New York City has long been the proving ground for any number of musical acts in any number of musical genres. It is a place where dreams come true and can be shattered (as was painstakingly recorded and subsequently overplayed by Jay-Z and Alicia Keys.) Just as with their local sports teams (go Mets!) the New York music fan is well versed in his or her chosen paradigm, and impressing those individuals can go a long way toward making or breaking a career. So it was that a dutifully loyal crowd assembled at the Gramercy Theater to pass judgment on Turisas, Firewind and Stolen Babies.
It would be easy to call Stolen Babies avant-garde if there were any indication that other bands were trying to do what they do. My colleague Chris C, in his review of their album of “Naught” said: “Stolen Babies wants no part of the crass nature of modern music. They are performance artists as much as they are musicians, making an audio version of a gallery showing,” and since I can’t frame the band for you any better than that, I’m lazily going to steal his quote. An erstwhile combination of burlesque, heavy metal and cadences more common to children’s songs than either of the former two, Stolen Babies ascends the stage costumed as though they just left their shift at a late nineteenth century English mortuary. The analogy extends, probably by coincidence, as you watch Rani Sharone take his bass out of its case as though it were emerging from a coffin. The entire affect has a feel like H.P Lovecraft got his hands on a book of Mother Goose’s nursery rhymes, which sounds convoluted (because it is,) but that doesn’t mean it’s bad. There is a certain attraction to this bass-heavy quasi-dance metal, and not merely because it is so unique. Rather, the hypnotic thumping of “Second Sleep” lulls concert goers into a sense of unwitting attention; this is music you can’t ignore, and that doesn’t even get to the half and half vocal styling of Dominique Lenore Persi. Her wails and screams are easily juxtaposed by the smooth sheen of her singing voice. When viewed at a distance, the whole herky-jerky stage concoction reminds me in an abstract way of Bad Acid Trip, in the sense that the band on stage is trying to break the mold and present something visually and aurally unique. As Stolen Babies gets through their set and winds into pieces like “Mousefood,” it can be difficult to determine what instruments are making what noises, and for most bands this would be a cause for consternation, but for Stolen Babies it’s all just part of the appeal. Their show is an affair of cloak and daggers and magic, a sort of musical mystery even though there are no hidden elements. Even if you didn’t like Stolen Babies in recorded form, try them live. You might be surprised, and at the very least, you’ve never seen anything like it. It’s a great showcase of metal-turned-performance-art.
By contrast, the next act up was Firewind, a band that couldn’t be more different from what we had just seen. If Stolen Babies was the answer to a shrouded rhetorical question, Firewind was an open book exam. This, again, doesn’t mean it was bad, it merely means that as an audience, we knew what we were getting into. It simply became an academic question of whether or not Firewind would deliver. Boy, can Firewind deliver. Everyone knows about the prowess and talent of Gus G, so let’s sidestep that for a second and move on to Bob Katsionis, a man who can simultaneously play a keyboard and guitar solo (and did.) His talent is much overlooked in a band of talented musicians and to do so is a fallacy. Yes, the theatrics of Gus G are the stuff of legend, and deservedly so; the man’s precision, execution and sense of soulful timing are the backbone of the band. Yet, it doesn’t take long for G and Katsionis to go head to head, trading solos in “Head Up High” like a comparative Li and Totman or King and Hanneman. Like both of those legendary pairs however, Firewind encompasses these moments of comparative brilliance with quality song construction, eschewing the temptation to merely put on an exhibition for exhibition’s sake (looking at you, Yngwie.) Right in the middle of the set, the band blazed from strength to strength, beginning with the theatrics of “Destination Forever,” and continuing through “Few Against Many,” “World on Fire” and an unbelievable “The Fire and the Fury.” The crowd was summarily blown away by the technical explosion showcased on stage, particularly amidst the humility of Gus G himself. There was a subtle undercurrent to his strong performance that seemed to say ‘I know I make a crapton of money playing for Ozzy, but I have just as much loyalty to this band and these fans, and I’m still humble enough to be tour support for someone else.’ In an era of virtuoso guitarists, and all the good and bad that implies, Gus G’s excitement at being on stage was palpable and magnetic, amplifying the fury of Firewind’s sound. Turisas was yet to come, was it even possible that they could top the energy of Firewind?
Turisas. Yeah, they brought it. They topped Firewind. How is this band not the biggest musical act on the planet? I understand that I’m coming from a highly biased perspective here, but given an opportunity to see this act perform would convert many of the uninitiated into Turisas fans. Not metal fans necessarily, but Turisas fans, much in the way that many musically disinclined people became fans of the Dropkick Murphys without liking punk in the least. Part of Turisas’ charm lies in a similar vein to the Dropkicks, that being that they commonly sing of loyalty and brotherhood, themes that appear doubly attractive when attempting to entice an audience to sing along. To that end, on any given night, the crowd is as much a part of Turisas as any of the members and it kickstarts a cycle of energy that feeds from the people to the stage and back again. Never is this more prevalent than when the band breaks into “One More,” ostensibly a song about warriors sitting around drinking beer and telling stories while waiting for their next battle to begin. Can’t we all relate to that on some level? Isn’t that just a parable a thousand years in the making? It hardly hurts Turisas’ case that the lore they’ve chosen to shroud themselves in, that of the fabled Varangian guard, tells their story before they ever hit the stage and means the band doesn’t have to use up valuable time establishing a rapport with the audience. Rather, they can come out swinging with “The March of the Varangian Guard” and “Take the Day” back to back and the crowd will be right there with them, singing and chanting and drinking and bouncing on command. The energy of this set is wholly infectious, leading to crowds charged with a sort of fraternal camaraderie nearly unmatched in the genre. As opposed to a welcome, violent catharsis, Turisas’ live performance is more a celebration that builds to the choral crescendo of “To Holmgard and Beyond” or “Stand Up and Fight” the latter song always sounding much better live than it does on disc. As the set continued on, I came to realize that the lighting for their set was attuned so as to lend the entire experience an almost cinematic appearance, which seemed impossible given that my conscious brain knew I was watching real people with my naked eyes. Still, the effect only served to heighten the experience, highlighting the energetic mixture of heavy metal, Finnish folk tales and arena rock. There is no other show like this, that’s for certain.
Let me pass on a lesson to you that Turisas made many of us in the hall remember. Never leave the venue until the house lights and music come up. Just because a band says the show is over does not mean it is. As the thunderous encore of “Battle Metal” came to a close, roughly a hundred people left the venue. But something didn’t feel right, and many of us stayed behind, chanting long enough and loud enough to coax the band back out for a double encore, a single recitation of “Rasputin” that gave the crowd and the set the cap it truly deserved.
Do not miss this show if you have a chance to see it. You can thank me later.