Now that power is restored, no large trees are threatening to fall on my house and nearby dams are no longer near the breaking point, I’m able to share my most metal evening.
Saturday night I headed up the road to Portland to catch a show by Relapse labelmates Minsk and Rwake (Which I now know is pronounced “Wake”. The well-known silent “R” rears its Rhead). For this one night they were joined by local metal mavens Conifer and Ocean, who bookended the show.
I was excited to hear Conifer as this was originally scheduled to be a release party for their first record in a couple of years. Unfortunately, they had no new product to unveil and were not forthcoming on the reason beyond a cryptic comment about mastering I got from the drummer after the show. The short set (they played about 20 minutes) was comprised of new material, which, to my ears, seemed to have more “swing”. A weird statement when it comes to describing instrumental heavy post-rock, but the rhythm section came closer to a stoner groove than say, Pelican. It was definitely a good development and I look forward to hearing how this translates onto disc. As I said, the set was short, and felt like it was cut off as they were building momentum. Luckily, I should be able to catch them again soon as they’ve been playing around lately working the new material into shape.
Minsk followed after a quick equipment shuffle (with three band’s amps piled on stage, Conifer’s drummer actually played on the floor in front, facing his bandmates). I was hoping for a great performance as I’ve really grown to love their latest album, The Ritual Fires Of Abandonment. They did not disappoint as musicians; a very tight and powerful rhythm section where the bass really drove the propulsive elements, allowing the drummer the freedom to add lots of color and counterpoint, coupled with a guitarist whose tone varied from soft, almost classical sounds to full down-tuned sludge of ear-hurting intensity (I wisely wore earplugs). Sadly, the vocalist was not on the same level as the rest of the band. He was adding washes of noise and fuzz with a keyboard which limited his role as a front man, leaving the band without a visual focal point. This made their 15-minute dirges a little tough to swallow; the crowd had to just wait for the song to build and build till the eventual release, and there was little to capture them in the meantime. This would all be excusable if it was perfectly done (I’ve seen a band enrapture an audience by sheer precision and force of execution), but beyond his stationary stylings, the singer had issues. Several times he seemed to almost lose his place and then take too long singing the verses, and at one point the band had to audibly slow down to get back in sync. I don’t want to speculate as to what might have been the cause, but it did detract from what was, musically, a very skillful and powerful performance. The set was again short; four bands made the night more a showcase than a typical concert. Minsk may have been better served by a different set list, as closer “White Wings” (a straight forward stoner-doom burner) had the crowd moving and the singer was on point.
Rwake took the stage next and my expectations were kind of low. I haven’t warmed to their recent album Voices of Omens; I find the vocals way too forward (and guttural x2) for my taste. The music sounds great though, and I hoped live the balance would be more to my liking. I am glad to say it was all I could want and much, much more. I knew nothing about the band, so when a Peter Jackson lookalike (he wore a LOTR shirt to make it even more apparent) and a slight women with ass-length dreads came to the front and just ROARED I was surprised. When a dual guitar wave of brutal doom crested high overhead I just smiled and felt my filings rattle. They reclaimed the crowd from the near apathy of Minsk’s set and got feet moving and head’s banging. I have a soft spot for drummers who sing along though there is no mic in sight; it shows total commitment to the band. Their drummer was right there, flailing and wailing, even mouthing the samples the female singer was triggering to start the songs. Visually, they were perfectly balanced; stage right, the heavy-set male singer and the twin hirsute stick figures of the rhythm guitarist and bass player; center was the drummer; stage left, the small female singer and the lead guitarist, who looked like Kyle Gass impersonating Rick Neilsen. Rwake was both tight and loose, playing as one core but unafraid to let things shake about. The crowd was singing along to songs from all three of their albums, and the band was definitely feeding and feeling this devoted audience. At least three times the lead singer talked about how this was there first visit to Maine, how great Portland was, that they would be scheduling a stop here on their next tour this summer, and how much they loved us all. Of course, I talked to him after his set and he started the conversation by saying, “Thanks. I’m so fucked up now, man. You ever Robo?” and then looked past me into space. It is probably safe to assume a good portion of his stage banter was empty platitudes, but it worked to keep the crowd in the palm of his hand.
After a sweaty, pounding 40 minute set, the gear was switched again and local stalwarts Ocean took the stage. For those of you unfamiliar with Ocean, they are a reduction – a distillation, if you will – of doom to some sort of primal essence. Stoner sludge, like that of Rwake, has energy and motion, even at its slowest. Ocean is like the sludge that has settled to the floor of it’s namesake and is just moments away from lithification; you may think there is motion, but you have not the ability to detect it. On record they are dark and heavy, a down-tuned note in place of a chord, another sounded just a beat past when the listener expects it, the slowest of slow builds to reach a dying pulse and then dropping back toward zero, all over a 20+ minute time frame. I realize, mere moments into their set, that the album doesn’t do them justice. Partly it is because I don’t have a soundsystem that can put out the necessary volume; they are so loud, so bass heavy, that my jeans ripple against my legs with every note. The sound is moving such a volume of air as to cause my bones to hum and after a few minutes I feel that I am vibrating in resonance with their music; I am hearing an internal harmonic they are not playing. It isn’t painful (I’ve been at shows where the bass is so heavy I’ve felt nauseous and seen people throw up), but strangely uplifting. I’ve never felt as part of a show, if that makes sense. As in sync as the other three bands were (overall this was one of the most professional shows I’ve seen), Ocean’s oneness was unique. It is very hard to play so slow and controlled, to keep adrenaline at bay; their sound is also so spartan as to highlight even the slightest variation in speed or attack. The four men moved and played in near perfect alignment, and though their sound was dark (and I assume their few lyrics were as well, but another case of guttural-itis made them completely unintelligible to these ears) the crowd was elated. The deep bending head-banging of both band and audience was something to behold, as they reared back and rocked onto their heels, only to plunge down to waist level with each cascading strum (sadly, my head-banging days are long gone, a victim of neck and back injuries a decade ago). Ocean played only one song, and nearly stole the show with it.
It was my first metal show in roughly fifteen years. It won’t be fifteen until the next.