Obituary w/ Dust Bolt, Skeletonwitch and Pallbearer, NY, NY
The Gramercy Theatre, May 5, 2018
Kicking in Teeth (for a Short Span)
Two months ago, I took in Iced Earth at the Gramercy Theater. That show was a bro-tastic lovefest the likes of which I would never have associated with thrash metal. On the heels of that, I decided to check out the Obituary show before I headed to San Diego for Slayer’s final tour. Iced Earth and Obituary played the same venue, but that was about all that was the same. I couldn’t conceive two concerts further apart in approach if I tried. Obituary put on a show that, though not without a few issues, was worlds better and so much more in line with my tastes.
A Monster Made of Corpses vs. a Limbless, Decapitated Torso
At Iced Earth, I selected a shirt based on an in-joke between Sarah and me. My selection process here was a little different. Instead of just selling merch that promoted this tour and album, Obituary had tees from earlier albums as well. I dig this, and as I waited in line, I had a choice to make: the cover for their live album Ten Thousand Ways to Die, or their previous studio album Inked in Blood? Now let’s face facts. I’m a horror fan and a thrash metal fan, so I’m not squeamish about gore. But as I debated between the two tees, I came back to reality. I could never wear a tee with this picture on its front out in public:
My bloody faced Cujo shirt gets some appalled looks on occasion, and that’s mild by comparison. Not that I usually give a damn anybody judging what I wear, but I figured I couldn’t in good conscience wear that tee out to, say, a buffet, without making people physically sick. Not that the tee I chose here was for pussies, but hey, you have to look close to see the dead bodies making up that monster.
The Floor and My 45-Year-Old Body
With that decision behind me, I left the merch table still pondering my other dilemma. I was in Day 5 of an eight day stretch at work, and though I’d worn sneakers and jeans to work knowing they’d make the show more comfortable, I wasn’t loving the idea of being on my feet for five hours at the show. And once again, let’s face facts. I’m 45, and being on the floor at a metal show almost guarantees my frame is going to get pounded. And if I’m on the floor, I want to be right up on the rail by the stage. It’s the best view in the house, but for more practical reasons, it’s also the safest if I hold onto the rail once things get chaotic. This debate always ends up leading me to my existential thrash question:
If I’m at a thrash metal show, but I’m not on the floor getting my body thrashed, am I even at the show?
Gramercy, though, had an out for me, as I discovered before Iced Earth. It turns out the whole place is General Admission, including their seating at the back of the hall. I could go sit, relax my feet and enjoy a show from afar, though not that afar because I could clearly see everyone’s faces on stage if I ventured to a seat instead of making the absolutely illogical choice to hang on the rail.
I headed upstairs from the merch table expecting the rail to be full all the way across, as it was for Iced Earth, which would have made my decision for me. But fate being what it is, there was some room on stage right (I don’t know why, but I always seem to end up on stage right lately, so I spend a lot of time taking pictures of Kerry King at Slayer’s gigs). The seats were almost empty too, so what’s an old man to do? I nestled myself in on the rail, figuring I had at least an hour til the show started, and probably more than that considering how many people show up late and miss opening acts (hmm, that sounds familiar…). I’d end up there for the entire night, which was a good thing on at least note. Because I wouldn’t have ended up at the bottom left of this photo had I bailed. Not every day I end up in a shot taken by a member of Obituary.
Thrash as Thrash Should Be
The banner at the back of the stage told me Dust Bolt would open the show. I’d checked out Skeletonwitch and Pallbearer on Prime Music, but somehow I’d missed Dust Bolt, so I had no idea what I was in store for. Last time I was at the Gramercy, the show ended with a lovefest as Stu Block sang “Watching Over Me” with a bunch of kids singing backup. That couldn’t have been less metal, and I prayed the vibe wouldn’t carry over.
Dust Bolt obliterated that fear as soon as they hit the stage like a 210 megaton warhead. Holy smokes, these guys kicked my ass! This was thrash at its purest. Synchronized headbanging, brutal riffs, fingers flying up and down guitar necks. In 2018, this could have been laughable, but these German guys were clearly invested and not just putting on an act. As the lead singer talked between songs about how the band was grateful to be on American soil, I knew their enthusiasm was legit. More importantly, their set was punishing at lightning speed.
This is how you open a metal show. Dust Bolt set the bar high. Would the other bands answer the call?
If Only the Music Matched the Cool Name
Skeletonwitch hit the stage next. I’d checked some of their stuff out, and the lead singer seemed to come from the Cookie Monster clan of metal singers, not a clan I love. But I was willing to give the band a fair shake on name alone. Skeletonwitch is one of the coolest names in metal. What horror/ thrash metal fan wouldn’t love to combine a skeleton and a witch? It’s a classic concoction.
Their sounds, though, not such a classic concoction. The band was decent, and the lead singer swung behind those Sesame Street inspired vocals and razor sharp screeches. But this band wasn’t my cup of tea. Their set was a few swings down from Dust Bolt’s, and writing this a few weeks out, I can’t remember anything specific about their set. Aside from the lead singer looking like Arthur Fonzarelli by way of a Richard Linklater high schooler, I don’t remember much of anything about Skeletonwitch. And that speaks volumes.
Two acts down, two to go. Pallbearer was up next, and I’d also checked them out recently. I had a feeling the dip in quality would continue.
A 40-Minute Funereal Dirge
Skeletonwitch didn’t wow me, but at least they played high adrenaline music. What Pallbearer played was a 40-minute funereal dirge.
Given their name, I expected some dark, hard and heavy thrash metal before I checked their stuff out a few weeks prior. What I found instead was plodding, progressive tunes that hit my ears with a thud and never picked up. Sadly, this was exactly how the band was onstage. Their downtrodden tunes all sounded the same, so much so that their whole set sounded like one long dirge I couldn’t wait to escape. I wasn’t entertained so much as I was ready to pass out on my suddenly aching feet. The only thing of interest was the lead singer/ guitarist playing on Stage Right instead of center stage (damn, this barely qualifies for continuing my trend of seeing strange stuff at concerts). It says a lot when a bass player is a prominent part of the act and my bass-loving self is asking that he tone it down. This was the worst act I’d seen in a long time, which left me wondering just how Obituary had aligned four bands who had no discernable matching elements to the other three.
I survived my Pallbearer encounter and was on to the main event! Little did I know how long it would take to reach that place…
A Brief Interlude to Ponder the Landscape
I waited a long time for Obituary to hit the stage, and so I hope you’ll be willing to wait just a little longer in this concert report to let me wax on about some things I’ve noticed in going to small shows lately. If you’re impatient, you can skip ahead. But you just might have an answer to some of my queries, and even if not, you may enjoy this brief interlude.
I’m writing this a little more than a week after seeing the first show of Slayer’s final tour. That was a massive, five act concert that qualifies as large scale. So when each act finished, roadies came out from all sides to break down equipment and set up for the next act. With these smaller shows, it seems roadies are a scarce resource. Between the Iced Earth and Obituary gigs, I’ve seen a bunch of guitarists doing their own checks, drummers breaking down their drums without any assist, and bands roll their own amps and equipment to the side of the stage for offloading. I’ll take a guess and say this is to save money, especially when there are four bands on a show and my ticket’s face value was only 35 bucks. Still, it’s kind of funny when I consider I’ve seen Slayer play the Paramount and Hammerstein Ballroom, both intimate spots, and never witnessed Kerry King busting down amps.
I’ve also never seen King or Tom Araya wearing badges on their belts to indicate they’re onstage talent as they thrash their way thru “Raining Blood,” but I saw that at the Obituary show. Between that and the guys humping their own gear, it led me to think the Obituary gig was minor by comparison. This reminded me of Band Night from my days bouncing at the Roadhouse Pub for my landlord at the time. I fully understand that the extreme metal scene isn’t Bruno Mars selling out arenas, but yeesh. Less than a week after, I’d see Slayer play in front of a massive setup of flaming Hellfire, and it was eye-opening just how big a gulf there was between the two shows.
On the lighter side, it was too cool to see Donald Tardy pop his leg onto the stage during Dust Bolt’s set. DT was air drumming in full force, and even popped out to contribute briefly to background vocals during one song. I’ll guess he was the driving force in getting the opening act onto the tour. And by far the highlight of the entire show was when I threw him the devil’s horns and he threw them back directly to me. You just can’t get that at Bruno Mars.
And now we return to our original thrash programming.
A Great Obituary Set!… While It Lasted
One more peculiar little fact about the Gramercy: on Stage Left, there’s a digital clock that tells accurate time. This makes it easy for me once I’m up front to time not only how long each act is onstage, but how long the turnover is between acts. I’ve always been a very time-driven person—so much so that I can usually tell how many minutes have gone by from the last time I looked at a digital clock without looking at it a second time—so it had me more than a little worried as I watched that clock tick away before Obituary hit the stage. New York has a 11 pm curfew for musical acts; one minute over that, and overtime kicks in for everybody. So bands tend to stick to 11 as the end of show. So when Trevor Perez popped out to check something on his side of the stage at 9:30 or so, and told some fans over there that he just needed 10 more minutes, I was more than a little worried. A headliner should give you at least 90 minutes of music, and unless Obituary were going into super golden OT, this was a bad sign.
By that clock, Obituary finally hit the stage at 9:55. They left the stage at 10:55. Before I get into the set itself, let me talk about this. I’ve never felt so exhilarated and let down at the same time with a headliner. Obituary isn’t some band with two albums out; they’ve been around since the late 80s and have an extensive catalogue. Given the amount of downtime between Pallbearer’s set and theirs, they could have hit the stage at least 15 minutes earlier and played more songs. If they’d cut down the openers by one, that would have given them 30 to 40 more minutes of play. I don’t exactly want to say this is unacceptable, but I certainly expect more from any headliner. Especially one that’s been around for three decades.
And speaking of let down, I can’t believe they didn’t start their set with “Redneck Stomp.” They’ve been using it as an opener frequently in recent years, and I thought it would be my highlight of their set. Apparently Obituary ran a poll for fans to vote in their setlist, and if fans didn’t vote for “Stomp,” then I have them to blame and not the band. Either way, I feel I need to see Obituary next time they come around on the chance they might play it as their opener. And no, I’m not going to Europe to see them open for Slayer, where they’ll likely not be wearing badges to prove they’re the entertainment.
As for the set itself, Obituary was awesome. I know I was just griping for two paragraphs, but for the time they were onstage not playing my favorite tune, these guys kicked in teeth. Obituary is a tight unit, with DT and his brother John at lead vocals anchoring the songs alongside Perez on rhythm guitar. Death metal is built more on grooves than thrash, but Obituary has the subgenre down to a science. Lead guitarist Kenny Andrews knows how to shred, and bassist Terry Butler lays down some mean bass lines. John Tardy’s gravelly snarl is unique, and it prowled over the tunes beautifully. Older tunes such as “Chopped in Half” smashed perfectly into newer ones such as “Sentence Day” and “A Lesson in Vengeance.” The lyrical content is extreme, in case you can’t gather that from the titles, and Obituary went at each song with a ferocity belied by John’s camo shorts and chill presentation. They closed with “Slowly We Rot,” which was just as intense as their opener “Stinkupuss.” A foot to the face, beginning straight thru to the end.
Slowly My Conclusion Rots
On the whole, the Obituary show was an inconsistent experience. Though the opening acts were a rollercoaster ride, and Obituary’s set was short, the first and last acts smashed it. It’s perfect that I saw this gig between Iced Earth and Slayer, because that’s where it falls in line as far as the fun I had. I have a feeling I’ll see Obituary again down the line, with the hopes they “Redneck Stomp” all over me for much longer than an hour next time.
Of course, standing right up on the rail does have its advantages, and may even get you in the bottom left corner of a picture taken by Obituary and posted on their social media.