By Adrien Begrand
If it’s late June-early July in Saskatoon, it can only mean one thing. Well, actually there’s the dry sweltering heat, the daily thunderstorms, the horrendous road construction tie-ups, and the odd mosquito, but the fifth thing, and it’s a biggie, is the jazz festival. For nearly two weeks the city is consumed with jazz of all forms, but while a sold out Broadway Theatre caught a live set by Canadian chanteuse Holly Cole, across the back alley at Amigos things were decidedly louder and more violent, as three of America’s finest death metal exports – Origin, Vital Remains, and Abysmal Dawn – were doing their best to reduce the 235-capacity cantina to a pile of rubble. That they did so in front of a big backdrop that said “Saskatchewan Jazz Festival GROOVE SERIES” made the whole experience just a little bit more surreal than usual.
With tour co-headliners Hate Eternal taking the night off (Erik Rutan prefers not to perform five consecutive days, or something to that effect), we were minus a real death metal heavyweight, but while that mighty band was missed, the other three bands held their own exceptionally well. The last time I’d seen Abysmal Dawn was a little over two years ago when they played to about a dozen people opening for Goatwhore and Abigail Williams. They were solid but unspectacular, plagued by technical snafus and a mix by a sound guy who had no idea what he was doing. On the wickedly good new album in Leveling the Plane of Existence, there’s much more confidence coming from the Los Angeles foursome than ever before, and that was reflected in the Abysmal Dawn I saw on this night. In front of a lively pit they were a much more commanding presence as they reeled off such songs as “Leveling the Plane of Existence”, “Pixilated Ignorance”, and “In Service of Time”, guitarist/vocalist Charles Elliott looking much more assured in the way he interacts with the crowd. Best of all, the sound was terrific, clean enough to hear the dueling lead guitars amidst all the Carcass-inspired brutality.
At one point I found myself engaged in a conversation with Brian Werner, the vocalist for Florida’s Infernaeon who is filling in as frontman for Vital Remains, and when he found out I was in Florida for 70000 Tons of Metal, his eyes lit up. “I was there too! I’m the dude who was arrested afterwards!” The friendly singer wears that arrest like a badge of honour, which pretty much tells you all you need to know about the guy. Even when he’s trying to be polite he can’t help but be a real shit-disturber – he spent 36 hours in jail for merely suggesting a surly police officer be nicer to departing travelers – he can’t help but be a real shit-disturber, which makes him a perfect choice as the umpteenth singer for these Rhode Island Christ Punchers. And indeed, after a rather tepid start, Werner and the band, led by longtime guitarist and head honcho Tony Lazaro, proceeded to incite an unusual amount of mayhem for such a laid-back venue. “Savior to None, Failure For All”, “Hammer Down the Nails”, and the epic “Dechristianize” – complete with Lazaro’s garish customized “666 guitar” – brought the violence, and incited likewise on the floor.
While the jazz festival backdrop was a running gag throughout the night, one could make a good argument that Origin is a perfectly suited metal equivalent. Sure, their brand of technical death metal is taut and extremely punishing, but the way Paul Ryan‘s guitar and Mike Flores‘s bass interweave and play off each other, you can’t deny there’s at least some jazz influence there. Hell, just watch Flores do his line check, and you’ll hear some of the craziest jazz fusion solos you’ll ever come across. The fact is, as good is this band is on record (and the last two albums have been great), they are incredible to watch perform live: Ryan is as skilled a sweep picker as anyone in metal, while Flores is an absolute force, plucking, slapping, and hammering his strings with a dexterity that’s astonishing.
The 2011 version of Origin comes with a bit of a twist, however. While the likeable James Lee was a very good growler, Origin scored a major coup by landing former Skinless frontman Jason Keyser. An unabashed motormouth with a gift for between-song comic timing (even dragging Abysmal Dawn’s Elliott for some birthday cake), he’s also a formidable vocalist, and he completes this band like no other singer ever has, delivering the kind of guttural power that the music demands. As a result, this was the best Origin performance I have ever seen, nearly an hour’s worth of spectacular performances, ranging from oldies (“Vomit You Out”), Antithesis standouts (“The Aftermath”, “Wrath of Vishnu”, “Finite”), and plenty of selections from the outstanding new record Entity. We might have been missing one of the headliners, but all bands were so good on this night that no one, including yours truly, could care less. This was three hours of death metal at its finest.