Concert Review: Soilwork

Nine consecutive weeks on tour with only two days off. For those doing the math, that adds up to sixty-one shows in sixty-three days. That’s the type of grueling tour schedule we’re talking about. It’s nearly unprecedented to put together a calendar like that, because who would believe it could be done? Even the most mundane of desk jobs requires more than two days off in a two-month span. Nevertheless, nine weeks with two days off is exactly what Soilwork and company were doing for the North American leg of their tour in support of their newest record, “The Living Infinite.” The show I saw was the last of the sixty-one.

The tour had been besieged with issues ranging from the mundane to the sorrowful to the bizarre. Guitar virtuoso Jeff Loomis was the victim of theft, having much of his equipment stolen. Sadly, Loomis also lost his father while on tour, yet the man soldiered on, missing only four shows. Bay Area thrashers Bonded by Blood were also on the bill, but missed the end of the tour when their van broke down and they could no longer continue. The last bands standing for the tour’s final engagement were Hatchet, Blackguard, Jeff Loomis and Soilwork. Blackguard vocalists Paul Ablaze told me before the show that every artist is struck with mixed emotions on the final evening. He said that on one hand, every band recognizes that this is their final chance to make an impression and deliver a roof-tearing performance, but also that everyone is distracted by that little voice in the back of your head that reminds you that you can go home tomorrow. The challenge, for the sake of the fans, is to ignore the latter and embrace the former.

The night began with Hatchet, the thrash revival band who are common battery mates of Bonded by Blood. As far as thrash revival goes, Hatchet isn’t so different from the bands you’ve seen before, but what sets them apart is their pure effort. Hatchet, led by singer Julz Ramos, gives themselves completely to their music, particularly when showing off their newest release, “Dawn of the End.” They rocked through the title track of that album and through its breakneck closer “Vanishing Point,” never stopping or showing any signs of exhaustion. Stylized with guitar acrobatics, Hatchet would have fit in well with the burgeoning heyday of thrash, and could have held their own with the likes of Exodus, Testament or Nuclear Assault.

Then we come to Blackguard. Frequent readers know my thoughts already, but this tour has been met with bubbling anticipation for Blackguard’s still-to-come album “Storm,” due out nebulously in the fall. Asked about the album, Paul Ablaze told me that it’s basically done, at least as far as the writing is concerned. The only holding point so far is that the band’s near-constant touring schedule hasn’t afforded them the time to get into the studio. Paul did say though, that Blackguard will be taking about six months off to recharge and prepare for the new release and that a solid block of ten days had already been set aside for the recording. While not a direct sequel to their last album “Firefight,” Paul did promise that “Storm” will possess some elements that continue the story of the SONG “Firefight.” So, with all that as a backdrop, we move to Blackguard’s performance on this night.

There are few bands I have seen who bring more energy to the stage than Blackguard. To talk to Paul about finding quiet time for songwriting at his cottage, then see him leaping back and forth like a maniac on stage is to recognize the sometimes duplicitous nature of man. No monitor speaker or stand is too tall for the members of Blackguard to stand on and appear larger than life. Just as they always do, Blackguard had won over the crowd within the first seven or eight minutes of their set (the pit went from one to five to twenty pretty quickly,) which began naturally with “Firefight.” It’s impossible not to feel the infectious surge of Paul and his bandmates, as they rip through “Wastelands” and “The Fear of All Flesh.”

Much to the crowd’s surprise, there were two new selections on display, including the powerful and artistic “Rise.” If the fresh sound of the new singles is to be believed, “Storm” may portend the hoped-for blending of the symphony and size of “Profugus Mortis” with the crunch and punch of “Firefight.” It was a promising night for Blackguard.

Following that, the lights dimmed and there was Jeff Loomis, the guitar genius formerly of Nevermore. Accompanied by his very capable rhythm guitarist and bassist, Loomis took the stage and immediately began assaulting the crowd with guitar arpeggios faster than most can imagine. I have a great deal of respect for Loomis’ decision not to have a vocalist. After all, it makes logical sense. If guitar theatrics are your centerpiece, then why try to find a singer who you probably won’t like or won’t fit your music? Just go without and remove the ambiguity. Makes sense to me.

Unfortunately, the drawback of being an act based solely on guitar acrobatics is that it can be hard to hold the attention of the crowd for long stretches at a time. It’s not Loomis’ fault. Unless you’re Buckethead with a crazy gimmick, the crowd grows listless without a big chorus or a familiar hook to react to. As Loomis and company tore the cover off “Miles of Machines,” his guitar soared, but I couldn’t help but notice that phones began to come out and people started checking them. It’s a shame really, because Loomis can clearly play. His marquee moment was during “Shouting Fire at a Funeral,” which is the track from his solo career that best uses the tone of his instrument to tell a full story. His talent in undeniable, it’s just unfortunate that he may not be able to capture the imagination on stage without a gimmick.

Which brings us to the headliner, Soilwork. Seven years ago I saw Soilwork for the first time, in front of a crowd of roughly fifty people and was concerned that despite their best efforts, the paltry crowd meant that Soilwork would never play the US again. Now in 2013, I’m glad I was wrong, and the crowds have grown by leaps and bounds into the hundreds. Let me take a minute to single out drummer Dirk Verbeuren, who not only did double duty playing for Jeff Loomis, but is the closest thing to a human overclocked processor. He never stops, never rests and seems capable of playing about twenty-five different beats at once.

Soilwork naturally showcased their newest double album with big hitters like “Spectrum of Eternity,” and “Parasite Blues,” but also mixed in a lot of the two albums “A Predator’s Portrait” and “Natural Born Chaos.” “Like the Average Stalker” made an early appearance between “Living Infinite” cuts, and “Follow the Hollow” was mixed in the first half as well. Of course, there were the requisite inclusions of material from “Figure Number Five” and the anthemic “Stabbing the Drama,” which came in the form of “Overload” and “Weapon of Vanity.”

Soilwork is a curious band in that they do not have automatic pieces of their set list for any show. Their set can be comprised of near anything and often is, pulling together the different phases of their career into a web of selected songs. With that said, some of the song selection on this night seemed unusual, eschewing the potential crowd-moving thunder of “Living Infinite I” in favor of tracks like “Tongue” and “This Momentary Bliss.” Known for huge hooks and gigantic choruses, Soilwork passed on the chance to truly take the roof off the venue by not utilizing their title track.

To that end, I have seen Soilwork have great nights, but at the end of this tour, Soilwork exhibited a couple signs of fatigue. That’s not to say that the band was mailing it in, far from it. Partly limited by the diminutive stage size, it seemed like Bjorn Strid cut some corners vocally, opting to scream rather than sing cleanly in a few spots, and biting off some notes that we’re accustomed to hearing held longer. They crushed it in spots, like for “Black Star Deceiver,” but after the slog of a tour they’ve been going through, Soilwork picked their moments.

With all that though, the band came alive in their encore, maxing out one final push of inimitable power, feeding the crowd the pure electricity of “Final Fatal Force” and “Late for the Kill, Early for the Slaughter.” Finally, with one last surge, Soilwork dug deep (no pun intended,) and channeled all their fury for the gigantic pummeling that is “Stabbing the Drama.” Soilwork had saved their best for last, pushing metal out of their amps with confidence and rage, bringing the show to a close with a raucous, worth-the-price-of-admission encore.

This leg of the tour may be over, but you never know when they’ll be back on the road. Soilwork and Blackguard in particular don’t take a lot of time off, and if you haven’t seen them yet, or want to see them again, I’m confident you’ll get another chance soon.

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