also appearing: Omnium Gatherum, Exmortus Skully’s Music Diner, Columbus, Ohio – February 11, 2014
Columbus, Ohio is a pretty great town for concertgoing. I’m living, breathing, blabbering proof of it. There is ample opportunity here for both culture and comfort food of all kinds, and a veritable legion of concert venues of varying class, charm and capacity in which to make it all happen. For all the Katy Perry and Michael Buble invasions we periodically endure, the town also has a wonderful, fully independent radio station, CD102.5, that sees its mission, at least in part, to import as many indie rock and alternative bands as possible and put them in front of enthusiastic, relatively adventurous and discerning potential new fans, occasionally at a discounted price. Columbus also has a surprisingly consistent, if not by universal acclaim vibrant, underground metal scene. Between those two poles alone, I have the ability to see twenty shows a year easily, and most years I not only speed right past that number but leave it in my wake. It’s nice to have a passion. Last night’s performance by Swedish death metal royalty Dark Tranquillity left me with 3 distinct takeaways and a huge smile on my face, newly edified and content in the knowledge that the 2014 season is off to a promising start indeed.
Venues come and venues go, of course, especially downtown, but some have real staying power, and those I generally know like the back of my hand. An exception to this rule is Skully’s Music Diner, one of Columbus’ few venues that openly values ambience and attitude as much or more than history and utility. Skully’s is an appealingly low-fi operation with a bar area modeled after a 1950s diner, complete with corner booths, swiveling barstools and tasteful neon lights, and a dark, cozy, slightly precarious balcony section. The bar extends down a hallway which, as you follow the taps, opens onto a surprisingly spacious dance floor and stage area. It’s just a fun vibe, and they don’t skimp on the beer choices either. The sound is good, the staff is friendly, and not only did they tastefully deploy disco lights during a metal show last night (though the multiple mirror balls remained sadly unlit), I noticed they have an old school, in-house smoke machine built into the high wall above the wraparound bar! Smoke machines make me think instinctively of seeing the great DIY thrash bands like Overkill in tiny clubs, and watching this one work as the bands set up made me unreasonably happy. I’ve never seen a remotely bad show at Skully’s, which I suppose is tempered somewhat by the fact that I just haven’t seen that many there, period. So, takeaway #3 from last night’s show: See more concerts at Skully’s. I suppose that puts the ball in their court.
Takeaway #2: By ranking Dark Tranquillity’s latest album, Construct, as the #20 metal album (it didn’t make the combined list) in my 2013 year end cross-genre write up/spectacular, I may well have been underrating it. DT has been producing the same sort of high quality, aggressive but elegant melodic death metal for years now, though latter day albums have rarely approached the sustained heights of seminal genre documents like The Gallery or The Mind’s I, or equaled the impact of second generation stone killers like Damage Done, the 2002 album that got me into the band at approximately the same time its compatriots in In Flames began to swan dive outright rather than merely decline (and I was therefore at the height of my suggestibility). In the decade+ I’ve been a fan, Dark Tranquillity has been a dependable port in the storm. Album after album, they deliver exactly what you want and expect – interesting, involving, at times beautiful, keyboard-infused melodic death metal – and they do it incredibly well. I’ve enjoyed Construct as much as any DT release since Damage Done, or its worthy successor Character, and as the band powered through a brisk, high-spirited set as heavy on new tracks like “The Silence in Between”, “The Science of Noise”, “Endtime Hearts” and “What Only You Know” as on deeper cuts like The Gallery’s “Lethe” and Haven’s “The Wonders at Your Feet”, I found myself increasingly won over. It makes sense that from a discography so deep, if perhaps not terribly wide, scattered songs a decade or more apart would still fit together into a purposeful, propulsive, and pleasing mosaic of music. It’s not even that a reevaluation is in order. I just need to make it a point to listen more.
Which flows naturally into takeaway #1: See Dark Tranquillity again, whenever the opportunity presents itself. I’m frankly ashamed that I sat so long on the fence before finally deciding to see this show, because it was so much fun. Sure it’s -7 degrees outside and an utter pain to drive and park and brave the elements and all, and, hey, it still will be when you leave. That didn’t seem to be a concern for anybody inside, however. Hell, I saw Slayer and Gojira play during a tornado warning last year. Tree limbs and signposts may have been vigorously circulating out in the real world, but nobody inside the pavilion batted an eye. So it was last night. Dark Tranquillity, now an interestingly configured, still surprisingly powerful bass-less quintet following their longtime bassist’s departure, seems to be greatly enjoying this tour, a rare Stateside jaunt, and it showed in the performance, which never flagged in tempo or commitment. Singer Mikael Stanne was in fine growl all night, exuberant and animated, playing the zealously participatory crowd like an instrument at times, then sitting back at many others in surprise and clear delight as we clapped along and chanted loudly without any direction whatsoever.
The crowd was excellent in general, reverent and enthusiastic, aggressive but not violent, just the kind of show environment I tend to appreciate most, and I’ve seen all kinds. If I may be so bold, a sort of European sensibility seemed to pervade the proceedings. Headbanging was back in serious vogue instead of moshing, the horizon was thick with horns, and the mood overall was palpably celebratory, eschewing the knuckleheadery and random shards of chaos that tend to stick out of modern metal shows. Near the end of the rousing 100-minute set, Stanne led the audience in an only slightly forced sing along of “Therein”, a cut from DT’s wilderness days that was the first song I ever knew by the band, but one that, not owning its source album, I hadn’t listened to (or thought of) in many years. I knew it by music instantly, and was taken. By the second chorus I was piecing the words together. By the song’s end, I was singing like an opera tenor.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the supporting acts, particularly Finnish melodic DM contemporaries Omnium Gatherum, who were fun, high energy and musically excellent throughout despite vocal stylings and a prevailing manner composed of comparable parts sincerity and cheese, and clearly giddy to be in North America for their first time ever. California’s Exmortus was a beyond capable opener, even though I only caught a handful of songs. The band boasts a great attitude, above average musicality and an admirable commitment to shredding guitar playing. It was just a very good night in general, a throwback sort of night, one that puts you in a temporarily different headspace than the one you normally boast. There’s nothing wrong with feeling 22 years old again for a little while, particularly when music is the mode of transport. I’m greatly looking forward to the prospect of seeing Dark Tranquillity again. They really killed it. These kinds of metal shows seem to be coming increasingly to Columbus, thanks in large part to Columbus Events Group LLC, whose energy is infectious and whose efforts are greatly appreciated. Our cup continues to runneth over. In this ridiculous weather, that means it will no doubt freeze instantly, and make its own very metal contribution to our already hazardous roadways, but I wouldn’t worry. That sort of thing is only ever a problem when you leave the club anyway.