Last week saw the return of the Power Of The Riff Festival to LA, a traveling showcase for modern metal’s most far-out proponents curated by Southern Lord Records headmaster Greg Anderson and Night Horse/ Bluebird vocalist Sam Velde. The tour-ending blowout, scheduled on what was supposed to be our last day on earth, God damn it, featured a punishing roster of seven bands, three of whom I missed despite showing up at what seemed like the reasonable hour of 8 pm. Note to self: don’t make yourself late to the Doomsday Festival by shopping for holidays that take place after the end of the world. Next time the world is definitely going to end, I won’t make that mistake again.
Black Breath, a new crew from Seattle, took the stage shortly after I arrived and presented a head-banging froth of technically precise but chaotically conceived darkness. This band isn’t easily assigned to a single micro-genre, projecting elements of death, thrash, grind, and many different words that have “core” at the end of them. They are definitely Something-Core, but that Something probably has a lot of hypens in it too. Guttural singing, mathematical precision, and a whole lotta hair in the air.
For some reason I never quite got into Corrosion Of Conformity back in the day – I remember skipping them more than once around 1985-87. Maybe it was my teenage aversion to all things metal; it took me until I was about twenty to even get into Black Sabbath and AC/DC. Blame on the socio-political climate at the time, when it felt necessary to declare allegiance to one side of the punk/ metal divide and opposition to the other. (Like fuck this guy, seriously.) But that kind of thinking is exactly what COC was trying to attack, as their very name suggests, and by the time I was ready to hear them, in the mid-nineties, they made a big impact.
1985’s Animosity is a classic of the era, the perfect blend of metallic precision with hardcore thrust, and it’s now possible to look back and see their impact in the underground rock that immediately followed them, as doomy Sabbath riffs and shredding double-kick patterns made their way into the vocabulary of punk. That original trio of guitarist Woody Weatherman, bassist Mike Dean and drummer Reed Mullin didn’t last long, and the band made some less thrashed-out metal albums in the nineties and early 2000s with a shifting collection of members, before the classic trio lineup resurfaced in 2010, finally releasing a new, self-titled album in February of this year.
Complete review and photo gallery after the jump.
Most of the Fonda set came from that record, and showed it to be a worthy successor to Animosity, as if they hadn’t missed a beat in twenty-seven years. When they did rip into eighties classics like “Mad World” and “Hungry Child” – sung by Mullin, who I’d never noticed had such a vocal presence before tonight – they sounded as fierce as ever, a sledgehammering force of immense power, and it’s always fun to hear your favorite songs given the foaming live treatment. But the new songs were the ones that really got the members’ blood boiling, and for all the albums COC has released in the years since, it was gratifying to see this one particular, beloved thing that they did for a short time get a proper second album, and to see that album stand up admirably against its sole predecessor. It was the best kind of nostalgia show, one that only contained a small sprinkling of old songs but still took the audience back to another time
High On Fire followed and accomplished the neat trick of raising the intensity levels from there. They don’t do this by raising the speed, though they’re certainly capable of breaking out the blast-beats when they want to. Their real strength comes from that elementary power of the riff spoken of in the festival’s title, which in the hands of Matt Pike, can be a powerful thing indeed. Sleep, Pike’s band of twenty years ago, once stretched a single riff into an hour-long opus, and such an undertaking requires a sturdy-ass riff as a starting point. This band’s not as hypnotic or sludgy as Sleep, preferring a medium-high velocity somewhere around the tempo of “Symptom Of The Universe.” But they’re still pretty stoney, Pike’s guitar excursions aiming straight for the part of the brain that wants to see the whole world obliterated by massive, overwhelming sound.
The essence of the “stoner” definition of rock, I’m convinced, has to do with a preference for amping the low end, like Sabbath, instead the high midrange, like, say, Metallica. No matter the speed or the lyric content, bands with thick low ends are for stoners. The drums thump instead of clatter, the bass player’s amp is noticeably turned on, the guitarist may even be playing through a bass head. The marijuana mindset calls for dense, fudgy slabs of sound, sub-frequencies that resound in the chest cavity. On this requirement, drummer Des Kensel and bassist Jeff Matz deliver completely, setting up Pike’s gargantuan riffs with a backbeat to match. The rhythms are fluid as opposed to spiky, so when they go into attack mode, it’s like being conked with a blunt object instead of stabbed with something sharp, and thus easier to take for extended periods of time.
Sunn O)) closed the show with a set that strikingly resembled the first time I ever saw them, over ten years ago at a tiny youth club called PCH on the way to Long Beach. That time, it was four guys with giant stacks of amplifiers and no drummer, playing through a wall of smoke so thick you could barely count the number of hooded figures on stage. This night was about the same, except the group’s stringed lineup has now been reduced to a duo – with no diminution in mind-melting sound – and there’s now the occasional emergence of a singer. The source of the haunting vocalizations was later identified as Attila Csihar, former vocalist for Norwegian black metal titans Mayhem, who had opened the festival proceedings as the one–man show Void Ov Voices.
The only point of comparison that comes to mind is New York’s Borbetomagus, or maybe their Southern Lord label mates Earth, in terms of formless yet capably organized wailing, creating an unfathomable tension that takes so damn long to resolve, it feels like the sweetest release when resolution finally comes.
It was an impressive, singular performance that nonetheless found me wishing the Fonda’s balcony had been opened that night, as the preceding four hours spent on my feet had left me buckling at the knees. I’m not sure they were the best choice for a closer. On the one hand, it’s hard to imagine anyone wanting to go on AFTER them. On the other, it’s like going to a long, slow midnight movie when you’re already beat at 11:45. Most of the crowd braved it, pushing closer to the blue haze enveloping the Fonda’s south end.
As I departed, the grim ambiance hung over me, ringing in my ears for two blocks before receding into the hum of Hollywood street life. Let’s hope Anderson and Velde manage to turn the Power Of The Riff into a long-standing tradition, the world will always need a traveling show with this kind of potency.