Fernando Ribeiro of
Moonspell
Travis Neal of Divine Heresy
LSK of Secrets of the Moon
Dracolium of Night Creation
[more photos]
[linked video]

Those black metal bands are sneaky. In the months since this show was announced, the support acts have changed several times and the show was moved to an entirely different venue. So, when I walked into the nearly-empty Riot Room at 7:45 I couldn't help but wonder if I was at the right place – that is until I saw the stage littered with reassuring pentagrams and blood red candles. And although I still wasn't sure what bands I'd be seeing, those homemade pentagrams foretold that something interesting was going to happen.

At 8:30 I'd learn that the pentagrams belonged to Night Creation. This is a local five-piece all-Latino band that plays mid-tempo metal that the band pointedly describes as "dark melodic metal, not black metal." There was no corpse paint nor spikes, just long black hair, black clothes, and a lead singer who wore the spooky iris-obscuring contacts. Frontman "Dracolium" delivered his elongated vocal lines in a tormented death growl, and his keyboard parts were simple tones used to evoke mood – there was no interplay with the other instruments, nor anything progressive or symphonic about the band's music. Guitarists "Alex" and "Antonio" chugged along without breakdowns, without soaring leads, and without any technical wizardry. "German"'s drums rarely rose above a quick rock tempo, there was no accent crash, and he eschewed blast beats entirely. Aside from Antonio's whipping hair, there was no real stage show to speak of. Almost universally, the band played amateur equipment and its sound suffered accordingly. Curiously, none of this mattered. Night Creation is the real deal, and this is one young underdog you have to root for. Dracolium spoke to the audience only once during the band's half-hour set, and rather than any crowd-baiting or self aggrandising, he used the opportunity to honestly thank the promoters and the audience, and explain what an honour it is for the band to be opening for Moonspell. This is band worth your support.

As Night Creation's equipment and props were pulled away, the band's shop class-welded pentagrams were replaced with the printed tapestries familiar to the genre. Behind the logos sat the high-end amplifiers that were to be used by the remaining touring bands; the night's evolution was underway.

Secrets of the Moon are a 14-years-running black metal from Germany. The band is led by "sG" (Philipp Jonas) who provides guitar and vocals, with relative newcomers "LSK" on bass, and "Thrawn Thelemnar" (Jorg Heemann) on drums. The trio was joined on stage by "Arioch" (Michael Zech) to play live leads on his 7-string guitar. Both LSK and Arioch provided backing vocals (the former melodic, the latter a gruffer bark), while sG growled his own. Although the band's music was generally mid-tempo, there was also plenty of dark and gloomy atmospherics presented over Thelemnar's pounding double bass. The band played a deliberate half-hour set with few frills, no theatrics, and practically no communication with the audience. However, the material was strong and varied, the band was tight and technically proficient, and I appreciated the workman-like approach the band takes to its music. The rest be damned.

An enormous shift occured at 10:30 when LA's Divine Heresy took the stage. This isn't a band comprised of poets and artists endeavouring to create a ghoulish atmosphere, but a brutal group of deathcore musicians with a huge chip on its shoulder. The quartet is lead by guitarist Dino Cazares (of Fear Factory) with Tim Yeung on drums, Joe Payne on bass, and fronted by new vocalist Travis Neal. Neal's shaven head and thick neck were visual aberrations on a night where spinning black hair was the norm. His vocals weren't the familiar growls, but rather he alternated between recognizable hardcore screaming, and smooth, dare-I-say, emo singing on the choruses. This was unfortunate. Even more unfortunate was the constant tired and banal audience baiting that Neal and Payne spewed throughout the night. It went something like this:

Neal: "Kansas City are you ready to get crazy?!"
(crowd roars)
Payne: "I don't think they heard you."
Neal: "I said, 'KANSAS CITY are you ready to get crazy?!?!'"
(crowd roars again on cue)

Now repeat that same exchange about seven times in the span of a half hour set.

But just as I abhorred this bolstering, the rest of the audience packed in thicker, and even moshed a bit (upon request of course). The crowd was further egged on by the constantly pulsing stage lights – lights that only shifted lackadaisically during the open acts. All this chaos made it impossible for me to shoot any longer, and so I retreated to the wings. Away from the fray I was able to focus on the impossibly-fast picking of Cazares (on this custom 7 and 8-string Ibanez guitars), and on the blast beats and flailing hair of Yueng. Both players are phenomenal and much too good to be playing with those other jackasses.

From the first note of the evening, the crowd had been anticipating the arrival of Moonspell. For nearly 20 years the band has redefined itself – and the genre – by bringing gothic and progressive elements into the black metal scene. How this gold-record-selling Portuguese metal behemoth ended up on the stage at the tiny Riot Room in Kansas City Missouri is a wonderful mystery. If the band was asking itself that question, thankfully, it didn't let on. The sole roadie didn't set out water bottle, towels, or tape guitar picks to the mic stands as one would expect to happen for a band of this size, but instead he quietly tested the instruments and microphones. Afterwards he moved to refit the ddrum-branded kick drums used by all the touring acts, with new heads printed, not only with the cover of the band's latest album "Night Eternal," but that of Pearl drums (whom I assumed must sponsor the band). This tickled me. It should also be noted that between acts, the make up of fans standing immediately in front of the stage also changed; the aggro fans of Divine Heresy sloughed off, allowing a new crowd of mostly women to occupy this prime real estate.

At 11:30 the stage went dark and ambient introduction music began playing over the PA. Soon light flickered from a projector in the back of the bar, sending synchronised video across the drum kit and the wall at the back of the stage. Cheers erupted when Mike Gaspar sat down behind this illuminated drum kit. Like most of the band, Gaspar doesn't fit the stereotype of a menacing black metal performer, but instead looks remarkably like Captain Jack Sparrow – eyeliner, long flowing bandana and all. Furthermore, Gaspar, like the rest of the band, has dropped his spooky pseudonym ("Nisroth" in his case), and now performs under his real name. When frontman Fernando Ribeiro walked into the stage, I attempted to hold my position, although shooting through the outstretched hands bent into "devil horns" that suddenly and continually pumped towards Ribeiro turned out to be impossible. So, after unsuccessfully photographing through the first few songs, I retired to the side of the stage for a better view.

The first thing I noticed from my new vantage point was that the sound was incredibly full and dense, as songs sparkled with studio polish and production. But the keyboards I heard were not coming from any player on stage (though guitarist Pedro Palxao did play keyboards on some tracks). Likewise the female backing vocals, wolf howls, and other sound effects were obviously coming from tape. Is Moonspell a completely live experience? Definitely not. But would the music have had the same power and atmosphere if it were? Again, definitely not.

The next thing I noticed was just how good these songs are. Instead of playing brutal blast beats or showcasing the players' virtuosity, Moonspell has written incredible melodies that would easily hold up in any musical genre. The beautiful gothic elements of the band's music were a pleasant contrast to the fury of the earlier bands. On these songs Ribeiro sings in a deep baritone that complements the guttural yet intelligible vocals that he typically trades in.

Ribeiro's stage presence was a mix of rock star microphone stand posing and crowd baiting, balanced by moments of honest connection with the audience. However with his thick accent, and his odd English-as-a-second-language sentence structures and vocabulary, even the shouts of "Kansas City" were not grating but actually rather endearing. The rest of the band – save Gaspar whose tongue seemed to always be out hamming it up for the audience – were satisfied with stationary head banging. Of course, on a stage this small, there isn't really room to skip about anyway.

The band closed its set with "Alma Mater" then retreated to the side of the stage. It was 12:30 and the audience had thinned considerably. Still the 60 or so fans that crowded the stage stamped, clapped and called for an encore. The band returned with two more songs, the final being "Full Moon Madness" from its opus "Irreligious." Afterwards, as the amplifiers were being shut down, Ribeiro told the audience that the band would change and then be out in the bar. Although I have long been a fan of Moonspell's music (the fanaticism growing or waning with each album), but on this night I found out I was a fan of Moonspell the band. I can only hope I'll be able to find them the next time they play Kansas City.

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