Stop me if you’ve heard this one… A death metal band, a black metal band, and a doom metal band walk into a bar…
Sometimes the joke is reality though, and such was the case this night. It was no joking matter though, and the genre labels mentioned above don’t begin to paint the whole picture. The death metal band is all female, the black metal band has more in common with Sigur Rós than any of the genre’s usual big names, and the doom metal band is one of the current year’s most talked about bands, and their newest album is actually on NPR’s “50 best albums of the year” list. It’s on mine as well.
Jeanine and I didn’t get there until after Brooklyn death metal band, Mortals, had already begun. It being a Bottom of the Hill show, I’d assumed it would start later, and only a last minute check of the start time saved us. Who would have thought that a show there would start at 7:30?
I’m not a huge death metal fan, but Mortals ended up being good enough that I found myself captivated. The riffs were huge and meaty, but it was the drummer who really held my attention. At times, she laid down some almost tribal sounding beats, looking strangely happy while doing so. It’s always odd seeing death metal musicians smiling while they play. I don’t think there were any solos to speak of, which is just fine, because sometimes solos just get in the way of the brutality.
I don’t often comment on the gender of musicians, but seeing an all female death metal band is unusual enough in what is still a male dominated genre that I feel I must take note of it, if only to say that I wholly approve. That aside, bassist Lesley Wolf’s vocals are the usual death growl/cookie monster type usually associated with the genre, and if I’d closed my eyes, I wouldn’t have been able to tell they were emanating from a woman.
After the show, I picked up their newest release, “Cursed To See The Future”, out on Relapse Records. I haven’t yet had time to listen to it, but I’m looking forward to it.
Sólstafir were up next. I’ve only been a fan of theirs since earlier this year, and their performance at Maryland Deathfest was one of my favorites of the weekend. In addition, their newest release, “Ótta”, is one of my favorite metal releases of the year (as is Pallbearer’s newest release, “Foundations of Burden”, which made this a much anticipated show).
Sólstafir has morphed from a vicious sounding black metal band into a sort of Sigur Rós gone black metal hybrid, with enough atmosphere to make Venus envious. The riffs in many of the songs aren’t really riffs in the traditional sense of the word, but tidal swells of tuneful noise, aided and abetted by one of those vibrating devices pressed against the strings in lieu of a pick (not sure what they’re called). The effect is overwhelmingly icy, evoking images of trackless, frozen wasteland, fogbound polar seas, and lonely vistas. Guitarist/vocalist Aðalbjörn Tryggvason has a rough, keening quality to his voice that perfectly suits the icy music, and yes, he does sound a bit like a rougher, more aggressive version of Jónsi from Sigur Rós. That said, he does quiet and sensitive quite well too. The majority of the songs they played during their set were from “Ótta”, although they did at least play Svartir Sandar (Black Sand), which is the title track from their last album, as well as being the type of sand most commonly found in Iceland. I bought the repress of the album from their merch table, and I’m looking forward to giving it a listen.
My friend Stacy appeared in her usual spot in front of the stage, just when I was starting to wonder where she was. It turned out that she’d been delayed in leaving Berkeley by protesters (the whole Ferguson, Eric Garner, etc. thing – it’s bad when there are several incidents like this all at once, isn’t it?) inhibiting access to the freeway.
Tryggvason was visibly emotional to finally be playing in the Bay Area due to the regions’ pivotal role in the development of thrash metal, and due to it being the home of Metallica in particular. He went so far as to say that without Cliff Burton, there wouldn’t be a Sólstafir, mentioning that he is now 37 years old, and has been a Metallica fan since he was 10. In other words, this was a pilgrimage 27 years in the making. It was also a reminder that this was a good area to grow up in for a metal fan. I sometimes forget that these days.
It was also nice to see that they’d brought along a banjo for the song, Ótta, although it was a bit difficult to hear in the mix. How often do you hear “I couldn’t really hear the banjo” in a metal review?
Around 45 minutes after they started, they said their goodbyes. I shouted “one more song!”, and Tryggvason turned around and said “your wish is our command”, and they played for another 20 minutes. You’re welcome, crowd. In the end, I think this set was much better than the one they played at Maryland Deathfest, which is saying something , because they were one of my favorite bands at the festival. I think they played for around 70 minutes.
I’d seen Pallbearer twice before this show, once at Slim’s, and once at Maryland Deathfest in 2013. The Slim’s show wasn’t the best, because it was hard to hear the vocals, but the Deathfest show was much better. In the interim, the band has released their second album, “Foundations of Burden”, and to my ears, it is a giant leap forward from their debut, with stronger vocals and a more developed sense of mournful melody. They still remind me of Warning, with a small dose of Candlemass. In other words, they play what these days is called “classic” doom metal. I still remember back when doom metal hadn’t yet splintered into a bunch of subgenres. Now, we’ve got “funeral doom”, “stoner rock”, “sludge”, “doom death”, and a bunch more that I’m too old and unhip to know about.
Like Sólstafir, Pallbearer concentrated on their new album, which is a good thing. I can’t help but note the difference between this show and the Judas Priest one from a couple of weeks ago. At Priest, I was excited when they played the old songs, but at this one I was excited when the bands played new ones. Priest seems to be in a long, slow decline, but Solstafir and Pallbearer are still moving from strength to strength.
For the most part, the sound was much better at this show, although there was some sort of weird feedback about halfway through, at which point the bassist ran offstage for a moment. Otherwise, it was an excellent set, and the vocals came through loud and clear. It was especially effective when all three members at the front of the stage were singing. Sure, the band isn’t really doing anything unexpected or new, but they’ve really nailed the melodic doom sound, and this show really confirmed that all of the recent accolades are well deserved.
From all of the clouds of pot smoke, one would be forgiven for thinking that this was a stoner rock show.
The Legend, from the band’s debut, “Sorrow and Extinction”, was introduced as “an old song – one we rarely play anymore”, which is kind of funny when one realizes it’s only a couple of years old. It still sounds pretty good, but I found myself getting into the new ones in a much more profound way. The massive riffs and beguiling melodies of the new songs exerted a tidal pull on the heads of the audience (myself included, of course), creating a sea of slow motion headbanging.
Strangely enough, the band didn’t play an encore. The line at their merch table after the show was a sight to behold though, reminding me of some of the merch lines at Maryland Deathfest. It made me glad I’d visited their table earlier.
We were out the door and homeward bound before 11:00. Jeanine liked Sólstafir best, and I think I agree with her, although the Pallbearer set was also excellent. Sólstafir is better at building an atmosphere, although in the traditional sense of the word, Pallbearer is much heavier. Plus, Sólstafir has cool hats. Apples and oranges, I guess...