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Live Report: Power of the Riff 2016

Words by Jason Roche Photos by Jay Valena
Words by Jason Roche
Photos by Jay Valena

Los Angeles has long been home to a thriving heavy metal fan base. The absence of a grounded consistent festival has been sore spot for some local fans. The L.A. metal community rejoiced when the Power of the Riff festival returned this past Saturday and Sunday after a two-year hiatus, and filled the 1,100-capacity Regent Theatre in downtown Los Angeles on both evenings.

The festival is a joint effort between Southern Lord Records and local promoter Sam James Velde (also vocalist for punk rockers Obliterations and now-defunct hard rock outfit Night Horse). The first edition in 2011 was an exhaustive noon-to-midnight single-day barrage. Another event was basically a High On Fire tour stop with Sunn O))) added on as a local headliner. This year fell in the middle, spread out over two evenings with six bands performing each night.

Consistently though, the festival reflects the diversity of heavy music released by Southern Lord Records. The label’s roster has galloping D-beat crust-punk bands resting comfortably alongside corrosive black metal acts, and no one blinks an eye. This year’s lineup was stocked with that variety, but the crowd in attendance had a preference for the more metal side of the spectrum.

Saturday, December 17th

The first band to take the stage at 5:30 on Saturday afternoon was Crypt Rot. The Ohio death metal outfit was formed out of the ashes of punk-thrashers Homewrecker. The new music takes a more sinister turn and has a more blackened-death metal feel. There were approximately fifty people in the crowd when the band took the stage. The caustic screams of vocalist/guitarist Ryan Sposito forcefully woke up the early crowd. Background vocals from Allie Dioneff provided a creepy gothic atmosphere to two songs. The crowd was small at that moment, but everyone in the room responded well to Crypt Rot’s din.

Oakland death metal act Necrot took the stage next. The trio impressively ripped through a collection of songs from the three demos they have released so far. The audience was still fairly small, but there was copious headbanging on-stage and in the crowd. Multiple concertgoers were heard talking about how the crowd showing up later missed out. Necrot certainly left those in attendance wanting more.

The audience’s preference for metal over punk became very noticeable during Gag’s set. Vocalist Adam Barnes stalked the stage with body movements straight out of the Decline of Western Civilization playbook. Two or three concertgoers attempted to get a slam-dance pit going. The crowd overall remained fairly inert, as if waiting for more thunderous riffage to come.

The first band to play to a larger crowd was Bloodclot,  indisputably the first buzz band of the weekend. The new lineup for John Joseph’s latest project includes Joey Castillo (QOTSA/Danzig) on drums, Todd Youth (The Chelsea Smiles/Murphy’s Law) on guitars, and Nick Oliveri (QOTSA/Kyuss/Mondo Generator) on bass. Joseph, still an energetic presence on-stage well into his fifties, blazed through tracks from the band’s upcoming 2017 Metal Blade release. The crowd response remained more polite then rabid and was mostly the polar opposite of a more Cro-Mags friendly audience. A small mosh pit finally broke out halfway through their set. Joseph acknowledged the mild crowd reaction when introducing the song “Pray,” telling them “you’ll be jumping off the stage after the album comes out.”

Instrumental post-metal mainstays Pelican was up next. The crowd fully woke up now. The post-metal scene went through an exorbitant level of saturation in the wake of the initial early-to-mid ought’s rise of bands like Isis and Pelican. The Chicago act’s performance exhibited why they survived the glut and continue to reign atop the scene. Pelican is the rare post-metal band that rocks the fuck out live and looks like they enjoy playing their own music, and have an energy level akin to faster-paced bands. The group debuted a new song titled “Cold Hope”. The song pleased the crowd as did as the remainder of their set.

The mosh pit opened up far and wide for East Coast death metal icons Incantation. Vocalist/guitarist John McEntee missed the band’s previous Los Angeles performance in January 2015 due to a family emergency, and acknowledged that absence during Saturday night’s set. The scene vet seemed genuinely touched to have the opportunity to perform for a Los Angeles audience again. He proclaimed that Incantation “came here to kick your ass with death fucking metal,” which was exactly what they did. McEntee’s vocals sound even more guttural with age. Horns went up across the entire room and the largest pit of the evening ensued, especially as they launched into ‘90s-era tracks like “Ethereal Misery” and “Blissful Bloodshower.”

Wolves in the Throne Room closed Saturday evening’s festivities. The Northwest black metal collective’s shows enhance the band’s earthy identity. Burning sage and incense filled the air before they took the stage. All lights in the room went dark when it was time for them to go on. Once on-stage, a minimalist lighting setup and a stage-consuming fog shrouded the band, leaving nothing but shadows for the crowd to gaze at from the floor. The setup encouraged an immersive hypnosis as the band bombarded an attentive crowd with their entrancing black metal compositions. The dazed and pleased audience shuffled out of the room at midnight, with more to come the following evening.

Sunday, December 18th

Sunday evening’s lineup started shortly after 5:30pm. Bay Area hardcore band Lies opened up the second day. Once again, there were only about fifty people in the room for the start of the night. Lies were not dissuaded by the paltry number of showgoers however. They barreled through a quick, fifteen-minute set full of solid energetic hardcore and shook those coming back for seconds out of their Saturday evening show hangover.

Local L.A. favorites Obliterations came next. Vocalist Sam James Velde was the co-organizer of the weekend, but the band’s blistering take on hardcore punk rock tropes would have earned them the right to be a part of this weekend on their own merits. Velde’s abrasive vocal screeches channeled a more primal black metal corrosion. The band tore through rippers from their 2014 release Poison Everything, emphasizing equal parts punk and rock of the punk rock tag.

Arizona death metal act Gatecreeper’s first full-length Sonoran Depravation was a 2016 favorite of many deep-in-the-trenches death metal fans. The crowd began filling in more during their set, and was consumed by the group’s no-frills death metaland equally no-frills live set. There was no stage banter, no stage moves, and no attempt to work the crowd, just pure musical brutality, which the crowd ate up and started moving around in a bigger mosh pit.

The post-hardcore din of San Francisco’s Kowloon Walled City would have fit in snugly during the 1990’s glory days of labels like Amphetamine Reptile and Touch & Go. It also resulted in them being the most divisive band of this weekend. Kowloon Walled City was game and objectively put on a great performance. The band’s guitar tone sounded gorgeous and full. The crowd as a whole craved something a bit more metallic in nature, and wasn’t into the angularity that is the backbone of many of the band’s compositions.

The crowd’s slumber came unhinged when Nails took the stage. The largest pit of the entire weekend moved concertgoers wall-to-wall within the now-full Regent Theater. This was their first live show after a several-months-long hiatus. Band leader Todd Jones seemed recharged and in relaxed spirits. The result was a looser “we are Motorhead and we have come to kick your ass” vibe that seemed to energize the crowd and whip them into an even more furious frenzy. Jones proved a more than capable master of ceremonies. He encouraged the crowd to “fucking slam or you’re dead to me,” informed them that “God never came into my life, but Slayer and Minor Threat did,” and that “the Spice Girls said tell me what you want, what you really really want… I want you to FUCKING SLAM!” And FUCKING SLAM was what the audience did for the entirety of their set.

The legendary Neurosis finished off the weekend. It was appropriate that vocalist/guitarist Steve Von Till was wearing a Motorhead “Everything Louder Than Everything Else” t-shirt. Their sound enveloped the entire room. The immersive power of the music that Neurosis composes is amplified even more in the live setting. Every era of Neurosis post-Enemy of the Sun was well-represented and well-received. The closing set of the weekend was a model exercise in the Power of the Riff…and the Power of the Drums…and the Power of Noise…and the Power of Scott Kelly’s and Steve Von Till’s vocals.

It was encouraging that both nights were sold out, and the Regent Theatre was filled wall-to-wall for the entire second half of each evening. Those of us here in Los Angeles are hoping this is the start to a permanent return for the The Power of the Riff.

—Jason Roche

Gag

Blood Clot

Pelican

Incantation

Wolves in the Throne Room

Gatecreeper

Kowloon Walled City

Nails

Neurosis

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