Photo by Zombitrol

Saturday, November 4th, Nineteen Seventy Eight, Toronto

It was a cool Saturday evening when I headed west to Parkdale to check out Philadelphia’s retro black metal punks Devil Master in an old garage. Apologies to Boston’s Final Gasp who opened the show, as one of Toronto’s famous short turn streetcars forced me to walk the final length of the trip and I missed their set. I arrived just in time catch their fellow Massachusettsans Fuming Mouth perform a powerful set of their Swedish-influenced sludgy death metal, interspersed by brief moments of thrashy exuberance. Drummer James Davis was definitely the standout of the band, as he delivered a tour-de-force performance of intensity and precision.  

It was a bit difficult at times to enjoy the bands, as the venue put a barrier across the majority of the space. By day, “Nineteen Seventy Eight,” appears to be a vintage clothing outlet / art gallery in the remains of an old auto mechanic shop. Speaking to others at the show it seems that they have opened up the whole space in the past. But this setup made it so that if you wanted to use a bathroom, you had to cross the actual stage or use a porta-potty outside. I also heard more than a few grumbles about the lack of stage visibility. Look, I’m no stranger to low-key venues. I grew up on them. I love them. But there’s no reason to cram a full crowd into less than 50% of your total space. It was generally not the environment where I expected to pay $8 for a small can of Miller High Life. If you want to keep it underground, then keep it underground.  

Devil Master’s popularity has thrived on their music’s retro appeal. But seeing the band live reveals that their reputation is well-earned. Their image completely matches their sound, a perfectly 50/50 blend of early black metal and crusty, thrashy hardcore punk. Lead guitarist “Darkest Prince” was the main attraction as his over-the-top classic metal solos dominated each song. Bassist/vocalist “Disembody Through Unparalleled Pleasure” was the glue that held everything together, with his perfectly barked vocals and dominating presence uniting the more disparate elements of the band. Gothic guitarist “Infernal Moonlight Apparition” and new drummer “Festering Terror in Deepest Catacomb” held down the riffs and rhythm respectively without detracting from their more energetic bandmates.

My main aversion to Devil Master in the past was that I found their musicianship to be top-tier, but their sound to be too retro just for the sake of it. While that’s something that will always have an audience, seeing Devil Master live showed me that they’re more than just a talented throwback act. Marrying black metal and crust punk isn’t new, but Devil Master infuse it with a touch of classic heavy metal and glam that makes them stand out. They're definitely worth a Saturday night.

Devil Master will be on tour in the U.S. through December 3rd, and their latest album Ecstasies​ ​of Never Ending​ ​Night is available now on Relapse Records.

Thank you to another/side PR

Photo by Zombitrol

Sunday, October 22nd, Trinity-St. Paul's United Church, Toronto

A cold and blustery Sunday evening in Toronto’s Annex neighbourhood set the scene for what would prove to be one of the more unique musical experiences of the year. Seattle’s Bell Witch, the bass/drum duo of Dylan Desmond and Jesse Shreibman, headlined a 3-band bill at Trinity-St. Paul's United Church performing their latest one-song doom prog opus Future's Shadow Part 1: The Clandestine Gate.

Each band was dwarfed by the church’s mammoth golden organ, while black-clad metalheads politely filled the pews. The pews themselves were perhaps the perfect analogy for the evening, as their extremely soft-yet supportive cushions were in stark contrast to their merciless lack of back support and knee crushing brutality. It was a musical experiment in pleasure and pain that I’d happily go through again and again.

Toronto doom trio Völur were the perfect choice to open the evening. Laura Bates (violin/vocals), Lucas Gadke (bass/vocals), and Justin Ruppel (drums/percussion) set things off with a high energy set that spanned their already impressive discography. It culminated in a furious ode to the moon with Bates, arms raised high in praise, delivering a thunderously beautiful vocal performance.

The Portland-based thrashy black metal duo of Spirit Possession were perhaps the odd ones out on the bill, but this was a good thing. Sandwiched in between 2 progressive doom acts, their fast and rough basement groove added some much needed contrast to the proceedings. Vocalist/guitarist S. Peacock and drummer A. Spungin barely stopped between songs as they ripped through a 30 minute set, with a large circular red floor light serving as their only illumination.

When Bell Witch began, the crowd fell deathly silent. It felt like I was about to watch a performance art piece rather than a metal concert, and in a way I was. The main difference is that Bell Witch’s music is also somehow extremely accessible. Genuinely meditative moments of near silence guide the listener into introspective soft bridges of relaxing vocals and gentle tones. Then it somehow naturally transitions into intense heavy distortion and extreme vocals that don’t break the natural flow of the previous movement. The performance was a guided tour of The Clandestine Gate, complete with an accompanying visual presentation by Bobby Cochran of Moving Still Films, massively projected onto the aforementioned church organ. As the performance finished, the crowd waited until the very last tinge of feedback had faded away before bursting into applause. This is a band you can take your non-metal friends to see.

Bell Witch and Spirit Possession are on tour in the U.S. through November 10th. Check out the remaining dates below. Bell Witch’s latest album, Future's Shadow Part 1: The Clandestine Gate, is out now on Profound Lore Records.

Thank you to another/side PR.

Monday, September 18th – Echo Beach, Toronto

On paper, a Dethklok/Babymetal tour seems like a no-brainer. Both acts are viewed as metal interacting with more mainstream culture, while simultaneously eliciting extremely positive and negative reactions from the metal community itself. It’s also been a relatively long time since they both debuted, with Dethklok’s animated show Metalocalypse first releasing in 2006, while Babymetal’s self-titled first album is nearly 10-years-old, with the band all now in their 20’s.

But before I talk about the Toronto stop of the tour, I need to address one item that affected the evening beyond either act’s control, and that’s the choice of Echo Beach as a venue for a show in late September. By the time Babymetal hit the stage, the wind blowing off the lake made for an extremely uncomfortable viewing experience. Younger children wearing coats and jackets were shivering in their parents’ arms. It also makes for a more detached feeling while watching the show, with the intense wind sometimes dulling the sound itself. I feel that this venue should not be booked after August, for the general health and safely of the patrons.

Moving on… The trio of Babymetal took to the stage in dazzling holographic outfits that reflected their stage lighting and video backdrop, at times causing them to be surrounded by rainbow-coloured shards of light. Original members Su-metal and Moametal, along with new-ish member Momometal, danced and sang through a roughly hour-long set made up of mostly newer material. The progressive and eclectic vibes of their latest work allowed for more diverse choreography than I’ve seen from them before, as well as an impeccable lead vocal performance from Su-metal. Their backing band was on point as usual, but they seemed to take a more physically subdued approach, letting their three front-women take the lead, which they certainly did, motivating clap-alongs and even convincing nearly 90% of the crowd to crouch down and jump up on command with more ease than Slipknot ever has. Although their more recent songs are a bit more musically advanced, the highlight was the late-set first-album pair of “Megitsune” and “Headbangeeeeerrrrr!!!!!” which drew the biggest reactions. The amount of effort put forth each night by these three should not be under-sold.

Compared to the spectacle of Babymetal, Dethklok came across as rather tame. Right before they hit the stage I heard one fan remark, “Well, it is a show from 2007 so we’ll see if the humour still lands.” Unfortunately we really didn’t get to find out. Dethklok shows in the past had multiple animated interludes featuring the Metalocalypse characters. But this time around aside from a brief intro from the band’s lawyer and the now well-publicized PSA about bathing before you come to the show by the band’s mascot Facebones, fans were mostly treated to montages while the band was shrouded in darkness. Although they played flawlessly, with iconic metal drummer Gene Hoglan being a particular standout, after the bombardment of light and sound that was Babymetal, Dethklok seemed to have a far more difficult time connecting with the audience. Aside from the kids who came to see Babymetal, there were a number of people there in their early-mid-twenties. So without the extra animated interludes, getting the jokes in the Dethklok songs almost entirely depends on having watched Metalocalypse at some point in your life. For those who hadn’t, there was no way in. This sentiment was echoed by some of the people I spoke with after, who said that they enjoyed Dethklok in a general musical way, but felt they didn’t fully understand it because it was new to them. It occurred to me that perhaps the actors/writers strike was a reason for the lack of visual material, but Metalocalypse creator/Dethklok front-man Brendan Small has been discussing the band’s new album/film in interviews, so that’s unclear. In the past Small has made no secret that the show/band is both a love-letter and critique of the metal community. My thought is that if the band is going to be playing to younger crowds, they should lean on the former, or at least go on first.

The Babyklok North American Tour has one more Canadian stop, October 3rd in Vancouver, and wraps up October 11th in Los Angeles.

Thank you to Adrenaline PR.

Surma is a collaboration between Czech vocalist Viktorie Surmová (Bohemian Metal Rhapsody) and Faroese vocalist/guitarist Heri Joensen (Týr). Their debut album, The Light Within, was released on Metal Blade Records in late 2020. The band’s sound will instantly appeal to fans of symphonic metal, particularly the Dutch sound of the early 2000s. There are also moments that evoke the Scandinavian symphonic acts, but overall, Surma leans more towards the gothic and progressive side of the style, as opposed to a more folk-tinged sound. So much so that tracks like “Downfall” and “Until It Rains Again” are more comparable to bands like Amorphis or Tristania, as opposed to bombastically symphonic bands like Epica or After Forever. Also, in a gothic power-move that would make Lydia Deetz blush, all their lyrics are inspired by sculptures from around the world.

But mostly the album is characterized by songs like “Fire and Wind” and “ Lost to Time,” short-but-sturdy compositions filled with lush, layered vocals, and tightly-packed melodic riffs and solos. Combine the rock n’ roll sensibilities of Within Temptation with the earthiness of Midnattsol, and you wouldn’t be too far off from where Surma has landed on their strong debut.

Surmová is the main vocalist through most of the album, but it’s the intensely contrasting moments with Joensen that stand out the most vocally. “The City of Winds” rocks with an orchestral swing, with Joensen delivering a strong mid-track soliloquy, while the unsurprisingly-heavy “Cages of Rage” finds the 2 trading lines in an epic pre-chorus. The peak of The Light Within arrives with the penultimate track, the afore-mentioned “Lost to Time,” where Surmová and Joensen combine all their best moves into the album’s most memorable song.

If you’re fan of symphonic metal, The Light Within is very easy to get into, but it got repeated listens from me because it takes chances where they’re needed. Most symphonic bands choose their lane within the style and stay there. Surma’s extra touches go a long way to making the album a more varied experience. It’s an extremely welcome addition to a subgenre that had become slightly paint-by-numbers.

Surma: Heri Joensen (left) and Viktorie Surmová (right)
Photo Courtesy of Metal Blade Records

Surma will be featured in an upcoming Zombitrol At Home article. You can streamThe Light Within in full below.