The Memorial Day concert at the Gramercy Theater seemed to have all the makings of a great show, even before the doors opened: Tickets were sold out, tour buses were neatly parked alongside the venue on schedule, and the lineup boasted four reputable death metal bands that would catch the interest of even the most casual of fans. Morbid Angel and Suffocation were set to bring the star power and Revocation and Withered, while fairly popular in the blogosphere, offered fans a less familiar experience.
Withered’s brand of death metal is harsh and dissonant, so I wasn’t sure what to expect from their performance. They’re a great band on the record but it’s hard to tell beforehand if that same sound can be done justice in a live setting. The first song started off a little rough around the edges, but it only took a minute or so for the mix to be adjusted to perfection. Withered’s chaotic style isn’t physically engaging, so it was hard to gauge how the small crowd was receiving it. I was loving the show, but even I couldn’t bring myself to do anything but watch in awe as the instruments were attacked with deadly precision. It’s not the type of music that you bang your head to, much less begin to mosh to. All eyes were on the stage so I can at least say with certainty that they were a captivating opening act, and in light of the following acts, they stopped playing tracks from Grief Relic and finished up with one of their older, more traditional death metal tracks. All in all, it was very impressive for a twenty minute set.
Not even fifteen minutes after Withered had finished, Revocation’s sound check was complete and they were ready to get started. That’s admittedly a small, mostly insignificant detail in the grand scheme of things, but as someone who has experienced over an hour of waiting between bands, it’s always greatly appreciated when no time is wasted. It wasn’t just Revocation either, all four bands were coordinated and made sure that every transition was a smooth one. As the band introduced themselves, the next wave of concert goers made their way in and started packing the floor in tighter. It was still not as tight as Revocation would prove to be, though; their technical death/thrash riffs sounded amazingly clear and smooth, and the mix layered it on just like it is on the record. This change of pace ignited the crowd into a blaze of bouncing energy, and the fact that it was their frontman’s birthday that night seemed to really get people going. The material consisted mostly of songs from Deathless and Great is Our Sin, which is evidently exactly what the people were hoping for. I cannot emphasize enough how clear and synchronized everything about Revocation was, working alongside the band’s stage presence to make for a remarkably strong experience. Dave Davidson’s short banter and signals to the crowd felt very charismatic and genuine, and even though this set was short as well, the mood for the night had officially been set.
For those unfamiliar with the area, I think it would be safe to describe Gramercy as one of the nicest metal-friendly venues in Manhattan. This show was no exception – by the time Suffocation was ready to play, personal space was a thing of the past. Thanks to a sizable GA area and ample seating in the back, there was no actual suffocation going on, just a denser and wilder atmosphere. I have to be honest, I’ve never been thrilled with how Suffocation sounds on the record. They’re undoubtedly a good band, but I never feel compelled to revisit them. Their live shows, however, are a totally different story. The crushing brutal death metal riffs are groovy enough to get most people bobbing along and the band’s legacy always draws in a big enough crowd for that bobbing to take over the whole floor. Then the crowd’s engagement skyrocketed exponentially, as seemingly out of nowhere Suffocation’s touring vocalist Kevin Muller passed the mic to Frank Mullen, the original vocalist that has forgone touring (but continues to provide vocals for studio releases). Frank ended up covering the majority of the songs, but he and Kevin had a lot of back and forth on vocal duty, the highlight of which was when they teamed up to tackle the ‘God forbid’ refrain of “Funeral Inception”. I have to give props to all the members of Suffocation for being so satisfyingly engaging that night, but I don’t think anything clicked for me more than Frank’s goofy finger guns that he made every time a song used blast beats.
It pains me to say it, but Morbid Angel was doomed from the start. Their setlist was made up exclusively of Tucker-era material, which, while fantastic in it’s own right, is far too gloomy and slow to match the mood that the preceding acts had worked to establish. The musicianship was impressive, and it was nice to see such a legendary band in the flesh, but I swear to the God of Emptiness that you could taste the disappointment in the air. Gateways to Annhilation and Formulas Fatal to the Flesh are very solid releases (I’m not big on Heretic) and there’s nothing wrong with playing exclusively Tucker-era material, at least on paper. In the context of this specific lineup, though, it leaves a lot to be desired. Not many people left, to Morbid Angel’s credit, but the moshing was virtually nonexistent. Even the rhythmic bobbing was surrendered to the slow grooves, and people were obviously waiting around for a sudden tempo increase to mix things up again. Even the premiere of their new song “Warped” was met with inactivity for the most part. Just as it was with Withered, I’m fairly certain that most of the crowd was enjoying the show, they just weren’t very involved physically. There’s not a doubt in my mind that many people were holding out for “Chapel of Ghouls” or any other iconic Vincent-era song, only to be left unsatisfied. As headliner of the tour, I have to say that Morbid Angel sets themselves up for an underwhelming show. They had a great setlist considering the albums that they limited themselves to, and Steve Tucker proved to be an undeniably charismatic and talented frontman, but the audience was left not knowing what to do with themselves.
It goes without saying that this tour has an absolutely stacked lineup, and I can’t recommend the later dates enough. I had a great time and despite the awkward change in atmosphere when Morbid Angel came out, every band involved put on a great performance that deserves to be applauded.