Dethklok, Mastodon, Converge, and High On Fire at The Rave/Eagles Ballroom
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After High On Fire slammed the audience with an opening dose of sludgy thrash metal at Mastodon’s show at Eagles Ballroom on Sunday, it was immediately clear that fellow opener Converge’s fierce blend of noise-rock and hardcore would stick out like a middle finger--at least to a sprawling audience of traditional metal-heads who'd clearly come for co-headliners Mastodon and Dethklok. The set began with guitarist Kurt Ballou chunking away at the opening riff of "Plagues" by himself until his bandmates joined him onstage and battered out the rest of the song. Vocalist Jacob Bannon sprinted across the stage, shoved his mic into the crowd, karate-kicked the air, and hurled his entire body into otherworldly growls that sounded closer to a dog being tortured than a human.
Despite the cups of ice and beer and shouts of "you suck!" that flew at Bannon, Ballou, and bassist Nate Newton every few minutes, the band maintained its flailing composure, and Bannon’s kept his between-song remarks positive. After all, there was still a core group of kids--obviously there for Converge--going completely batshit for the set’s duration. “For those of you who’ve never heard us before, thank you so much for watching us,” yelled a sweaty Bannon before the band blasted into the uber-technical wallop of “Axe To Fall” (the title track of Converge’s new album, which comes out on Tuesday).The band’s stay got an extra punch of urgency from the lightning-quick-to-dreadfully-slow dynamics of drummer Ben Koller, who nailed a dizzying drum solo before the band launched into another new song, “Dark Horse.” After the band rattled the audience a final time with “Concubine,” Bannon went to the merch table to meet fans for a couple hours.
Where Converge’s set was centered around raw energy that wouldn’t seem out of place at a basement show, the delightfully dorky myth-metal of Mastodon came with elaborately warped visual accompaniment. As the band played its new concept album Crack The Skye in its entirety, a movie screen above the stage told an unclear story of a wheelchair-bound dude who astral-projects from his body. Recurring themes in the film included large beards, smoking goblets, dancing skeletons, a guy with a flaming umbilical cord, and a quadriplegic astral-projecting a swordfight with Satan.
During the first couple of songs ("Oblivion" and "Divinations"), much of the band’s intricacy got lost in The Rave's ever-mushy sound mix. However, by the time “Quintessence” thundered around, bassist-vocalist Troy Sanders’ melodic howls could be heard loud and clear as the colliding guitars of Brent Hinds and Bill Kelliher rippled underneath. Drummer Brann Dailor rumbled out dextrous polyrhythms with enviable finesse on the explorative “Ghost Of Karelia,” and punched through the creeping double-bass of “Crack The Skye.”
After completing the song cycle, the band took a breather before playing a second set that included a crushing rendition of “Circle Of Cysquatch” from 2006’s Blood Mountain. At one point during “Cysquatch,” Hinds appeared to be playing guitar with his teeth. The band bombed the crowd with such doses of primal sludge as "Mother Puncher" (from 2002's Remission) and a cover of The Melvins' "The Bit" before handing the stage over to the hilarious extreme-metal caricatures Dethklok, stars of Adult Swim’s Metalocalypse.
For being a cartoon-based joke band fronted by a voice actor, Dethklok has a pretty fucking good live presence. This of course had everything to do with the incredible cast of session players that took on the role of the band. Most notable was drummer Gene “The Atomic Clock” Hoglan, who cut his teeth playing drums for legendary death-metal bands like Death, Dark Angel, and Testament. Metalocalypse footage flickered on a screen behind the darkened stage as creator-vocalist-guitarist Brendon Small led his band through songs with titles like “Hatredcopter,” “Thunder Horse,” and “Murmaider.” That last one's a song about homicidal mermaids, of course.
Even while gurgling about slicing mermaids, Dethklok kept a deadpan delivery throughout its set of songs from this year’s Dethalbum II and 2007’s The Dethalbum. Toward the end of the set, Small finally addressed the audience using all the different voices of the Dethklok characters. “We can either go home now, or we can play one more song,” Small shouted in the voice of Pickles, the alcoholic drummer from Wisconsin (of course). The shockingly full Eagles Ballroom went ballistic for set-closer “Fan Song,” before Small thanked the audience and the band waved goodbye. Between the iffy sound, unwelcoming vibe, and dense fog of cigarette smoke, seeing any show at the Rave complex can be a demoralizing experience. But until other Milwaukee venues start stepping it up with good metal shows, The A.V. Club will just have to suck it up once in awhile.