By Laina Dawes
Okay, I have to admit I’m a bit myopic when it comes to music. When I’m into a band, the band has been getting rave reviews for their latest album and even the hipsters have taken to it (shudder), I expect to see the venue at full-capacity when they hit Toronto. Especially when the lineup is solid: Skeletonwitch, Priestess and High on Fire.
But this was not so on Friday night at the Opera House, despite High on Fire’s critically acclaimed new album, Snakes for the Divine. Granted, I’ve been to worse-attended shows and there was a substantial amount of other events going on in the T-Dot that night, but when arriving about three minutes before Ohio’s Skeletonwitch hit the stage, the place was about ¾ empty. While this was unfortunate and disappointing, the incredibly enthusiastic band didn’t seem to mind. After all, the hundred or so people who quickly left their half-empty beer cups at the bar and headed to the front of the non-barricaded stage for some enthusiastic fist-pumping, provided enough support.
Hell, even if you weren’t a fist-pumping kinda person, you were almost compelled to do it, as the quintet ripped through their ½ hour set, comprised mostly of older tracks and only dedicated the last few songs to 2009’s Breathing the Fire. The strange thing is these guys have only been together as Skeletonwitch since 2003 because of their grizzled look and their sound, a classic 80’s thrash vibe with a hit of blackened modernity in the vocals, they seemed a lot older. Frontman Chase Garnett was enthusiastic, gracious and wore his metal-studded leather armbands and chugged beer like a rock star without a hint of irony.
While the overall lineup was great, the next band, Montreal’s Priestess actually brought the energy level down a notch. While they definitely have the prerequisite metal elements, they seemed a bit out of place sandwiched between the thrashers and the stoner / bluesy / doom band. Their one-hour set was a bit of a rollercoaster, as slower, groovier songs were interspersed with more harder, edgier tracks. It took awhile for the small crowd of shirtless and sweaty moshers to find their rhythm, alternating between flashing devil horns, shoving each other, and then depending on the songs’ tempo, standing around in confusion.
I had previously seen Priestess open for High on Fire at SXSW in March and while they had great energy (despite being on tour for months), the Austin set was more energetic and strangely the set list had seemed a bit harder. Unfortunately for the band and the audience, the sound, which was fine for Skeletonwitch, wasn’t great for Priestess – I could only hear bass at the front of the stage so I had to leave and stand beside the soundboard just to hear the overall effect. The band used none of Skeletonwitch’s overhead stage lights and copious amounts of dry ice, but instead screened visuals onto their backdrop, which after Skeletonwitch’s vivid performance made the audience and myself a bit subdued. Their set list, while varied from their two full-lengths, including 2009’s Prior to the Fire and I’m guessing some of their stuff off of EP’s was great, but slightly uneven.
By the time High on Fire hit the stage, the venue was thankfully almost at full capacity and despite not yet turning on the stage lights, when the crowd saw frontman Matt Pike stroll out in the darkness, bare chested, snaggle-toothed but still sexy as all hell, the crowd went nuts. While the trio had the least amount of members in comparison to the other bands, their sound was ten times more powerful and dense. The place was hot as shit that night, but after one song Pike’s chest was dripping with sweat (sigh….). But despite the sheer velocity of tracks like “Death is This Communion” and “How Dark We Pray” I had to take out the one earplug I could find in my disheveled apartment earlier that evening, out because again, I could only hear the bass that nearly obliterated Pike’s phenomenal guitar playing.
Despite the imperfect sound, there was no way my ass was leaving the front of the stage because watching bassist Jeff Matz play was amazing. Animated and passionate, it was mad cool to watch him play; alternating between using a pick and finger strumming – all within one song. Drummer Des Kenzel also was electrifying to watch, as despite the relative simplicity of his kit his pounding made my feet vibrate. At last, the pit was in full-effect and at least one unhinged fan, desperate for attention, actually got up onstage and shook her sagging boobs to the rhythm (umm, where was Security? Stage barriers)?
But as usual, Pike wowed the audience and despite his limited stage banter and obvious annoyance because of the sound, he played to the crowd….for the crowd, grinning wildly, flamboyant rock-star gestures(without being pretentious / cheesy) and showing his appreciation for the audiences’ response. Fan favourites like “Rumours of War” and “Frost Hammer” were intermixed with some early tracks that even I, who has all of their stuff, had to take a second to familiarize myself.
Their too-short set ended with “Surrounded by Thieves” but unlike the slightly muted performance of Priestess, this particular set by High on Fire was more electrifying than their show at SXSW. Even though I am completely being an armchair critic here, Skeletonwitch could have played a bit longer, Priestess a bit shorter, and High on Fire should play in Toronto at least once a month. Oh yeah, and all three bands deserved a sold-out show.