Victory Records Presents: Otep, Blackguard, Destrophy, Sister Sin, & One-Eyed Doll
Band Photo: Otep (?)
What really attracted me to this show, in addition to the prospect of multiple interviews, was the sheer diversity of the tour package. It was assembled as a promotional tour by Victory Records to showcase some of their big and emerging rock/metal acts, and early on, I’d gathered from a mere glance at the bill that every band would sound substantially different. As it turns out, that wasn’t the half of it.
Happy coincidence placed me in the great state of Virginia, on my annual pilgrimage to my childhood roots, when Otep & Co. stopped at Jaxx in Springfield. I hadn’t been to Jaxx in eight years, so this show was more or less an extension of my nostalgic long-weekend romp through my past. To boot, Saturday, June 18th was beautiful and sunny, and the late afternoon and evening were shaping up to be quite pleasant too. I arrived early with my brother, wingman, and fellow metal fan Will “Fresh Prince” Smith as the line outside the door was beginning to form, and in due time, we’d knocked out a pair of killer interviews with Paul Ablaze and Ari Mihalopoulos – devoted fitness freaks and smiling frontmen for support acts Blackguard and Destrophy, respectively. Unfortunately, Otep herself was battling a sore throat, and her diplomatic tour manager Tristan was forced to cancel my planned interview so she could save her voice for that night’s performance. On the upside, I was promised a chance to make it up via telephone, and our names remained on the guest list.
While Jaxx hosts innumerable high-profile metal acts, it is not a large club – the capacity is considerably less than 1,000. That occasionally makes for a tight squeeze, but the atmosphere is pretty cozy and the layout is comfortably symmetrical. The small box office lobby at the venue’s rear corner leads to an open, dimly lit space with a long bar, flanked by two narrow corridors (along with two pairs of restrooms) that open up into the venue proper. At this point, you’ll find yourself standing on a raised platform that rings the stage in a horseshoe, with another bar in the center rear, and space for merch tables along the sides. Pretty standard, but streamlined and efficient. I enjoyed taking it all in and soaking up the lingering memories from my high school days, back before I could legally order a drink… That reminded me to get my ass to the bar and christen it.
We’d missed the first local opener during our interview with Ari, and had now arrived just in time for the second. Their name escapes me, but I vaguely remember it consisting of three words. Unless you’re Black Label Society or Strapping Young Lad and can do whatever pleases you, three words often spell “arrogant, pretentious douchebag.” A generalization, and perhaps this experience colored my biases, but I digress… these guys were simply not good. No great riffs, no wild solos, no melody, no creative drumming, just – guess? – breakdown city. With no city limits. Led by a guy with a hard-on for Johnny Plague who I’m pretty sure was wearing a wife-beater. Will and I glanced at each other and rolled our eyes, and I uttered the first word to reach the tip of my tongue: “Wiggercore.”
Sadly, the first touring act of the evening was equally underwhelming. One-Eyed Doll is a Texas-based duo consisting of a drummer and guitarist/frontwoman Kimberly Freeman, who resembles an acid-tripping clown with an oversized makeup bag and one too many Hot Topic gift cards. Their website describes them as “power rock.” Wikipedia has labeled them “goth punk.” I prefer my own conclusion: “a soulless, avant-garde train wreck.” Veering from proggy attempts at ethereal atmosphere to monochromatic electric distortion (read: nothing resembling a riff), with melodramatic wailing and occasional ADHD outbursts from Freeman, the duo effectively sedated the clientele of Jaxx as we watched in dumbfounded horror. Later investigation revealed the existence of a sizeable cult fan base, which probably explains the single (or was it two?) audience member that demanded an encore. Freeman had the nerve to grant the request “on one condition…” And in concluding the set, she flitted and pranced through the crowd like Tinkerbell, up the stairs to the platform, and out the door, exclaiming “Follow me!” Strangely, some people did just that. We stuck by the bar. Darkthrone, this duo is not.
I was unfamiliar with the next act, but I’d been promised a great show. So to pass the time during the set change, I browsed the merch tables and picked up two early releases by Blackguard, when they’d gone by the moniker Profugus Mortis. Burlington, Vermont, my current city, is just a hop and a skip away from Blackguard’s hometown of Montreal, so I’ve always championed that band as (semi) local metal heroes. Guitarist Terry Roadcase was manning their booth, and sold me their CDs. We’d met before after a Blackguard set at a Montreal club last year, but he was wearing glasses this time, so I didn’t recognize him until he followed me through the double doors to the outer bar with a rolled-up poster in his hand. “You forgot to take one!” He said with a grin, and I finally put his face to his name. We wound up gabbing about the Montreal metal scene for what felt like 15 or 20 minutes, which alleviated the sonic unpleasantness I’d so far experienced.
Sister Sin, to boot, wiped the entire slate clean. They play explosive, traditional hard rock and heavy metal in its purest form, and thumb their noses at selective subgenres. As their charismatic Dickinsonian frontwoman Liv Jagrell announced, “We are Sister Sin from Gothenburg, Sweden, and we play f***in’ rock and roll!” Their set was like five cups of black coffee, down the hatch, all at once. They ripped through several selections from their two Victory Records LPs, 2008’s “Switchblade Serenades” (including “One Out Of Ten” and “Love/Hate”) and 2010’s “True Sound Of The Underground” (including the title track and “Better Than Them”). The biggest adrenaline rush of their set came with their cover of U.D.O.’s “24/7,” which they’ve truly made their own. Afterwards, with two signed CDs in my hand and a whole pile of frustration out of my system, I was ready to properly enjoy the three bands we’d come to see, meet, and interview.
While we may have Slipknot and Stone Sour to thank for putting Des Moines, Iowa on the nationwide metal map, the latest breakout act from that Midwestern city has had my full attention for some time now. Riding the finest of razor-sharp lines between balls-out, thunderous heavy metal and melodic, singer-songwriter rock and roll, Destrophy brings pure passion and emotion to their music – both on record and, as I quickly discovered, live. Especially live. They led the charge with “Cry Havoc,” the lead title track of their sophomore album for Victory, and then proceeded to tear through some favorite cuts off their previous self-titled disc. They seemed to sweat out a heaping of aggression in the first half of the set, with the intense, grinding “Pray,” the Testament-influenced “Reconnect,” and the frenetic Meshuggah-esque riffing of “Rise Of The Overman.” The brutality culminated in their groove-laden crusher “Rise Again” off their independent 2007 release “The Way Of Your World,” and then cooled things off with the lighter-waving, sing-along title track of same (which also reappeared on their Victory debut). The softer side of Destrophy grew in complexity with “Why I Hate Goodbye,” which juxtaposes soaring verses and choruses with hammering stop-start riffs, and “Closer,” the video single from the new album. An ‘80s style rock anthem, it may be a tough sell to a metal crowd, but Jaxx seemed to appreciate the band’s undeniable energy. Destrophy wrapped up their set with the best of both worlds: “March Of The Dreamless,” their speediest and most technical track to date, which incorporates radical tempo changes, thrash rhythms, and blast beats into their signature melody. They really won this crowd over, and Ari’s exiting remark “Let’s turn it over to the metal guys in Blackguard!” got a big cheer.
As Blackguard loaded their stage equipment, Paul Ablaze blew off some steam. He’d given a copy of Blood For Blood’s “Outlaw Anthems” to the sound tech, and we now watched him stomp around the stage lip-synching the profane spoken-word rant from album opener “A Post Card From The Edge.” This summed up the tone of their performance and my feelings about Blackguard in general: boisterous, outlandish, over the top, and very fun. This was my first time seeing them live outside of Montreal, and my first time seeing them perform songs off their new album “Firefight,” and I was quite ready for this change of scenery and material. They’ve toured constantly since 2009, on Paganfest and with such diverse acts as Ensiferum, Epica, Hypocrisy, Nevermore, Deicide, and Symphony X, and have been running the risk of overexposure.
When they sauntered onstage in their trademark sleeveless black-and-leather “uniform” and burst into the new album’s title track, my lingering doubts vanished. Blackguard is a different beast now. The speed and melody are still there, the energy quotient is still through the roof, and Paul could still audition for an anti-methamphetamine PSA, but last year’s loss of keyboardist (and primary songwriter) Jonathan Lefrancois-Leduc triggered a shift in style from bouncy keyboard-led folk metal to epic, thundering symphonic metal. Lead guitarist Kim Gosselin has taken up the slack in the writing department, and he and Terry Roadcase have reestablished Blackguard as a formidable shred band. They further demonstrated their new chops with “Farewell,” “Wastelands,” and “The Fear Of All Flesh.” They closed out the set with three tracks from 2009’s “Profugus Mortis,” apparently unfazed by the absence of the man whose graceful keyboard leads made those songs take flight. Admittedly, “Cinder,” “The Sword,” and “Allegiance” felt more cohesive and impactful before a machine took over that man’s job, but the overwhelming reaction to the newer songs suggested a new path for the future and a gradual phasing-out of old, unworkable material. Plus, it’s hard to complain amidst a moshing dance floor, which Blackguard was able to sustain for the duration of their ripping set.
Will and I had been on the floor since the start of Destrophy’s set, and after what felt like a very short period, we experienced some déjà vu. Ari returned to the stage, guitar strapped on, and took up a position on the left. Two other members of his band joined him: drummer Joe Fox reclaimed his giant kit, and guitarist Erik Tisinger took stage right with a bass. That left an empty mic stand at center stage as the lights dimmed and an entrance overture blared. A primal roar erupted from the crowd as the headliner and leader of this entire tour emerged wearing a ghostly white mask, slowly lifted it, and croaked into the mic: “Hush little baby, don’t say a word… hush little baby, don’t make a move… This is gonna hurt… me more than you.” Otep whipped off the mask, hung it on the stand, and grinned at her fans as her live colleagues cranked out the opening notes of “Eet The Children,” the lead track off 2007’s “The Ascension.” The crowd went nuts.
Love her or hate her, Otep deserves respect for her long-term dedication to craft, performance, and her fans. Having first made waves as the curious little darling of 2001’s Ozzfest, she rose to prominence at the crest of the nu-metal explosion, and could easily have faded from view following the Great Nu-Metal Collapse of 2003. That didn’t happen. Since 2001’s debut EP “Jihad” and 2002’s debut full-length “Sevas Tra,” her music has absorbed a plethora of sounds and influences, prompting such varied descriptions as heavy metal, rap metal, nu-metal, gothic metal, horror metal, experimental metal, spoken-word metal, alternative metal, hard rock, and metalcore – all infused with aggressive individuality and the activist spirit of rebellion. Otep’s sound is Otep’s sound.
Her daunting live show made this clear. She continued with two more cuts off her 2007 opus, “Confrontation” and “Crooked Spoons,” and established an interesting pattern: a change of masks during each song break, a brief speech or remark, and removal of the mask for the next song. The mic stand wound up resembling a totem pole of souls as mask after mask was added. Otep dove into the past with two cuts off “Sevas Tra.” The haunting “My Confession” began with a whispered chant and ended with a roar, and the above-average rapcore of “Battle Ready” whipped up a massive pit. She paid tribute to the “late, great Kurt Cobain” with her cover of Nirvana’s “Breed” and then made an inquiry of her fans. “How many of you have the new record, ‘Atavist?’” Lots of hands. “How many of you bought it?” Maybe half the floor. “How many of you STOLE IT?” An undetermined number of cocky, pirating bastards raised their hands. Otep pointed them out: “Then I’m coming to your house, I’m coming to YOUR house, I’m coming to YOUR house…” And so on… “And I’m gonna steal your s**t!”
By this time, Erik Tisinger had taken his bow and turned over bass duties to Phil Tschechaniuk, Destrophy’s full-time bassist. Otep and all three musicians now launched into “Fists Fall,” an aggressive specimen from “Atavist” and, strangely, the only new material we would hear that night. Next was the rocking protest anthem and title track of 2009’s “Smash The Control Machine,” which kicked off the biggest sing-along of the evening. When Otep disappeared and reappeared with a bloody pig’s head for a mask, we knew exactly what to expect. The brutal, butchering “Blood Pigs” was everyone’s last chance to cut loose and destroy Jaxx – figuratively speaking – and the crowd took the advantage to the hilt. There was no encore, which I suspect was due to time constraints; the evening had run quite late. Overall, Otep’s set was disappointingly short, but hard-hitting and essential.
Despite the rocky start, Will and I had an absolute blast at this show. Between two friendly, enlightening interviews, four very different-sounding bands that delivered the goods, and a lively crowd that seemed to appreciate multiple styles of heavy music, this was a positive and memorable evening.
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