(BadWolf brings us this review of a live performance in Seattle by Enslaved, YOB, Ecstatic Vision, and Bell Witch, with photos by Madison Leiren.)
My Wednesday evening at El Corazon on March the 11th was, in many ways, a redemption shot. I was there to see local Seattle funeral doom merchants Bell Witch, as well as Philadelphia’s uncategorizable Ecstatic Vision, Eugene Oregon’s doom wunderkinds YOB, and Norway’s progressive black metal institution Enslaved.
To begin, here is my list of grievances to be resolved that evening:
First, grievances with myself:
– I had never seen Bell Witch, even after six months of living in Seattle and despite striking up a friendship with singer/bassist Dylan Desmond.
– I had never managed to catch a complete Enslaved set, despite having seen them twice before (the first time in 2010 opening for Opeth, wherein the line to enter was so long that by the time I got inside the group was closing with “Isa”; and the second time in 2011, wherein I was called to perform this interview with Alcest, who opened the gig.
Second, grievances with others:
– I saw YOB in the fall in the very same room and they bored me to tears. It was my first show as a Seattle resident and I left. (In retrospect I realize a lot of this had to do with their set list that night including no songs that I particularly like in their discography).
– El Corazon had all but lost me as a customer after Islander and I made our best efforts to see the Cannibal Corpse/Behemoth show there. The sold-out show turned the venue into a cramped concrete sweat lodge. Islander left during Cannibal Corpse’s set and I lasted just three songs into Behemoth before vowing to never return again. Sadly, between El Co’s pulling power and the legendary Funhouse venue re-opening in their lounge, my promise seems untenable.
Photographer extraordinaire Madison Leiren and I arrived seconds before Bell Witch began. While I’m not a fan of funeral doom as a rule, the two-piece’s minimalist approach to the genre opens it up to some interesting possibilities. Drummer/vocalist Adrian Guerra plays a relatively small kit, and does so infrequently–his beats are measured, slow, and powerful, punctuated by his even sparser death growls. He roared upward into an overhead mic, creating a deep, unintelligible bellow, contrasted by Desmond’s sticky-sweet crooning delivered at a near whisper.
Bell Witch’s last album, Longing, didn’t’ quite stick to my ribs, but the band enraptured me in a live setting thanks in no small part to the spectacle of watching Desmond play. The sheer breadth of sound he wrings from a six-string bass is noteworthy, as is his unique picked-and-fingered strumming techniques. Desmond employed finger taps and hammered chords much of the time, and in so doing conjured both beautiful and unusual sounds from his instrument.
It’s interesting that people don’t apply the term “progressive” to Bell Witch more often — their approach is every bit as forward-thinking as Enslaved’s old approach to black metal was, and Desmond’s bass playing is on-par with what I saw Colin Marston pull off in Gorguts. Bell Witch’s sophomore LP, Four Phantoms, is due out in late April, and I’m hoping that much of the dynamic range the band is capable of comes across in that album.
Philadelphia’s Ecstatic Vision took the stage with a flair for the unusual. Tubular lights snaked around drummer Jordan Crouse’s kit, which includes, among other odds and ends, a kick maraca. A repeat for emphasis: a kick maraca. Wind chimes hung from guitarist/singer Doug Sabolick’s mic stand, which he would shake for emphasis on occasions when he wasn’t playing guitar — or a melodica.
While not exactly metal, the band rocketed through a solid half hour of psychedelic stoner rock, complete with odd pseudo-African percussion breaks. While Ecstatic Vision put on a great show, they definitely seemed like the odd men out. I can see them playing with a band like Spacemen 3, but Enslaved seemed like kind of a stretch. Then again, they’re signed to Relapse. In any case, I’d love to see them a second time.
Next came YOB, who took the stage to palpable excitement and applause. Since re-forming in 2008, the doom trio has seen its star rise, culminating perhaps in 2014’s Clearing the Path to Ascend, which landed on Rolling Stone’s 50 best albums of the year list. Personally, my favorite YOB albums hail from their initial run in the early 2000s, as well as Atma. Thier set that night was culled completely from Clearing the Path to Ascend. Still YOB pulled off probably the best performance of the evening.
Always cataclysmically loud, YOB’s music feels at first like a hard slap to the solar plexus. Much of that weight stems from bassist Aaron Rieseberg’s monolithic tone — the man twitches a finger and then moves air by the truckload. Viewers can offer him no resistance.
The focus, however, is guitarist/singer and sole founding member Mike Scheidt, who despite his age and paunch, plays guitar with more enthusiasm and charisma than many of the lithe young men and women clawing for his king-of-doom crown. His fingers clutch, his back arches, and the man commands your attention. When he’s not singing (which he does, both beautifully and with terror), he’s a dervish, flipping his long hair into the air and evoking a shark fin rising from the water. Most impressively though, is the calming center in him, which came to the fore that night when he crooned Alan Watts quotes into the mic, and when he raised his beer between songs.
I consider YOB more than redeemed, though I’d like the next album to bring riffs to match its atmosphere.
Enslaved set the scene with Wardruna as their entrance music and a digital projection of the cover of their new album, In Times, as their backdrop. The album had only dropped the previous day, so the excitement around their new material was high, and boy did the Viking metal troubadours play a lot of it.
They opened with “Thurisasz Dreaming,” the opening track and first single from the album, which made a fitting showcase of their chops. Grutle Kjellson plucked at his iconic Thunderbird and snarled through the verses while Herbrand Larsen stood impassively behind his keyboards, mewling into the choruses.
The band’s charisma lis in perpetually-topless lead guitarist Ice Dale, who stomped around, whipped his hair and raised his axe in triumph as well as any world-class stage guitarist. Founding member Ivar Bjørnson is a bit more stationary, but he and Dale share real chemistry and make for a photogenic duo when they so choose.
The set leaned heavily on material from In Times, interspersed with one song each from their four previous albums. I count this as a mixed blessing. In the early aughts, Enslaved were one of the most exciting and creative metal bands making music. I count their run from 2003’s Below the Lights through 2008’s Vertebrae as impeccably tasteful progressive black metal. Their albums since, however, strike me as both long in the tooth and a bit too slick.
I think that tour they did with Opeth really spurred the band to focus on more complex song structures anchored with choruses cleanly sung by Larson. Sometimes the formula works, as on their new song “Building With Fire,” or on “Death in the Eyes of Dawn” from 2012’s RIITIIR, both of which came across well live. Sometimes, however, they lose sight of what made them great and adventurous in the first place.
In the course of their set, I realized that underneath their progressive elements, Enslaved’s new songs focus pretty heavily on verse-chorus song structure with long tangents in between, as opposed to linear songwriting. The problem is that vocals have always been Enslaved’s big weakness. Kjellson growls well enough, but he really only has one mode of expression, which works when he’s in the middle of the mix but not at the front. Larson as well is a perfectly fine singer, but he’s no Akerfeldt, and can’t always put his melodic worm around a hook.
Put another way: Enslaved are writing very long divergent pop songs, but I don’t get the sense that they really like or understand pop music. Their idols are King Crimson, but King Crimson had to have outside people write their choruses for them, and in the end wound up being a mostly instrumental band. Honestly, I’d love to hear Enslaved write a completely instrumental record.
Nearly an hour into the set, I retreated back and pow-wow’d with esteemed blogger Kim Kelly, who had been slinging merch for YOB.
“They’re not going to play anything off Eld, are they?” I asked.
“No. But they’re going to play until midnight.”
“Their set is 90 minutes long?”
That struck me as a long time for me to take in a great band playing songs I didn’t really want to hear. At the same time, the pit grew a bit uncomfortable, and my photographer signaled her desire to get out before things got uglier. I bought a YOB shirt, said goodbye to Kim and thanked Rieseberg, who had been standing nearby, for his set.
On the way out, Enslaved launched into my favorite song of theirs, “As Fire Swept CLean the Earth.” I learned later that their final two songs were “Fenris” from 1994’s Frost and the title track from Isa. My patience would have been rewarded — this time I hope Enslaved will give me a second chance, not the other way around. Fortuantely, everything that preceded them left a grin on my face.