When a show consists a couple of local openers, an support act that has limped on with only one original member, and a headlining band started for two guys to play songs by their old band, you can't expect much. If you really want to make matters worse, make sure the show is expensive and schedule it on a Wednesday night. Not exactly a recipe to draw an audience. If it weren't for the PR agent's pressure, I probably would have skipped it as well. That would have been a big mistake.
The night began with Kansas City's Hellevate. This local quintet deals in classic metal, eschewing both the theatrical costumes and the extreme musical elements currently in vogue. Without corpse paint and furs, the band looked like every longhaired hesher that I called my friend in the mid-80s. In fact, vocalist "Drew Blood" (nee Andrew Lufkin) could have been my friend Dave with his white high top shoes, ripped jeans, bullet belt, sleeveless Iron Maiden t-shirt, thin mustache, and long dirty blond hair. In the late '80s teenage girls used to run up to Dave thinking he was Sebastian Bach. I imagine he rode that train until Nirvana derailed it. Other band members wore Judas Priest and Metallica shirts, or jean vests covered in patches. It's not so much a costume as a uniform, but not one put on for performance – rather a uniform for an embattled way of life. But it wasn't just the costumes, the band also skipped the blast beats and punishing atonal riffing, instead delivering a set composed of mid-tempo affairs that instead owed a lot to metal's salad days – particularly the epic closer whose two-guitar Maiden-esque attack was executed perfectly. On stage Lufkin worked the small crowd, earning the respect of the 40 or so fans in attendance, but energy remained fairly low – lots of bobbing heads, a few full-blown head bangers, and an annoying one-man mosh pit starring a shaven-headed 30-something wearing shorts in January. After taking a few fists, I retreated to the side of the stage, smiling.
The tone shifted as the second band took the stage. The galloping metal of the opener was soon replaced by the heavy doom of locals Inner Altar. The one-guitar quartet is defined by a pervasive '70s-styled groove that dominates the band's songs. But rather than piling riffs upon riffs, guitarist "Long Feather" (nee Neal Dyrkacz) happily deals in notes and spaces – it's the intimate psychedelic moments of Black Sabbath that the band imitates, not the super fuzzed-out ones. Further cementing that homage, it's easy to hear Ozzy's phrasings in the vocals of "Lord Rewcifer" (nee Andrew Snow). His voice, however, amplifies that progenitor's croons until he's become Danzig, or Jim Morrison, or in the band's most otherworldly moments, Brendan Perry of Dead Can Dance. If openers Hellevate are traditionalists, Inner Altar are the new breed of heavy musicians whose music gets ascribed with qualifiers like "neo" or "post," and whose stage show is devoid of any flash or pomp. I enjoyed the band immensely, but the tone was a definite departure from the band that came before them, and from those that would follow.
Direct support came in the form of Necrophagia – a band name created through an amalgamation of Greek words that the band interprets as "eat the dead." There is your hint as what is to come. Although the band has a long history dating to the mid-1980s, making it easily one of the first death metal bands, Necrophagia is generally omitted from discussions about the genre's greats. A long gap of inactivity, limited output, Midwestern roots, and a revolving lineup are all likely to blame, but those that do follow the band, those that do call themselves fans, are rabid about their devotion. They cheered as vocalist and founding member Frank "Killjoy" Pucci walked onto the darkened stage carrying ghoulish mannequin bits dripping manufactured intestines. He'd later simulate copulation with the mannequin before knocking its head off. A spine decorated his microphone stand. While this wasn't the gore of actual animal carcasses as seen at Wacken by artists like Marduk, it still made for an uneasy stage show. To be honest, I've no idea who the three members were that made up Killoy's backing band. Even if the stage were not too dark to take photographs useful in later sleuthing, the mass of flying hair produced by the head-banging guitarist would certainly have concealed his identity. Still, the anonymous threesome produced an unholy racket of stomping, pedal-to-the-floor death metal with zero frills. Not to be outdone, Killjoy barked and screeched into his microphone as he paced the stage in near-constant motion that was only halted as he held his microphone out for fans to scream along – some of whom were bearded and bellied, others fresh-faced and too young to be in the venue without a guardian. Ultimately the age of the band or its fans mattered little - anyone who loves the intensity and heart (yes heart) of death metal couldn't have been disappointed by Necrophagia.
Headlining the evening were England's Venom Inc. While the three members of the band played and recorded as Venom in the late '80s, legal disputes have given that name to seminal vocalist Cronos, stranding founding members Abaddon and Mantas with this sound-a-like moniker. While chapters can be written on this dispute, volumes can be written about the band's nearly 40-year history – particularly its early embrace of Satanic imagery, and its album Black Metal that gave rise to an entire genre of extreme metal. No one could deny Venom Inc.'s history or pedigree, but it wouldn't mean a thing if the band couldn't deliver. That question alone is what brought me to the show.
Here is where I confess to not owning a single Venom record. To confess: the band's mix of speed metal and poor recording quality has never appealed to me, and that my tastes instead favor the epic moments in metal, not the brutal ones. I say this not in some sort of impudent brag, but rather to give context to my next statement: Venom Inc. was amazing. The band opened with "Prime Evil" from the 1989 album of the same name. This is where the current version of Venom Inc. first appeared. Next the band returned to its roots with 1983 single "Die Hard" followed by "Don't Burn the Witch" from Black Metal. The set followed suit from that point onward, relying heavily on two seminal records, sampling sparingly from the later ones. Fans wouldn't have written a different set list.
While vocalist/bassist Tony "Demolition Man" Dolan isn't Cronos, his vocals and stage presence were fantastic. His banter found the right balance for small audience, but an audience that deserved a show nonetheless. In fact, Dolan seemed happy to play to the small crowd, enjoying the intimacy it afforded him. Guitarist Mantas (nee Jeffrey Dunn) was similarly spot on. While there was plenty of fast, barely discernable riffing, his solos were straight from heavy metal's glory days. Several times Mantas addressed the audience directly, expressing how grateful the band was to be playing for the audience. Who would have guessed that the guy who wrote "In League with Satan" was such a class act? Although Abaddon (nee Anthony Bray) was generally obscured by his impressive drum kit, when I did get a glimpse of the legend, he looked every bit the venerable old man that he and the rest of the band are. Fashions (of every type) have passed the band, but its members have remained true to the band's initial vision, which somehow made the performance seem authentic rather than merely dated.
There should be no surprise that when the band returned for its planned encore, it drew from Venom's first two albums, offering "Welcome to Hell," "Black Metal," and "Countess Bathory" to an audience that knew every joyously blasphemous word. As I admitted earlier, I didn't know the words, but after seeing Venom Inc., I now pledge to give those early albums a second chance. It seems that ignoring them may have been a big mistake.