Is there any metal genre that persists as doggedly throughout the ages as thrash? Many young bands attempt to harness the exuberant, no-shits-given attitude of thrash’s golden age era, but far fewer manage to pull off.
Power Trip (Dallas, TX) is not one of those. Their first full-length “Manifest Decimation” sent ripples through the rowdy world of crossover thrash back in 2013 — but I give all the credit to this year’s “Nightmare Logic,” a cunning, concise cut of slammin’ jams that hark back to a time when metal’s ascension seemed unstoppable, for completely recapturing that old sorcery. It’s authentic, executed with a serial killer’s craft, and I knew I’d be crazy to miss seeing it played live.
I had just that chance on April 9th when Power Trip steamrolled through the West Coast on their latest tour. I’d be visiting an old haunt for a tacked-on “after party” of a momentous two-day indie/emo festival themed around “when we were young” — appropriate, then, for a night of thrashy throwback goodness.
Stars on Stage in the Constellation Room
The Constellation Room is a satellite (heh) venue of The Observatory in Santa Ana, CA. I’d spent many late nights there watching the biggest names in power metal perform on the main stage back when it was known as the Galaxy Theatre. The venue was now under new management, and this would be my first time visiting the much-smaller side stage.
After giving twenty bucks to a sketchy parking lot attendant, I sprinted several blocks to the venue, weaving through former (and current?) scene kids, wondering not for the first time whether or not this show would even happen. My skepticism was at an all-time high, but I soon joined a short line in front of the box office, where illegible band logos and long hair overtook the look of dyed hair and lip piercings. I was in the right place after all, among my people.
Once inside, the first thing I noticed was how damn small the Constellation Room was — a single high-ceilinged room, with the stage to the left and tightly packed merch tables to the right. Ahead of me, a wall of alcohol bottles rose high like a bulwark, backlit with the flow of soft, jack-o’-lantern light — the constellations, I guess? As people packed inside, squeezing me up against the back of the merch table, I thought if anything, this would be an intimate experience.
Opening band The Dark (Los Angeles) was readying themselves onstage, itching to play. They blazed through their set of metallic hardcore punk with reverb-heavy vocals and a rock-solid rhythm section. Next up was local group Mizery (San Diego) — older gents in contrast to the younglings in The Dark, but they commanded the stage with the attention deserved to them. They drew a respectable amount of their own fans — the crowd loved them (me included) — pulsing with every tempo shift, shouting along with the lyrics, and just generally going nuts. After that was Destruction Unit (Arizona), a psychedelic punk group whose fat, fuzzy wall of sound didn’t quite get the crowd going. They clearly had a focused vision of what they wanted to accomplish in a live setting — their final moments onstage had the three guitarists removing their gear while it was still plugged in as the drummer whirled around his kit, creating eardrum-hammering feedback and noise like an imploding jet plane. Unfortunately, they seemed part of a different menu than what the audience had come to eat up, and the main course was being served shortly.
A three-piece drum kit was shared among all three opening bands. Cymbals and snare drums were swapped with each, but the kit remained the same, and that persisted when the members of Power Trip came onstage. Yes, those humble Texas boys set up their own gear like small-timers — whether they chose to do it that way out of artistic integrity or as a result of their Dallas-born ethos, I couldn’t really say. Either way, it let me put faces to the band members who were going to explode the Constellation Room like a supernova.
It was past 1 AM — the time the show was supposed to end — but the room buzzed with anticipation. The crowd was ready to move again.
Trippin’ It Old School
Power Trip opened up the show by unleashing Soul Sacrifice, the first song off “Nightmare Logic,” upon the audience. A blast wave of energy rippled through, churning us into a storming sea of swirling, headbanging hair and pumping fists while the whirlpool of martial arts wannabes roiled in the center. A bolt of lightning cracked overhead, and I saw stars — wait, that was just a stage diver whose proximity I’d failed to estimate. We both fell to the floor, but it wasn’t long before I was back in the thick of it, bobbing to the beat like a storm-tossed buoy.
Power Trip surged ahead with Executioner’s Tax, an homage to thrash’s early days with its pounding percussion and infectious riffing. Guitarists Blake and Nick were relentless — downpicking devastation incarnate — as they accented their notes with the crowd’s cries of “SWING OF THE AXE!” Chris and Chris, the drummer and bassist, held the rhythms down with easy aplomb while vocalist Riley Gale spat fire, his hardcore delivery flooding the room with red-hot magma. True to his namesake, he riled the audience up, charging them with electricity every time he shoved the mic into the front row to let them cover the gang vocal parts.
This was a metal show unlike any I’d been to in over a decade, since I first saw Megadeth for the first time in 2004. I’ll admit I’ve spent much of the last ten-ish years watching bands safely from a distance, drinking in the musicianship from afar rather than getting pulverized in the pit. I’d forgotten how much of a character the crowd could be — and what a fucking character it was! Power Tripping people were constantly clambering onstage to hurl themselves into the audience, which ebbed and flowed with the crashing and rumbling of more mosh-worthy crowd-pleasers like Nightmare Logic, Firing Squad, and Manifest Decimation. When intrepid stage divers, drunk on adrenaline (and probably other stuff), would hurl themselves off the stage, taking the mic stand with them, Riley would abandon his spot on center stage and full-body headbang until the stand washed back ashore. One guy even took on vocal duties for a measure, doing his best to do Power Trip proud before diving back into the audience. Looking back, “audience” doesn’t seem like an appropriate term for those animals — where I was, they weren’t passively watching, but were expending a hell of a lot of effort themselves in the name of good, wild fun. I spent a good portion of the show focusing on the crowd, not only to watch for where the next elbow would come from, but because of how into the music they were.
Near the end of the set, Riley took a moment to compliment The Dark, which he said was his favorite band in California. I got the feeling he wasn’t just pandering — although that would certainly be his right. But between that and his down-to-earth onstage antics, moving deftly between each side of the stage to keep the crowd energized, you could get a sense for his genuine enthusiasm.
The crowd-favorite Crossbreaker was the closer, and people began leaping off the stage like goddamn salmon — their final flight before splashing back into the current toward home. And despite the chants for one more encore, the lights turned defiantly on in the Constellation Room, and the spell was broken.
Planning for the Next Trip
Power Trip’s live show, even more so than their excellent album, exemplifies the grassroots-origins of the thrash genre. That wild night in the Constellation Room formed in my mind a perfect fusion of thrash’s aggression and pace with the DIY mentality of hardcore punk. That nonchalant acceptance of “shit happens” with the storm-tossed mic stands; the hostile takeover of the vocals; even sharing stage-time with their fans — that’s all stuff I’ve rarely seen with a big-name band, much less tolerated by one. By comparison, Power Trip setting up their own equipment just half an hour earlier didn’t seem so strange.
Without a doubt, that night in the Constellation Room was hardly even a blip on the shit Power Trip has probably seen during a show, but I was impressed anyway. And although a week later my bruises are finally starting to heal up, watching their set from inside the pit, shoving and getting shoved alike felt like the right place to be. To share a night with a band and its fans, to cut loose and experience the music the way it was meant to be experienced and the culture that surrounds it — that’s what going to live shows is all about, isn’t it?
The show ended at 1:40, and the crowd trickled out and drifted through the remains of the festival. I sprinted back to the now-empty lot my car was parked in to find a parking violation stuck to my window. Swell. At least I didn’t get a serious concussion from a high-flying fan. I won’t hesitate to see Power Trip again when next they come through, but maybe I’ll stay out of the pit this time.
The recent rise of synth-driven music is a fascinating one, particularly its resonance with the metal community. At first listen, synthwave and metal don’t seem to have much in common — many don’t associate bass-dropping dance club rhythms with raucous riffing and clashing cymbals. But if you look and listen closely enough, you’ll notice the astoundingly deep impact that the musical and aesthetic legacy of the 1980s has left with both genres.
For metal, the imprint left behind by the genre giants is felt in every guitar solo, bullet belt, and gore-covered album cover. For synthwave, it can be anything from glitzy neon font and lens flares to VHS tape static. But some synth artists employ occult (and even outright Satanic) imagery like bloody pentagrams and upside-down crosses, suggesting that they’re more self-aware of their relation to metal than you’d first believe.
Two synth artists who I’ve thought have never shied away from their metal influences are Dance with the Dead (Los Angeles) and Carpenter Brut (France). Although varying wildly in musical style — Dance with the Dead loops undulating digitized basslines beneath arena rock guitar solos, while Carpenter Brut wields synth-based soundtracks of dystopian corruption and social decay — both are heartily embraced by many members of the metal community. Perhaps this can be attributed to both artists’ reliance on actual instruments: Dance with the Dead plays live with two guitars following pre-recorded backing tracks, while Carpenter Brut enlists a live guitarist and drummer and plays many of his synths himself. Regardless, they’re both among the more popular of the new electric echelon.
I was lucky enough to catch both Dance with the Dead and Carpenter Brut playing on the same bill at the Union Nightclub in Los Angeles, CA in late March. There, I wondered just how much this crossover would translate to real flesh-and-blood attendance — and more importantly, how it would be received in a live setting.
Unified at The Union
The line outside stretched for what seemed like half a mile down a dark residential street. All the houses looked like fine candidates for the Amityville Horror — apropos to the night of spooky synthetic jams we were all there to see. And I should emphasize “all” here — there were several hundred people lined up to see bands that I’d wager many discovered through the cultural ripples of the indie video game “Hotline Miami.”
Scrolling through Carpenter Brut’s Facebook timeline beforehand revealed news of sold-out shows and alerts of venue changes to accommodate swelling numbers of ticket buyers. The Union had sold out mere hours before the doors opened at 9 PM, giving context to the tremendous turnout of black-shirted bystanders clinging to the sidewalk. It took half an hour just to make my way upriver.
The Union itself resembled a hollowed-out hotel. The main foyer led up two flights of wide stairs, dumping attendees in front of a glittering bar stocked with glass shelves of alcohol. A wide merch area lay off to the right, and down a short hall illuminated by a neon pink sign was the main stage. Opening act Vogel was finishing up his set, and I and the scatterings of others near the back were treated to his evocative electronica synths. As he graciously thanked the audience and closed his MacBook — the typical synth artist’s weapon of choice — I shuffled ahead to try for a better view. The stage seemed rather low, and a ring of lights pointed puzzlingly inwards at the audience, casting others near me with a ghastly purple light. But I didn’t have to wait long until a large console was carried onto the stage and the glowing white icon of yet another MacBook came into view.
Night of the Rocking Dead
Apart from their obsessive B-movie horror aesthetic, Dance with the Dead stands out from many of their synthwave peers. An LA duo consisting of Justin Pointer and Tony Kim, who both wield guitars and take on mixer duties, they wear their metal/hard rock influence on their sleeves by writing some of the most energizing, upbeat synth songs around. They have their ambient tracks, but most of their material is penned to get you pumped up. As one of the first synth-related bands I’d discovered completely on my own, I had high expectations for their set.
After enduring an intro of Orff’s overused (yet somehow always acceptable) Carmina Burana, Dance with the Dead kicked off their set with Get Out, the ripping first track off their latest release “B-Sides: Volume 1.” I was instantly struck at the chunkiness of their live guitar tone, which surged ahead of the synths with the force of a Spartan shield wall. Not content to simply be labelled a novelty, Kim and Pointer performed their axe duties with the conviction of metal greats, flanking the sides of the stage and chugging with machine-like precision. That’s not to say they lacked stage presence — I was pleased to discover it was quite the opposite. Kim, who seemed to take point for this show both on the frets and the knobs, headbanged with eager energy — the showmanship of someone truly enthused, and perhaps more than a little thrilled, to be playing their own music live.
For all its rough-around-the-edges atmosphere, the Union’s sound system didn’t disappoint. The crowd bounced up and down after potent bass-heavy buildups, and each time I could feel the floor beneath me start to give. More than once during Dance with the Dead’s set I wondered how long until the floor would open up completely and we’d all be swallowed into some gaping hellmouth hidden below.
Maybe it’s just my metal tendencies showing, but I won’t shy from saying I greatly preferred the songs they played with live guitars to them manning the mixing console. And judging from the enthused cheers that erupted every time either Kim or Pointer slung a guitar across their shoulder, much of the audience did too. Several times throughout their set, the duo would doff their guitars and would fiddle with the assorted knobs and levers on the large console in center stage, changing dynamics like dropping the main melody during songs like Eyes of Madness to let the backing track shine or boosting the kick drum for a punchier passage. Since I was familiar with most of their songs, these subtleties weren’t lost on me, and I appreciated how they could manipulate the song rather than standing back and pressing “play.” Still, Watching You, my favorite song off their latest album “The Shape,” lacked the oomph of the other guitar-driven tracks.
Sadly, I was the least enthused with the Dance-ified renditions of Queen’s We Will Rock You, as well as Metallica’s Master of Puppets, the latter of which closed the set out. It was my first time hearing these remixes, and I found them somewhat distracting — trying to discern what additions and liberties were made to renovate these classics took the momentum out of what had been a straightforward, rockin’ good time. Even so, I cheered along with the rest of the crowd when Kim stretched his smartphone out toward us, capturing footage of their hometown. All in all, I enjoyed their set quite a bit.
But the night was just getting started.
Slasher Synth on the Loose
Early on in my synth discovery stage, I had pegged solo French composer Carpenter Brut as more unique than many of his ’80s-worshipping peers. To me, he seemed to defy the heart-thumping retro-futuristic atmosphere a la Perturbator and the neon ‘n’ sweatband jams of Com Truise — instead, he consorted with complex song structures with lots of memorable moving parts. Carpenter Brut didn’t just write soundtracks — he wrote songs. And although many other synthwave artists (such as GosT, or his fellow French countryman Perturbator) flirt with the idea of black metal as an influence, I always felt Carpenter Brut struck the closest to its throbbing heart with his twisting, multi-faceted song approach. But again, seeing it in practice was going to be a test of this theory.
Once Dance with the Dead’s set concluded, chunks of people trickled off back toward the various bar areas, no doubt to quench their thirst after all that hot body rockin’. I took the opportunity to squeeze myself closer toward the front — but not by much. I finally began to feel the effects of the Union at full capacity, and as more aggressive concert-goers crammed themselves between scarcely seen gaps, I decided I’d gotten as close as I needed to. Besides, I was expecting a similarly swift setup time to that of Dance with the Dead.
The additional gear of guitarist and drummer added what seemed an agonizing amount of time onto Carpenter Brut’s setup, which in turn provided plenty of time for every person who had left to be replaced by three more. The temperature rose, and so too did the anticipation for more synth meltdown.
At 11:45 PM, the French trio proceeded to unleash the ultraviolence.
And not a MacBook to be seen.
From the moment the ominous opening notes of Escape to Midwich Valley reverberated through the house speakers, Carpenter Brut held the Union Nightclub in complete thrall. Hypnotic hues of red and white lighting splashed the stage like the grisly aftermath of a murder scene. Meanwhile, depraved imagery of zombie rituals and post-apocalyptic biker battles scrolled across the screen behind the band, adding cinematic context to the music. And on the stage, the three-piece played on and on, seamlessly transitioning from one blood-soaked song to the next.
The drummer was the epitome of energy, hammering his hi-hat with 16-note disco-beat patterns and staggered tom rolls, effortlessly emulating the digitized drums off Carpenter Brut’s essential three-part EP collection, “Trilogy.” The guitarist also added his instrument to the mix, complementing the synths by bolstering their attack with a hard, distorted edge. And commanding a multi-tiered rack of electronic modules, as well as a short keyboard for his leads, the Brut himself seemed subdued, yet held a confident air about him. It was clear that this was his show, and everything the audience felt — the electric energy, the abrasive beats bursting beneath the surface of songs like Division Ruine, Roller Mobster, and Looking for Tracy Tzu was an expression of his vision.
Over the course of the next hour, the intoxicating synthesized melodies and pounding rhythms surged through us. I could feel my blood boiling during 347 Midnight Demons — by Le Perv I felt ready to riot. (Or maybe that was from foolishly wearing jeans in a venue with no windows or air conditioning.) Either way, the electronic onslaught was non-stop, and the audience responded by headbanging and jumping up and down. I saw plenty of raised smartphones attempting to immortalize the essence of that night, but I saw more than a few heated mosh pits, too. Both were indicative to me that although this show was probably unlike anything most people expected they still knew how to enjoy it.
The set ended with Michael Sembello’s She’s a Maniac (yes, from “Flashdance”), complete with Carpenter Brut-ish breakdown. I felt puzzled — another cover for the final song? — but it was then that I began to realize how important the ’80s musical influence was to both them and Dance with the Dead and to be able to pay homage in that way. I felt humbled, and it made me appreciate just what it probably meant for both groups to be playing their versions of the songs they grew up with in front of their own wild, raving fans.
Riding Off into the Synthetic Sunset
Dance with the Dead was entertaining. Their showmanship and fan service in the form of popular rock songs and crowd-pleasing photo ops proves they’ve got their collective finger on the pulse of what makes live performances so dynamic. They could easily have acted the same in a proper metal band and have been received just as well. But when I think back on that night, I think of Carpenter Brut and their authentic approach to performing live as a synth-based band.
They weren’t there to impress us — we weren’t fed any self-indulgent guitar solos meant to drive us into a fret-loving frenzy, and the mini drum solo during Disco Zombi Italia solely served to augment the atmosphere. No, Carpenter Brut didn’t try to “trick” us into seeing them as anything but what they were: a legitimate band, who uses synths but isn’t carried by them, who successfully — and impressively — melds the two worlds of metal and electronic together.
Whenever I see Carpenter Brut live again — and I do hope that’s very soon — I won’t think of them as a synth artist who plays with a live drummer and guitarist — I’ll think of them as a retro-futuristic vision of what can be accomplished with live music. They may straddle the line between two disparately related genres, but what they bring is so unique I can’t recommend enough that you seek it out and try it for yourself.
It’s a new year, so no time to waste. Lets get the ball rolling on some new metalcore for your collection.
AS A CONCEIT
As A Conceit is an Italian metalcore/post-harcore quintet very much in the vein of Architects. Melodic leads mixed with djenty, off-kilter blasts of distortion lead to some righteous riffing. The resulting hooks are fun and well-produced. Vocals are very passionate, rebellious, and ripe for sing-alongs. Philip Strand (Normandie) also has a guest spot on “Idle Hands,” which with its haunting synth additions is possibly the best song on their new album, Frown Upon Us. In fact, the work put into effects and other backing flair across this album does add quite a bit to the atmosphere.
THROUGH LUCID EYES
Through Lucid Eyes is a Canadian progressive metalcore band for fans of ERRA, Northlane, Kardashev. Rather than just going for an emo, sad set of lyrics and hooky guitars; the focus on atmosphere on their latest album really emulates the feeling you get when nothing seems to be going your way. That weight on your shoulders. The vocals have a nice range: brutal deathcore lows, higher metalcore screams, and occasionally even higher-pitched singing (think Saves The Day). The guitars stick to a groovy djent, but the layering, keys, and effects on the leads make for one of the better performances in the style. There are moments that conjure everything from Make Me A Donut to Fallujah. Big drums, and glad to hear the bass standing out as well.
SET BEFORE US
I like to shout-out the underdogs when I can, and these guys fit the bill. Another metalcore act emerges from Stockholm. Set Before Us are a young, hard-working band influenced by the likes of Parkway Drive, Breakdown of Sanity, and August Burns Red. They have so far released two EP’s and a single, the latest of which ‘Enigmas’ came out this past November. While there is still plenty of room to polish things up, I think they have a strong foundation when it comes to catchy riffs and some vocal variation. With the right guidance in the studio, I could see a solid full-length on the horizon. With that in mind, the band is actively seeking labels and support. You can check them out on Facebook and listen to ‘Enigmas” in full below.
It boggles my mind that I can bring up Bandcamp anywhere and still get the response "band what now?" And yet it persists. Despite platforms that criminally underpay the musicians like Spotify and Apple Music becoming the norm, there are SO many reasons I can site for making Bandcamp your new first stop for music from both new and existing groups, especially in the metal genres. Here are just a few highlights along with tips to get the most out of the platform.
There are certain smaller groups out there that I just connect with for one reason or another. It usually has a lot to do with a perfect storm of quality music, clear passion, and personability of the musicians involved. The Hudson Horror undoubtedly meet these criteria. I was initially drawn in during the promotion of their debut full length, but they have stuck around and this year released a follow-up EP called Ruiner. During this time, I have also had the pleasure to correspond with Dan Kelly, the band's vocalist and a founding member. It seemed natural to sit down with Dan, in real time albeit from across the country, and just shoot the shit about the band, early influences, the current state of the music business, and more.
Follow flight through his recent experience at this trendy Portland theater with one of melodeath's most celebrated acts. What did they play? Have they still got the magic? Find out here. Supporting acts include Swallow The Sun, Enforcer, Starkill, Increate, and Von Doom.