Sunday, August 31, 2008

Rating Methods

I rated the shows according to specific criteria: quality of performance in comparison to other acts, authenticity of the performance and crowd reaction. The second criterion (authenticity of the performance) refers to how much dubbing or pre-recorded ("canned") music is used during the show. The maximum number of circle "A"s that can be awarded is five, indicating a flawless performance. However, 4 out of 5 doesn't necessarily mean a less than perfect performance; audience reaction may have been low or the performance may have lacked authenticity. Please post comments. I encourage a lively debate.

Testament: Short, Sweet and Savage

We arrived at the end of the opening number, but were in our seats for the second - the classic title track from The New Order. Alex Skolnick opened with the lightning riff as Eric Peterson, Greg Christian and Paul Bostaph offered thunderous support. The band then attacked the thrash-laden intro, which had us banging our heads and stabbing our "horns" in the air. Chuck Billy entered the fray with his characterically gritty vocals. The audience thrashed, played air guitar, and banged its collective head. "Practice what You Preach" brought home the nature of metal and why its been such an enduring force worldwide: as outsiders from the mainstream metal and its patrons have been marginalized and dismissed by a culture unwilling to accept its own hypocrisy. Testament hasn't slowed down, changed or sold out; The Formation of Damnation has the same lightning riffs, unpredictable changes and underground, anti-social themes a fan would have expected from The Legacy or Demonic. Though I haven't purchased Damnation yet, it's at the top of my list. I recognized two tracks from the new album from their MySpace webpage: "More than Meets the Eye" and "The Henchmen Ride" (which Billy dedicated to the Harley-riders in his audience). When I wasn't watching the band, I was banging my head or singing myself hoarse.


4/5 Circle A

Motörhead: Rock'n'Roll

Lemmy's intro wasn't instrumental, it was direct, and simple: "We are Motörhead. We play rock'n'roll." For those of you that only associated Lemmy and Co. with "Ace of Spaces," there may not have been much to do except bang your head, which is something Motörhead fans do a lot. There was a mix of old and new, drawn from early records, such as Ace of Spades and the live No Sleep 'til Hammersmith to the 2006 release, Kiss of Death. The purpose of joining the Metal Masters tour, I imagine, was to promote their recent release of Motörizer (in stores about three days prior to the show - another must have on my list). We Motörhead fans, however, were banging our heads to classics such as "Metropolis," "Overkill" and "Stay Clean" (from Overkill) "Over the Top," (first appeared on Hammersmith) "Killed by Death," (first appearing on the live No Sleep at All) and yes, of course, "Ace of Spades." I confess to feeling a little disappointed that "Iron Fist" wasn't played, but it was a short show with no more than eleven tracks (Hammersmith had that many on the original vynil LP), and I enjoyed the entire performance.

One highlight of Motörhead's show was Mickey Dee's drum solo, as visually stimulating as it was aural. at one point, Dee started chucking his right drum stick, one after the other in rapid succession, twirling high in the air before falling. If I had been allowed to take a camera in, I would have posted video, it was that amazing. Guitarist Phil Campbell, 25-year veteran of Motörhead not only kept up with Kilmister, but brought his own flair to the stage on such new classics as "Be my Baby" (Kiss of Death). He took the mic a few times to plug the new album. He also did a synchronized step with Lemmy during the intro of "Metropolis," an unexpected bit of choreography. But Motörhead shows are now, and have always been, a celebration of the JD guzzling, Dorito-chomping, Muttonchop-wearing, bass-thumping, Godfather of Metal, Lemmy Kilmister, who brought it full circle for us at the end of his show, reminding us of our metallic roots: "We are Motörhead and we play rock'n'roll!" With that, he turned up his amp full blast, leaned his signature bass against the amp and let it feed back endlessly as he left the stage.


5/5 Circle A

Heaven and Hell: Why the Mob Still Rules

No one wants to get kicked out of a show that they paid hard-earned money for, which is the only reason the seat jumpers that crept forward during Black Sabbath's performance have any teeth left. No less than ten of you creeps climbed over the seat behind me, smiled at me like I was your best friend, then climbed over the row in front of me and blocked my view. Then there was the drunk seat jumper who kept hugging me and everyone else, trying to grope every chick that he saw. Someone finally brought an usher, who tried to ask him to leave. I suggested he get help, since the guy clearly wasn't going anywhere on his own. By this time, a six-foot-three headbanger who appeared to weight about 250 pounds had placed himself between the drunk and his girlfriend, who the drunk had been molesting. The usher looked at me helplessly: "I'm not security."

Bullshit. You yellow-shirted bastards tackled no less than four stage jumpers, so don't piss down my leg and tell me it's fucking raining. But I didn't say that. I said, "Then get someone who is before someone puts this shitheel in a fucking coma." Ultimately, it was the drunk's friend who dragged him to the aisle. I don't know what happened next, but let it be said that there is no subsititute for friends in a situation like this one. If the asshole, drunk seatjumper is reading this, thank your friend with the bands in his goat-tee; when the usher abdicated his responsibility to eject you, it gave the rest of us that you were hassling some very limited options. But I'm pretty sure the party line would have been, "He was drunk, and he just . . . fell."

Not that I blame anyone for wanting a better view of Tony Iommi, Geezer Butler, Ronnie James Dio and Vinnie Appice. Or that fucking set! Four pillars adorned with spherical lamps (or crystal balls, if you prefer) mounted on skeletal hands. A chain fence joined the pillars, with Vinnie's drum kit at the "gate" between them. The band was flanked on either side by winged gargoyles perched in dead treetops, whose eyes glowed and breathed smoke. Additional special effects included four pillars of flame that turned the set from a cemetery to Sixth Circle of Hell.

The show kicked off with Mob Rules' E5150 (abridged version) before moving on to the title track from the same album. Dio's soaring vocals seemed effortless, his movements choreographed to reach the audience watching from the lawn behind the amphitheater seats at Glen Helen. He was characteristically low-key when addressing the audience, saving his "strong" voice for the power-vocal he's known for . . . that and the "horns up" salute. Dio kept the energy high, moving freely about the stage and twirling the feet of his mike stand.

I found myself looking up at the monitor to watch Iommi's fingers as they made his trademark Gibson SG an extension of his musical genius; one can't help but notice the digital prosthetics he'd fashioned to help him continue playing guitar following his horrible accident at the Birmingham, England sheet metal fabrication shop, in which he lost the tips of his fingers. Having worked in metal fabrication, I have always felt a certain kinship to Iommi, who arguably, fathered the metal genre when he invoked "the Devil's chord" in their self-titled track, "Black Sabbath." I find myself optimistically referring to him as "Sir Tony." It'll probably never happen; a former steel worker from Birmingham, though revered by headbangers far and wide, isn't exactly the sort of person Queen Elizabeth II has been knighting lately. But we can hope. Frankly, he's the closest thing we in heavy metal have to nobility.

This is to take nothing away from bassist "Geezer" Butler. Sabbath wouldn't have been Sabbath without him. He showed that he was always an innovator, and continues to be. Likewise, Vinnie Appice put his own signature style on the Dio-era Sabbath sound, the focus of the Metal Masters tour and The Rules of Hell boxed-set this tour promotes. Appice's drum solo rivaled Mickey Dee's in its intensity, though not in visual appeal. His drum kit, however, featured some "wobbly" vertical toms, that oscillated when he hit them like . . . well, a weeble (if you don't know what that is, ask your parents).

Their closing number ("Heaven and Hell" - of course) was the long version found on Live Evil. Yes, the one where Dio shouts, "Leave me alone, I want to burn in Hell!" adding, "with you, and you and you," pointing to us in the crowd. The Glen Helen audience gave them a standing ovation, cheering until they returned for a single-song encore, playing "Neon Knights." The place rocked, we banged our heads, and enjoyed the opportunity to hear them play one last number for us. For me, the show was my privilege to attend.


5/5 Circle A

Judas Priest: Nostradamas Prophesies the Return of the Metal Gods

The Nostradamus backdrop featured a representation of the prophet with glowing eyes - which moved from side to side. This almost made up for the canned music that preceded the band's entrance onto stage. While I appreciate that one salient criterion for heavy metal is its employment of stage theatrics, I couldn't help but feel cheated by the fact that I was listening to a recording. For me, the show officially began when Scott Travis struck the skins and Downing, Tipton and Hill cut through bullshit with British Steel. When I first heard Halford's voice on the title track from Nostradamus, I couldn't see him; it wasn't that he was offstage, I had simply mistaken him for a stage prop. A space blanket-cloaked figure holding a chrome staff, symbolically fashioned with the Judas Priest cross at the top (circa 1988 or so). Doffing his hood, (replacing one chrome-dome for another) Halford moved across upper platforms of the stage like an elderly man, before returning to his perch stage left and descending down an apparent elevator shaft. He later emerged from Star Trek style sliding doors beneath Travis' drum kit to conclude the song.

Their show was also hampered by their camera crew. After four shows and constant headbanging, I wanted to sit down a little. There was a huge monitor from which to watch the show. Unfortunately, the cameras focused on Halford at the expense of the musicians. Even during Tipton and Downing's blistering solos, the cameras followed Halford as he stomped around on stage. I doubt this was his doing, as he often moved next to the guitarists during their solos, pointing at them in deference. "Painkiller," sadly, was appropriately named. The opera-trained Rob Halford, while his performance was flawless, sounded like he strained himself on this number, and may have needed some extra-strength Tylenol afterwards.Let me emphasize that Judas Priest, consummate professionals all, gave a flawless performance. As the set changed, the canned music started up once again with "The Hellion" as a lead into "Electric Eye"(both from Screaming for Vengeance, 1982). I remember the latter from high shool, where it created a lot of buzz at the time. Back then LANDSAT and SPOT were in their resolutionary infancy. Satellite imagery was learning how to map in infrared, but didn't have the high resolution of QuickBird or contemporary SPOT; the institutional resolution used to be 90 metres, now sub-meter imagery is available on the open market. It is reasonable to assume that government spy satellites are have reached at least decimeter resolution - enough to watch people and exert power over them. Indeed, these spy satellites were used recently to watch Iraqi troop movements - though these billion-dollar, publicly-owned surveillance systems have somehow failed, as yet, to zero in on Osama bin Laden and lead to his capture. As I recall, the warning inherent in "Electric Eye" was that the people had "elected" this system for security, and in so doing, traded not only their freedom, but sacrificed the coveted safety as well:

Electric eye, in the sky
Feel my stare, always there
There's nothing you can do about it
Develop and expose
I feed upon your every thought
And so my power grows

"Elected, protective, detective, Electric Eye!" was a warning. I felt a sense of irony at the prophetic nature of the song, and the themes of prophecy associated with Nostradamus (stay tuned for the album review).

"Breakin' the what?"

"LAW!" we yelled back"

Breakin' the what?"

"Breakin' the WHAT?"


"Good, let's break the law!" And the sympathetic metal narrative of Daryl, an out-of-work druggie, had the audience on its feet (even those of us who had head-banged our way through the three preceding shows). Canned music aside, going to a Priest concert has roughly the same effect its audience as The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Our host's sexual orientation doesn't keep him from getting the audience to go along with pretty much everything he does. He made us sing a cadence with him, made us sway our arms from side to side with our "horns" up during "Angel," and otherwise just made us have a kick-ass time all around. Such a kick-ass time, in fact, that it won the band not one, but two standing ovations.

The first won us Halford on a Harley through the Star-Trek doors. Travis, Tipton, Hill and Downing began the slow, thunderous intro to "Hell Bent for Leather," with Tipton beating the shit out of his whammy bar for a full thirty seconds before he and Downing attacked the rapid-fire guitars leading into the vocal. They followed up with "The Green Manalishi (with the Two-Pronged Crown)." Halford also professed his love for his adopted country by kissing the American flag, respectfully draping it over the handlebars of his Harley so it wouldn't touch the ground.


4/5 Circle A


The crowd may have won a second encore from Judas Priest, but I didn't stay to find out. I suspect that I'll find out on some one's blog - or from a comment here - that the Metal Gods returned to the stage a second time. But my feet were blistered and I had an hour commute home from Glen Helen. Many of the fans in the audience weren't even born when Priest began forging British Steel - much less when Iommi struck the Devil's chord. It is a testament (no pun intended) to the enduring nature of metal. No less than three generations of headbangers turned out to celebrate the genre in its most influential forms; Primordial Metal, Power Metal, Thrash and just plain Rock'n'Roll. Metal became the music of a people that punk could no longer reach: the working-class, the disadvantaged, the poor. Those who cried out, you don't know what it's like! Those who would stand up to the mainstream, confronting them by saying, just 'cos you got the power, doesn't mean you got the right. Those who would warn us of the failure of democracy as a result of an uninformed public following the ignorant: if you listen to fools, the mob rules. And those who called a changing of the guard: takers of humanity, elders paranoid, the time is now, give up this world you once destroyed.

It is the music of frustration, of anger, of alienation. Metal is a dark reflection of the society which continues to reject it, ignore it, dismiss it and everything else, except face it. The music and lyrics are as relevant today as they were 25 years ago. It is a celebration of the human spirit of resistance in the face of economic, social and political adversity.