Last Friday the crowd at Churchill's included hesher types, bikers in Motörhead jackets, crusty bicycle people wearing shorts and stitched-up leather fanny packs, and a gaggle of of-the-moment local artists. Then there was the guy my companion pointed out: "Surprise! There's someone in a Star Wars shirt." In short, it was the utter flip side of glossy Miami nightlife.
The reasons were three, and they were all heavy-rocking: There was driving but turgid, Brit-inflected stuff from Oakland's Saviours; rhythmic metalcore from Philly's A Life Once Lost; and the blunted, plodding onslaught of High on Fire, also hailing from the Bay Area. As the night wore on, the music reached progressively more satisfying, ear-bleeding levels, despite an often-lamentable sound mix.
I arrived around 10 p.m., in time for the Saviours to take the stage. Despite a crushing, two-day-old hangover (as singer Austin Barber later informed me), this band brought it. It's a shame the vocals were rendered so distorted and muddy as to be nearly inaudible. But what I could make out sounded pleasingly different from a recorded version of the band, less cleaned-up, more guttural, even a little punk. The moments of pure wallop were interspersed with longer, trippier, slowed-down passages, so there was time to zone out and parse the various subspecies' reactions. The band's guitar action had meaty punch for the longhairs, technicality for the beard-strokers in tight pants, and riffage for everybody. I hope they come back sooner than later, and maybe next time with their own sound engineer.
Up to this point, strangely, things had been running relatively on time for Churchill's — the Saviours were done by 10:50. This was corrected, however, with an almost 40-minute break of alternating silence and background tuneage, until A Life Once Lost took the stage around 11:30.
All right, the term metalcore (as well as anything -core) is vomitously deplorable. But, it has to be said, it's a little useful in describing A Life Once Lost, or at least the scene-crossover nature of its fans. Rather than get lost in blunted expeditions, the band keeps things at their yelling, propelling essence, with enough of a tough-guy vibe to have survived tours with such humorless acts as Throwdown. Luckily these guys don't take themselves as appallingly seriously — hey, you could tell just by looking at vocalist Robert Meadows's T-shirt, a black affair with printed-on white dots to mimic metal studs. Awesome.
While the music itself was on point, the energy seemed a little dampened, with Meadows preferring to stand in one spot on the stage, eyes closed, serenading his right knee for most of the set. Between songs, there was a weird quiet from both audience and band. It was, as Meadows informed us before the last song, a result of illness: "We're suffering all kinds of fluid issues, guys. Sorry for not putting on the sickest show ever." Aww. To compensate, on the last tune he brought his best no-frills belly growl. Get well soon, dude.
Finally, there was High on Fire. For a band whose recorded songs often proceed at a narcotized crawl, powered by distant vocals that kick in after a good minute or so, the live set was wildly energetic, even interactive. When a singer loses his shirt from sweat or exhaustion or he-man power or whatever by the first song, it's a good sign. And the clustered circle of sheer freaking-out-ness was helped along by the clot of rabid fans up front that somehow sang along with vocalist/guitarist Matt Pike's legendary erratic, roiling, not completely intelligible burble.
The sound, although somewhat improved, mattered less now; this is a band best heard through the depths of murk. A circle pit (though not a particularly vicious one) even broke out by the second song, and there wasn't the overenthusiastic security found at tonier venues to tamp the whole thing down. The band amped up the room by seeming to play its material at slightly faster tempos, even the dirgelike title track of its latest album, Death Is This Communion. When they played straight-up fast songs like the parking-lot-style anthem "Rumors of War," people went, in a word, apeshit. The skinnier bodies flew stageward, and at least one or two shirts got twirled around in the air, Petey Pablo-style. Excellent.
I must admit: High on Fire's albums Blessed Black Wings and Death Is This Communion are two of my heavy-rotation traffic-anger jams.
Oh, and by the way: Saviours' Into Abaddon dropped just a couple of weeks ago on Kemado Records.
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