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Photos & Review: The Decibel Tour (Abbath, High on Fire, Skeletonwitch & Tribulation) @ The Regency Ballroom

All Photos by Raymond Ahner
All Photos by Raymond Ahner

I’ve covered the Decibel tour every year since its inception, and not since its first run has the future of the show seemed so uncertain. I’m not suggesting that the tour might stop—on the contrary, It seemed more popular than ever on March 29 when I caught the show at San Francisco’s Regency Ballroom. But up until now, discounting the second tour’s Cannibal Corpse-led anomaly, the Decibel tour has offered a reliable narrative: a series of young and hungry bands, each more professional and crowd-demolishing than the last, culminating with a victory lap by a huge metal band whose legacy is already secure.

2015 both did and did not follow that pattern. While each band played solid sets, and the headliner was a show I literally never thought I’d see, each band offered their own distinct narrative, a choice of how to interpret the evening. The climax, while certainly a triumph in the Roman sense, was not entirely a victory.

As I walked to the venue that afternoon, I heard a sound from overhead. Goblinlike chittering. Immature laughter. It was, I later learned, a flock of mockingbirds. Nature’s great imitators, they could have sounded like anything and they chose to sound like terrifying little shits. An omen: the evening would not conform to my expectations. A more ostentatious display might have been crows. After all, ravens figure prominently in the lore of headliner Abbath’s lyrics and imagery, High on Fire sing of “Blessed Black Wings” and there’s a crow on the cover of the new Skeletonwitch single, and the black birds might make a fitting occult image for openers Tribulation.

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Speaking of Tribulation, they performed, as they often do, at the intersection of classic rock and extreme metal. It’s a lonely place, but one that’s existed since the genre’s inception, and one that’s already driven the band to great success. As much as I liked seeing Deafheaven earlier this year, what I did not write in my review was that Tribulation upstaged them with aplomb, a feat I expected them to repeat.

Again, the night did not conform to my expectations.Tribulation’s short performance came across as certainly good, but a bit muddled. Jonathan Hulten’s stage performance is always dynamic, but in this instance it interfered with his timing. Songs like “Melancholia” are effective on album because every individual, ringing guitar note is clear and ought to be so live. Call it growing pains: when I saw this tour lineup for the first time, my reaction was that every single one of these bands could have been a headliner, and that’s true. Tribulation are already more developed than In Solitude were when they opened the first Decibel tour, or than Noisem were when they opened the Carcass edition, but in this instance they did not put on a headlining performance.

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More interesting was Skeletonwitch’s performance. Unlike past incarnations of this tour, every single band on this bill also had something to prove—Tribulation needed to prove that they could live up to the hype that the magazine stoked for them, High on Fire needed to prove to everyone who did not catch their last tour that Matt Pike can operate as a sober bandleader, and Abbath needed to prove that he can function without driving every person around him to quit while also cashing the check the Immortal albums and his excellent solo album write.

But maybe Skeletonwitch had the most to prove after an uncertain year. The band unceremoniously ejected their beloved original lead singer Chance Garnett last year and then putzed around both as an instrumental band and with former Cannabis Corpse singer Andy Horn before selecting Wolvhammer singer Adam Clemans. Garnett casts a long shadow. He was a charismatic man with a dynamic growling range who balanced levity in stage banter with straight faced vocal delivery. He also popularized several phrases which follow Skeletonwitch to this day.

Clemans is a more reserved man. He delivers vocals in Wolvhammer ramrod straight. He’s not much for banter, and his slender build prompted one of my companions to ask “who is this deathcore guy?” On the other hand, he may be just what Skeletonwitch need. For all his charisma and delivery Garnett was a limited lyricist, and there’s only so far you can go by telling people to “drink beer, smoke weed and eat some fucking pussy.” Clemans, on the other hand, screamed on the Iron Thrones EP which I adore to this day, and has brought at least a little morbid nuance to the band with his self-loathing take on “Well of Despair.”

And he does pull it off live, moving around far more than I’ve ever seen him do so in a live venue, obviously taking steps outside of his comfort zone in order to fulfil the expectations of Skeletonwitch fans. Vocally, he has what it takes. His highs are every bit as solid as Garnett’s, and he can still drop low enough to fill in classics like “Beyond the Permafrost.” The remainder of the band, as always, executed their songs without an obvious flaw besides a lead guitar buried a little in the mix. My significant other, who has never seen Skeletonwitch before, thought they put on the best set of the evening.

Personally my only complaint was their set list. I don’t mind pulling heavily from their most recent album, Serpents Unleashed—it’s one of their best—even though I could have traded “Unending, Everliving” and “Choke Upon Betrayal” for “Limb from Limb” or anything off Breathing the Fire. (Guys, never play a show without “Crushed Beyond Dust” ok?) The songs they did play, however, seemed to come in at an odd order. “This Horrifying Force (The Desire to Kill)” was written to open sets, not come in the middle where its intro kills momentum, and “Beyond the Permafrost” has always deserved to close a set, particularly a set introducing a capable new singer who can hopefully come into his own an an upcoming tour that gives him more room to shine.

Skeletonwitch has always been a band that I’ve felt could write a classic album if they slowed down and compressed all of their bangers into one disc and only showed a little more lyrical variance. Now they’re halfway there. Mr. Clemans, I am ready for you to show me what you’re really capable of.

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The evening, though, belonged to High on Fire, which should come as no surprise. Matt Pike’s been making metal in Oakland since before it was cool (or, y’know, before big tech priced out everyone else), and the Regency constituted a homecoming for him. The applause when he walked onstage was nearly as loud as his guitar.

This is the second time I’ve seen High on Fire play in support of their 2015 release Luminiferous, an album which apparently I am in the minority negative critical opinion on. Both times Pike’s set culled heavily from the record, and both times the set was a blast to watch, offering proof in support of the idea that good songwriting and good performance are separate trains that often run along the same track, but don’t necessarily have to. To Pike’s credit, he did play the two most vital cuts from that album, “Slave the Hive” and “The Falconist,” alongside other ‘greatest hits’ jams like “Devilution” and “Rumors of War.” High on Fire albums are usually 30% bangers and 70% plodders (not necessarily a bad thing) but their live sets wisely spring mostly from the more visceral 30%.

Originally High on Fire was slotted to headline the tour, which would have been a bit of a coup for the trio: Decibel Tour openers are usually storied (and European) groups that achieved notoriety through word of mouth and rarely play the United States. In this sense Pike’s more other band Sleep would have been the more obvious choice, he’s been burning up asphalt as part of High on Fire long enough to inspire bands like Mastodon, and watch them eclipse his own stature. But seeing the band live, functioning as a flawless tripartite unit, especially when ripping into closer “Snakes for the Divine,” convinced me that this is Pike’s time. It may be short, but it is now. He’s managed to unmoor himself from exclusivity, from the primacy of promoting albums or singles, and indeed from common sense to achieve what other headlining acts never do: mastery of the live performance as a form.

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The same cannot be said completely for Norway’s Abbath, even though the former Immortal frontman did put on a stellar show. This may be a function of expectations. Most Decibel Headliners use the tour as a victory lap—Nergal from Behemoth beat cancer, Carcass and At The Gates came out of retirement with stellar records. Olve “Abbath” Eikemo never retired. His long absences from the live circuit came as a function of legal battles with his former bandmates in Immortal and, at least according to said bandmates, an ignorant non-battle with alcoholism. Yes, Eikemo put out an excellent record without those former bandmates, but he also managed to cycle through sidemen since that album’s release. He shed bandmates so quickly that both Decibel Magazine cover stories involving him were outdated by the time they hit newsstands.

But Abbath presents a deeper conflict with Decibel as well. Through the internet, and memes in particular, Eikemo’s managed to make the Abbath character’s persona and image perhaps more recognizable than Immortal’s music. How many of you got Abbath on a digital birthday card in the past four years? Since the last Immortal album, 2009’s All Shall Fall, Abbath’s business model has changed from making iconography to just selling iconography. This was present at his merch booth—every shirt bore his diamond-eyed visage—as well as his stage show. At one point in time he rallied the crowd like a sports mascot, over and over again striking the double invisible oranges pose that has populated so many memes. The man didn’t agree to take a photo in costume with Deafheaven for no reason. The rub is, that Decibel magazine is always the real headliner of the Decibel Tour. The show exists, at least in part, to sell magazine subscriptions. Putting young bands that the magazine endorses on the same stage as returning titans does not just raise the profile of those bands, but it adds legitimacy to the magazine’s opinion. This is a beautiful content strategy, and having Eikemo walk onstage and act as though he in fact is Gene Simmons of Kiss, sassy head wag and all, does subvert that synchronicity somewhat.

All that grandstanding also subverts what was otherwise a damn good, if overlong, set. Opening with “To War” and segueing into the A+ “Winter Bane” is a hell of a way to kick off a set, especially one also featuring deep Immortal cuts like “Nebular Raven Winter” and “Solarfall.” The inclusion of “Warriors” from the I project was also appreciated, even though I would have preferred “Storm I Ride,” even if “Ooh! Guy from Alterbeast!” Doesn’t quite have the same ring as “Ooh! Ice Dale!”

Abbath did provide the evening’s high water mark in terms of energy and kinetic crowd movement during the one-two punch of “Tyrants” and “One By One,” but the stone cold perfection of those songs underlined a few weaknesses in his more abundant solo material. In the live setting, Abbath’s consistent tempo and double bass rolls became grating. Likewise, these live renditions lacked some of the dynamic details of their album counterparts—I wanted the horn blasts on “Ashes of the Damned” and especially King ov Hell’s stellar bass fills on “Winter Bane,” neither of which were audible live.

Still, these are minor complaints, the result of a too-new band playing at the end of a massive bill. In fairness to Abbath, by my estimation Converge outperformed At the Gates last year, so there’s some precedent for the seasoned warrior besting the legendary master. Provided Abbath the band can keep disciplined, and Eikemo can keep on the straight and narrow, there’s no reason that the band can’t hit the tour circuit after this run to find success the way Carcass, At the Gates and Behemoth have. In fact, I would wager that Abbath has a higher ceiling for success than his peers, owing to the inherently goofy and dramatic presentation of the music. Babymetal just played on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert, and I don’t see why Abbath could not do the same provided they hired a few people to load tee shirt bazookas with snow-ish confetti and spray it at an easily entertained metal-ignorant audience. If that happens, a slightly awkward Decibel Tour will be a footnote in that band’s history. Regardless, at least the remaining three bands seem poised to dominate the metal-centric club circuit, each as a headlining act, for the foreseeable future.

Tribulation

Skeletonwitch

High on Fire

Abbath

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