Note: Photos and video are rough. Didn't even get video of Sarin Reaper. Dark packed basements and all. And no one wants to see a flash going off down there. Hopefully the pics still capture the moment. They do for me anyway.
Basement shows. God bless them. And I mean that with all the joy and condescension that the phrase provides. There’s nothing like the energy of a basement show. Packed in tight under a low ceiling. Fortified by darkness. Freed from any authority. Outside the clutches of capitalism. Probably drunk from that half pint in your pocket. Of course, you’re also in a basement. It’s dirty. You can’t see a thing. It stinks. The sound is horrible. And if the radon and the carbon monoxide don’t get you, the fumes from that old furnace are sure to finish you off. But this is the Midwest, and we do it in the basement, so off to the show I went.
I met the frazzled promoter as I walked around the back of the house. He was running around asking bands if they had a microphone. When that was solved, he began his battle with the PA. Bands carried gear downstairs. Lots of gear. The air was full of cigarette smoke. I made small talk. Badly. Soon we heard amplification from the stone basement. All problems solved. So I made my way downstairs. I’ve been to 22/32 a few times. It’s a basement with all the features and failures listed above. The drummer of the first band tried to remedy one of those shortcomings, but his halogen work lamp died before the show began. That kicked off a bustle as the one white lightbulb was moved away from the band. When the house’s tenant arrived, he turned the smart bulb red. Then the bulb was moved back over the band. Yes. One red lightbulb. The show can now start.
Cataphract were up first. I’d never heard of them, but that’s more on me than them. The band members are established players in the local metal scene. I’ve seen their past bands. Their other bands. And maybe seen them shopping at Sunfresh. Probably not wearing tunics, but maybe. The band is led by Hagged. You may know him from his past work in Stonehaven or also as Nick VanWalleghem. As with many black metal projects, Cataphract started as a solo effort with a demo cassette, then grew over the last five years to its current quartet. Even after releasing its full-length last year, there is still a rawness to the band. Grit that would suit it well as it kicked off its first basement show. Soon the small room was buried under the constant churning riffs of the band’s two whirring guitars. Under assault from rumbling bass. Unnerved by screeched indistinguishable vocals. Blast beats echoed. But there was also more interesting and nuanced percussion and guitar leads occasionally rose out of the din. This was particularly true in the longer songs where different movements meant shifting tempos and evolving riffs. While there were no atmospheric passages, and no folk filagree, still the band’s songs aired more epic than oppressive. At least that’s how it sounded to me. The sound in the basement was not built for deep analysis. The audience moved a bit to the music. One fan shook his fist for the entirety of the band’s five-song 30-minute set. There was a lot of headbanging. No one passed out from the fumes.
The drummer from Cataphract left his kit for all the bands to use, even offering up his snare. Unheard of. And appreciated as it kept the show moving along. There were no lines to check between acts. No levels to set. There wasn’t even a second microphone to plug in when the next band requested it. Score one for basement shows – it may sound bad, but at least you don’t have to hear someone asking for more guitar in their monitor.
Lowest Life are from Columbia Missouri. Columbia is close enough to play a show in Kansas City and drive home that same night, but not close enough that the scenes mingle much. The band is a four piece. They carry descriptors like “Power Violence” and “Violent Doom.” I don’t know what either of those mean, because when the band kicked off its set, it just sounded like hardcore to me. Frontman Theron Nunnery is a big guy in a sleeveless shirt. His arms might be too big for sleeves. He spent most of the night facing the drummer, pacing a bit, always clutching the microphone. His vocals were delivered in a gruff shout, something akin to Mike Judge or Sheer Terror’s Paul Bearer. But people from Columbia don’t have New York accents. The band’s songs were short. Like a minute long. Enough to get an idea across. Have the guitar crunch a riff. Maybe a two-bar guitar solo or a rattling bass solo. And then that was it. Sadly, tech gremlins created a ten-minute delay in the middle of the set while new guitars, new cables, new heads, etc. were all swapped to diagnose a problem. In the end a volume knob was turned up, and guitarist Jared Harris was back in action. The foursome celebrated with a cover of Misfits’ “Halloween.” It was messy. And without backing vocals, well, it was sad. I sang them as loud as I could, while asking my mask to do a lot of work. Nunnery announced there would be two more songs. Then played four or five. He had to plead with the rest of his band to play one of the songs, “the new one.” Bassist David Myers looked tentative. Drummer Matt Dallas incredulous. “The one we wrote last week?” he asked. His protest didn’t amount to much, and soon the band was marching through the song and it’s hard-hitting and repetitive finale. When Lowest Life play their hometown, shows probably mean dogpiles and gang vocals. But not here. But the crowd did move. A guy in a plague mask provided some traditional side-to-side action. There was some pushing. And lots of head nods. But no windmills or flips – this is a basement, not a VFW hall.
The touring band were invited to play third. This is the way of the basement show. If your headliner isn’t that famous, they better play before the biggest local or they might find themselves playing to an empty room. This also works in the touring band’s favor if the show is running late and it’s a school night. Technical difficulties meant the latter was going to be an issue.
I had lost track of time before Philadelphia’s Spiter took the stage. This was a show I’d been looking forward to for six months. A curious booking of a band that I was sure were too big to play a basement show. But I was wrong. It was happening in front of my eyes. At least I was pretty sure it was – it was hard to tell with only that one red light in the basement. The band is led by Richard Spiter (Richard Benson), with Bat (Francis Kano) and Snake (Justin ?Jetty?) joining on bass and drums respectively. The band is fun. Campy kitschy fun. A late-night TV vampire feature with face paint and spiked arm gauntlets and capes and songs about Satan and Elizabeth Báthory. And with delightfully cheesy banter between songs that sounded oddly like Hank Von Hell’s exaggerated introduction to “Imorgen Skal Eg Daue.” Maybe Oslo and Transylvania are closer than I thought. Benson is a visionary artist and a hell of an entertainer. I would have come just for the costumes, the banter, and the ridiculous BC Rich guitars. But that’s only half of it.
Spiter is a 1000 mile an hour all-out musical assault, with punishing galloping drums (despite a small snare that sounded like a damn bongo), constant buzzing guitar that only paused for short solos, gurgling guttural vocals, and a bass that glues it all together. It’s black metal. It’s thrash. And it’s punk. I guess that means it’s fair game for anyone in a battle jacket. And there were plenty of those present. And ripped jeans and ripped tights and boots with chains and studded belts. But there were also a half dozen gals in cute shoes and nice dresses. And they were mixing it up with the crowd. In the middle of the set I joined that fray and got whipped with long, sweet-smelling, freshly-washed hair while I attempted to compose shots of the shadowy Benson. That is a first and I’ve been to a lot of shows. I barely made it back to my hiding spot when the band announced its final number, “Transylvania Night,” from its new album Bathe the Babe in Bats’ Blood. The song contains a catchy and sick riff that could have been lifted from Mick Mars in 1981. Afterwards the audience just collapsed.
As I noted above, basement shows have no rules. What they do have, however, is neighbors. Neighbors who work on Monday mornings and who are definitely going to call the cops if things go too late. Even on the Eastside. As the nominal headliners hurried to set up, they watched the clock tick past 11pm and watched a good portion of the crowd vanish – some headed home in preparation for their own early morning jobs, others were simply outside decompressing, sated by Spiter. They may have sensed this.
Sarin Reaper are part of the incestuous KC scene captured by Dirtbag Distro. As an outsider I can’t be sure on the rules, but it appears each musician on the label must be in two or three other bands on the roster. And every band must part ways with one member every few months. I’m not sure if everyone on the label must be tall, thin, and attractive or if that’s just Sarin Reapers’ thing. But they’ve got that taken care of either way. For now, the band lines up as vocalist Luke Iliff, guitarist Jame Mendenhall, bassist Solomon Sharbono, and drummer Bob Corvus. Iliff fronts the band. He’s shirtless with long hair covering his face and much of his torso. He spends most of the set doubled over, screaming as much as shrieking. His vocals, like most everything about the band, straddles multiple genres, and the quartet owes as much to d-beat and crust as it does to black metal. I suspect that is a result of the label-mandated crosspollination.
Whether the decision of the band or the proprietor, the bulb that illuminated the basement was now at its dimmest moment of the night. I moved to the other side of the room in hopes of seeing the band – photos were a lost cause at this point. Only a dozen fans remained in the basement. They jumped. They whipped me with their sweet-smelling hair. And once or twice they careened into me. I ducked down to stay out of the way, but instead found myself perilously close to the DIY nailed gauntlet of Sharbono. That’d be a hell of a way to go.
Freed from my photographic responsibilities and just a bit tired, I quicky lost myself in the band’s music. One short song piled on top of another. A howling guitar here. A rattling bass there. Syncopated rhythms and anguished screams. Before I realized it, the band had announced the final song of its short twenty-minute set. I was pretty sure I didn’t have a usable photo, I definitely didn’t have any video, and I hadn’t the foggiest notion of how the band’s songs were composed – the basement just didn’t allow for any of that. What I did have, however, was a good time. There are pros and cons of basement shows, but it all comes down to that one thing – did you have a good time?