EPICA/MOONSPELL/STARKILL

(January 30, 2016; READY ROOM, Saint Louis MO)

Epica-Tour

I gotta admit, I wasn’t real sure what to expect out of Epica… I just knew that I really wanted to see legendary Portuguese Goth metallers, Moonspell, again. Serious doubts entered my mind about the whole night when it seemed as though this was going to be another one of those sparsely attended Saint Louis shows; with about 30 minutes to go before start time, the room was less than half full. However, to my utter surprise (and delight), each check over my shoulder saw the head count rise to the point that, by the time Starkill took the stage, the floor was packed. And, what a great evening of rock and roll was on hand for one and all, beginning with…

Starkill (Tony Keathley; Parker Jameson, Shaun Andruchuk; Shaun Andruchuk) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Starkill (Tony Keathley; Parker Jameson, Shaun Andruchuk; Shaun Andruchuk) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Chicago progressive speed merchants, Starkill. The band’s prime mover, Parker Jameson, showed himself adept at both dirty and clean vocal styles, as well as impressive lead and solo guitar… he was even responsible for the prerecorded keyboard parts featured throughout the six-song set. The show highlighted Starkill’s most recent release, VIRUS OF THE MIND with three songs, including their opening salvo, “Be Dead or Die.” Odd title aside, the tune featured an intense orchestral intro from Jameson and a massive drum sound. Surprisingly, the strongest material has yet to be officially released, “Burn Your World” and “Cloudless,” from an upcoming third album (after two albums with Century Media, the band is self-releasing this one with fan funding from Indiegogo); maybe the strength of these new songs comes from the fact that guitarist Tony Keathley and bassist Shaun Andruchuk are now firmly ensconced in the fold (VIRUS OF THE MIND was pretty much finished when they were brought on board). Andruchuk is an absolute beast, prowling the stage and giving the guitars and vocals ample underpinning alongside the borderline maniacal drum-bashing of Spencer Weidner. As impressive as the rhythm section is, this group’s strength lies in the vocals (with Keathley supporting Jameson with clean counter-vocals and, in some instances, nice harmonies) and the twin lead work from the fleet-fingered guitarists, put to particularly good use on “Virus of the Mind.” What could have been a fairly unextraordinary set of Death Metal was continually lifted to unexpected heights by the clean vocals of both Parker and Tony, Spencer’s percussive expertise and the use of Parker’s keyboard and orchestral embellishments. These guys can only get better.

Moonspell (Fernando Ribeiro; Mike Gaspar; Aires Pereira) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Moonspell (Fernando Ribeiro; Mike Gaspar; Aires Pereira) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Moonspell have always tended toward the dark, Gothic edges of metal. More recently, they have gone full-tilt into the Gothic sound and lyrical imagery of such bands as the Damned, True Sounds of Liberty (TSOL), Danzig (both the metal band and their punk Misfit leader) and the lugubrious funeral dirges of Type-O Negative. The band were ushered to the stage with the atmospheric, near-operatic (as in THE PHAMTOM OF… ) “La Baphomette,” the final track from their latest record, EXTINCT; as vocalist Fernando Ribeiro took to the boards, the recorded intro faded, replaced by the ponderous beats of Mike Gaspar’s drums and the massive sound of Pedro Paixao’s pipe organ for the haunting “Breathe (Until We Are No More),” the opening cut from the same album. Guitarist Ricardo Amorim and bassist Aires Pereira initially seemed to be completely buried in the mix with the nearly overwhelming volume of the pipe organ. However, the problem was soon rectified and, to paraphrase the dearly departed Lemmy, everything was louder than everything else, with Pereira’s bass adding to the rhythmic din laid down by Gaspar and Amorim’s tasty licks leading the way on Moonspell’s musical moonlight drive through the cemetery. The band seemed to kick into high gear with the title track from EXTINCT, particularly Ricardo, who delivered the first of many killer solos; they really hit their stride, however, on older tunes like the slow grind of “Awake” (from 1998’s IRRELIGIOUS album) and a pair of late set favorites from their 1995 debut, WOLFHEART (the eerie fist-pumper “Vampiria” and “Alma Mater,” which featured a very nice old-school rock solo from Amorim). Ribeiro hung around the lower registers, occasionally approximating the bone-rattling baritone of the sorely missed Peter Steele or, alternately, delivering the gutteral death-rattle of the genre – moving effortlessly between the two at the drop of a coffin lid… plus, his accent kinda reminded me of Bela Lugosi. As good as Starkill was, this was definitely the highlight of the evening for me; could the headliner hope to match or exceed what Moonspell brought to the stage?

Epica (Simone SImons; Mark Jansen; Arien van Weesenbeek) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Epica (Simone SImons; Mark Jansen; Arien van Weesenbeek) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Kicking their set off with a couple of tracks from their latest release (THE QUANTUM ENIGMA from 2014), from the get-go, it was obvious that the name of these Nederlanders’ game was speed and precision; guitarists Isaac Delahaye (the lone Belgian in the group) and Mark Jansen proved to be fleet-of-finger, while bassist Rob van der Loo and drummer Arien van Weesenbeek matched them with a wicked ferocity and keyboardist Coen Janssen added a touch of the symphonic. Of course, above all was the unbelievable mezzo-soprano voice of the lovely Simone Simons. “The Second Stone” and “The Essence of Silence” were formidable blasts of Wagnerian bombast, with mystical/metaphysical lyrics, alternating between Simons’ operatic vocals and Jansen’s harsh, throaty growl. Amidst a flurry of hair-whipping, it was obvious – much like Moonspell before them – that the band (and an appreciative audience) really started to have fun with the introduction of some fan-favorite older material, beginning with “Sensorium,” from the group’s debut release, THE PHANTOM AGONY. With “Martyr of the Free World,” Coen Janssen emerged from the shadows (and fog) engulfing stage-right’s back corner with a unique bowed keyboard, soloing and mugging for the crowd (and I still couldn’t get a decent shot of the third original member of the group, along with Simone and band founder, Mark Jansen); toward the end of the song, after basking in the much-deserved accolades of the packed room, Janssen returned to his omni-directional keyboard as Delahaye killed a lightning-quick solo.

Epica (Rob van der Loo; Mark Jansen; Simone SImons) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Epica (Rob van der Loo; Mark Jansen; Simone SImons) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

As you may well guess, any band with the type of near-virtuosity that each member possesses is going to solo and solo often. On “Cry For the Moon,” it was Weesenbeek’s turn, as the hard-pounding drummer delivered a powerful, tastefully short exhibit of his abilities. The song itself, another track from THE PHANTOM AGONY, built from a basic, martial rhythm to an anthemic slow-simmer to a full-blown operatic tour de force, with a Teutonic-sounding choir (via a sample or backing tape) adding a new dimension to the already forceful vocals of Simone Simons. Though Epica has been called a “Gothic Metal” band, it really isn’t until “Storm the Sorrow” that I caught anything (other than certain lyrical content) remotely Gothic in their music, with the heavy, near-industrial riffage and doom-laden piano flourishes; the fact that the upbeat vocal performance belies the nightmarish lyrics only adds to the Goth feel… a real highlight. The brutally dark vibe continued, with Mark delivering more of his intense, harsh vocals throughout the next few songs,” including “The Obsessive Devotion” and, from THE QUANTUM ENIGMA, “Victims of Contengiency.” This darker sound also gave van der Loo a chance to shine with more complex bass lines, rather than sticking fairly close to the rhythmic patterns laid down by the drums and guitars; this complexity was best displayed on the title track to 2009’s DESIGN YOUR UNIVERSE, the closing number of the main set, which also featured some very nice multi-textured keyboard work from Coen.

Epica (Isaac Delahaye; Simone SImons; Mark Jansen) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Epica (Isaac Delahaye; Simone SImons; Mark Jansen) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Unsated, the appreciative crowd refused to leave without hearing more; Epica was more than willing to oblige. With Janssen exhorting the rabid fans, he was soon joined by Weesenbeek, Delahaye and van der Loo, teasing the encore before Simons and Jansen returned for a stirring “Sancta Terra.” The band wasn’t messing around with a “one-and-done” trip back to the stage; they followed that tune with a great version of one of the stronger songs from THE QUANTUM ENIGMA, “Unchain Utopia.” If that wasn’t enough, refusing to go gentle into that good night, the sextet finished with a thundering version of the bombastic, anthemic epic, “Consign To Oblivion.” Like last November’s Amaranthe show at Pop’s, Epica eschewed the use of any visible, onstage amplification or monitors; however, where the sound was, at best, spotty for that earlier show, here, it was near perfect. The lighting, also, was some of the best I’ve seen in recent memory. So, earlier in this review, I asked the question, “Could Epica hope to match or exceed what Moonspell brought to the stage?” The answer, my friends, is an unequivocal, “Yes!” A great night of metal, from top to bottom.


AMARANTHE/BUTCHER BABIES/LULLWATER

(November 17, 2015; POP’S, Sauget IL)

Amaranthe Chris Adam Hedman Sorbye with Danielle) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Amaranthe (Chris Adam Hedman Sorbye with Danielle) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

From the outset, standing in line and listening to the various comments, it was obvious that the majority of the people at Pop’s on the evening of November 17th were there to see Butcher Babies; I even heard comments and questions like, “I have never heard of this Amaranthe band. Do you know anything about them?” I can kinda understand that… while both acts play metal, they take very different approaches: Amaranthe play a symphonic, well-orchestrated and choreographed style of progressive metal, while Butcher Babies blur the line where punk and metal meet. I am all for diversity and can and have enjoyed bills featuring several different musical styles. Unfortunately, I tend to be part of an ever-shrinking fan base that enjoys listening to a myriad of genres and styles in the course of an evening of live music. So, with that as a backdrop, here’s how this night shook out.

Lullwater (Brett Strickland; Roy Beatty) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Lullwater (Brett Strickland; Roy Beatty) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Opening act Lullwater was a total surprise. The Athens, Georgia quartet play the type of hard rock that I grew up on, though steeped in the early 1990s sound of the Seattle scene; there are touches of Alice In Chains and Nirvana, as well liberal doses of Stone Temple Pilots (yeah, I know they weren’t from Seattle, but… ) and Soundgarden. As Southern boys, there’s plenty of good ol’ Lynyrd Skynyrd and Seven Mary Three style rock and roll. With their new album, REVIVAL, barely a month old, they were determined to make an impression. And, make an impression they certainly did! It didn’t take these guys (vocalist/ guitarist John Strickland, bassist Roy “Ray” Beatty, drummer Joe Wilson and lead guitarist Brett Strickland) long to win over an early crowd hyped to see Butcher Babies.

Lullwater (Joe Wilson; John Strickland) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Lullwater (Joe Wilson; John Strickland) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

The Strickland’s imaginative guitar licks are certainly hard to ignore, particularly on the stinging “Oddline,” from the band’s 2013 self-titled debut, as well as its cousin, “Evenline,” from the new record; the pair’s biting style is further enhanced by Beatty’s bass, which is tuned to a higher register (a trick also used by the Who’s John Entwistle), adding to the buzzsaw tone. Roy’s style also lends itself well to the Southern rock “guitar army” feel on songs like “Broken Wings,” allowing Brett and John to soar on an extended harmony part. Wilson’s playing demands attention, though it is never overbearing or dominating… as has been said many times before, it ain’t always the notes you play, sometimes it’s the spaces between that make a performance special; make no mistake, though, when he hits those notes, it is with power and precision. John’s chameleon-like vocals draw from most of the bands listed above, though mostly, he tends to sound like a tasty three-meat stew of Layne Staley, Scott Weiland and Seven Mary Three’s Jason Ross. From front to back, Lullwater delivered the type of high energy, flat-out rock ‘n’ roll show that you very rarely get a chance to see anymore… I just wish they could have played a longer set.

Butcher Babies (Carla Harvey; Heidi Shepherd) (photo credits DARREN TRACY)

Butcher Babies (Carla Harvey; Heidi Shepherd) (photo credits DARREN TRACY)

Honestly, though I’ve heard quite a bit – both pro (usually from avid fans) and con (usually from music journalists like myself) – about Butcher Babies, this was my first time to experience the live bludgeoning. The band are obviously fans of the Plasmatics and their enigmatic vocalist, Wendy O Williams; I mean, the group’s name is an homage to the Plasmatics’ very first single from way back in 1978. You can also plot the progression of Williams’ band from anarchic punk noisemongers to heavy metal behemoth through Carla Harvey’s near-gutteral screams and Heidi Shepherd’s more melodic, sultry wails. And, even though the ladies’ stage attire was rather tame on this night, most images and videos show they have a proclivity for, at least, a mildly titillating form of exhibitionism. Shepherd and Harvey are twin balls of kinetic energy, in motion virtually from the time they hit the stage for “Monsters Ball” until their final exit during “Magnolia Boulevard.” The three-piece band – guitarist Henry Flury, bassist Jason Klein and drummer Chrissy Warner – are a well-oiled, if predictable, industrial punk metal machine; their sound falls somewhere between the Plasmatics’ NEW HOPE FOR THE WRETCHED punk overload and COUP D’ETAT metal mayhem, with more than a touch of Nu-Metal around the edges.

Butcher Babies (Henry Flury; Chrissy Warner; Jason Klein) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Butcher Babies (Henry Flury; Chrissy Warner; Jason Klein) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

The group highlighted material from their latest release, TAKE IT LIKE A MAN, including their approximation of a power ballad, “Thrown Away.” As well received as tunes like “Monsters Ball,” “Jesus Needs More Babies For His War Machine” and “Gravemaker” were, when the ladies introduced “They’re Coming To Take Me Away, Ha-Haaa!,” a cover of a fifty-year-old pop hit by Napoleon XIV, the crowd erupted. I will say that, even though I was a tad under-impressed, this group must be doing something right to have such a loyal following (a couple of guys – one sorta laid back and cool, the other more of the rabid “Hey… look at me! I know their bus driver! Wooo!” kind of guy – were in from Kansas City for the Tuesday night show). Considering the solid musicianship of Lullwater and the symphonic sheen of Amaranthe, it may have been a case of Butcher Babies being the wrong band at the wrong time; as such, I’m willing to hold further opinions until I can see them in their natural habitat, with more like-minded groups (and, yes, I realize that goes against everything that I said in my opening paragraph but, like everything else in life, there are exceptions to the rule).

Amaranthe (Johann Andreassen and the offending cap)) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Amaranthe (Johann Andreassen and the offending cap)) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

I was actually pleasantly surprised when it became apparent that a large number of the folks on the floor remained there for Amaranthe, although there was considerable turnover at the front of the stage. This, of course is where I get all curmudgeonly and tell you how much I dislike being around drunks; as I bid adieu to the laid back guy from KC, a couple of excitable drunks pushed in front of my spot and began documenting EVERY freaking moment of their time at the front of the stage with their phones… all with me trying to shoot pictures either over or through them. I usually let people around me know that I’m working and that I am only allowed to take pictures (I use an actual camera, for which I have obtained a photo pass, as well as permission from the band’s management to use) for the first three songs of any set and they’re usually cool and let me work, trying to avoid getting in my way or obstructing my view; these two were having none of that… I took close to 150 shots of Aramanthe, a hundred of them starring either at least one of the pair’s phones or the gentleman’s cap. If that weren’t bad enough, they compared notes on virtually every image or video they captured in an approximation of the English language that I can only refer to as trailer park rustic (my apologies if I’ve offended any of the millions of fine people who live in trailer parks but, I’m sure you know what I mean), loud enough to annoy more than just this humble cameraman. Okay… with that out of my system and, as I’m sure you didn’t come here just to hear me vent about my job, let’s talk about the real reason you’re here: Amaranthe.

Amaranthe (Henrik Wilhelmsson Englund; Chris Adam Hedman Sorbye; Elize Ryd) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Amaranthe (Henrik Wilhelmsson Englund; Chris Adam Hedman Sorbye; Elize Ryd) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

At first, I couldn’t fathom what the heck was taking place on stage; there were no amplifiers, there were no monitors. It definitely made it easier for the band’s three-pronged vocal attack to maneuver around the stage but… it just looked SO weird! All six band members wore ear monitors, something that is generally only done by the singer; as mentioned above, I am usually at the front of the stage, which means that most of what I hear comes from the stage monitors. Without those monitors, those of us situated up front, between the speakers on either side of the Pop’s stage had kind of a muffled sound, especially on the vocals; I’m sure that to those a little farther back on the floor, the sound was as pristine as the stage looked. This was merely a minor annoyance and, other than louder-than-they-shoulda-been pre-recorded keyboards and having to strain to catch some of the lyrics (especially from Elize Ryd), did not hinder my enjoyment of this highly technical (not to mention high-tech) Swedish outfit. The group was obviously enjoying themselves, as well, mugging for the legions of I-phones and I-pads, posing for the occasional selfie with a fan; at one point, Henrik Wilhelmsson Englund (the “dirty” vocalist) took the phone away from a young man behind me and began videoing himself and the other members of the group before handing it back to the excited fan. These moments are the things that I’ll remember long after Jethro and Minnie have been forgotten.

Amaranthe (Olof Morck; Morten Lowe Sorensen; Johann Andreassen) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Amaranthe (Olof Morck; Morten Lowe Sorensen; Johann Andreassen) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

So, here’s where I’m gonna talk about the audience again, okay? Two of the new faces that joined me at the front of the stage before Amaranthe’s set included a young woman with a face that had me thinking that I should know her from somewhere and her daughter; as it turns out, while we had never actually met, we do frequent some of the same stores and shops in our respective home towns (we live in two small communities, eight miles apart). Anyway, I noticed that, not only was the daughter (eleven year old Danielle) thoroughly enjoying herself, she was singing along to ALL of the songs. Eventually, all three singers (the other clean singer – aside from Elize – is Smash Into Pieces vocalist Chris Adam Hedman Sorbye, who was filling in for co-founder Jake E Lundberg) noticed her, as well, and began coming over to take her hand or make eye contact. After a set that began with “Digital World” and included “Invincible,” “Massive Addictive,” “Afterlife” and “Electroheart,” the band – which also features musicians Olof Morck (guitarist and chief music-writer; Lundberg and Ryd handle most of the lyrics), Johann Andreassen (bassist and encore break MC) and Morten Lowe Sorensen (drums) – kicked into their theme-song, “Amaranthe.” After singing a verse and a chorus, Elize came over to Danielle and asked her if she knew the song; Danielle answered in the affirmative and sang the next verse into Ryd’s microphone. After a final song, “Call Out My Name,” the group left the stage.

Amaranthe (Olof Morck; Chris Adam Hedman Sorbye with Danielle; Elize Ryd) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

Amaranthe (Olof Morck; Chris Adam Hedman Sorbye with Danielle; Elize Ryd) (photo credits: DARREN TRACY)

But, of course, Amaranthe weren’t finished yet. After a brief break, Andreassen was back to pump up the crowd (allowing the others to towel off – it was HOT in the venue and even hotter under the stage lights – and for Elize to affect a costume change). The rest of the band joined Johann, charging into “The Nexus,” the title track from their second album. The night ended, three songs later, with Englund asking Danielle, “If I were to say, ‘Drop Dead,’ what would you say?” Without hesitation, she replied, “Cynical” and the band tore into the very danceable, heavy pop of “Drop Dead Cynical.” Before leaving the stage, the three vocalists and Olof took time to greet, not only Danielle, but just about everybody in the first couple of rows. Amaranthe is a band that gets it; they understand that without fans like Danielle and her mother (and even the overbearing couple in front of me), they wouldn’t be able to do what they love to do. I enjoyed the set more than I thought I would; I just hope that before I see them again, they figure out that sound system.