Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Kvelertak, Gojira, and Mastodon

No, motherfuckers, I'm not kidding. A show's a show, and I saw this one, so I'm writing it up.

A little background before I explain why I just called you a motherfucker: I've never self-identified as a metalhead, but I've known plenty in my life, and the one I've been closest to for longest is my husband. During the twenty-plus years that we've been together, he has introduced me--either directly or by osmosis due to repeated playings in our various abodes--to music that is far more aggressive than the stuff I typically seek out on my own. Our tastes have always been pretty distinct: as kids, long before we met, I was memorizing every Joni Mitchell album I could get my hands on, while he was feuding with his big sister because she needed an emergency appendectomy and still wouldn't let him have her Iron Maiden ticket.

Because we respect each other's tastes in entertainment enough not to mock one another openly (at least, not regularly), and because we actually dig hanging out together, my husband and I have accompanied one another to plenty of things we otherwise wouldn't have bothered with: he's sat through a lot of rock musicals, for example, and I've been to my share of concerts featuring screaming guitars played by long-haired men (and the occasional woman) who regularly use "motherfucker" as a term of endearment with which to address the audience (Do you understand now.....motherfuckers?). At home, he (usually) tolerates the earnest hippie crap I listen to while I cook dinner, and I (usually) tolerate the squealing, grinding crap he listens to while he does the dishes and makes the kids' school lunches. He has even come to like some of my music, and I'd be lying if I didn't admit that over the years I've developed a genuine affection for many songs by bands whose logos include lightning bolts, umlauts, and the occasional bloody fang.
We started having kids about a decade back, and for this and a bunch of other reasons (work, exhaustion, general oldness), we haven't been anyplace requiring vigorous headbanging for a long time. Which doesn't mean that my husband hasn't stopped loving metal. Much like the band Saxon, he will always seek new ways to rock, no matter who tries to stop him. Thus, when his birthday came along this spring, I got him tickets to see one of his new favorites: the Norwegian band Kvelertak ("Choke-Hold" or "Stranglehold." I prefer the first translation because the second one is too Nugenty for my--and I hope Kvelertak's--taste). I had assumed that this black-metal/punk outfit was the headliner, but what the hell do I know? Very little about the current metal scene, for sure. It turns out that Kvelertak is nothing compared with Gojira, a French metal outfit that came next on the bill. And neither Kvelertak or Gojira is as big as Mastodon, which is from Atlanta and which has been on the scene for a good decade.

Anyway, they were all playing at Terminal Five in the far western reaches of Manhattan, and I got my husband tickets. I had no intention of tagging along, but the guy he planned to go with mangled his foot and couldn't come for fear of being accidentally stomped on, which is a legitimate concern in these cases. So off I went to my first metal show in a decade. Or more. I honestly can't remember.

I also hadn't remembered just how fun shows like this are, even when you know nothing about the bands or the songs they play. All live music performance is, of course, theatrical, and watching the players--musicians, audience, security personnel--work together in any setting has always been interesting to me; sometimes the interactions are even more compelling than the music itself. Because metal deals in a number of extremes--volume, technical prowess, reactions from fans--metal concerts are especially fascinating. Especially after a decade-plus hiatus.

When I got to Terminal Five, I had to go through security. The guards practically anally probe male concertgoers at metal shows, but rarely so much as touch the (comparatively few) women attendees. The dude who cleared me for entry glanced in my bag, but seriously, I could have had several grenades packed with heroin strapped to my bosom and made it through if I'd felt like it (I didn't feel like it). I sailed right through, whereupon a staffmember asked for ID so that I could get drinks. I told her that I wasn't planning on drinking, but she slipped a band on my wrist anyway, with a kindly "just in case" and, thus, a tacit acknowledgment of the fact that despite my good genes and careful moisturizing regimen, I am obviously well over the drinking age. Which was good, because I met my husband at the rear of the stage floor, right near the enormous bar.

We wedged ourselves into a corner, out of the flow of traffic, where we had a good view of the stage. Kvelertak's set had just started. I'd missed the entrance--apparently, the lead singer (Erlend Hjelvik) came onstage wearing a giant owl head to appreciative roars from the gathering crowd. Kvelertak uses owl imagery on a lot of their albums. The bandmembers have explained that an owl drawing ended up on the cover of one of their earliest demos, and that the bird became the band's unofficial mascot as a result. Also, owls kick ass, so that probably helped the decision to wear an owl mask onstage sometimes. Apparently, some of their dumber, non-Norwegian fans insist that the word "kvelertak" means "owl penis," which I'd argue is also reason enough to keep it as a mascot.

Although I missed the owl mask, I saw plenty of excellent warm-up metal action as Hjelvik, stripped to his waist, raced up and down the stage, spitting water into the crowd and gesturing for us all to make noise, which we did. Kvelertak combines the low, growly vocals of death- or black-metal with comparatively groovy, bluesy, mainstream metal instrumentation. I dug them, even though Hjelvik sings in Norwegian and I didn't understand a fucking word he said.

When they finished their set, my husband and I were joined in our corner by two hipsters, whose presence at the show I still can't made any sense of. Tidily dressed, with tasteful piercings and carefully groomed beards, they sipped bottled beer and had an involved conversation...that DID NOT STOP WHEN GOJIRA TOOK THE STAGE. Which was weird, because Gojira is a lot less groovy than Kvelertak and about twice as loud (if equally as shirtless: their drummer wasn't wearing one, and I wondered if he conferred with Hjelvik before taking the stage).

Gojira charmed me. Not only because of their sound, which has been described as "technical death metal." They do play so fast as to create a chugging, techno-like, grinding groove, which was fine with me. But between songs played at breakneck speeds and featuring a whole assload of 32nd-notes, the lead singer, Joe Duplantier, kept addressing the crowd in the most quaintly friendly and thus off-putting of ways. Most metal shows I have been to feature regular shouting between songs, both by bandmembers and the crowd:  "How're you motherfuckers doing tonight?" [shouting] "Do you motherfuckers want some more?" [more shouting; approving metal signs from the crowd] "I can't HEAR you motherfuckers!" [bigger shouts, roaring, and an ocean of metal signs] "Okay, motherfuckers, here's another one for you!"

Now, Duplantier was, in truth, the only lead singer to call us motherfuckers all night long. But like everything else he uttered between songs, his "motherfucker" was tinged with a thick French accent and the kind of polite tone one typically reserves for a meeting with your kid's elementary school teacher: "Bonjour to you from France, New York! Thank you, we really appreciate you! Did you motherfuckers enjoy Kvelertak? Are you getting ready for Mastodon? Merci, you are so nice!" Nothing he said quite matched his band's big, loud, fast, crunchy sound. He sang in English, but when he did, I didn't understand a fucking word he said. I am sure, however, that whatever he sang was, beneath the death-metal growl, vaguely charming and accented.

Through the Gojira set, the earnest conversation was still being had by the hipsters, who were now also fully blocking our view of the stage. Rather than throw non-artisanal beer on them--which certainly was tempting--we decided to split for the second tier, which was all roped off, whether for the press or your fancier, more exclusive metalheads I don't know. So we went up to the third tier, where we remained for the rest of the show.

The third tier was hardly packed: enough people were there to make leaning over the balcony sort of cramped, but it was never impossible to see big swatches of stage and the entire crowd below. There was ample space to pogo around and headbang when we felt like it, a few couches to sit on when we got tired of doing so, and a group of pre-teen boys who, we assumed, were the children of either the bandmembers or of the management. They alternately watched the show and sat on the couches playing on their ipads as if they were at home in their den. One even curled up and fell asleep midway through Mastodon. I suppressed the mom-like urge to make sure they were all wearing earplugs. 

Neither my husband nor I has ever been the crowd-surfing or moshing type, either because we like people too much or dislike them too intensely. But hell if watching the crowd from a studied distance three floors up isn't something I could do all damn night. So I did. I was able to get a very short clip of the crowd listening to Gojira by kneeling down against the railing:

 From where I stood, I could look straight down into the mosh pit, with the stage to my left. The crowd was slightly different than those at metal shows I've been to in the past: white men were still the largest demographic, but there were notably more women and people of color in attendance. The mosh pit doesn't seem to have changed much, though: this one was overwhelmingly male (though I did see one woman run in and bounce around for a few minutes during the Gojira set), and as scary-looking as it was amazingly self-regulated. Guys ran into one another, retreated, ran into one another again; the pit revolved slowly in a clockwise circle as dude after dude hurled himself in and back out again. You always expect the worst from mosh pits; I admit that I kept waiting for a fight to break out or someone to get kicked in the face, but it never happened. It usually doesn't, which is what makes mosh pits such magical, happy places for so many people.

Meanwhile, down front, four meaty security guards stood between the stage and the audience in a small recession, and for the duration of the concert they kept watch over the crowd, regularly leaning into it to pluck a body-surfer to safety. They were enormous dudes, but they did their job gracefully and didn't seem to piss anyone off in the process; more than a few surfers hugged them once they'd landed safely in the recession. I guess it must be nice to know, when you decide to crowd-surf, that you have a far better chance of being gently helped to the ground by a large man in a staff uniform than you do of plummeting headfirst to the foot of the stage. Anyway, I appreciated the trust that developed between all the different players. I also appreciated the fact that the security guards were wearing earplugs roughly the size of your face.

Which brings me to one of my favorite things about metal shows. There are lots of people who like to dance, leap into the crowd, or slam against perfect strangers while listening to very loud, aggressive music. But there are lots of other people who prefer to stand rooted to one place, allowing the vibrations of the music to surge upward and rattle the ribcage, spine, neck, and skull. The first time I encountered this, I thought the crowds were pretty lame--everyone just kind of standing there, staring vacantly up at the stage--but then I realized that the sensation of feeling music so loud that you can't hear it clearly anyway is pretty damn thrilling. I stood around a lot at this show, and I mean that in the best possible way.

My husband warned me that even compared with Kvelertak and Gojira, Mastodon was the aural equivalent of being squashed by a boot. And in truth, they are darker and grumblier than the other bands. But I didn't feel squashed by them at all. Mastodon specializes in serious tempo shifts, blends of prerecorded and live noise, experimental drumming, and old-school guitar virtuosity. They used a lot of lasers during their set, which washed the house in intense, blue light. Crowd surfing hit a serious peak near the end, and I worried that the security guards might lose track of the sailing bodies, but everyone hung in there.

Near the end of their set, Mastodon sang some song that was clearly one of their best-known. I had no clearer idea of what the fuck they were singing than I did of what Kvelertak or Gojira sang, but I think this number had a chorus about taking the higher ground or the higher path or being a good person or some pop-song-like shit, and it made some of the members of the mosh pit, along with some nearby spectators, very happy. So happy that a big group of sweaty, hairy, tattooed men suddenly formed. Locked in an enormous circle right below me, these guys leaned into one another, singing together at the tops of their lungs, until the song ended and the moshing resumed. It was curiously moving, the whole thing.

The Mastodon set did not include an encore. Have we moved on from encores? Have rock bands decided that encores are sort of played out at this point? Did the show run too long for an encore? I honestly don't know; if you do, you should tell me. But at the end of the show, as the band walked off the stage, the drummer earnestly thanked the audience in a way that was evocative of the Gojira guy, sans French accent: "Thanks, guys, we really love coming to New York. You guys are great. We have a new album coming out, so you can pick it up if you want. Now, who wants some pieces of wood?" He tossed a bunch of drumsticks into the crowd, and then the show was over. I took my own earplugs out and tossed them into an empty beer cup by the edge of the balcony. We walked to the A train, my husband pointing out a restaurant awning along the way that, more than a decade before, we'd once stopped at to make out under. He bought two concert t-shirts--one for our daughter--and we were home by midnight.

I can't imagine I'll rush out to another metal show anytime soon: there are, at least for now, too many nighttime obligations involving children and homework and bathtime and balanced dinners. But just as I'm pleased to know that the restaurant awning is still there, I find it sweetly reassuring that metal shows still happen, that they're still so loud and freeing and ridiculous and fun. I'm glad I ended up going to this one, and that afterward, I got to go back home with my all-time favorite metalhead.

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