Iced Earth w/ Kill Ritual and Sanctuary, New York, NY
The Gramercy Theatre, March 22, 2018
Watching Over Me as We Hug It Out for Metal
One of the ancillary benefits of seeing Slayer on tour ten times is that it’s opened me up to seeing other thrash metal acts the last two years. Though most of my experience seeing other thrash acts comes from them opening for Slayer, I’ve taken in a few metal shows recently that haven’t had Slayer attached at all. A year ago, I came across Iced Earth, downloaded a bunch of their albums and dug some of their stuff. So when I found they were coming to play the Gramercy Theatre, I figured I’d give them a look. I thought I was headed into a thrash whirlwind, as I usually am with these shows. What I got was a bro-tastic lovefest that was thrash’s version of a hug out. And as un-metal and controversial as this is to say, I can’t fault that.
Do You Like Stories About Pirates?
I got to Gramercy and headed straight to the merch room. I gave myself a simple limit: I’d buy a tour shirt if it were $25 or under; more than 25, and I’d pass. I predicted this would leave me walking out without a shirt, until I came across this:
My sister Sarah and I have an ongoing joke about psych evals for job pre-screenings. When she took one for her company, the test asked her “Do you like stories about pirates?” We’re still trying to figure out the relevance of this to job performance in the restaurant business. So when I saw this shirt, the fact that it cost $5 more than my limit didn’t mean a damn. I would be a pirate for the duration of the show. YARRRRGGGGHHHH, MATEY!
I dropped my jacket at coat check and headed to the front of the stage. Getting a space right on the barrier is always key for me, as the Amon Amarth show taught me what being just a few bodies back can turn into a body wrecking experience. I chose a spot by the much less dense right side of the stage. Unfortunately, some squat, fat dude was taking up space enough for three, and so I squeezed my arm between him and the nice gal to his right as best I could, but once I reached for my camera during the first act, I lost that spot forever. But that was ok! An Iced Earth concert isn’t quite the brutal affair the Amon Amarth show was, and was downright tame compared to a Slayer show. I never grasped that bar for dear life, but never had to.
Whitesnake Lite and Metal Daniel Stern
Kill Ritual was the first act to hit the stage, and they were a unique brand of odd. The axe men looked like slightly past middle age middle income guys who’d be apt to watch the news after a shift at the factory, all the while drinking a cold beer. Oh and the lead guitarist, who was playing to my side of the stage, looked like metalhead Daniel Stern, from the HOME ALONE flicks. That was an odd image that never left me throughout the set.
But the front man, this guy was a sight to behold. I thought I was at a metal show, but this guy was a throwback to the Jon Bon Jovi/ David Coverdale heyday of 80s hard rock. The band’s official website said the singer “brought his wide spectrum of emotion-infused banshee vocals to the band,” when he joined, and he most certainly did that night. Banshee vocals indeed, and if you told me I was watching the opening band for David Lee Roth and it was 1988, I’d have bought it.
Despite the morbid name, Kill Ritual is more a hard rock band than an extreme metal act. It took me a few songs to get into their groove, and once I did I enjoyed them. Not a band I’d go out of my way to listen to, but entertaining for a novelty.
The Bands Are Also the Audience
Over the past few years, I manage to find something new and strangely memorable at every thrash show I attend. In that time, I’ve seen Tom Araya threaten to kick the fuck out of security guards; a guy crowd surfing in his wheelchair; a Renaissance-type Faire played out by Vikings, complete with bow and arrows, and sword clashes; a guy playing an electronic xylophone; and band members from opening acts hanging out at their merch tables. I’ve come to expect the extraordinary at shows, and if something weird doesn’t happen at a thrash show, that would be weird. So it should have come as no surprise when the two axe men from Kill Ritual came out along the side of the crowd to watch the final two acts. They hung out, beers in hand, headbanging as the rest of the show went on.
Should I really have been surprised when the lead singer of Sanctuary joined them during Iced Earth’s set. Not at all. I keep trying to imagine Chuck Billy chilling to the side, enjoying “Rain in Blood.” That’s never going to happen. But man, would that be freaking sweet if it did.
Rest in Peace, Warrel
I’d never heard of Warrel Dane before the Iced Earth show, but I sure heard his name a lot that night. Sanctuary was the second band to play (but not the first to mention Warrel; Kill Ritual had spoken reverently of him) and I only found out after the show when I went online that Warrel had been Sanctuary’s lead singer until his untimely death last December. This whole thrash concert had unofficially become The Warrel Dane Memorial Show. No disrespect to the dead, but the whole thing was a bit too touchy feely for what I expect from a thrash show. If only I knew what was yet to come when Iced Earth got to their closer…
Preaching to the Choir (and Singing to the Crowd)
Once Sanctuary hit the stage, they surprised me in one major way: they stole the show. A lot of the times I go to thrash shows, I’ve never heard of the bottom card (after all, I’ve seen Unearth, 4 Arm and Oni, not exactly household names). I had no idea what to expect from Sanctuary, and as I kind of dig Iced Earth I certainly didn’t expect the second act to outshine the headliner. But so it was. The band was just heavy enough to get me banging my head every so often, and the lead singer had a razor sharp voice. Sure, they spent some time being all cuddly over about Warrel Dane— I mean, for Christ’s sake, they were on Iced Earth’s Incorruptible tour, but they’re listed on setlist.fm as performing on the Farewell to Warrel Dane tour— so their set was the strangest sort of group therapy; but they also belted out some hard and heavy tunes called “Seasons of Destruction” and their killer closer, “Taste Revenge.” I can get into titles such as those.
Of more interest to me than their music, though, was how the lead singer performed “Taste Revenge.” I’ve seen singers lean a mic on the end of a stand out to the crowd more times than I can shake a stick at; I’ve seen others lean out toward the crowd and outstretch a mic. But this was the first time I’d ever seen one actually come off the stage, bypass security and hop up on the barrier wall to have the audience serenade him. It was among the strangest and coolest things I’d ever seen at a show, and given all the other weird stuff going on at this show, not even the strangest. I gotta admit, as thoroughly un-thrash as this was, I couldn’t help but get into it. You keep rocking that crowd, brother. You keep rocking it.
The Black Flag of Dude Bro Brothers
When Iced Earth hit the stage, I had no idea what to expect. Some strange things I catalogued above had already gone down; would things continue that way? If I were comparing Iced Earth to Slayer, then yes. Most certainly, yes.
Their set started off normally enough. The band hit the stage to “Great Heathen Army” off their new album, Incorruptible, a heavy enough tune to set me in the metal mood. With mentions of Tyr and Odin, I felt their set would fit right in line with Amon Amarth’s, even if the crowd at Gramercy was nowhere near as vicious as that show’s. Sure, lead singer Stu Block looks kind of like a heavy metal Muppet and has a weird, mechanical way of bringing the mic to and away from his mouth, and the drummer had a poor man’s Tommy Lee cage around his set. But considering what I’d already seen, that stuff didn’t even register.
As the set progressed, however, things got considerably off the beaten path. Stu Block could belt out the tunes well enough—he’s got a solid voice with great range for a metal singer—but he was far too happy for metal. He talked a lot between songs, something I prefer singers not to do (I’m there to see you sing, not chat me up), and a lot of that was genuinely happy talk. Example:
Stu: (looking at the front row of the show) I see you guys have a brotherhood out there tonight, I can see it right here with you guys right up front. And these guys behind me, they’re my brothers. These guys are my fucking family! I know they got my back and I got theirs. Get your singing voices for this next one, “Brothers!”
That’s paraphrased, but it’s spot on for what Iced Earth is all about. I could tell under all that denim and leather that Stu and the crew were sweet guys, which is something I should never say about the members of a metal band. While Tom Araya isn’t telling fans they should kill people anymore, I’ve never seen him once get schmaltzy at a show, and I’ve personally seen him get pissed off once. I’m not sure Stu or lead guitarist and band founder John Schaffer have it in them genetically to get pissed off. I go to metal for aggressive, angry music and an attitude to match, and so I have to say: Iced Earth is too nice for metal.
As for the music, it was solid. Some of the songs, such as “Brothers” and “I Died for You” were a little too soft for me, but these are competent journeymen on the metal scene. Though bassist Luke Appleton left something to be desired, but he was serviceable. Iced Earth was appropriately heavy when they went heavy, and Schaffer is pretty powerful as a lead guitarist (though nowhere near “the greatest guitarist of all time” as some dude next to me stated). Schaffer didn’t embarrass himself when he took over lead vocals for “Stormriders,” which put his voice and axe dead center. Though I walked out at the end of the night actually preferring Sanctuary, I definitely dig on some of Iced Earth’s material.
The problem is I have no real emotional connection to the band. With Slayer, Testament, Children of Bodom and other bands, I breathe thru their material and it becomes part of my system. With Iced Earth, there was a disconnect. This is no fault of theirs, and for that guy who made the comment about Schaffer and had traveled all the way from Philly to see them for the 20th time, this was a great show. For me, it was enjoyable but not some epic experience I’d be looking back on years from now. Iced Earth is a talented metal band, but they’re not my band, and that makes all the difference. I could have passed on the show and not feel like I missed anything special.
Okay, that’s not entirely true. Because had I passed on the show, I’d have missed out on the last song of the night, “Watching Over Me.” And this was a sight to behold. I’d seen some young kids in the audience, and leave it to warm hugs Stu to invite all the kids in the audience on stage. He introduced the song saying, “John wrote this song many years ago for one of his very best friends that perished in a motorcycle accident.” He then launched into how this was a song about both life and death, encouraged us to sing it for Warrel Dane, and invited the audience to see it as a tribute to anyone we had lost in our lives. He then gestured at the kids and said we should sing along for life.
At their last show three nights back, the band’s former lead singer Matt Barlow had joined them for this tune. Tonight, it was a line of eight year olds. Oh my.
And so it was, as the band rocked it and Stu Block belted out the lyrics with that line of kids behind him and a sold out crowd singing along with him. I wanted to tell myself this was about as far from metal as a band could possibly get, and that it was corny as Hell. But you know what? I can’t fault it. Stu Block was pouring himself into the heartfelt lyrics with every ounce of heart in his frail body, and for him, Schaffer and Iced Earth’s fans, this wasn’t an attempt at schmaltz, but a special moment. I’d be a cruel dick to criticize that, and I can’t be that guy. So you know what? Rather than jump all over it, there I was, throwing my devil’s horns in the air, with the words “Oh I know, Oh I know, he’s watching over me” coming from my mouth as I sang along. This guy next to me put his hand on my shoulder and we banged our heads together. And I am okay with that.
The Iced Earth show was a bro-tastic event, something I’ve never experienced before at a metal gig and likely won’t ever experience again. For that alone it’s memorable, and maybe one day years from now, I’ll sit down in a rocking chair and tell my yet-to-be-born children, “There was this one time I saw this metal show where the main act wanted to hug it out with everyone, and I found out who Warrel Dane was, may he Rest In Peace.” Probably not, but I can at least thank Iced Earth for giving me something unique, and wish their brotherhood well.