-By Doc Coyle
I have a love/hate relationship with Decibel Magazine. In their early days, they afforded God Forbid, my ex-band, one of our first and only magazine cover stories. Since then, Decibel found their niche, and their direction crystalized to focus on the crusty, dank world of the extreme underground. In the 10 plus years since their inception, my tastes have diverged over ground, and I would often quizzically look at their Top 40 albums of a particular year not knowing half the bands, feeling it was maybe caked with pretense informed by the Hipster-ization of the Metal world. (My ignorance may have been mostly to blame). With that said, I have always respected their stance and recognize their stature as the preeminent authority on Grindcore, Noise, Sludge, Doom, Black Metal, Death Metal, Stoner Rock, Post Metal, and everything in between. The line-up for this year’s tour was perfectly curated to reflect the magazine’s taste with At The Gates, Pallbearer, and Vallenfyre all landing the top 10 of 2014’s Top 40 list and Converge topping 2012’s list.
Upon entering the Wiltern, I observed that it is a beautiful and spacious theater that I had not previously attended. The venue appeared to be filled nearly close to capacity with numbers approaching 2,000 attendees. The size of the crowd and palpable excitement in the room signified that this tour was an event.
Unfortunately, I missed Vallenfyre due to the ire that is Los Angeles traffic and parking. I did check out their music online, and I highly recommend their latest album, Splinters, which sounds like a morbid and brutal amalgamation of Triptykon and Bloodbath and is spearheaded by Paradise Lost guitarist, Greg Mackintosh and At The Gates and Haunted drummer, Adrian Erlandsson. I imagine they fit in very well with the line up.
I was looking forward to seeing Pallbearer, as they have been a critical darling of the Metal blogosphere and even mainstream press. The hullabaloo surrounding the band convinced me to listen to their music in the past, but I just didn’t “get” what the big deal was. Seeing the band live, I have to say, made a much stronger impression than their recorded material. Most immediately noticeable was the thick and bruising low end provided by Pallbearer. Their crafted tonality moved the air and you could feel it in your chest. Their music is sludgy as hell, but there was an emotional, melodic current that pulled you in. I enjoyed their quiet confidence. The band members didn’t shoe gaze; they self assuredly rocked out displaying that they were feeling the music in their bones. The crowd nodded along approvingly, absorbing the groove and hypnotic Gregorian-esque multi-vocal that would pop up sparingly. My only gripe would be that at times, their thick and steady drone would get tedious. I’m not saying Pallbearer’s tunes were made to smoke weed to, but a toke may aid in your submersion.
In midst of Converge’s kinetic set, former Roadrunner and Razor & Tie A&R, Mike Gitter, asked me what I thought about their place in the music world. I told him that you could write a book trying to dissect the question and articulate the answer. I’m sure someone will, but I don’t have that kind of room (or knowledge) in this article. Much like their counterpart, The Dillinger Escape Plan, they have managed to live in their own solar system for almost 20 years: exempt from genres and trends, always playing the leader, existing as an art project more significant than any “band” could ever be. Like their tour mates, At The Gates, Converge mean as much to Avant-Garde-Noise-Post-Metal/Hardcore as At The Gates mean to Melodic Death Metal. They are a pillar and royalty of the Hardcore scene passed down from one generation to the next. The crowd at the Wiltern seemed to understand their significance as the energy ante was raised upon the arrival of Converge.
I hadn’t seen Converge in almost 10 years, and it’s fascinating to see them evolve from their humble beginnings. Their performance was wrought with integrity. Even if their particular shriek is unappealing to your ears, you have to respect the utter lack of bullshit in Converge’s approach. They do not perform with the reckless physicality their youth, but I’ve never heard something so noisy sound that tight and powerful. It would be irresponsible not to mention that it was appropriately one of the loudest shows I’ve ever heard. Jacob Bannon’s vocals have grown deeper and more palatable with time, and his candid crowd banter was earnest and calming. I was also blown away by drummer, Ben Koller’s command and force behind the kit. I can see why supergroup, Killer Be Killed, enlisted him to fill in recently. Every member of the band is as important as the next as stringsmen, Kurt Ballou and Nate Newton’s signature tones and identity rounded out the set beautifully.
At The Gates
I am an At The Gates homer. Even if they had a bad set, it may have been difficult for me to admit it. My brother and I bought Slaughter of the Soul in 1997 at Princeton Record Exchange in Princeton, NJ after hearing “Blinded By Fear” and the title track on our local college Metal radio station, 89.5, WSOU. The album cover was alluring, and the music itself was oddly addictive. The songs kind of sounded the same, but for some reason, we had to keep listening over and over performing an autopsy on the songs attempting to reverse engineer the secret to their transcendent sound. In heartbreaking irony, they and the equally ground breaking Carcass, had both broken up at that point. We were junkies, and needed to get more of that Swedish Melodic Death Metal fix, and sought out bands of similar ilk like In Flames, Dark Tranquility, Everdawn, Children of Bodom, Soilwork, Darkane, Carnal Forge, Defleshed, and Arch Enemy. Sometimes, there would even be a sticker that said “For fans of At The Gates”. We had to buy many of the albums on import, and were lucky to have a couple great local record shops with fellow nerdy clerks the clued us in on all the good stuff.
Despite discovering these other bands in the same vein, Slaughter of the Soul was still the bible. I loved it so much, I tuned down a beat up acoustic guitar to B to transcribe all of their songs because there were no tabs to find for the band. I loved them so much that I made a giant painting of their original logo in front of an inferno of flames while I was a senior in high school. When The Haunted did their first tour with Testament in 1999, I had the Bjorler brothers sign the painting. It’s still the only autograph I’ve ever asked for and received from a musician. We loved At The Gates so much, God Forbid covered “Slaughter of the Soul” during our first ever performances, and garnered credibility because of it. Yeah, I’m a homer.
At The Gates opened the set with “Death and the Labyrinth” from their 2014 return album, At War With Reality. I thought it was a bold move to open with a new song considering so much of the band’s legacy lives in the shadow of Slaughter of the Soul. The new material fit in seamlessly with the classics, but the old songs were met with more fervor and crowd participation.
Despite it being the first show of the tour, the band sounded great. The sound was clean and warm even though the environment was cavernous. It was refreshing and impressive to see such technical music being performed and presented by just 5 individuals on a stage. There were no backing tracks or keyboards, but it still sounded huge and epic. I suppose the grandeur is just built into those songs. One thing I love is that newer bands like Black Dahlia Murder have raised the bar of technical ability, but At The Gates appear to have created music that is near the threshold of their musical capability. Live, there is a tension that things could possibly go off the rails. I find this humanness appealing. There was one band miscommunication early, and some equipment malfunction that made the show’s finale lukewarm, but these “errors” inform me that was I’m seeing and hearing is real.
Always choosing to go against the grain, they didn’t close the set with one of the “big hits”. This is part of the admirable character of At The Gates. They didn’t reunite until they were ready. They didn’t assemble a tour of sound-alikes. They march to the beat of their own drummer; it just happens to be a consistent Thrash Beat, keeping the pulse at a caffeined heart race teetering on attack.