Weekly (p)reviews: Equal parts exhausting and addictive

Baroness hits the road; Bewitcher comes home; Soccer Mommy and IDLES and their guitar techs

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Heavy rock music gains much of its power from its forward momentum and volume—two characteristics that are at the heart of being amid the sweaty masses at a metal show. A full night of being pummeled by sound waves and other bodies can be truly exhilarating. 

Being fans themselves, the folks who make this music understand that feeling better than most. Which is why metal acts are notorious road dogs, grinding it out on the road for months on end. The tour experience, much like that of being in the audience, becomes equal parts exhausting and addictive. 

Many heavy bands have only recently been able to scratch that itch after watching weeks of concert dates disappear in an instant due to pandemic lockdowns, and dealing with tours being rescheduled multiple times as the waves of the coronavirus ebbed and flowed. 

Prog-metal band Baroness were all set to continue supporting their most recent album Gold & Grey on a co-headlining tour with Against Me! starting last May, but the plug got quickly pulled weeks before the opening date. It’s understandable then that guitarist Gina Gleason had a mixture of excitement, relief, and trepidation in her voice earlier this month as she sat outside Baltimore’s Ottobar in the hours before the band kicked off its first tour in a year and a half. “We’re getting ready to load in and get set up and soundcheck and all that stuff,” Gleason said. “It feels really good. It’s been a while.” 

The yen to hit the stage may not have been so acute for the members of Baroness (Gleason, singer/guitarist John Dyer Baizley, drummer Sebastian Thomson, and bassist Nick Jost) as they chose not to spend the past 18 months in stasis mode. In addition to a livestreamed performance where the quartet ran through all the songs from Gold & Grey, the group used the time to work on a forthcoming full-length. The projects, according to Gleason, helped her and her bandmates maintain some semblance of sanity.

“The times that we were working on album-related things felt, to me, like the healthiest times,” Gleason said, “because we had something really concrete and positive to focus on. I tried to do the same thing by myself at home, working on guitar playing and learning new things. In that sense, we were really lucky to have some cool things to do and some experiences where we could learn and take something from it.” 

The lockdowns gave Gleason at least a few moments to reflect on the whirlwind she’s been happily caught up in since joining Baroness in 2017. At that point, the band was already in full gallop. Since forming in the early ‘00s, Baroness has released a series of increasingly ambitious albums that maintained an assaultive force even as the group began incorporating synths and softer textures. As Gleason began dashing alongside her bandmates, she became a vital creative element for Gold & Grey, a double album that dashed shoegaze balladry and ambient soundscapes within the sweat-soaked attack of “Broken Halo” and “Seasons.”

Still, even though she was encouraged by Baizley to put her own stamp on this material, Gleason had a hard time getting out of her own way when she began writing with the group. “I was a fan of the whole catalog, and I had an idea in my head, as a fan, of what I think the band sounds like. Or what it should sound like. I was almost self-editing my playing in a way. It wasn’t until we got really deep in the process that it started occurring to me that the band’s maybe ready for a bit of a departure on this record. I can play however it feels right to me.” 

As much as Baroness keeps their eyes trained on their future, for their current tour they’re forcing themselves to pay heed to their past. For this run of shows, which hits Doug Fir Lounge on November 21, the band will have two setlists to juggle: one that they put together, and another made up of songs chosen by fans through an online poll. Everything Baroness has released is on the table, a prospect that, for Gleason, was more thrilling than daunting. 

“For me, being a guitar dork, I was like, ‘I’m gonna learn all this!’” she said. “I enjoyed that part of the process—revisiting albums that I’ve loved for the past decade and being like, ‘Oh, I never did learn this one. That song is fucking awesome.’ I’ve loved that part of this whole thing we’re doing.”

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Baroness. Photo courtesy of the band.
Baroness. Photo courtesy of the band.

Baroness was in a privileged position to wait out the heaviest part of the coronavirus storm. For those bands on the come up, the past 20 months or so have been marked by frustration and anticipation. 

Portland black metal trio Bewitcher is perhaps the best exemplar of this now familiar refrain. Guitarist/vocalist Matt Litton and bassist Andy Mercil had built up some healthy momentum since the release of their last album thanks to some steady touring, an injection of energy and power by way of their new drummer Aris Hunter Wales, and signing to well-regarded label Century Media. The pandemic put Bewitcher in a holding pattern.

They did what they could. The trio recorded their new full-length Cursed Be Thy Kingdom in 2020 and had copies in the hands of fans earlier this year. And they self-produced a few videos to go along with it. But the true promotional work of touring didn’t get underway until last month. 

“It’s like coming out of a deep sleep,” Litton said. “We’re sort of rubbing our eyes like, ‘Oh my God! What’s going on?!’ We’re just trying to get back on stage and not completely forget what we’re there to do. The first few things that we’ve done have been shaky in little parts but mostly like getting on a bike again.” 

Chances are Betwitcher will be at full bars by the time they return to their hometown on Friday November 19 to play at Dante’s. The band has been on the road since late October as part of a package tour with death metal giants Exhumed and Creeping Death. And the band has their strongest material yet to work from. Cursed is a blast furnace—all skin prickling fury and eyebrow singeing heat. The perfect vehicle for Litton’s fantastical lyrics drawn from his interest in the history of witchcraft and occult practices, or viewing moments from his real life through a magickal lens. 

“It’s open to interpretation,” Litton said. “This record is more about even storytelling where I’m trying to have a character or a couple of characters that develop through the song. It can come from wherever: anything I’m reading at the time, movies, life situations that I try to turn into something more of a fantastical heavy metal context.”

If there’s been any downside to Bewitcher’s upward trajectory, it has been the welcome struggle of what elements of control over their music—and the promotion of it—that they’re willing to let go of. Nearly everything surrounding the release of Cursed, from getting promo photos taken to filming the videos, has been the result of the band members tapping into the vast network of friends and collaborators that they’ve amassed through decades of immersion in Portland’s metal community. 

“We’ve a couple of different managers that have wanted to manage the day-to-day operations of the band more intensely,” said Litton, “and we’re like, ‘Whoa! We’ll take care of that. You just handle the big stuff.’ That’s how we built this band and got going in the first place. Right now, we’re in a good place where we feel comfortable with everyone we’re working with. Everybody’s out to make us look as good as we can.”

That and being to tour again has eased some tension within the members of Bewitcher. The band can finally settle back into that wash-rinse-repeat groove of tour and recording that has kept metal artists in good stead for 50+ years.

Portland black metal trio Bewitcher. Photo by Tim Keenan Burgess.
Portland black metal trio Bewitcher. Photo by Tim Keenan Burgess.

“That’s the bottom line,” Litton said. “We’ve just got to keep putting out good records and keep hitting the road. That’s the foundation of everything that we’ve got to do. As far as where it goes from there? Who knows.” 

Bewitcher opens for Exhumed and Creeping Death at Dante’s (350 W Burnside St) on Friday November 19. 8:30 pm. Tickets: $15. Proof of vaccination or negative COVID test taken within 48 hours of the show date required for entry.

Baroness plays Doug Fir Lounge (830 E Burnside St) on Sunday November 21 at 9 pm. Tickets: $65. Proof of vaccination or negative COVID test taken within 24 hours of the show date required for entry.

Soccer Mommy, November 1 @ Revolution Hall

IDLES, November 8 @ Crystal Ballroom

Guitar techs are a key part of the somewhat complicated schematic that makes up a big tour. Those are the folks most often seen scurrying on stage between songs to help swap out axes before the next song. Once back in the shadows, they tune the guitars or change strings or whatever else is necessary to keep the instruments in shape.

These members of the road crew are so ubiquitous to the experience of seeing shows of a certain size that I hardly notice them anymore. That’s another key aspect of their work: getting in and out of the spotlight as quickly as possible. But at a couple of recent shows, I couldn’t help but take notice of the guitar techs and what they did—and, in one case, didn’t—do. 

Sitting just off the stage at Revolution Hall, the young man who occasionally popped on stage to pass a fresh candy-colored guitar to the members of indie rock ensemble Soccer Mommy seemed to be a tech in name only. Every time singer-songwriter Sophia Allison and her bandmate Julian Powell strapped on their guitars, they spent a long couple of minutes tuning the instruments, dragging down the pace of what was already a pretty stodgy show.

Soccer Mommy, November 1 @ Revolution Hall. Photo by Robert Ham.
Soccer Mommy, November 1 @ Revolution Hall. Photo by Robert Ham.

The work of this nameless gent also laid bare the disappointing sameness of so much of Soccer Mommy’s most recent work. The necessity of an artist bringing many guitars with them on tour is to ensure that the sound of a live performance doesn’t stray too far afield from what fans hear on the album. And what Soccer Mommy gave on the group’s most recent full-length color theory and in concert was song after song of midtempo ferment and Allison’s exquisite lyrical torment. No matter how often the guitars changed, the music remained in one sonic gear. 

That uniformity did leave room to catch the bits of magic and oddness happening throughout the set. Drummer Ryan Ewell, when he wasn’t sipping on a big glass of cabernet between songs, seemed to be forcing himself to simplify his playing. After every snare hit, he would pull his drumstick aside and tap his legs or his chest on the off beat. Perhaps best for the material, it removed any touch of swing to the songs. It was up to multi-instrumentalist Rodrigo Avedando to juice the set with splashes of shoegaze and psychedelia shrewdly served up via his array of guitar effects and synthesizer. 

The guitar techs working for IDLES during their recent sold out performance at the Crystal Ballroom were only noticeable because it was the first time I’d seen the band use them. It’s the mark of a group that has been steadily leveling up since their first time playing in Portland to a sweaty throng at Doug Fir Lounge.

IDLES, November 8 @ Crystal Ballroom. Photo by Robert Ham.
IDLES, November 8 @ Crystal Ballroom. Photo by Robert Ham.

Acclaim and excitement surrounding the UK quintet has only grown since then, and IDLES has changed with it. Guitarist Mark Bowen has traded his onstage get up of nothing but a pair of boxer briefs for a lovely housedress. A synthesizer now sits on stage. And singer Joe Talbot has added a new stage move to his repertoire of spitting, stomping, and chest pounding. At various moments throughout the set, he would plant his right foot on a stage monitor and start lasciviously swiveling his hips. 

The trade off was an almost complete lack of spontaneity. Bowen and the group’s other guitarist Lee Kiernan’s jumps into the audience felt regimented, as if marked off as cues on their setlist. The synthesizer was only there to augment the sleazy scrape of IDLES’ latest single “Car Crash” and, like Soccer Mommy’s set, ensure that it stayed as close to the tone and spirit of its recorded version.

As the band has grown in stature and are now able to pack at least 1,500 into the Crystal Ballroom, a fussiness has entered IDLES’ picture. Talbot complained about an air conditioner blowing on him from above the stage, and their guitar techs were overworked as they swapped out instruments between nearly every song of the set. The heated joy of their early Portland appearances was almost entirely wiped away in place of a workmanlike attack on the material the band plucked from their four full-lengths.

To be fair to the band, this was a show near the end of what must have been a draining North American tour. That at least would explain how the band’s overall energy peaked early and steadily flagged from then on. It presages a potential burnout that could leave IDLES fried and broken. No amount of guitar techs would be able to fix that.

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About the author

Robert Ham is a critic and journalist living in Portland, Oregon’s outer reaches. During his time in the Rose City, he has contributed to The OregonianWillamette WeekPortland Mercury, and Portland Monthly, while also amassing a healthy amount of clips for print and online publications including PitchforkDownBeatBandcamp, and Village Voice. In 2019, he was the recipient of the SPJ Award for Best Sports Feature. In addition, Robert produces and hosts Double Bummer, a radio show focusing on new and newly reissued experimental music from around the world that airs every Tuesday night at 11pm PT on XRAY-FM. To read more of his work, visit his portfolio site or follow him on Twitter at @roberthamwriter.

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