Alrosa Villa, Columbus, OH – November 15, 2014
The heavy metal genre is the most cloistered and insular in all of modern music. This is by design. Metal, with all its shadowy, subjectively evil trappings and edgy, objectively antisocial output, is predicated not only on the idea of distressing and offending parents, authority figures, moral arbiters, et al, but also on separating the wheat from the chaff on a larger societal level. Every aspect of this music and the surrounding/supporting culture is engineered to serve a dual purpose, nourishing and buttressing its serious listeners and scene adherents – so many of them loners, outcasts or “nerds” in a lifelong search for connection – while simultaneously repelling everyone else, namely those who might find it their prerogative to be overly critical of someone who dresses in a provocatively dark or attention-grabbing way, doesn’t conform to preordained standards as a matter of course, and/or listens to ridiculously aggressive, outwardly atonal and incomprehensible music. It could be that you’re just not meant to understand metal, though, in my experience, it is both imminently understandable and potentially quite rewarding. The further in he travels, the rougher any outsider is going to find the terrain, while the view for residents just grows sweeter and more spectacular.
Here, personal geography makes all the difference. Metal raises its preemptive, nearly impenetrable walls against detractors while providing admirably for the refugees within, whether through communion with artists and fellow fans (many of whom are both) or through the music itself – powerful, dynamic, intense, a hundred different tongues rendered in thousands of different voices. Metal, in its totality, is a heavily fortified yet barely contained multi-pronged musical spectrum of fairly dizzying breadth and depth, and it is also far more. It is a tribal identity, and a lifelong calling, and, let’s face it, a rare but infectious disease. It’s been as much a (metaphorical) component of my blood as plasma or platelets for going on thirty years now, and some of the best friends I have would tell you much the same. Jason Netherton would likely agree as well. The bassist and vocalist for Maryland’s Misery Index recently released the book “Extremity Retained”, an engaging and exhaustive oral history of the death metal subgenre – one of the most prominent of those “hundred tongues” I referenced earlier, and definitely among the rockiest possible terrain – culled from choice new recollections by the style’s pioneers. In between sets at his band’s near-miraculous Columbus show with Poland’s Decapitated, I got the rare chance to bend his ear in general terms, gushing over his band, thanking him for making the trip, and getting a freshly autographed copy of his book. I spent much of the next morning in bed, nursing my most acute neck ache since the last time I saw Misery Index, and, of course, reading. It’s a page turner.
By rights, and on multiple levels, this show probably shouldn’t have happened. I barely know where to begin even now. By the time the tour rolled into Columbus, Decapitated had already been on multiple continents of road for months in support of this year’s excellent Blood Mantra, its second release in the extended wake of the tragic 2007 bus crash that killed founding drummer Witold “Vitek” Kieltyka and left then vocalist Adrian “Coven” Kowanek in a coma. At the time of the wreck, Decapitated was riding a four album wave of increasing returns that had seen its profile rise from jaw-dropping teenaged prodigies* to universal acclaim as one of the very best bands in metal, regardless of genre. The band kept getting better and better, in my estimation and others, until they were cruelly silenced, though that would only prove temporary. The post-wreck landscape has been a hard slog of grieving and inactivity, rebuilding and, eventually, reclamation, all of that last attributable to the tireless efforts of Vitek’s surviving brother, guitarist and chief creative officer Waclaw “Vogg” Kieltyka. After a shaky but hopeful return with 2011’s Carnival is Forever, Vogg’s sweat and tears finally paid off with Blood Mantra, which, with its vicious, angular songwriting and inimitable guitarwork, is solidly among 2014’s best, even if the band is already working with its second new drummer/singer combination in as many albums, and its highs don’t quite equal those of the band’s pre-wreck incarnations. Decapitated brought attitude, energy, and palpable gratitude to its headlining set at the Alrosa Villa, hitting a succession of extremely high spots with 90% accuracy, which, even ragged, is still more than the majority of its peers can dependably achieve.
*The late Vitek was a mere sixteen years old, and already a budding drum idol, when Decapitated released its debut, “Winds of Creation”, in 2000. His brother Vogg was nineteen. If the metal world was dubious upon the pair’s arrival, it was dumbstruck upon pressing “play”. For seven years running, the sky wasn’t just the limit for Decapitated, it was the norm.
The inclusion of Maryland’s Misery Index on this bill – as a “very special guest”, which is in the late running for understatement of the year – was highly unlikely in its own right. These are unquestionably two of the best bands in extreme metal, and Misery Index’s presence turned what was already a high profile mini-tour into a bona fide event. Both bands unleash the kind of aural assault that would doubtless be unbearable to all but the most open-minded layperson (remember, though, it’s different inside the walls), but their approaches are actually quite dissimilar. Whereas Decapitated is an extended exercise in assaultive technical mastery, filtered through and informed by the misty musical labyrinth that is Vogg’s mind, it is Misery Index that, ironically, seeks, with almost every note, beat, and utterance, to take its listener’s head off. Originally an offshoot of death metal trailblazers Dying Fetus (with basically everyone but John Gallagher jumping ship), Misery Index boasted an immediately impressive pedigree, and presented as a “can’t miss” prospect from the start. What caught everyone off guard was how seamlessly the band wove together death metal and grindcore, two of the larger genre’s three farthest traditional outliers, in essence creating a sound that was the very best of two subgenres distilled into a single sound – ten ton riffs, relentless, alternating punk speed with carpetbombing blast beats, pulverizing hardcore breakdowns. Add to that cocktail Netherton’s literate but venomous, politically-charged worldview (he was already an accomplished lyricist) and you get an almost perfect mixture of high animal intelligence and cunning with low animal behavior and intent. Traitors and Heirs to Thievery were my favorite albums of 2008 and 2010 respectively, and this year’s The Killing Gods seems poised to land in the top five as well.
Misery Index was already among my favorite metal bands before releasing the albums that were to become its best work. Now it occupies a different plain entirely. The fact that the band has tended in recent years to tour America sparingly made this concert – in my hometown, supporting the excellent Decapitated, and one of only four stateside appearances to promote The Killing Gods in all 2014 – a rare proposal indeed, one a friend of mine flew all the way from Florida to see (much as I flew down to see Overkill with him in September). The last time I saw Misery Index in Columbus was also the last time I saw Misery Index, period – in 2006, four full albums ago, at a dark, intimate club on High Street much smaller and ideally suited to the scenario than the Alrosa Villa. With so much energy and emotion already invested in the show, my friend and I erred on the side of caution, arriving early enough to see a truly distressing local band (another throwback to the mid-‘00s!) before Misery Index took the stage. Where the opener joked around in between songs and fawningly played to its eight fans, Misery Index was, and is ever, all business, ripping through a frankly exhilarating set heavy on the best parts of its sterling two most recent LPs (“The Calling”, “Conquering the Cull”, and “The Harrowing” from Gods, “The Carrion Call”, “Sleeping Giants”, and the ever-monstrous “You Lose” from Thievery), inflicting more precision punishment on the crowd in an airtight forty minutes than any wannabe tough guy band might hope to accumulate in 3x the stage time. For folks inside the walls, those open to the experience, it was glorious and overwhelming, not unlike I imagine staring into the swirling path of an oncoming tornado would be, except from a position of safety. I still feel prominent twinges of memory when I move my neck, four full days later.
I realize hyperbole is already sort of my stock and trade, but Misery Index is that rare band (perhaps the only one I have left) that prompts me to speak in almost exclusively exaggerated terms. My apologies and everything, but getting plugged back into the live experience after eight long wilderness years seems to have awakened something dormant in my system, revitalizing the latent metal content of my blood to the point that I’m still smiling and coasting off a forty-minute performance days after the fact. And woe be to he or she or thee what follows (or in the case of the sincere but hapless opener, precedes) Misery Index, for you shall invariably suffer by comparison. That was unfortunately somewhat the case for Decapitated, no longer one of metal’s unquestioned leaders though now among its most stirring comeback stories. To the degree that everything following Misery Index tends to smack of anticlimax, Decapitated nevertheless acquitted itself well, spitting an aggressive, befittingly eclectic set heavy on Blood Mantra selections while also leaving room for standout songs like Organic Hallucinosis’ “Day 69” and Nihility’s “Spheres of Madness”. Listening to Vogg shred his way through the fretboard complexities of the latter tune, Decapitated’s well-known standard bearer, is always a giddy pleasure. To these admittedly battered ears, Vogg’s trademark trashy guitar tone came out of the P.A. sounding a little indistinct, and, of course, the band does itself no favors by performing without a rhythm guitarist, conversely layering in computer tracks or simply going without during solo sections or elaborate twin passages, defusing some of what makes the work on album so dependably great. Still, an appealing, above-the-line set.
I’m a little saddened for the bands that so comparatively few folks got to witness the death metal show of the year, despite great promotion and able support from local heroes Columbus Events Group. The Decapitated/Misery Index mini-jaunt traveled from St. Louis to Chicago to Columbus to NYC, before the bands split up for Europe and the holidays, respectively. The previous night’s Chicago date was a sell-out, and by universal acclaim, a fairly magical night of extreme metal. Part of me wishes I’d been there instead, though I’m thankful for this terrific bill that serendipitously fell into my lap. The Alrosa Villa, beyond its unfortunate infamy, remains, at best, an off-kilter venue for an extreme metal show, in spite of the fact that I’ve seen dozens within its walls. You have the inevitable 6:00PM door times, the numbing procession of underwhelming local openers, the huge open floor space dotted, when six yahoos aren’t out there “moshing”, with disinterested little groups and cliques – like it’s high school all over again – and the punishingly long nights that see only true believers left in the pit at 12:30AM, the merely curious having long since dispersed. It’s a slightly depressing cycle to have experienced over and over again in the course of my fourteen years here. The fans, I think, are so much better than that, and, regardless, the bands deserve better. These are two choice artists from the very upper reaches of the very outer reaches of metal, and they’re playing their asses off up there. The folks who stuck around to the end were respectful, happy, and very appreciative, which was nice to see. Events like this one should be cherished. They certainly don’t happen every day.