Hearing Europe’s ubiquitous cheeseball hair metal anthem “The Final Countdown” cranked out over the PA as early arrivers started filtering into the Theater of Living Arts was mentally vivid. It not only brings that atrocious YouTube cover or the amusing Geico commercial to mind, but also the halcyon days of metal in America. There was a time you bought records in malls and pasted magazine pages on walls. There was no shortage of periodicals to choose from – Metal Edge, Circus, and Hit Parader covered the mainstream fare, Rip and Livewire were more open-ended, and Metal Maniacs was all about the underground.

Those days are gone, but nobody told Decibel, who deserves respect for not only putting out a print magazine in 2018, but for value-added branding to attract millennials to the anachronistic printed page. There’s the Flexi Series with an exclusive floppy single in every issue, tie-in marketing with craft breweries thanks to a long-running beer column, and, of course, an annual tour de force which has become a must-attend for fans of extreme metal over the last seen years.

The tour kicked off in Decibel's home of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. It’s appropriate, even if it was just a coincidence of tour routing.

That routing wasn’t very helpful for Khemmis, who drove all the way straight from Denver to play. Their doom-soaked traditional metal relies on longer dirges, which meant they only had time for four songs, one of which was which was a relatively faster cut from the forthcoming album, Isolation. It harkened back to the original metallic pioneers who inspired the band, but still sounded fresh in their capable hands. Album number three can’t be released fast enough.

“The Bereaved” closed the set with unparalleled majesty. If the long travels had any ill effects, you wouldn’t have known it.

Myrkur traveled even farther, literally from Denmark to New York, and figuratively. In just a few years she has gone from pop hopeful/indie rocker to one of metal’s most polarizing figures.

Let the haters hate. I come to praise Amalie Bruun, not bury her.

Her band is hidden -- foils beneath cloaks -- making Bruun a focal point. This set wasn't about this centered, imposing figure or engaging visual performance. No, this was all about that voice. Despite the band playing loud, she was still the loudest sound you heard; Gothic passion steeped with folk mysticism and punctuated with anguished black metal screams.

That being said, it would have been interesting to see Myrkur have a choir of backup singers and a wider variety of instruments like on Mareridt. In a half hour festival-type set, those accruements were unsurprisingly missing, but even more shockingly not really missed.

The preceding bands were billed as special guests and were met with minimal staging. Wolves In The Throne Room, though, took the opposite approach, decorating the stage with tapestries and a darkened backdrop. To increase the "ritual" mood, the band burned sage and literally blessed the instruments by wafting the acrid smoke over their resting guitars, drums, and even the amplifiers. This isn’t just music; this is a soundtrack of a spiritual cleansing which the modern world so desperately needs. They didn’t perform in total darkness like prior shows which were lit only by the illumination of the guitars, but it was close.

There is no shortage of bands which employ atmospherics in black metal, but most sacrifice aggression to paint a picture. In what seems like a violation of metal physics, Wolves In The Throne Room are able to make a refined, preternatural sound both shimmer and pulverize simultaneously. There’s no better black metal band in concert right now than Wolves In The Throne Room. Miss them at your own peril.

Enslaved and Ulver both evolved from leading lights of black metal's second wave to progressive rock entities, and both receive a great deal of grief for it (even if Enslaved continued down a metallic path). This makes them perfect for a tour with two other bands whose black metal cred are constantly being debated and debased. The Deci-dudes embrace the controversy by showing how futile ideological purist tests are, and the headliners followed suit.

“Storm Son” off the band’s latest album E led the way with the precision of vintage Emerson, Lake, and Palmer at their most grandiose. Starting off a set with a complex, eleven-minute opus which relies on new member Håkon Vinje’s keyboards and Cato Bekkevold’s shifty off-beats made the point clear that Enslaved would rather employ illuminating surgical precision than bludgeoning darkness.

Despite the complexities, there was't a gaping chasm of space one might expect between the progressive opener and “Vetrarnótt” from their 1994 debut full length Vikingligr Veldi. Despite being from Enslaved' formative years, the song is about the same length with bouncy synths of its own. That – as well as the songs that were birthed in the interim, most decisively “Convoys to Nothingness” with snarling aggression bookended by delicate beauty – proved that Enslaved hasn’t changed much at all. The melancholic atmosphere has always been the point. They just know how to play now.

Sometimes this led to showing off. “Sacred Horse” borders on self-indulgent excess (Solos! Solos everywhere!) but set closer “Isa” contrasted with an immediacy the rest of Enslaved's set lacked.

The Decibel Tour has had some great lineups. Cannibal Corpse with Napalm Death – two legendary bands that pioneered vastly different scenes on different continents – made the 2013 tour stand out. The 2016 edition with Abbath, High on Fire, Skeletonwitch and Tribulation didn’t have a weak link. This year’s lineup, while not as diverse as previous years, will be a task to top.


photos by Tashina Byrd

—Brian O'Neill

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