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Denver Doom: Khemmis, Dreadnought, and Green Druid @ Larimer Lounge (Live Report)

The year 2019 has arrived at last, and arriving with it are endless bouts of cultural and personal reflection upon the preceding year. Artists, critics, and fans alike have plumbed the depths of the metal experience to provide countless lists, indexes, and matrices woven together from 2018’s major highlights. With heaps of exciting new music and incredible tours spanning the subgenres, no metalhead, regardless of preference, could deny 2018’s impressive track record.

Taking a closer look at this year’s most universally acclaimed material, however, it becomes abundantly clear that doom, funeral doom, and psychedelically influenced metal reigned supreme in the Year of the Earth Dog. And Colorado’s scene in particular was hugely prolific in 2018, as evidenced by the sheer volume of outstanding doom and sludge releases coming from the area, with the majority of these new albums unleashed by younger, relatively new bands.

Denver doom standout Khemmis was among the year’s most successful groups, as the release of their third album Desolation and their participation in last summer’s Decibel Tour with Enslaved and Wolves in the Throne Room made for a massive burgeoning in their popularity. After such an outstanding breakout year for the band, they were determined to give 2018 a proper send-off by putting together one final hometown show, featuring a stacked lineup.

In a town dominated by doom, what better way to cut loose for the holidays than a consummate retrospective of some of the city’s most viscous, mind-expanding worshippers of the almighty riff itself?

Thus, Khemmis closed out the year with a special two-night run at Denver’s very own Larimer Lounge on December 28th and 29th entitled “Two Nights of Doomed Heavy Metal with Khemmis.” Each night was to feature its own unique set from the headliner, the first being “a night of doom metal with Dreadnought,” the second “a night of heavy metal with Of Feather and Bone.” Rounding out each day in support of the headliners were Green Druid and Nightwraith. Unfortunately, I could only make the first night’s set, but it was more than enough for a weekend’s fill of doom metal expertise.

Arriving right on the dot, I spotted a paper sign taped to the front door of the building which read “Sold Out — Major Bummer,” and sure enough I walked into a venue already packed to the brim with metalheads across the spectrum: fans of doom, death, and black metal alike were all gathered together to celebrate the holidays with a healthy dose of fuzz and riffage, and all were in good spirits. A relatively small club with a focus on underground music, Larimer Lounge tends to manifest strong feelings of intimacy between the stage and the audience. Those feelings of intimacy were running strong throughout the crowded building that night as fans wiggled shoulder-to-shoulder to improve their proximity to the stage. (Given that Denver metal shows tend to get busy on any given weekday, this was a full demonstration of the kind of attendance possible on a holiday weekend.) But despite the thick walls of denim, leather, and keratin, I managed to tuck myself into the center of the crowd right as the house lights went down and Green Druid took the stage.

Kicking off the night with guns blazing and teeth fully bared, Green Druid launched straight into material from their massive breakout full-length Ashen Blood from last year. The record showcases an absolutely gargantuan sound that blends elements of traditional doom, drone, ambience, and delicious flecks of psychedelic stoner flavor into a towering oaken monolith that simultaneously evokes within the listener a sense of elated triumph and a forlorn melancholy. Performing these tracks live, the group brought an even greater energy and might to their style than could ever be accessed through their recordings alone, no matter how loud one might crank their stereo.

Although their sound appeals to a broad spectrum of doomy tastes, Green Druid’s atmospheric qualities are rather concise and pervasive throughout their music. As their set progressed, the immediate elements of their live performance — the lighting, mixing, and even the physicality of the band — began to align aesthetically with their atmospheric essence. Bathed in a bosky emerald green light, perfectly befitting the medieval forest setting of Ashen Blood, the four-piece group powered through their heroic tunes as a thick fog rolled out around their feet, creating a wonderfully consummate scene of profound natural beauty and wistful adventure. This aesthetic presentation was so effective that at times I wondered if bassist Ryan Skates, with his thick, bushy beard and wizardly demeanor, could truly be an ancient Celtic druid.

Musically, Green Druid performed with supreme fluidity and impeccable tone, matching each other’s harmonies and rhythmic shifts as they shifted from pummeling, steamroller riffs to atmospheric, psychedelic stews, all the way to gritty, sludgy, low-end death marches. I found myself especially impressed by the enormity of the group’s bass tones, which were deeply fulfilling but not overpowering, and the powerful sentiment contained within vocalist Chris McLaughlin’s melodic lines. With soaring cleans, he elicited a sense of building tension and despair before releasing these emotions with a cathartic, harrowing yowl: rarely does one vocalist balance harsh and clean vocals so evenly and tastefully. Furthermore, I was surprised to find Green Druid utilizing a relatively basic setup, with only the necessary pedals at the disposal of the two guitarists and the drummer behind a modestly-sized kit. Thus, I was fully convinced that the passion and vigor of their sound was drawn largely from the band’s musicality and raw talent, which made their live performance all the more impressive.

After playing three original pieces, Green Druid thanked the audience and rounded out their set with a droning, noise-rock rendition of Portishead’s “Threads,” marking a rather pronounced shift in tone from their own material. By drastically changing the dynamic of their set right as it ended, Green Druid surprised and impressed me yet again, and left me with an increased sense of respect for the group.

Next to take the stage were the musical outliers of the night, the highly progressive Dreadnought. Although their sound takes consistent influence from epic doom, it ventures far beyond the boundaries of any one subgenre, and can be meticulously described but never properly labeled. As they began to load their equipment onto the stage, even those completely unfamiliar with the band could tell right away that their instrumental setup was highly unconventional; although Dreadnought too were a four-piece outfit, the commonalities between them and the other two acts of the night ended there.

Kelly Schilling, the group’s frontwoman, began to warm up on her flute after soundchecking guitar and vocals while keyboardist Lauren Vieira carefully perfected the tones on her electric piano. Simultaneously, drummer Jordan Clancy set up countless cymbals before adjusting the microphone attached to his alto saxophone. Even bassist Kevin Handlon sported a five-string (and although he is known to occasionally whip out a mandolin, it was not present at this juncture). The four looked eager and excited to share their compelling music with the packed audience, yet took time and delicate care to properly set up their complex instrumentation. As the flute, saxophone, and piano sounded obliquely against each other during soundcheck, the image of an orchestra tuning up before performing a symphony was conjured up in my mind, and I became highly interested in how their highly unique sound would translate into the space of a crowded concrete dive bar.

To commence a grand odyssey, Clancy took in his hands two mallets and danced them across his wide array of cymbals as the rest of the group joined in with soft, melodic instrumentation. We were first introduced to the folksy, fantastical side of Dreadnought as Kelly and Lauren traded lead vocal lines and combined into whimsical harmonies. However, these moments of pristine beauty proved to be fleeting as acoustic passages soon exploded into ferocious electric thunder. Kelly’s initially gentle mien was torn away as she proclaimed timeless prophecies with her signature, intensely visceral witch-shriek, reminiscent of the haunting wails of early 1990s second-wave black metal. Dreadnought shifted seamlessly between different styles of metal, deeply exploring one musical idea or atmospheric realm before transitioning into a completely different groove, never missing a single beat.

The group write songs that typically run around ten minutes or longer, but avoid the pitfalls of repetition and reprisal that are all too common in lengthy metal compositions. Instead, their songs take the listener on enthralling journeys, each contrasting passage flowing together with the next like fluid waves. Above all else, Dreadnought’s most distinctive skill is contained within its ability to balance dualities: their pieces juxtapose the warm and the frigid, the light and the blackened, the naturalistic and the mechanical.

Sometimes these dualities collide all at once, creating music that is especially daring and audacious with dynamic emotional heft.

After tearing through the second song of their set, Kelly humbly announced that Dreadnought were in the process of recording their fourth full-length LP, and that the song they had just performed was an entirely new piece. I had known about their progress on the new record, but was still amazed to witness such a deft performance of something so recently composed. As usual with their music, the song explored extremely heady, progressive territory but stayed rooted in an organic and human dimension thanks to the groovy, folksy elements running deep within their particular style of metal. However, it was also at this point in the set that I began to notice some shortcomings in the group’s collective tone and mixing.

Boasting highly layered instrumentation, their sound is dense, complex, and very nuanced; in a small, claustrophobic space such as Larimer Lounge, many components of their sound can become too quiet, muddy, or even awkward within the mix. For example, I often struggled to pick out Kelly’s guitar riffs from the overall wall of sound, and found that she was being completely overpowered by Lauren’s keyboard harmonies, which occupied a similar range of frequencies. The full sound presented by this type of multi-instrumental ensemble would come across much better in a larger venue, and was likely squashed by the low ceilings and bare rectangular corners (I can profess this from personal experience, having seen them at last year’s Psycho Festival in Las Vegas). Another issue I discovered was with the balance of sound: the volume deficit between the group’s clean and harsh vocals. While the melodic passages are meant to be quiet and understated, it was obvious on this occasion that the clean vocals were much too soft to make room for Kelly’s much louder and percussive harsh lines.

Ultimately, these mixing issues were far too minor to detract Dreadnought’s stellar, utterly remarkable performance. Each of the group’s four members performed with such unbridled mastery and confidence that they are impossible not to love.

As Dreadnought finished and loaded the last of their equipment out behind the bar, the full glory of Larimer’s stage was revealed. Khemmis would have nearly twice as much room as Green Druid to perform their set. At this point in the night, the venue had gone from crowded to obscenely packed — I didn’t dare leave my spot near the railing, which I had earned by staking myself out near the front and inching my way forward with each band. I found it rather interesting that the last band of the night was to be the most tame and straightforward of the three, as Khemmis’s sound mostly consists of a mix of classic Iommian heavy riffing and late 1970s doom badassery, with the occasional moment of extreme metal tossed in for zest.

Regardless, the anticipatory energy amongst the crowd was rife, and it seemed we were in for a top-notch set.

After their soundcheck, the band vacated the stage to prepare for what would be a theatrical intro. The band returned after about thirty seconds of purposeful absence to seize the night’s drama, donning their instruments to wild cheers from the audience fog machines poured out billowing fluid into the room. Within the very first moments of their set, each musician’s tone barreled out of the speakers with an utterly mammoth immensity, combining into a singularly crushing tone that vibrated into the depths of my skeleton. Every kick and snare echoed within my chest, and each chord resounded throughout my entire being.

Khemmis opened with their cover of “A Conversation with Death,” a thunderous version of an early 20th Century Appalachian hymn whose lyrics plead with death itself, before launching into tunes from their second full-length Hunted. Just like Green Druid, Khemmis brought a potency and devilish virulence to their live performance that cannot be found on their recordings, but where the former merely expanded their sound from records to the stage, the latter’s sound virtually doubled in size. Downright righteous solos exploded from the hands of guitarist Phil as his sublime tones melded together for an old-school, hyper-satisfying dual guitar assault. Rarely do two guitars match together so beautifully and support each other with such effective synergy.

It’s important to note that in Khemmis there is no “lead” guitarist; at times, even the bass plays an integral, up-front role in the glorious harmonies constructed by the band. I was also completely enthused by the dual-vocal approach utilized by the group, as both the growls and clean melodic lines were clearly present at the forefront of the band’s mix. I have a great appreciation for bands that can creatively weave together a classic throwback sound and newer, more brutal elements: Khemmis managed to balance the volume and tonal qualities of their two vocalists just as skillfully as their two stylistic strategies.

Toward the end of their set, Khemmis transitioned into material from their latest album, last year’s well-regarded Desolation. Even after three hours of music that night, not one body in the audience showed signs of fatigue or boredom; if anything, the audience was even more energetic and captivated in these final moments than at any point prior. Clearly, this was Khemmis’s night to shine, and clearly it was they who had manifested the buzz and excitement surrounding the event. During their final song, they unleashed a mighty riff in 6/8 time, a crunchy, doomed-out march that had every head in the building banging in perfect unison. There was not one fan present who did not feel the strength and determination carried upon the shoulders of that groove. Before this encounter, I could have perhaps said that I enjoyed Khemmis, but I never found them particularly fascinating. Now, I can honestly say that I have a newfound appreciation and respect for their irresistible brand of doomed heavy metal.

As I left Larimer Lounge, I reflected on what a particularly outstanding show I had just witnessed. Too often, metal shows are either completely scattershot, with bands playing in radically different styles that don’t mesh well… or too drawn out, with four filler acts draining the audience’s energy before the headliner. On this night, however, I had the rare opportunity of witnessing three outstanding sets from three outstanding groups, all rooted within a doom sensibility but approaching the genre with their own unique methodologies. The range of music at this “night of doomed heavy metal” was cohesive yet highly eclectic, flowing well from one group to the next. For me, the musical standout of the night was without a doubt Dreadnought, yet Khemmis took the cake in terms of tone, mixing, and overall production quality.

Ultimately, all three acts blew me away; I wait with bated breath to experience each of them again in 2019.

— Thomas Hinds

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