Detour: A song of death, “Death”, thrash, craft, and (almost) karaoke

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An infrequent occurrence, a “Detour” is an attempted standard review that, either from an excess of subject matter, personal perspective, rank obscurity, or unplanned or uncontrollable digressions, ended up significantly changed from its original form by the writing and editing process, sometimes even for the better. There is a review in here somewhere, I promise. You may just have to dig a bit.

appearing: Toxic Holocaust, Lord Dying, Infernal Death (official Death tribute)                              Ace of Cups, Columbus, Ohio – September 6, 2015

It’s important up front to know a little about my mood going into this. I’m a pretty reasonable guy, sweet, empathic, a little goofy. It’s not that my Labor Day weekend leading up to the Toxic Holocaust show was necessarily bad, but it was…frustrating. I won’t bore you (or revolt myself) with first world problems. Suffice it to say that my plans to that moment, best laid and well-intentioned, had gone awry with comprehensive and perplexing regularity, and I was in a mild funk. I needed thrash metal to mitigate my foul mood, and, after two days of existential drifting, it was finally time to consult…the schedule. As part of my ongoing efforts to redefine what is a generally mundane bachelor’s existence into something instead fairly brimming with opportunity and overflowing with diversions, I maintain via Excel spreadsheet a meticulous, outrageously extensive event calendar of concerts, stand-up comedy shows, special movie screenings, beer tastings, trips out of state, and get togethers in town among my small but treasured circles of friends. It’s the very definition of a “living document”, though calling it a “schedule” of any sort is misleading. It contains details on every single event for which I might have the slightest interest occurring within the next four to six months. To separate the wheat from the chaff, I do highlight whatever events seem the most plausible, or, in heavy seasons like this past summer, the most unforgivable to miss, but I make sure everything has a place. Obsessively.

Maybe trace elements of the OC-ADHD cocktail that will eventually kill me are finally bubbling to the surface. I’ve always been a curator of, and slave to, excessive entertainment options. It is, at once, quite possibly a personal failing but probably also one of the secrets of a happy life I would offer if asked. It’s certainly proven to be a clutch side benefit of being single and childless, not to mention a likely contributing factor to me being in that state in the first place. In life, your personal mileage will vary. My current event spreadsheet is a frankly ridiculous 57 items in length – including two for tonight I won’t be able to get to – with a mere (and responsible!) sixteen highlighted, and already stretches a couple of months into 2016. Columbus is a pretty fun town. Though I lack far and away either the financial backing or personal stamina to even seriously contemplate most of it, the list has both symbolic and practical personal worth. It has become a nice tool for helping me identify and isolate what’s most important. Plus, it’s always nice to dream. This unassuming little Toxic Holocaust concert had been on my radar for weeks, though I didn’t fully commit to going until a few hours before it was set to start. Then Friday night happened, and Sunday morning, and you had better have believed I was suddenly ready to rock. Right up until the moment I walked in the door at Columbus’ Ace of Cups, I half expected this to somehow go wrong as well. It had been that kind of weekend.

Working survivors of the stand-up comedy bust of the 1990s occasionally tell, or at least acknowledge, variations on an all too common war story: that, at the dizzy popular heights of the scene, personality, style, and any other crucial differences in quality that might’ve separated one tier of stand-ups from another in a more discerning marketplace had been deemed unimportant by greedy club owners, who could dependably bring in a healthy crowd of walking two-drink minimums with lazily assembled cavalcades of second-raters advertised under the simple, highly condescending banner of “Comedy”. Why then would a comedian make any effort to hone his/her craft to a fine point or stand out otherwise if the marketplace simply didn’t care? I can understand the frustration when I hear brilliant modern stand-ups like Patton Oswalt or Doug Stanhope referencing those days, though there might also be a way a catch-all moniker like “Comedy” is beneficial instead of just offensively limiting: as a beacon to the undecided. “Come this way,” one imagines it saying to a prospective audience member. “’Comedy’ – it’s unthreatening but inherently entertaining! You might not remember it afterward, but you’ll have fun!” Granted, bug zappers serve a similar purpose for a different species of loitering drones that lacks clarity on how it’d most like to die. That pulsing blue-white light is just so enticing. Comedy clubs and wholesale exterminators alike know that, on an elemental level, it’s all about getting butts into seats.

Replace “Comedy” with “Metal” and you have some weird insight into my thought process in selecting Sunday’s Toxic Holocaust show, which ran somewhat counter to my normal methodology. Though of course horribly reductive given the staggering range of talent and different visions it encompasses, “Metal” as a catchall still imprints upon the prospective attendee a certain baseline expectation, and, for me, that expectation is to have uncomplicated fun.* Whenever I’m not feeling awesome at a show – which is to say those large swaths of time when I’m standing around doing nothing, talking to no one, waiting for something to happen, enduring crappy openers, etc. – I feel my age, not just in terms of aching feet but in mild exasperation with lost or wasted or misspent time. The headlining act is therefore of paramount importance. Part of the fun of my spreadsheet is that I tend to subconsciously populate it with no-hopers, artists I’d really kinda love to see under ideal circumstances (unlimited funds, time, conveniences) but which, in the real world, start out as long shots and only get increasingly unlikely as show time approaches. In general terms, I’m interested in not the most but rather the best value for my money. My time may not be empirically valuable, but it’s still mine. I’d rather see three bands that just kill it than wind my way through a bill of six or more that only contains two of my favorites, spaced apart. The more metal shows one attends – and I’ve been to hundreds – the more one encounters some variation of that latter scenario. “Work smart, not hard” isn’t just a single application mantra. It can’t be, when metal shows can be such hard work in and of themselves.

*I like that even though they each seem like indistinguishably awful concepts to a layman, a metal fan is likely to have an equivalent, albeit materially different, sort of fun at a Toxic Holocaust show as he might at, say, a Napalm Death show. Here it’s the difference between thrash and grind (and/or youth and experience), or, as you pull the camera back increasingly further, death, or doom, or power, or black, or metalcore, or prog, or melodic, or folk, or truly whatever have you…all under one giant black umbrella. “Metal”. There’s a lot of muck out there to slog through and clean off your boots, to be sure, but there is also genius to be sampled in copious amounts.

This is all a roundabout, (I suppose) particularly inelegant way of saying that, while I really enjoyed them, not only did I not go to Ace of Cups specifically to see Toxic Holocaust, that band was actually my third priority out of three. I’ve spent years dallying in disparate genres in search of musical kicks, but, in my experience, only in metal does something like this happen. There are so many individual choices within an avalanche of subgenres that even when lists of favorites overlap, there’s generally little consensus, and perfectly good bands sometimes get lost in the shuffle. I knew of Toxic Holocaust by name and reputation, as one of the leaders of the post-millennial thrash metal revival, alongside bands I both know and love like Ireland’s exhilarating Gama Bomb or Virginia’s irrepressible Municipal Waste. I’m on record early and often describing thrash, with its hyper-punk tempo, brash attitude, and blistering fretwork, as, “the happiest music on Earth”, but somehow I’d still only ever heard a spare song or two from Toxic Holocaust, and come away mildly/insufficiently impressed. The band that stoked my interest initially was actually the direct support, Portland, Oregon’s catchy, sinister Lord Dying. Though never an avid fan, I’d been an admirer of the band’s 2013 album Summon the Faithless, and endlessly circling the idea of picking up its Relapse Records debut, Poisoned Altars, since it came out in late winter. The band’s set, heavy on the more mature and expansive material contained on Altars, turned my expectations on their ear. The new songs stomp and rumble expertly. They stick in your head, staking out an appealing middle ground on the groovier end of the extreme metal spectrum, like a crisper High on Fire, maybe, or a faster Crowbar. Thus energized and given the chance to deal with the band directly, I couldn’t in good conscience delay purchasing Poisoned Altars anymore, and a few spins at home on Labor Day confirmed just how far the band had come. Where its predecessor sniffed but ultimately fell just short of my 2013 metal list, Poisoned Altars stands a very good chance of not only making up for that but more.

Counterintuitively, however, it ended up being neither headliner Toxic Holocaust nor direct support Lord Dying that was the tipping point for my decision to finally attend, but rather local opener – and ace, officially recognized Death tribute band – Infernal Death. In journalistic terms, this is known as “burying the lede”. To a metal fan of my general stripe and vintage, few deals in the genre’s history have ever been bigger than the pioneering Florida proto-death metal band that was so influential it lent its own name to coin that of the larger genre. In the years since visionary guitarist/writer/ bandleader Chuck Schuldiner passed away, Death has been kept alive, so to speak, by a series of exceptional album re-releases and periodic tours by the tribute band Death to All (Death-DTA), a rotating roster of all-star alumni (Gene Hoglan, Steve DiGiorgio, Sean Reinart, et al) that performs letter perfect renditions of “hits” from one of the band’s two historical eras – the swampy, brutal, seminal gurgle of its highly influential opening trio of albums, or the increasingly complex, hyper-technical, almost otherworldly compositions of albums 4-7. Infernal Death, a potent and charming homegrown outfit comprised of seeming soccer dads taking a conspicuous night off from normalcy to once again rage onstage and recreate the most beloved music of their youth, draws its set list exclusively from Death’s original two masterworks, its 1987 debut Scream Bloody Gore and quantum leap follow-up Leprosy (1988), and, whether approximating Schuldiner’s grimy, buzzsaw guitar tone, famous guttural growl/scream combination (a “scrutterowl”?), the band’s palpable low-fi sonic thunder (perfectly flat-tuned drums, exploding bass, bludgeoning but somehow textural riffs), or settling into the idiosyncrasies of specific songs (such as the alternating swing and paddle thrash of the chorus to “Baptized in Blood”, or the dripping with menace establishing twin lead of “Zombie Ritual”), its renditions were note for note perfection all night. For a guy who always loved Death dearly but never got a chance to see them, and has thus far shamefully evaded Death-DTA as well, Infernal Death was a real treat. The only time I stopped smiling the entire set was when I found myself involuntarily singing along to crowd-pleasers like “Evil Dead” and “Pull the Plug”. Call it a 70/30 split.

One of the great aspects of concert going at Ace of Cups owes to the sort of everyman anonymity that is inherent in a lot of underground metal: handicapping which attendees standing in the crowd are actually playing that night. Despite a surprising amount of usable space, the venue has no “backstage” area to speak of. Unless they want to wander up and down High Street or hang out in cramped vans all night, the band members are going to be forced to mingle. Some of my guesses were spot on (I’d tagged the guy at the merch stand as the lead singer of Lord Dying, official sight unseen, even before I noticed him enthusiastically head-bobbing along to Infernal Death, and it’s hard to mistake Toxic Holocaust’s platinum blond singer for a standard pit denizen, even if you don’t know exactly who he might be) and some fell comically short, but the larger point is that bands and fans co-existed easily and happily for the run of the entire night. Hugs and high fives were regularly exchanged, and it seemed to me at times like the world’s loudest, least “proper” family reunion. I felt a definite twinge at not being more a part of it, even as I felt grateful and fortunate just to be there. I was, indeed, alone, but rarely felt it, as I was able to indulge my fondness for both people watching and craft beer in between experiencing short, controlled blasts of intoxicating music. Infernal Death was, of course, uncanny, if not time-bending, Lord Dying was eye-opening, and Toxic Holocaust was at least predictable fun. The band had an edifying number of authentic fans there to greet them, even if I was not technically among them. It was a great time. Even the changeover soundtrack between bands was Motorhead’s terrific late-‘80s monster Orgasmatron, which features, in “Deaf Forever” and the title track, two of my favorite metal lyrics of all time…perfect to sing along to.

Ace of Cups is one of that growing but still underrepresented species of combination bar/concert halls that takes obvious pride, or at least care, in catering to a defiantly niche clientele. It’s never a single, defined audience either, but rather a procession of them depending on the event, some even intermingling on transitional nights. I find that sort of philosophy delightful. Parking is a definite pain in the ass, and impromptu mosh pits tend to break up the floor integrity for bystanders more than at other places I’ve been, but there’s also a balcony with couches, and a patio out back, a food truck out back and to the side, a deceptively stocked oversized bar, and pretty friendly employees across the board. Of its sixteen beer taps, Yuengling Lager and Guinness qualified as Ace of Cups’ most mainstream offerings. I waffled among a half dozen possibilities in picking my own drinks, but, determined to keep my wits and enjoy the evening with minimal accoutrement, limited myself to two. I had a pint of Zen IPA by the excellent Cincinnati brewery Rhinegeist, and found it particularly refreshing, then foolishly followed it up with twelve ounces of North Coast Old Rasputin Imperial Russian Stout, which, for a comparative neophyte like me, stands as possibly the stoutiest stout what ever stouted. Sometimes your zeal to try new things can inadvertently back you into a corner. Even as I intellectually appreciated what I was drinking, it still took four cups of water afterward to neutralize the aftertaste. Musical choices abound in the coming months as well, and with a fall/winter schedule that includes Revocation, D.R.I., Red Fang, KEN Mode, Cattle Decapitation (?!), Graveyard, and Warbringer, Ohio metalheads would be wise not to sleep on Ace of Cups as their potential sponsor for much-needed mental health nights like this one. It certainly did the trick for me.

I left before Sunday night karaoke, though you’d best believe a delusional ham like me was tempted. In the end, waiting around for ninety minutes after the show ended was a bit too much, though I at least got to sing along with Elton John and Foo Fighters on the radio during my drive home.

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