(In this post our man BadWolf reviews the performances of Carcass, The Black Dahlia Murder, and Gorguts at the Columbus, Ohio stop of the DECIBEL MAGAZINE TOUR, and the photos are his too!)
For the purposes of this review, let’s accept a false dichotomy: that there is a real and tangible difference between ‘mainstream’ extreme metal music, and ‘underground’ metal music. It’s a bullshit claim perpetuated by a self-important blogosphere and a sometimes-right-sometimes-wrong minority of metalheads with a serious penchant for nostalgia, but assume for a moment that it is true.
If so, then up until three years ago, the large package tour was exclusively in the domain of mainstream metal music. Mayhem, Summer Slaughter, and their progenitor, Ozzfest, are each the domain of the popular music industry. Even the Metal Alliance Tour falls into this trap to a lesser degree (mostly in its over-abundance of bands with too-short set lists).
The occultocrati’s sole entity in this realm has become the Decibel Magazine Tour, which year after year has presented solid and cohesive lineups that stand on the razor’s edge between critical acclaim and commercial viability. It was a bold move in 2012: when I caught that first Decibel tour (reviewed here), there was no guarantee it would happen again. Who could have predicted the way that the tour would break the careers of bands like In Solitude, or poise groups like Behemoth and Watain for the kind of massive album sales they’ve enjoyed since.
The tour, as an entity, comes with its upsides and downsides. On the positive end, anything that exposes more people to Immolation is platonically good in and of itself. More importantly, the brand name, and its allegiance with a glossy magazine, lends the endeavor a kind of cultural respectability that the greater music industry very much cares about. Perhaps best, however, is the tour’s commitment to booking local opening acts. Reportedly, were it not for that first tour, Atlanta’s Royal Thunder would not have signed with Relapse Records for the release of their stellar debut, CVI. On the downside, the tour’s success puts a large amount of promotional power squarely in the hands of Decibel Magazine. That glossy is now the de-facto tastemaker of the American extreme music underground, for better or for worse.
But if Albert Mudrian keeps putting on tours like the third annual Decibel Magazine Tour I saw in Columbus, then long may the new king reign. The tour I saw was well-attended, immaculately-mixed, and as lubricated as the door of a BMW 3-series. Likewise, I wish more vanity projects featured 90-minute sets by my favorite death metal band, playing cuts of my favorite album of 2013, with three stellar opening bands.
Unfortunately, I only caught two of them. The three-hour drive to Columbus and early door times precluded me from catching Noisem, or photographing them. Maybe they sounded like ass. But, I saw them at Maryland Deathfest and in their hometown they played vintage death-thrash better than the genre’s progenitors do now (like this).
Luc Lemay, therefore, opened the show for me. It was my first opportunity to hear Gorguts, as the group’s isolated promotional dates for their 2013 comeback album, Colored Sands, skipped the Midwest.
I had some concern over how Gorguts would translate live. All of their records are headphones records, as cerebral and hard-to-pin-down as the concepts Lemay’s lyrics play with. I loved Colored Sands as an experience, but I’d be hard-pressed to name a specific song from it—the whole thing coalesces into one symphonic tech-death sandstorm.
Live, the Gorguts experience is much more grounded. The hammering introduction to “Le Toit du Monde” announced Lemay’s return to prominence like boulders falling from an unseen height. The set, consisting completely of Sands material, aside from “Obscura” garnered riotous applause, but not much mosh activity. New-ish band members Kevin Hufnagel and Colin Marston play their material with aplomb. Marston in particular has intense stage presence—not to mention the best power-stance I’ve ever seen.
The pits came to a boil quickly when The Black Dahlia Murder took the stage. The band was the odd band out on the bill. A survivor of the early 00’s New Wave of American Metal movement, the Detroit group has a surprising amount of mainstream recognition, perhaps too much, considering the massive amount of shade that the metal underground throws their way.
Obviously, having Black Dahlia — veterans of Warped Tour, Ozzfest, and Summer Slaughter — on the bill gives the tour the kind of ticket draw and financial leeway to bring bands like Gorguts on tour. For that alone people should stop complaining. It’s not as if Trevor Strnad, lead singer and most visible member of Black Dahlia, isn’t aware of the double standard—an outspoken fan of classic metal bands like Carcass and Gorguts, he’s reportedly been quick to lament his band’s place in the pecking order when he’s not being interviewed.
Onstage, however, Strnad seems to love the attention. He’s a big guy, but he bounds across the stage, waving and pumping fists as if he’s powered by a small cold fusion reactor housed beneath his heartburn tattoo. He’s a genuinely excellent frontman, and the kind of charismatic showman that many more underground acts would do well to learn from. Live metal is art as well as entertainment, though many forget the latter.
I’ve seen The Black Dahlia Murder seven times, and the Decibel Magazine Tour was their best set. Now, with three albums sporting lead guitarist Ryan Knight in the lineup, the band has enough material to mostly populate their set with newer, stronger, more death metal material, and the rest of the band plays with more energy on these newer, more complex songs. It’s high time the metal blogosphere re-considered the way we talk about Strnad and company—they may never write a classic like Heartwork but they’re obviously trying harder at it than many more critically acclaimed bands are.
In honesty, however, there will only ever be one Heartwork, and there will only be one Carcass. I was front-row-center for the band’s performance at last year’s Maryland Deathfest, at which time I did not expect the band to be the powerhouse that they are. I mean, they’re the same musicians who wrote some of the best guitar-based music I can think of, but they’re old, right? Turns out forty is the new twenty and Carcass rock harder in middle age than many bands ever do in their twenties.
Since then, Carcass released Surgical Steel, an instant-classic and career highlight. Their Decibel set prominently featured choice cuts from that particular Carcass, including “Cadaver Pouch Conveyor System,” “Captive Bolt Pistol”, and of course “Unfit For Human Consumption,” a song that bassist/guitarist Jeff Walker dedicated to Trevor Strnad, in honor of the Black Dahlia frontman attempting to poach drummer Dan Wilding out from under his nose. As Walker said: no no, girlfriend.
Walker’s dry humor provided some much-needed relief from the band’s riff onslaught and frequently gory onstage projections. “This is a song for the ladies,” he sneers, before the screens next to him display a purple and disease-ridden scrotum, and the band launches into classic track “Genital Grinder.”
What’s amazing isn’t that we live in a society where a band can play a song like “Genital Grinder” to a packed house (well, yes, actually that’s pretty fucking amazing and I’m thankful for it every day), but that there’s a proper commercial force that will give a band like Carcass a platform on top of the younger, more exposed band. It’s even better that such a bill will also bring out a challenging and cerebral band like Gorguts to open the show.
There is no mainstream, there is no underground. There is only what people will pay to experience. It took Decibel Magazine taking a risk to illustrate that, and seeing 90 minutes of glorious, middle-aged, fat around the waist, and completely bloodthirsty Carcass, is all of our reward. For that brief bit of time, I sincerely thought that being a metalhead during the fabled heyday could not have been as good as this. Maybe I was right—maybe the so-called classic days gone by are just as mythological as the division between popular and critical heavy metal.