Monday, October 13, 2008

Concert Review: Amon Amarth w/ The Absence, Belphegor & Ensiferum - Garrick Centre, Winnipeg, MB, 10/11/2008

Sub-genres of metal were presented in the form of melodic death metal upstarts The Absence, from Tampa, Florida; black metallers Belphegor from Austria, Finland's self-described "heroic folk metal" in the form of Ensiferum and the headliners, Sweden's Amon Amarth, a melodic death metal band, heavily focused on Vikings and Norse mythology.

Fans lined up for over an hour outside the Garrick Centre, Winnipeg's favorite venue for "underground" metal bands. When the doors opened at 7 pm, we were greeted by signs indicating that Amon Amarth would be in the merchandise area of the lobby hosting an autograph session with free posters. I quickly made my way over to the line up, met each band member, bought their concert DVD and a t-shirt, as well as shirts at the Ensiferum and The Absence tables.

Less than five minutes after the doors were opened to the seating area of the venue, Tampa's The Absence took to the stage for an inspired but brief set of less than 30 minutes. Having listened to their current album Riders Of The Plague, a few times, I was familiar with both some of the songs as well as their overall sound, which has an emphasis on melodic guitar playing. There's a ton of similar bands out there and I would hope that The Absence will continue to focus more on melody and music that people can remember over speed and perceived heaviness. For the final song, they played Testament's "Into The Pit" from the 1988 album The New Order, as well as from Riders Of The Plague. It may take a while before they headline a show but I hope to see these guys again.

Austria's Belphegor are one of those bands who could easily get lumped in as inspiration for a new Spinal Tap film. Lead singer Helmuth growled and screamed his way through the set, careful to mention the prince of darkness' name several times, both in song and while speaking to the audience, lest anyone forget that they were flying the flag for black metal. They were fast but not as heavy due to their thin sound and tinny drumming style, so prevalent in European black metal. Not given a decent sound check likely contributed to the poor guitar sound, as well. They may have been exceptional guitarists, but you couldn't tell.

For the last song, Helmuth put on a black leather mask, complete with metal spiked mohawk, for a particularly grizzly look. For these guys, being over-the-top in sound and lyrics means something but they didn't resonate with me. Their current album is entitled Bondage Goat Zombie, I kid you not and it a far better representation of the band's sound than what I experienced. The import version also ships with a bonus 6-track DVD of live performances. If you like epic extreme black metal, you should check them out.

Ensiferum which means "sword bearer," are a bit of an oddity. I suppose if the film Braveheart influenced just one band, these would be the guys. They wore some face paint and were bare chested, save for the drummer and female keyboardist. Their songs have screaming vocals with catchy, anthemic themes.

They didn't seem like headlining material to me, and for some reason, they garnered laughter from the people sitting behind me, who were possibly conjuring up Spinal Tap moments in their heads. It almost seems odd to have these guys and Belphegor at the same show, since they have such different sounds. Nonetheless, the fans on the floor were eating it all up, and clearly enjoying themselves.

The band's new lead singer is Peter Lindross who used to be in the Finnish band Norther. He replaced Jari Mäenpää who went on to found Wintersun. Ensiferum's rich sound, with folk elements and instrumentation, keyboards and backing vocals, actually comes across better on CD than live, based on listening to their latest recording, Victory Songs.

Sweden's Amon Amarth prefer to be known as a death metal band who sing about Vikings, rather than as a Viking metal band. They had a fuller sound, as you would expect, and seemed more like a power metal band with death metal vocals. After several songs, I wondered just how limiting Johan Hegg's vocal style was to their potential success. He doesn't scream so much that you can't make out some of they lyrics, but you can't understand everything he's singing. I say you can't have it both ways. Sing clearly and they would have a chance to reach a wider audience. Just look at US veterans Manowar. They sing about similar things, death, honour, warriors, glory, etc., but you can always hear vocalist Eric Adams.

Amon Amarth are almost like the European version of Manowar, lyrically, except they sing about Norse gods, sailing and related Norse mythology. They have competent musicians but I fear their songs, by and large, just don't sound competitive with the cream of the crop songs from the metal cannon. Some bands just hit the spot and connect with you, and some bands don't. Unfortunately for me, Amon Amarth didn't do much for me, despite their strong musicianship and stage presence. Right now, I'm watching a DVD of one of their concerts from 2005 and my impression of the band hasn't changed one bit. The guitar playing was all right but there is no way anyone would say they compare to the guys from Arch Enemy. For me, the songwriting both in the DVD and from the songs they played at the Winnipeg concert, struck me as being bland. Their name means "mountain of fate."

After the concert, I popped their latest CD, Twilight Of The Thunder God, in my car stereo and listened to a few songs while driving home from the gig. I just couldn't help but wish that they had thrown in a well-known cover tune into the set to provide with at least one truly excellent song. They have most of the components to make for an excellent band, but they need better songwriting and improved vocals. Just writing about Norse mythology and all that it entails, isn't enough. Anyone who enjoys the band should check out the triple disc DVD, Wrath of the Norsemen, for over 7 hours of entertainment.

I wouldn't go out of my way to see them again.

My rating for this concert is 3/5.


Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Concert Review: Joe Satriani w/ Mountain - Burton Cummings Theatre, Winnipeg, MB, 10/06/2008

Numbing guitar solos wear you out in this otherwise stunning evening of instrumental prowess.

Attendance: 1646 (sold out)

I was surprised by the number of old rock fans in the audience. Grey hair and balding heads were everywhere. Clearly, a chance to see Mountain, one of the classic rock's most popular early 1970's bands, was too much to resist for these 50 and 60-something fans.

Leslie West's vocals weren't great but he performed adequately on the electric guitar, neither speedy or full of finesse, compared to Satriani, but in command of huge riffs and power chords. Drummer Corky Laing (60) looked a bit like Arthur Fonzarelli, if the Fonz had frizzy hair, and he had a blast. Throughout the set, and especially towards the end, Laing would point at audience members and then let loose a drum stick at one of the cymbals, allowing it to whirl away into the crowd. No doubt, many fans went home with souvenirs.

I didn't recognize the songs that they played towards to beginning of their set. I did know the blues classic "Crossroads" (A cover of Bob Dylan's "Blowin' In The Wind," which seemed like an ineffective cover to me.) and their best known tune, "Mississippi Queen." Some members of the crowd, perhaps fueled by beer, were particularly boisterous, calling out to West and Laing, with requests for "Mississippi Queen" and offering words of approval and encouragement for their playing. Mountain are touring in support of Masters of War, an album of Bob Dylan covers.
Joe Satriani (52) is a monster on the electric guitar, and I enjoyed his performance the most when he was playing the old classic tunes that I recognized, as well as when he slowed things down a bit and sustained notes. In fact, during the tunes that were chock full of endless fast noodling, I found myself being numb to his playing and, truthfully, getting bored.

Highlights for me included "Flying In A Blue Dream," "Ice 9," "Surfing With The Alien" and "One Big Rush." I wasn't so keen on the show's opener, "I Just Wanna Rock," the first track from the new album, Professor Satchafunkilus and the Musterion of Rock. It sounded like something you would expect from KISS, AC/DC, or any other purveyor of overly simple rock, not something from this metal maestro. I was quite impressed with another track from that album that was played towards the end of the show, "Asik Vaysel." With an exotic opening and beats, it's about a Turkish musician and poet who died in 1973. Like every artist, it's not enough to be a great instrumentalist to have a lasting career. You need songs that people can remember. Satriani played several that I didn't know and didn't stick in my head. The ones that I did recognize, however, were fantastic, particularly, the slow, dreamy, and hypnotic "Flying In A Blue Dream," from his third album.

Bassist Stuart Hamm (48) is also well- known among rock instrumental fans, and he wowed the audience with a solo that ran the gamut from sounding like an acoustic guitar while playing Led Zeppelin's "Going To California," to the slapping-fing popping style not unlike what you hear in the music used in the Seinfeld show, to foot-stompin' honkytonk, perfect for a hoedown. Hamm has played and recorded with the cream of the crop rock musicians, including Satriani student Steve Vai, as well as guitarists Frank Gambale and Eric Johnson.

During the final song in the encore, Leslie West (62) appeared to sing and have a bit of a guitar duel with Satriani.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Satriani about 21 years ago and then seeing him at Winnipeg's Centennial Concert Hall. He's very humble but it is apparent that his recording output has not translated into the ability to headline arenas. In fact, one could argue that since radio doesn't play his style of music very much, his career has remained static commercially. Artistically, he's arguably the best-known instrumental rock or metal guitarist in the world and has played with everyone. He's released 12 albums in the last 22 years and continues to be in demand as a guest musician on other people's albums and on the road as a touring act.

The merchandise booth had the 2007 live album by Stuart Hamm for sale but not the new or any, Satriani album, curiously.

I would see Joe Satriani again and my rating for this show is 4/5.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Concert Review: Bobby Watson with Horizon - Berney Theatre, Winnipeg, MB, 10/04/2008

This is the first concert of the season in the Izzy Asper Jazz Performance Series in the 180 seat Berney Theatre at the Asper Campus in Winnipeg, Canada. Each concert is also repeated on Sunday afternoon and evening, such is the demand for tickets. And, as in previous years, the entire series is sold out.

The quintet Horizon is comprised of straight-ahead players who share the heritage of hard bop music and some of them have played with the renown Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers.

The first set was comprised of three long pieces, the first of which started off slow and laid back with ''Quiet As Its Kept," the title track of his 1999 album. The second tune, "For Milt," named after Bobby Watson's son who is a chef, was a dazzling display of virtuosity from all five members, each of who is a group leader in his own right. The final opening set number was "Duke Ellington's Evergreen."

Bassist Essiet Okon Essiet (52) received a lot of applause for his unconventional slapping of the body of his upright acoustic bass, not to mention his dexterous plucking. Bobby Watson, also a renown music professor, was the evening's gracious host and sax player. His playing was smooth and his solos were played with power while appearing to have left some gas in the tank. Pianist Edward Simon (39), is also a jazz educator and had two CDs for sale at the show, which I also purchased. Unicity (2006) features drummer Brian Blade and one of the biggest names in contemporary jazz, bassist John Patitucci while La Bakina (1998) has material he heard as a child in Venezuela.

Trumpeter Terell Stafford (41) performed a variety of styles, including using a plunger and mute. He was particularly engaging during his faster solos, in which he bent over backwards as he blasted out notes in rapid fire succession, fingers pumping and racing up and down his horn. He put so much effort into his performance that I wouldn't have been surprised if he had keeled over from a heart attack. Talk about intensity. I picked up his CDs New Beginnings (2003) and Taking Chances (2007.)

When Watson introduced the band, he mentioned that the group Horizon would not be possible without drummer Victor Lewis (58.) Lewis was flawless whether performing ballads, barnstormers, or anything in between. I was surprised by how distinctive a style he has. You would think that it would be difficult to stand out from other jazz drummers, and while that might be the case, Lewis didn't seem like any number of jazz drummers who I have seen over the years. Like New Orleans drummer extraordinaire, Herlin Riley (52), Lewis has his own way around the drum kit. I'll be on the lookout for some of his CDs.

The group played for about a hour again, and then returned for an encore. Even without an opening act — I was expecting the U of M music students — it was a very worthwhile evening for jazz fans.


Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Concert Review: Opeth w/High On Fire - The Garrick Theatre, Winnipeg, MB, 09/29/2008

Sweden's Opeth are one of the most celebrated "progressive" metal bands around, and certainly one of the most unique with their unusual mix of folksy, acoustic passages juxtaposed with deep, guttural vocals and rapidly thrashing precise speed metal, with tinges of progressive keyboards. They command sonic textures and wrap up the delicate and quiet with the brilliant and intricate playing that goes from zero to 60 in the blink of an eye.

Vocalist Mikael Åkerfeldt played guitar, as did new member Fredrik Åkesson, formerly of Arch Enemy; Martin Axenrot ( who I thought looked like one of the elves from the Lord Of The Rings films) played drums, Martin Mendez was on bass; and Per Wiberg was on keyboards.

Åkerfeldt joked that Sweden is known for having the greatest hockey players, which elicited moans from the jovial audience. He spoke about spending some time walking through Osborne Village, a popular bohemian shopping district in Winnipeg, and how the only thing Sweden has going for it anymore, since they have no good bands, are girls who like to wear very little clothing in the summer. He's quite funny.

Towards the end of the show, Åkerfeldt began to ask for requests from the fans. Finally, he asked that everyone be quiet so that some woman near the front could offer her song request. He responded by saying that they already played it and fielded more requests. Finally, he played a couple minutes of the next few requests, sometimes having to stop because they couldn't remember the song. Opeth's music is among the most complex metal that I've ever heard. As such, it's also not easy to digest in one listen. Their songs are more epic in nature than catchy and anthemic. If you only caught a few snippets, you might think they were all about beautiful folk guitar, or manically rabid death metal. They are one of those bands you have to listen to over and over in order to really absorb their diverse musical ideas.

I know I witnessed what some would describe as the next evolution of heavy metal in Opeth. They are very different but they are also musically interesting. Their current album, 2008's Watershed, hit #32 on the Billboard top 200 in the US, # 7 in Australia and # 1 in Finland, and their 2003 DVD went gold in Canada. I thought the DVD was an excellent introduction to the band. Opeth are definitely not for everyone, but if you're looking for something quite a bit different, check them out, especially live.

Set list
Heir Apparent
The Grand Conjuration
Serenity Painted Death
Hope Leaves
The Lotus Eater
The Night and the Silent Water
Demon of the Fall
Encore: The Drapery Falls

Oakland, California's High On Fire, a power metal trio, opened the show, and in the absence of an expected second opening act, played a longer set than normal, about an hour.

I had listened to a few of their tracks months ago, but wasn't overly taken by them. Live, however, they absolutely killed. The sonic assault they presented was very satisfying and created the illusion of cautionary tales of nomadic warriors raping, pillaging, killing, stealing, and drinking as they roamed and terrorized the countryside. I have no idea if this is what they really sing about, but I couldn't make out the cookie monster vocals at all. Was he asking for cookies or trying to conjure up Satan? I don't know.

Despite being a trio, this guys never left me wishing for a second guitarist. There was just a bit more talent in these guys than I have seen in many other similar bands, enough to make we wish I get a chance to see them play again. Drummer Des Kesnel was extraordinary, powerful yet inventive. Shirtless front man and guitarist Matt Pike might actually be able to bring the band to newer heights if he would try singing more than screaming, but even with indecipherable vocals, he was still a magnetic presence. They have some Motorhead in their DNA but unlike many bands influenced by Lemmy and company., these guys are definitely a cut above the rest.


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