Opeth, Mastodon and Zeal & Ardor at ACL Live at Moody Theatre, Austin, TX 11/26/2021

Every time I go to a concert, it still kind of feels like I’m getting away with something that I shouldn’t be doing. I guess this is just the mindset of nearly two years of dealing with this stupid virus. At any rate, we snuck out of the house this past Friday and were treated to an amazing triple bill of Opeth, Mastodon and Zeal & Ardor.

Zeal & Ardor was up first as appetizer for the heavyweights to come. I had seen these guys play once before and, while impressed with that first show, I was kind of curious as to whether they could continue to push their mixture of slave-era spirituals with black metal to new avenues or if the formula would start to feel stale. Count me impressed because these dudes are channeling rage and sorrow from the past BLM protests regarding George Floyd/Ahmaud Arbery and police brutality/overreach into gospel-tinged protest songs. Feels like an interesting take on ground covered by Rage Against the Machine and N.W.A. It’s starting to feel like these guys have carved out an interesting niche for themselves and I’m curious to see what they do in the future.

Mastodon held down the second slot of the evening and are out promoting their latest platter, Hushed and Grim. I haven’t had a chance to supply a proper review for this album yet, but it provides another solid notch in the band’s catalog. The album continues to see drummer Brann Dailor taking on more and more of the lead vocal duties and it also has some of Brent Hinds most innovative and searing leads. The new album was obviously showcased during their set along with some very choice older cuts thrown in for good measure. Highlight was definitely seeing them roll out The Czar from Crack the Skye, which is one of my favorite of theirs. Overall, this was probably the best I’ve seen these guys perform live. Sometimes they have a tendency to get a little muddy with the sound. This time around everything was crisp and tight.

It was kind of funny seeing Opeth again since they were the last band I got to see before the pandemic shut everything down in 2020. These guys are always worth the risk of contracting a deadly disease. They haven’t put out any new music since that last show, so technically they are still touring on 2019’s In Cauda Venenum. They did rework the setlist to focus a little more on a retrospective from throughout their career. Sadly, this night’s version of Opeth saw them without longtime drummer Martin Axenrot, who left the band due to a “conflict of interest”. I’m having a sinking suspicion that dude wouldn’t get the vaccine in order to go on this tour. Sucks because he was a good piece of this band. Replacement drummer Sami Karppinen of Therion filled in ably, but there was something a bit muddy sounding on his kick drums that kind of drew a bit away from his performance. Still, it was an impressive display of Opeth’s status as one of the pinnacles of prog metal. Mikael Akerfeldt once again confirmed his status as one of the best frontmen going. His deadpan humor should be experienced by everyone once. An example: On their last tour, Mikael was sporting a stylish, if very non-metal hat. Between songs, someone in the crowd asked him where his hat was. He responded, “My hat is on the bus. I didn’t want to end up being a ‘hat guy’. Slash is a ‘hat guy’. Nothing against Slash….but, he’s a ‘hat guy.'” I guess we’ve seen the last of the hat.

Opeth

Mastodon

Zeal & Ardor

Trivium-In the Court of the Dragon

I really want to like Trivium more than I do. They seem like good dudes. They are all very talented musicians individually. They seem to be a very popular band. But, it always feels as if there is something missing from the whole that keeps them from becoming one of the truly great modern metal bands in my eyes. I’ve racked my brain trying to figure out exactly what is missing, but I just can’t come up with a way to articulate it. I don’t know. I guess their sound is just missing that special sort of “it factor”. Whatever that is.

At any rate, Trivium has a new album out. On the positive side of things, they decided to go heavy on this one. The last few albums has seen Matt Heafy focus on using his melodic voice rather than the harsher death-influenced growls. It’s not like they have been going for a more pop oriented sound, but they’ve definitely been presenting a more palatable-for-the-masses sort of production of late. It feels like In the Court of the Dragon is an attempt to flash more of a grittier metal sound. I welcome this direction because Heafy has a great growl and the combination of the growls and melodic voices gives Trivium a more complex and interesting sound. On the musical front, this album is pure sensation overload. At time, especially with the drums and the soloing over the vocal parts of songs, things can get a bit overbearing and the density of the notes and beats going on can simply overwhelm the song itself. As stated, these guys are great musicians. But, it feels like they need to reign in the impulse to shred indiscriminately. I think these songs may have been better served by focusing more on the riff backbone of the song and using their flash to add color and texture to the songs rather than have the flash simply take over the entire song. It’s just too much at time to be completely enjoyable.

Hell, maybe I’m just getting old. I used to be impressed as all get when someone would just shred like a maniac. There are some really tasty songs on here and I applaud the heavy turn, but it just feels as though there is just too much going on at times.

3.5 flip flops out of 5

Between the Buried and Me-Colors II

Revisiting a classic album with a sequel is a fraught proposition. The only albums that I can recall off the top of my head didn’t leave much of an impression in light of the majesty of the first album. Queensryche attempted to craft a continuation of their Operation: Mindcrime storyline with Operation: Mindcrime II and it was a terrible decision (even with the addition of Ronnie James Dio as Doctor X). King Diamond attempted to go back to Abigail with Abigail II and, although it wasn’t terrible like Queensryche’s attempt, it certainly wasn’t really memorable in any way and didn’t come close to reaching the heights of the first album. Iced Earth tried to expand upon their Something Wicked Trilogy with a double album that expanded upon the mythology, but it also fell flat in comparison to the initial three song arc. Also, on this front, go fuck yourself, Insurrection Jon.

So, here we are with Between the Buried and Me going back to their 2007 album Colors. The first album was one of those touchstone moments where this band really started to make a statement that they were a prog metal force to be reckoned with. It was a massive slab of frenetic metal with odd segues into odd world music and other sorts of musical nerdery. It felt at the time that this was a band who was picking up the mantle that Dream Theater had started in the late 80s, early 90s of becoming the trailblazing prog metal band of their era. What Dream Theater was to the 90s, Between the Buried and Me has become in the 2000s.

So, I opened this package with extreme hesitancy. And, though there is much to like on this latest attempt at a sequel, once again the follow-up doesn’t quite reach the heights of the original. The feel of the music between the two albums is there. They’ve managed to capture the same sort of sound on this new album. However, it feels like those special emotional elements that make Between the Buried and Me such a great band are missing to some extent on this one. I can usually count on a few true goosebump type moments on each Between the Buried and Me albums and I just never found the music on this album pushing those buttons for me. Also, it feels like there were just a few too many quirky segues with cartoon/arcade noises thrown in at random places. I know this is kind of a thing they do, but it’s really starting to wear a bit thin. Hell, when they broke out the “Chugga, Chugg-owwwww” soundbite from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off I damn near had to pull the album off the player. This kind of stuff may amuse these dudes, but it effect o the listener is just jarring and, at least from my perspective, completely pulls me out of the vibe of the song.

All in all, a nice attempt, but not a completely satisfactory revisit of a classic album. I think I’d prefer a band to just keep progressing forward rather than revisit the past glories. The track record bears it out that it’s just not a great idea.

3.5 flip flops out of 5

KK’s Priest-Sermons of the Sinner

It’s almost as if the name KK has chosen for his band is aimed at something in particular. It’s subtle. Give it a bit and see if you can figure it out.

Damn, where to start with this one? There’s is a lot going on here. And, not much is good.

I guess the best place to start is with KK himself. Look, Judas Priest was a seminal band in forming my musical taste as a youngster. And KK was a huge part of that classic Priest sound. I’ve always loved the dude’s guitar playing. He’s simply a legend. Now, when he left Priest ten years ago, it sounded like he was just tired and done with the whole scene and was ready to retire. Cool. No problem, man. You’ve earned it. However, since Priest has gone forward without him and has even replaced him with a damn capable lookalike in Richie Faulkner, it feels as if KK has just turned into a jaded and bitter old guy who can’t stop bitching about how badly Priest fucked him over. Granted, when Glen Tipton was diagnosed with Parkinson’s and had to step back from playing live, I can understand why KK was upset and disappointed that Priest didn’t contact him and see if he wanted to rejoin the band. But, ultimately, KK was the dude that decided to walk away from the band. I think he kind of needs to take some sort of ownership in that.

So, it is in this light that we have the resulting band and album put out by KK. It’s ultimately a statement by a guy who feels as though he wants to remind the world that he is out there and that he can deliver the goods better than the current version of Priest at this point. Now, on the positive side, KK’s still got his guitar chops. There are frenzied riffs aplenty and searing leads for days on this thing. Lots of nods to Painkiller era Priest soundwise. Kudos to a dude who just turned 70 for being able to still blister a fretboard. On the negative, the songs just aren’t there. Lyrically, this thing is just cringeworthy. Lots out songs about being metal and about driving fast and kickin’ ass. The mindset on here is more 17 than 70. Some bands are able to pull this kind of thing off, but here it just feels sad. I mean, when the lyrics are “We’re Brothers of the Road….And we Rock! ROCK!!!! (revving engine sounds)” and “We’re Rule Breakers!! Hellraisers!!” I just want to curl up in the fetal position. There is one song called Hellfire Thunderbolt. I guess that’s cool. I’m not sure what it is, but sure, Hellfire Thunderbolt, indeed. Album closer is an attempt to revisit The Sentinel off of Defenders of the Faith. It’s probably the best song on the album, but it was still an interesting choice to include a direct companion piece to a classic Priest song.

The cherry on the top of this entire mess is the selection of Tim “Ripper” Owens as vocalist. Look, Ripper has a fine metal voice. But, at this point, he’s basically that retread, journeyman vocalist that everyone immediately thinks of whenever there is a vacancy in a metal band. He’s been in so many bands at this point and I have been racking my brain and I can’t really think of one that he has made better by joining. Look, I understand KK picking him since Ripper was the dude who replaced Halford in Priest and KK is trying to make this his definitive Priest statement, but honestly, the pick just feels lazy. I don’t know. It just feels like he could have spent a bit more time before making this decision. As to his performance, Ripper is set to maximum screech on here. He’s in the high register from the word go and he really doesn’t let up.

When I originally saw this album announced, I really had a bad feeling about it. And now that I’ve heard it multiple times, it pretty much lives up to every bad assumption I had made about it. And that makes me sad. KK, you’re better than this. I don’t see this tarnishing your legacy at all, but it’s not good. It feels like a desperate attempt to recapture past glory and to marinate in some old personal slights and grudges. Just not a good album.

2.5 flip flops out of 5

Quicksand-Distant Populations

Well, second time we’re dipping our toes into the Quicksand pond here in as many weeks. First, we saw them play in person and now we’re going to do a quick looksee at their new album.

Quicksand is back with their follow-up to the reunion album Interiors. As stated in the previous Quicksand post, Interiors was one of the pleasant surprises of 2017. Distant Populations hasn’t made the same kind of impression on me as the prior release. It is fine in many ways and contains a good chunk of feel good pop and hippy-influenced punk songs. However, it feels like there is a bit of a lack of heft and depth on this one that keeps it from reaching the heights of Interiors. Even though it isn’t quite to the level of the last one doesn’t mean that I don’t recommend that you seek this one out. As stated, there are still some very solid songs on here.

3.5 flip flops out of 5

Levitation Fest Kickoff Show featuring The Sword, Empire Control Room, Austin, TX, 10/27/2021

Hot damn! Austin actually had a music fest take place. Yeah, I know ACL was last month. But, screw those pretentious assholes. If you can’t include at least one metal band on the lineup, I simply refuse to acknowledge you as a proper fest.

Levitation Fest is the psychedelic focused fest that takes over a number of the downtown clubs in Austin each fall. The lineup for this fest is usually fairly eclectic and kind of runs all over the map in terms of rock, metal and electronica. Portland’s Red Fang was originally intended to kick off the fest this year, but they ended up cancelling their touring plans due to covid fears. In their place, we got to see hometown metal heroes The Sword blister through a nice hour plus set. Since The Sword hasn’t put out any new music out in a while and they weren’t trying to showcase a new album, the setlist was a nice balance of tracks from throughout their career. I got to admit that it sometimes feels as though this town doesn’t quite show enough appreciation for these guys. From their Sabbatherian beginning to their current embrace of a more southern fried sound, these guys have curated an enviable catalog of solid metal tunes. This show was a good reminder of what a good live band these guys are. Hopefully this will act as a catalyst to get these dudes back in the studio.

Rivers of Nihil-The Work

By and large, the albums that come out during a given year are just fine. There are a few good songs, a few mediocre ones and some filler. Most of the time, the albums all follow a familiar formula. Rivers of Nihil is turning out to be one of those bands for whom the standard is unacceptable. Each one of their four albums has seemingly upped the game from its predecessor. In a world of typical and uninspired releases, The Work feels like an important piece of art.

Rivers of Nihil began life as an extremely talented technical death metal outfit. They managed to turn the metal world on its collective ear when they released Where Owls Know My Name in 2018 simply for the progressive metal left turn it marked for the band. They added clean vocals, they brought in a saxophone player and they simply changed up their sound into something quite magical and unique. The Work continues to build on the framework laid down on Owls and simply takes it to further unexplored sonic territories. Hell, while listening to it I kept thinking to myself that we are witnessing the birth of the death metal Pink Floyd. Seriously. I say that with zero hyperbole. This is a band to be reckoned with not only in the death metal world or the metal world at large, but they should be held in the highest esteem in the general music world. These guys’ forward vision and willingness to takes risks puts them squarely in vanguard of bands at the forefront of metal.

You should be proud of this one, Rivers of Nihil. It is a fucking masterpiece.

5 enthusiastic flip flops out of 5

Quicksand at Mohawk, Austin, TX, 10/21/2021

So, I went to a big show a few months ago and now I’ve made it to my first club show since everything went to shit. Being back in the sweaty, dark and dirty Mohawk was kind of weird at first, but I’ll admit, it was nice being back in downtown Austin seeing live music. There were days when I didn’t think this was ever going to be a thing again. Credit to the Mohawk folks for checking vaccine status/negative test results and keeping the capacity for the crowd down. Things didn’t feel as shoulder-to-shoulder as this place can sometimes get.

So, first club show back was New York’s sort of post-hardcore band Quicksand. I’ll admit that I completely missed the first iteration of these guys in the 90s, but I’ve been a really big fan of their post-reunion output. 2017’s Interiors was one of the pleasant surprises of that year for me. Even though they record as a three-piece, they brought out Cave-In/Mutoid Man’s Stephen Brodsky as an additional guitar player. They pulled off a really tight set with songs sprinkled from throughout their pre and post-breakup periods. All-in-all, this was a pretty cool little show to start back on the club show horse. Even though, it really seems like a bad idea to start up mosh pits. Smashing and sweating all over each other is still just a poor decision.

Ex Deo-The Thirteen Years of Nero

It seems like there was a joke going around a few years back that had the basic gist of “everything I know about history I learned from Steve Harris”. You’re reading a heavy metal blog so I’m assuming you get the joke, but if not, Steve Harris of Iron Maiden writes a shitload of songs centered on historical events. Ex Deo feels like a chop off the block of Mr. Harris.

Ex Deo is Maurizio Iacono’s (vocalist of Kataklysm) Roman Empire obsessed side project. In theory, I really dig this project. It’s an obvious passion project for Iacono and it feels like he puts as much effort into it as he does with his main gig. However, in practice, I’ve been quite critical in that, despite the differences in subject matter, it’s sometimes very difficult to tell where Kataklysm ends and Ex Deo begins. Musically, they are extremely similar in their very He-Man approach to death metal. Plus, a good chunk of Ex Deo’s lineup is composed of other members of Kataklysm. It’s really not much of a shocker that the two projects kind of blend into one another.

The latest album may be my favorite of the Ex Deo releases up to this point. The main reason being that this one stands further afield from Kataklysm than the other Ex Deo albums do. There are more orchestrations and use of traditional world instruments are this album that give it a bit more of an authentic feel than their past albums.

3.5 flip flops out of 5

Insomnium-Argent Moon

Yet another pandemic resultant EP release. Seems like so many bands used their forced time off the road to write a few songs and we are now seeing a bunch of these songs being released in EP form. Insomnium has released this gracefully melancholy four song mini-album as their response to the pandemic shut down. It’s been one of the better direct responses to the uncertainty felt by many of us during this time.

Musically, this is pretty much straightforward Insomnium fare. It’s beautifully lush melodic Scandinavian death metal. They are continuing to incorporate more and more clean vocals into the proceedings.

I think the best summary of these songs comes from band leader Nille Sevanen in the liner notes. “In the spring of 2020 the world shut down. Everything was cancelled. Everyone was forced to stay home. Every fragile morning was full of uncertainty, fear and anxiety. As a band, we soon realized that we need to keep working. We need to keep writing music if we want to get through these strange times. And somehow the mood and atmosphere of those months were channeled into an idea of making an EP of ballads. Four songs, four videos. Something a bit different. Something we had not done before. These dreary tales and songs may seem desolate, but they really have the opposite purpose: to bring hope. For music, art and stories will carry us towards the new dawn.” I don’t get inspired by much, but this passage hit home with me. Listen to these songs and see if they don’t inspire you as well.

4 flip flops out of 5