Review: Decibel Magazine Tour at the Middle East, March 10 2024

I went to my first metal show last night! Well, I guess it was the second if you count that year that Ozzfest was free.

I grew up listening to punk, which is sort of metal-adjacent, but the mainstream conquered punk in 1991, whereas the more extreme versions of metal remain pretty stubbornly un-commercial. I mean, I assume some of these bands make a living making their art, but nobody’s getting rich making black metal.

I’m drawn to art that gathers in misfits, as punk did when I was a kid, and so I have been slowly working my way into metal. I like the theatricality and the musicianship, but I’d still consider myself an outsider to the scene. (I mean, also I’m old as fuck, so). So this is pretty much going to be an outsider’s view of a metal show. Which means I don’t know all the proper names of the sub-sub-sub genres, for one thing, so don’t yell at me about that. Okay, off we go!

Necrofier opened the show. They kind of embodied the contradictions in extreme metal—it’s both rebellious and extremely conventional. (This happened in hardcore punk too). If you look at a lot of metal band photos, they’re all pretty much the same—guys with long hair and/or beards and big arms wearing black with their arms folded looking slightly menacingly at the camera. And so Necrofier was definitely cut from that cloth. The vibe was extremely macho. I know nothing about the band’s politics, but the aesthetic and vibes were giving fascism. That is to say, it was a performance that felt like it was about masculinity, power and domination. The guitarist yelled at the crowd to form a pit, and there was some halfhearted moshing going on, but overall they didn’t seem to be a big crowd favorite. And it was just all so SERIOUS. I had the thought while watching them that metal is just punk with its sense of humor removed. And then I remembered that’s actually Fugazi.

Next came Worm. Or possibly WORM. In any case, this band was cool. I think the subgenre is doom, or, as I think of it “sounds like Sabbath.” The aesthetics were VERY different here. The singer, who goes by the name of Phantom Slaughter, was a skinny guy in dark glasses with white corpsepaint and frowny lipstick. It was giving metal Joey Ramone. Or possibly Stiv Bator. The guitarist was wearing a vest, puffy shirt, and a cape. He may have had vampire fangs in—I was too far back to see. But, in any case, Slaughter is a mesmerizing performer, the grooves were slow and sludgy, and the aesthetic hit what is the sweet spot of metal for me, which is to say, both a joke and not a joke. Like, there’s a guy in a vampire cape—it’s ridiculous. And yet it’s played totally straight. Anyway, I dug this band, and while I was checking the time 15 minutes into Necrofier’s set, I wished Worm had gone on longer. I also wished I’d been able to hear the guitars, but the sound guy was apparently so dedicated to turning the bass up to “bowel shaking” levels that the guitars were lost in the mix. It’s a testament to the quality of the performance that I wanted more anyway.

And then—Devil Master. Now, this may be in part because they are sort of a punk/metal band, and so I’m just more comfortable in this idiom, but this was the highlight of the night for me. One guy in corpsepaint and a cape (again, it’s a joke, and also not), and the other guys looking pretty normal (well, the singer/bassist had improbably long hair that obscured his face for most of the performance, but still.). They rocked the fuck out, and nobody had to yell at the kids (it was an all-ages show) to form a mosh pit. It broke out spontaneously. There was a big run to their merch table at the end, which I think shows that people were impressed with the performance. They played their album front to back and left. I recommend the album, Ecstasies of Neverending Night, and the songs are even better live.

Finally Hulder took to the stage. Hulder is a one-woman band in the studio, but here she was backed by a bunch of guys as she delivered traditional black metal, complete with those gutteral, growling vocals. I dug this, because by using this traditionally ultra-masculine style, she’s undermining the misogyny and machismo that taints a lot of metal. One of the guys in her band was even bald, which I believe is black metal heresy. But I guess the sound guy really hated her because, once again, the guitars were inaudible as the bass and kickdrums dominated the mix. Now look. I liked being able to feel the music, but one of the things that’s interesting to me about metal is the interplay between the heavy drums and bass and the extremely treble-y lead guitar lines. So we lost basically half the music in this mix. And also Hulder didn’t bring much to the table, stage-presence wise. I like that she was dressed and corpse-painted in a way that was very un-sexualized—it was giving angry witch, or possibly kid from The Ring all grown up—but she didn’t give us much in the way of performance apart from a few headbanging, hair-flying moments. (Her bassist did the same and got his hair momentarily caught in the sprinkler, which was amusing). Her new album is good, and I think I would have enjoyed the performance much more if the sound had been competently mixed.

Some general observations: the crowd was, as you might expect, VERY white. What you might not expect was that there were a lot of women in the audience. Maybe this is due to Hulder, but either way, apart from Necrofier, there just wasn’t a lot of metal-bro energy in the audience, which I liked. It was a relaxed, friendly, and welcoming crowd. A couple of times I bumped into people, or they bumped into me, and it was always, “whoa, sorry!” I have certainly been at concerts where an accidental bump would get you a glare at best and a threat at worst, and you might think a metal show would be like that, but it totally wasn’t.

Here’s something weird, which I guess is a convention of this kind of music? No stage banter. Well, one sentence was spoken to the audience the entire night: “We’re Necrofier from Texas.” (The guy who tried to order the kids to mosh was doing it off-mic.) No intros, nothing between songs, no “okay, we got one more for you, you’ve been a great audience, good night.” This was especially weird at the end of a set. The song would end, and the band would walk off stage, and we’d all kind of look at each other and go “Hmm. I guess the set’s over, then.”

Also, no smiles allowed, apparently. There were plenty of smiles among the crowd—in fact, there was a pretty stark contrast between the gleeful smiles of the kids in the pit and the humorless miens of the performers. Now, as I mentioned, there was humor, certainly—you just can’t wear a cape in total seriousness—but nobody on stage gave any indication that they were having fun. I guess this is part of the culture, but since I’m not used to this culture, it felt a little odd to me. I’m used to feeling like live music is a communal experience including musicians and fans, but here it felt more like the fans were having a communal experience that the bands were providing the soundtrack for.

So, in the end, for 25 bucks I got to see two bands I really enjoyed and two bands I enjoyed somewhat less. Definitely a bargain! This tour has upcoming stops in Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago, St Louis, Lawrence KS, and Denver. Definitely worth the price of admission!

#review #music #metal #concert