It is pretty easy to see that 2016 is shaping up to be a fine year for live Heavy Metal music, as fans of all types have been treated to bands of many different shades of Hard Rock persuasion. It is especially noteworthy when a tour comes along featuring stylistically different entities under the same heading, and that is precisely what was in store for fans this past Tuesday, April 12th at Webster Hall in lower Manhattan, for the 2016 Decibel Magazine U.S. tour. With a history that dates back to 2012 with a list of acts gracing the tour including Cannibal Corpse, At The Gates, Behemoth, and Carcass, 2016’s billing features a diverse yet ultra-heavy quadruplet of bands easily making this one of the more attractive billings for fans of heavier aural fare. Headlined by former Immortal founding vocalist Abbath Doom Occulta’s solo outfit Abbath, support came in the form of American stoner icons High On Fire, their countrymen thrashers in Skeletonwitch, and the mysterious Swedish collective known as Tribulation, the tour has been lighting up each in its travels as it runs through April 15th. With leading lights coming from many different branches of Heavy Metal’s growing tree, the night in New York City promised to be a spectacular one of distortion and madness.
The main floor of Webster Hall was shrouded in darkness, with most of the stage and the drum riser concealed by black blankets. Fans filed in past the strict security to have some drinks and check out the merchandise. In the very back of the stage, though, like some dire warning, hung a banner with the word “TRIBVLATION” above a giant skeletal bat. Soon enough incense and smoke clouded the air as the elegant vamps themselves took the stage. A small but exuberant crowd of early arrivals crowded in to welcome them back to New York. Despite a shorter playing time, the Swedish quartet filled the hall with their glorious alchemy, allowing “Strange Gateways Beckon” and “Melancholia” off of latest album The Children of the Night to filter into the cerebrums of those who came to see them, and those who had yet to learn their name.
Dressed like bards from a decade alien to our own, guitarist Adam Zaars moved around the stage with an eerie sinuous majesty, gyrating in unconscious rhythmic torment throughout the set. He and his band mates channeled an effortless bacchanalian grace with their darkened heavy metal, at once dreamy and magical, while still blackened around the edges. Singer Johannes Andersson’s throaty rumble went down as smooth as warm liquor, as they stayed mostly with their latest release. Closing with “Holy Libations,” these showmen took a crowd which at first appeared a bit apathetic to them and weaved them deeper into their magic spell. The roar was larger after each song’s conclusion, and as they saluted the crowd it was clear that Tribulation made a lasting impact on many a new fan this night.
A shift in gears and the more straight-ahead fury of Skeletonwitch bounded onto the stage. Now featuring Wolvhammer vocalist Adam Clemens on the mic, their brand of unrelenting speed metal battered the hall with its double-bass and lightning riffery. Clemens’ vocals, which are downright vicious in Wolvhammer, struggled a bit behind the racket, not so much drowned out as they were a tad one dimensional. The crowd ate it up though, yet oddly refrained from doing much moshing. “Cloudless Sky” and “Upon Wings of Black” were aired out, as well as the popular staple “Permafrost,” which got a healthy roar of approval from the fans.
Skeletonwitch attacked and maintained a similar level of battery, which while ticking all the right boxes of heavy and fast and brutal, somehow lacked the atmospheric spirituality inherent in the opening act. By the last clutch of songs, “Black Waters,” “Serpents Unleashed,” and closer “Beneath Dead Leaves,” the assault proved successful if not wholly dynamic. Skeletonwitch is popular, hardworking, and they do know how to keep a crowd engaged. Guitar duo Nate Garnette and Scott Hedrick head banged while bassist Evan Linger had a grin for the fans throughout their set. As they walked off the stage, the roar in the hall was suitably loud, lauding the Ohioans’ efforts and clearly hungry for more of their kinetic exuberance.
Up next came the stripped down engine block of sound that is High on Fire. Bearded and shirtless, vocalist Matt Pike has been hugely successful since forming the band back in 1998. Building tension with drawn out, bluesy riffs, the chugging guitars and double-bass barrage which followed induced the circle to open. The catchy, drum-rolling assault of “The Black Plot” started off their set, culling from their latest album, 2015’s Luminiferous. Drummer Des Kensel’s masterful percussion immediately grabbed everyone by the guts, when right from the beating he laid down on his kit with the opener they launched into “Carcosa.” Pike’s Tommy Victor-like howl scraped over the medium paced number like bricks over a human face.
Moving along, bodies started colliding to the sweaty sludge and bone-breaking spirit of “Rumors of War” next, as it bellowed out of the speakers with a Helmet meets Prong meets Pantera groove-laden riff-fest. Songs like the bluesy “Speedwolf,” new, somewhat sedate number “The Falconist,” and the trippy, jam-out that is “Fertile Green” kept the pedal down hard. As fluid and soulful as it is pummeling, the music of High On Fire tonight featured excellent jamming runs in between Pike’s rumbling vocals, drawing from the majority of the California band’s growing discography. Ending their set with “Snakes For the Divine” off of the 2010 album of the same name, the marriage of riff and drum beat was brought to a glorious head. The headliner hadn’t even played yet, and already fans had been treated to three vastly different sonic animals.
With the main hall now fully engulfed by black-clad humanity, hopes were high that the exceptionally good sound would continue for the evening’s headliners. Abbath (or Olve Eikemo, as his mama calls him) gained his status by being one of the second wave of Norwegian Black Metal’s founding fathers. He did this at the helm of Immortal, a band that saw virtually continuous life between 1992 and 2015. Abbath, with his signature black and white corpse-paint, grew up idolizing Kiss in his Norwegian homeland. Within the framework of black metal, he has become nearly as iconic. Splitting off from his former mates, Abbath has reignited his songwriting passions with the excellent eponymous debut album Abbath.
The New York City crowd was restless even as vapor and smoke curled across the stage and the lights dimmed to a suitably northern darkness. He emerged from out of the shadows bedecked in his signature corpse paint; Abbath, a man the internet parodied with many a humorous meme, whose many poses and over-the-top gesticulations have adorned his album covers and flavored his videos for two decades. And yet, he embraces it fully, as evidenced by the Abbath Road t-shirt available at the merch stand, in which the members of his band can be seeing crossing the road just like the Beatles. And why does it all work? As his new solo tunes “To War!” and “Winterbane” roared into the night it was clear that the man can bring down the house. The pit was a cauldron of colliding bodies, and it only got more intense when Abbath played “Nebular Raven’s Winter,” an Immortal classic, following that up with “Warriors” from his I project in 2006. “Are there any warriors here, New York?” he croaked. The crowd responded, clearly in love with the Black Metal icon.
Humor being somewhat absent from most Black Metal, it is definitely something Abbath welcomes into his live vision and has a knack for as well. Squelching his guitar feedback by striking one of his ‘evil’ poses in between songs, he also beckoned the crowd to scream and then stop abruptly. Somehow it all worked, and the Webster Hall crowd ate it up as one. Humor aside, when the music kicks back in its all business. Abbath and his drummer Creature were in complete unison and tight as the skin over the snare he was battering so rapidly. The new album is a fresh take on the speedy, Bathory meets Hellhammer template that Immortal made frosty and epic. “Ashes of the Damned” and “Fenrir Hunts” were met with furious welcome by the crowd, just as they cheered for Immortal’s “Tyrants” off of 2002’s Sons of Northern Darkness. This particular song, being a slower jaunt, lessened the moshpit whirlwind, which revved right back up for that ablum’s opening stormer “One By One.” Abbath was a figure in command, sharp as a sword-tip through flesh.
Keeping everyone enthralled “Count the Dead” from the new album gave way to the gorgeously epic “Solarfall,” from the Immortal masterwork At the Heart of Winter. The sound that Abbath has forged over his career culminates in the mid-paced, mountain-top-in-a-storm sonic assault embodied in songs like this one, and it is great to see him carrying the magic forth into his new life in the solo band. Closing with “All Shall Fall” and “In My Kingdom Cold,” two popular Immortal tracks, Abbath’s transition from signature band to solo project has been completed with tremendous success.
With everyone’s hearts pumping from the balanced attack of Abbath and supporting cast, 2016’s The Decibel Magazine Tour had something for every type of Metal fan. Each providing a powerful and unique set, fans left sated and happy, knowing they had seen one of the year’s best tour packages bring down the house.