The yellow boa looked like he could of easily slipped off the shoulders of the screamer whose black and white face paint looked like a half melted mish-mash of all four faces of Kiss. This kid couldn’t have been much more than twenty. As his band blasted a barely decipherable onslaught of blast beats, power chords and keyboards, he handed the creature off to one of about half a dozen barely covered young female mascots standing in the front row, all clad in matching bras and skin tight shorts (made from a fabric resembling electrical tape). Too concerned to ogle the girls, I breathed a sigh of relief for the safety of the snake.
I’d been flown into Montreal to be a ‘celebrity judge’ for En Route To Heavy MTL. This ‘battle of the bands’ takes place in a dungeon-like nightclub and consists of local acts competing for a spot in the city’s annual two day Metal festival, the first of its kind in North America (This year’s line up includes System Of A Down, Slipknot and Lamb Of God). The competition is divided into five showcases several weeks apart, with twenty bands total and two winners. On each night, four bands play four songs each, followed by ‘American Idol’ style critique and commentary by a panel of judges including yours truly who, at this moment, was wondering how honest I should be with my opinions.
I understood this was ‘Symphonic Metal’ night, and that imagery is considered a crucial part of the genre. But so far, I’d been so distracted by the make-up, the costumes, the snake and the army of tattooed tarts that looked fresh out of SuicideGirls.com. that the music itself had become secondary.
Not wishing to be a harsh judge a la ‘Simon Cowell,’ I felt a bit conflicted. I know what it’s like to spend endless hours alone with your instrument and locked in a rehearsal room with others, bashing it out and hoping you’re honing in on something good, but never sure. At the same time, were all the bells and whistles necessary?
Fortunately the young band, Magnum Stallion, made it much easier to be supportive during their last song, in which they ditched their mime-like choreography, acted natural, didn’t rely on props (or boobs) and honed in on some nice guitar harmonies and laid into some solid grooves that got the crowd moving. Why hadn’t they done their whole set this way?
The second band, Erimha, had no live snakes and young women incorporated into the show, but they had similarly elaborate costumes and make-up. The vocalist had a lot of conviction and charisma. I met him afterwards and he was very nice, while on stage he’d been scary – that’s a good thing. Unfortunately, not all of his bandmembers were keeping up – one of them striking me as a real ‘average Joe’ (average Jacques?) on stage, as though he’d thrown on a Halloween costume. Being on stage requires that you have presence and ‘own it.’ There were some good chants, where the crowd yelled ‘Hey!’ but it would have been nice to hear an original chorus for the crowd to chant.
The third band, Valfreya, had music that alternated between mellow, almost Celtic, with flutes (played on keyboard), and fast and heavy riffs. After the first two bands’ walls of riffs and screams, it was refreshing to hear music that wasn’t the same texture all the the way through and fronted by a good melodic female lead vocalist. The drummer did some unique beats and provided some of the most solid grooves of the evening. However, the executioner/reaper guy standing in front of the stage, the cloaked ‘druid’ on bass and the three person hooded choir was so distracting, it was hard to know how seriously to take them. ‘Have these guys not seen ‘Spinal Tap?’ I wondered. A video screen showed the band members and friends at a pub spiritedly feasting on food downing beers and wearing viking helmets – this clarified the humorous stance of the group, which reminded me a bit of the band Dragonforce (in humor, not in sound). Towards the end, the band handed out fake swords and encouraged duels between audience members as battle scenes from the film ’300′ played overhead, making their set easily the most memorable. This would have been great, except I couldn’t remember one song.
The final band, Hollow, had militant fans chanting their name through their entire set. These guys seemed closer to my age and had been around the block a few times. Some members wore full body paint, as well as the by now standard black and white face paint. At one point, an ‘evil cow’ came out with shiny red eyes and a cape. I thought of the legendary Pantera, who’d emerged with a manufactured image before totally focusing on the music and finding a new type of raw look and sound in the process. Maybe these guys could try to go that route? Hollow was the tightest of all the bands and their lead guitarist was impressive – the first truly advanced player of the evening. But, as was the case with each of the earlier bands, not one song could be recalled by myself or the other judges.
Where were the songs?
That’s such an easy critique to make and a difficult one to follow, I realize this. I can remember my own band being harped on by managers, record label folks and other authority figures to write better ‘songs.’ It got a little grating, but they were right.
There are no shortcuts. The solution is to write, write, write, write some more and throw away most of what you write in the process, only keeping the strongest material, then building off of that.
Now before anyone thinks I’m one of a ‘pure’ musician who isn’t open to image-based bands, keep in mind that it was Kiss that first inspired me to pick up a guitar. And the great ‘shock-rock’ acts, now matter how elaborate a stage show they’ve had, have always built that image in support of strong songs.
For example, ‘School’s Out’ is a powerful, chant-like chorus with or without Alice Cooper’s guillotines and electric chairs. ‘Duece’ is an incredibly hard hitting tune, even if you’re not looking at Kiss’s face paint and live show. And whether one is a fan of more recent shock-rockers or not, there is no denying that Marilyn Manson’s ‘The Beautiful People,’ Rob Zombie’s ‘More Human Than Human,’ and Slipknot’s ‘The Heretic Anthem’ are all highly memorable songs. Sure, they’re enhanced by the production but not dependent upon it. You have to start out with a good song and build your show from there.
The rest of the judges, which included three other guys (two local radio personalities and an artist rep from the Montreal based Godin Guitar company) and two young ladies (one a talent booker from the festival and the other the lead vocalist of Montreal symphonic metal heroes UnExpect), all agreed about the song content lacking. At the same time, we all liked certain qualities of the bands.
Each group had a different personality. Its just that this personality was cloaked and masked by, well, cloaks and masks. Hopefully they’ll listen to some of our advice and tweak their music to reflect an improvement. If these musicians could just tap into what makes them unique as people, and place more emphasis on songwriting, they’d find they don’t need to rely so much on these typical costumes and, to use a word devised French: accoutrements.