Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Soundtrack of My Life

Tesla - Five Man Acoustical Jam

There's something wonderful about the sound of an electric guitar roaring through an amp with the gain cranked.  That sound feels like home, and can still make my hair stand on end, even after years of cranking the metal.  But every once in a while, I get burned out on the whole wall-of-blazing-electric-axes sound.  It's true.  Usually I love nothing better than to plug in my Jackson, crank up my amp, and make noise.  But sometimes, I honestly just wanna strap on my acoustic and chill out.  There's a good reason for that, and that reason is Tesla's Five Man Acoustical Jam.

When I first heard Five Man, I was in the grips of full-blown metal fever.  I couldn't stand acoustic guitar.  I didn't even really like power ballads that featured acoustic guitar.  (Though now I can sing every word of "Every Rose Has Its Thorn" and "More Than Words".)  Then, along came this platter.  Tesla was a band I really liked, although they were never a favorite.  Still, they kicked ass on tunes like "Modern Day Cowboy" and "Heaven's Trail (No Way Out").  I knew somehow that they wouldn't deliver an unplugged record full of weepy ballads.  And I was right.  Five Man Acoustic Jam rocks just as hard as any fully electrified Tesla release.

What performing unplugged did for Tesla was give them a chance to show that they could actually play.  Most of the tracks on Five Man feature stripped-down, spare arrangements.  Some of the songs are even performed withing drummer Troy Luccketta bashing away at the kit.  The band also adds a few flourishes, like harmonica and piano, to the mix.  The result is the songs take on different emotional tones.  "Comin' Atcha Live" becomes and laid-back, swinging blues jam, while "Before My Eyes" morphs into a mystifying, haunting affair.  "Heaven's Trail (No Way Out)" rocks solid, even without the drums and electrified riffs.  "Modern Day Cowboy" manages to sound like a 60's protest song.  

Along with their own material, Tesla throws in a number of cover songs.  They stay pretty faithful to the originals, but it's impossible not to sing along with "Signs", "Lodi", and "We Can Work It Out".  The record is a live recording, so it also captures so funny moments, like singer Jeff Keith's reaction to being given a hat, and guitarist Tommy Skeoch's "Tommy's Down Home".  The records ends with the cheery, swinging "Down for Boogie", which is a blast to sing along with, and the perfect closing number.

For me, Tesla's Five Man Acoustical Jam was a monumental album, mainly because it proved to me that strumming an acoustic guitar can be just as cool as wailing away on an electric.  It also hammered home the point that whether you play plugged in or unplugged, you'd better have good songs.  Tesla had some pretty great songs.  They even wrote some of them themselves!  I dusted off my copy of Five Man last week, and it was every bit as enjoyable as it was when I first heard it.  And that's the most important thing.  Hell, it kinda takes me back a few years (to when I still had some hope).  So, really, it's kinda like time travel.  And that's priceless.

Friday, March 6, 2015

A Concert Report

(Note: This post contains some cursing, including the "f" word.  You've been warned.)

If you ever want to feel like an outcast, wear a tan plaid shirt to a heavy metal concert.  You really tend to stick out like a sore thumb if you wear any color other than black.  As I sat among the waves of black shirt-clad metal kids last night, I felt unbelievably conspicuous.  I just hoped it would work in my favor, like maybe Phil Labonte of Anders Friden might be able to pick me out in the midst of the crowd.  After all, I was an island of tan in a roiling sea of black.  Maybe they'd find my guts to buck the metal fashion trend inspiring and they'd throw a set list or something like that at me.  No such luck.

I decided to try to give my anxiety and depression a swift kick to the nuts by driving across the state to peep out In Flames, All That Remains, and Woverwar.  I don't see many live shows because I always talk myself out of going.  This time, for some reason, it seemed like a matter of life and death for me to go.  So, I pulled my shit together the best that I could and drove over for the show.  I'm a big In Flames fan, especially of their albums Colony and Clayman.  I wanted to scratch them off my concert bucket list.  I like All That Remains, too.  And I'd heard Woverwar and wasn't all that impressed.  In fact, even when I was lost driving around streets I didn't know, I wasn't too worried about getting to the venue on time.  I could miss Wovenwar.  No biggie.

I did manage to get to the gig on time, and I'm really glad I did, because Wovenwar was a lot better live than they were on CD.  The band formed out of the ashes of As I Lay Dying, after vocalist Tim Lambesis was jailed for trying to have his wife killed.  In fact, Wovenwar basically is AILD with a different singer.  The new guy, Shane Blay, trades off vocal duties with bassist Josh Gilbert, and gives Wovenwar a more melodic sound than AILD.  They played well enough live to convince me to give 'em another listen.  It was especially fun watching drummer Jordan Mancino beat the hell out of his drums.  Axeman Phil Sgrosso appeared to be having issues with his gear but he got it figured out and he and co-guitarist Nick Hippa dished out a powerful mix of metal riffs, bad ass solos, and melodic counterpoint licks.  It wasn't perfect.  Both vocalists missed several high notes they were aiming for.  But, damn, the energy was there, and that sound was plenty potent.  I came into the night not really caring about Wovenwar.  By the end of the night, I was a fan.

All That Remains came out next.  ATR has been amassing an ever-bigger following by moving away from their more brutal metal roots and adding more and more melody to their sound.  It works cuz the band writes interesting riffs and cuz singer Phil Labonte can really sing.  Their set put a pretty heavy emphasis on newer, more sing-songy tunes, including a trio of tracks from their latest record, The Order of Things.  I'm more drawn to their heavier stuff, but I gotta admit, I ended singing along at the top of my lungs.  Phil engaged the crowd with frequently hilarious banter, including a diatribe about how he had to tell whiny haters to "fuck off" when they complained about the ballad "What if I was Nothing".  Guitarist Oli Herbert shredded up a storm, and made it look pretty damn effortless.  He also had some very... interesting... stage move.  I wonder if he was itchy and that's why he kept grabbing at his crotch.  The other guitarist, Mike Martin, just seemed to enjoy rocking out, but he kept it pretty chill.  But it was hard to watch anyone other than Phil during the show.  And you could tell he lived for rocking a stage.  It was cool to see.  It made me wanna start a band.  And it was so fun to sing along with ATR.  In the end, it didn't matter too much that ATR didn't play too many of their old, bad ass metal jams.  All That Remains was just a shit ton of fun.

That left In Flames.  I had pretty high expectations, and they did not let me down.  I often joke that In Flames is cool because they sound like what you'd hear if you could stick your head inside an angry bus engine.  They don't sound like that live. In concert, they sound more like what's reverberating through your head after Thor whacks you in the noggin several times with Mjolnir.  Good God, they were powerful!  Guitarists Bjorn Gelotte and Niclas Engelin provided a wall of muscular guitar noise, backed by Daniel Svensson's thunderous drumming.  Bassist Peter Iwers rocked out, looking like a cross between an Viking god and a grizzly bear.  Once again, the band's frontman, Anders Friden, was a highlight.  Anders took the crowd to task for its lack of crowd-surfers.  Later, he bagged on U.S.-made beers by proclaiming "Fuck Budweiser".  He then made fun of Woverwar's Nick Hippa for having no facial hair.  And he ended the night by telling the crowd he'd make love to each and every one of us, although it would take a long time.

The best thing about In Flames was just how they went about taking care of business.  They looked that they were having every bit as much fun as I was and they truly appreciated us for coming out.  Anders made a point of saying that any of us could do what they do, "drink beer and play heavy metal".  While that's not really true (In Flames produced some pretty groundbreaking music, and not everyone is capable of that), it WAS inspiring.

Overall, this was an amazing, ass-kicking blast!  I'll be picking up Woverwar's record, and I'll be spending more time jamming out with In Flames and All That Remains in the coming weeks.  What surprised me is just how happy this show left me feeling.  People who don't get metal fuss and fret about it corrupting kids, giving them evil ideas, or making them do bad things.  I'm here to tell you that's a bunch of crap.  This music gives people something to turn to during troubled times.  It helps them feel like they aren't alone, like they're part of something bigger than themselves.  They go out to shows and they release all the pent-up negativity built up inside.  It looks violent as fuck, but it's actually an uplifting, spiritual experience.  It takes a lot out of you.  This morning, my neck hurts, my throat is soar, and my ears are still ringing.  I fell like I could sleep for a couple of weeks.  But I also got out what I needed to get out, and while I'm drained, I'm also really damn happy.  And I'd like to thank Wovenwar, All The Remains, and In Flames for the opportunity to let the monster inside me come out and play.

Here's a little video I shot last night.  In Flames playing "Bullet Ride".  If the image bounces around too much, I apologize.  It's really fucking hard to hold a camera steady while you're banging your head.