Saturday, April 3, 2010

Shadows Fall with 2 Cents, The Condemned and Big Whiskey

Baltimore, MD
February 4th, 2010

Big Whiskey
Well I’m glad that tonight’s show was all ages, otherwise Carroll County, Maryland’s Big Whiskey wouldn’t have been allowed into the venue. Looking as though their average age was all of 16 years old, the youngsters whipped through a quick opening set of metal-tinged hardcore, each song barely distinguishable from the next. Musically, I suppose the kids sounded decent, albeit unoriginal, but they didn’t get much help from their vocalist, who spent the majority of the band’s set staring at his shoes as he grunted incoherently into the microphone. One would think that an opening slot for Shadows Fall would be a dream come true and a chance to really showcase your band’s talents and personality. I’m not sure Big Whiskey took full advantage of that opportunity.

The Condemned
The second act on tonight’s bill was another local metal band also plagued by that nasty unoriginality bug. Hailing from Deale, MD, The Condemned suffered from a muddled sound that had way too much bass, an over-abundance of distortion and a mix of headache inducing screams and guttural growls. The band’s blend of hardcore and metal was a mess to say the least. Whether or not the sound quality could be blamed on the venue is unclear, but The Condemned offered nothing new to these ears.

2 Cents
There’s no better cure for monotony than a set by Los Angeles’ own 2 Cents. These boys truly know how to put the fun in dysfunctional and like their name implies, they are always willing to throw in their "2 Cents". Hamming it up from the minute the band took the stage, vocalist/drummer Adam O’Rourke immediately let the crowd know what kind of atmosphere his band expected when he singled out a guy in front for not smiling, saying "dude…chicks don’t dig the tough guy look".

If you’re easily offended, you may want to stop reading now and skip ahead to the Shadows Fall discussion. The guys in 2 Cents, who also include Adam’s brother Dave O’Rourke on guitar, Jason Wendell on bass and Adair Cobley on guitar, are unpredictable to say the least. Musically, they straddle the age old line between metal and punk, seamlessly taking the best of both worlds and throwing them into the blender…and boy do they have a good time while doing it.

How else can you explain a band who announces their arrival by saying that they’ve come "to get naked, get drunk and get fucked"? The hilarity ensued throughout 2 Cents’ set, from Cobley shaking his hand as if it were on fire after scorching through a guitar solo, to O’Rourke (the vocalist) informing the crowd that "he’s black from the waste down…meaning ashy"…and then following that up with the disclaimer "I can say that because my guitar player is black", referring to Cobley.

But before you get the idea that the band is all fun and games with no substance, I have to mention the sincerity with which they approach their craft. Having seen the band twice now, I’ve noticed on both occasions that Adam is always certain to thank the crowd for supporting heavy music and the community that surrounds it. Tonight, he mentioned that "metal lives up here (pointing to his head) and in here (pointing to his heart)".

Of course the vocalist followed up this bit of seriousness by promptly pointing out a guy standing against the back wall with his arms crossed and saying "ooh…you’re so tough, I bet you’ve never even seen a vagina". And therein lies the beauty of 2 Cents…that dichotomy between taking their music seriously and having a great time while doing it. To drive the point home one final time, the band was joined by Brian Fair (vocalist for Shadows Fall) for a beautifully, bludgeoning rendition of Pantera’s "Strength Beyond Strength" just to reinforce their belief that heavy music is in fact "stronger than all".

Shadows Fall
Tonight’s headliner has been blazing the trail for American heavy metal for the past 15 years. Vocalist Brian Fair, guitarists Jonathan Donais and Matt Bachand, bassist Paul Romanko and drummer Jason Bittner took the stage amidst a swirl of smoky, fog and immediately launched into the aural assault that is Shadows Fall. If you aren’t familiar with them (then stop reading this and go check them out!), the band plays an old school style of thrash metal that would fit perfectly alongside 80’s mainstays like Megadeth, Anthrax and Exodus, but they’re no nostalgia act, as they manage to make the music sound incredibly fresh and on time.

Unfortunately, Fair was struggling with a pretty nasty head cold tonight, which I can only imagine must be hell when you make a living by screaming your ass off every night. But as he informed the Baltimore faithful tonight, he’d "have to be in a coffin to cancel a gig", so the boys from Boston soldiered on. Despite the vocalist’s physical ills, he and the rest of the band sounded great as they played songs that spanned their impressive catalogue. As a matter of fact, the only hint of any sickness was Brian’s incessant phlegm spitting between songs, which he noted at one point by saying "damn…I’m spitting oysters up here". Now that’s metal! Otherwise, Fair was a ball of energy, flailing his trademark dreadlocks all over the stage and commanding his loyal audience to mix it up down front.

Having seen these guys multiple times in larger, festival type environments, I’ve never had the opportunity to really witness the band’s dynamics up close and personal. Tonight, I realized that despite the immense talents of each band member, there isn’t a whole lot of personality onstage other than their vocalist. Donais, Bachand and Romanko all tend to stand idly by, focusing on their instruments and backing vocals, without ever addressing the crowd or so much as cracking a smile. Of course watching Donais when he breaks into a solo is entertainment enough as he is honestly one of the best guitar players I’ve ever had the privilege of seeing or hearing.

Drummer, Jason Bittner also lives in his own little world behind the drum kit, but that’s easily forgiven seeing as the man hits the skins like a relentless machine throughout the entirety of the band’s set. He is literally a flurry of arms and legs and expends so much energy during each song that he has to spend each break sucking wind, chugging water and catching his breath. In fact, at one point during tonight’s show, the drummer broke something on his kit, prompting Fair to comment, "He hits the damn things so hard" that he’s always breaking something.

Shadows Fall gave their small, yet faithful audience exactly what they came to see tonight at Sonar…a quality metal show full of impressive guitar wizardry, gut rattling bass, pummeling drums and enough screams and growls to scare away the neighbors. This is a band that loves heavy music, loves being a part of the scene revolving around heavy music and does everything possible to garner support for it. So it wasn’t surprising when, towards the end of their set, they paid homage to one of heavy music’s legends as they launched into an incredibly fun cover of Ozzy’s "Bark at the Moon". Fair asked his audience frankly, "if you know the words, sing along…if you don’t, what the fuck are you doing here"?

As the set came to a close, it was obvious that Fair had expended about as much energy as he had to give. He gave a final wave to the crowd, threw the sweaty dreads out of his face one last time and said "thank you…we’re Shadows Fall…I’m gonna go throw up and have a beer" before tossing the mic needlessly to the ground. And with that, one of the hardest working bands in metal left the stage and left me and the rest of the crowd grinning from ear to ear.

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