KEN Mode/ Engineer/ Vilipend/ Gray Acre @ Sneaky Dee’s, Toronto ON, August 31 2010

Review by Natalie Zed

By now, you’re used to me attaching caveats to my reviews. I am profoundly aware that circumstances have a significant effect on my writing, so attempt to identify out any variables as much as possible. Something as simple as a stomach ache or my level of sobriety can influence the way I hear and process music, therefore I incorporate that into my writing rather than deny it. I am not an impartial judge of anything — certainly not an authority — just a girl who loves music and has many fully formed opinions that I’ve never been very good at keeping to myself.

All of the factors that influence my writing have been fairly innocuous up until this point: “I was exhausted!” “I ate a delicious sandwich!” “Lily the Pirate was in a hilariously bad mood!” This time, I’ve encountered a more significant bias than ever before, and because I am me, and not afraid to talk about my lady bits on the internet, I’m going to be honest with you, loyal Hellbound readers.

I have a boyfriend. I know. I know. And he’s lovely. After watching me eat sushi with enough wasabi to kill the average person, and reveal that I had smuggled an entire 26er of whisky into the movies in my purse, he still thinks I’m dreamy. He’s a keeper, readers.

The hitch is that this upstanding young gentleman is Christopher Gramlich, and he fronts Vilipend.

The band I am about to review.

I considered not writing this piece; it would be responsible, in a way. However, it would also mean that no one would review this show, which was awesome and deserving of coverage. I could also omit Vilipend’s set, which would be sillier, and would also mean that an excellent set by an excellent band received zero press, which is unfair to everyone involved. So I decided to take the more honest (and hellarious) route and just announce it. So: I’m boning the frontman from Vilipend. Also, the frontman from Vilipend is a hell of a copy editor, and went over this review before it appeared on-line (thanks, sweetie!). I promise that I would tell you if they sucked despite my affection for said frontman in question, but the honest truth is I think they make exceptional music and put on a gut-wrenchingly intense live show. Take my opinions on this matter with as much salt as you must, but there it is.

Personal and private lives become strangely entangled on the internet and instead of fighting that, I choose to embrace it. Natalie Zed’s in love — why not with a musician?

So! Now that the announcement’s out of the way, let’s talk about the actual event!

First to take that strange little stage upstairs at Sneaky Dee’s were Gray Acre. Formerly known as Monoliths, this band are a tricky entity to track down online, as they have only a single untitled demo track on their relatively new MySpace page, and little other online presence. The band are made up of former members of such Toronto heavy hitters as the Abandoned Hearts Club, Arkata, Orn and Burn to Black, and are certainly a group of talented musicians. I find myself at a loss as to what to write about them, however. I enjoyed their performance, bopped my head along, but I can’t say much about the music. I was present and enjoyed it, but it passed through me almost completely. It was a remarkably good transient experience, but nothing in it hooked me or took hold. I couldn’t hum a riff from their set if my life depended on it; I am honestly not sure if that’s a criticism or simply an observation. Sometimes a bit of lightness, something easy and completely digestible, is a fine palate cleanser, especially when paired with bands as layered, complex and violently decadent as the rest of the bill.

Without any reservation of qualifiers, I can say I have never seen a live band give more on stage than Vilipend. Adam “Skeletor” McGillivray punishes his drum kit as though each skin was inscribed with images of his arch enemies’ faces from Eternia. Bassist Mike Crossley looms over the audience, standing at the very edge of the stage, occasionally holding his instrument out over everyone’s heads as though issuing a challenge. Derek Del Vecchio plays guitar with a tight, controlled, but explosive energy. And Christopher Gramlich is possibly the most physically imposing frontman I’ve seen perform live. His voice is disarming enough — raw and ragged, nearly bloody. But it is watching him slam the mic into his chest as hard as he can during closer “To Impede the Healing Process” or falling to his knees then crushing his head beneath the monitor as he sobbingly wails the words to “Thin Red Lines” that makes me suck in my breath in genuine alarm. I have to fight the urge to back up during their set — to look away, hide my eyes, take cover. Their sound is huge, towering and complex while still managing to be emotionally devastating. Vilipend actively want to wound their audience and are not afraid to take just as much as they give.

The crowd thinned out considerably after Vilipend’s set, which was a damn shame. The rest of the show was excellent, although it might have just been too much for many people, being a somewhat late show on a Tuesday night pre-Labour Day weekend. Engineer were the first of the touring bands to take the stage. They performed in Toronto, also with KEN Mode, on May 27 (with Buried Inside and Titan at Sneaky Dee’s), which may have contributed to the somewhat disappointing turnout. Everyone who stayed, however, was treated to a hell of a second-half. What impressed me most about Engineer’s set was the weight. There’s a great deal of sludge in their hardcore, a thick, wet, lugubrious quality to their sound that threatens to smother the listener and swallow them whole. If Engineer were a machine, their gears would be clogged with tar. Because they sound like they’re playing from the bottom of the La Brea Tar Pits, there’s a sense of tremendous effort to their set as well, as if they’re fighting to get the sound out of their instruments. It is as though they aren’t plucking strings so much as pulling toffee — or teeth.

The last band on the bill were looming, twisted, Western Canadian metal monsters KEN Mode. I’d followed their tour dairy on Decibel earlier in the year and Jesse’s raw, honest, hilarious, but heart-wrenching tour account captured my attention. The band feature brothers Shane and Jesse Mathewson on drums and guitar/ vocals, respectively, plus Chad Tremblay on bass. (The Gramlich teased during Vilipend’s set, “I’ll learn the bassist’s name when he’s been on more than one record.”) This band are not fucking around; they are minimal, sleek and tight as hell, having just recorded with Converge’s Kurt Ballou. There’s also something a little bit broken in their sound, something slightly crazy around the edges. They’re not interested in letting the audience settle in, relax or gain a respite. They take the stage prepared to disturb and discomfort, and accomplish this admirably. Jesse Mathewson projects a fantastic air of menace, shoulders thrown back, eyes wide and wild, challenging the audience to watch, listen, take what’s being dished out. The last song they played raised the hairs on the back of my neck, a new number entitled “Never Was,” off their upcoming Venerable record (to be released by Profound Lore). The guitar stalks the listener, taut and intense, threatening violence without ever quite delivering. It’s a study in terrible anticipation and expertly managed tension. KEN Mode caught the jagged edge of their music’s hook in my heart.

Adam has been a photographer for Hellbound since day 1 and also has a hand in the technical aspects of running the site.