By Avinash Mittur
This year I’ve had the unique opportunity of seeing far more shows than an engineering undergraduate really should. The number isn’t nearly as high compared to some dedicated folks out there, but these shows have spanned a wide variety of styles and settings. I didn’t get to see every show I wanted to (hence Rush’s noticeable absence from this list!), but the bands mentioned here truly put their hearts and souls into performing for the audience, whether they filled a packed amphitheater or lined the walls of an empty club. I came out of every one of these performances awestruck and amazed by what I had witnessed, and this list is meant to honor those bands that truly put their time and effort into making me, the concertgoer, experience true emotional elevation.
#15. Prong – April 11th, Whisky A Go-Go, Hollywood CA: This set could best be described as truly a pleasant surprise. On this tour Prong were actually support of New Orleans’ Crowbar, who I had originally come to see. I’m not even much of a fan of industrial metal at all (save for a Nine Inch Nails phase I went through in high school) but Prong accomplished what every support act should strive to achieve; they made a fan out of me, a first-time listener. Tommy Victor’s monstrous guitar tone, boundless energy and sheer charisma onstage was something to behold, and he managed to make their cold and machine-like classic tracks truly come to life. Prong was the last band I would have expected to really come to life onstage, but here was Tommy Victor doing mid-air splits off of the drum riser and jamming his guitar into the crowd Steve Harris-style. I’m still waiting for the Prong album that really ‘clicks’ with me, but until then I’ll be more than happy going wild at their live shows.
#14. Meshuggah – May 5th, House of Blues, Hollywood CA: Dozens of kids have been playing so called ‘djent’ music or whatever the hell you want to call it over the last few years or so and none of it has really resonated with me to be honest. Almost as a sort of response to this whole movement, Meshuggah went and gave the House of Blues a total master class in the art of performing that style of music live. I usually have trouble listening to Meshuggah for long periods of time, but for an hour and forty five minutes I was absolutely enthralled by their live show. Though they exhibited machine-like precision during the performance, there was an energy that is missing from their studio albums and that made their music even better. The setlist was also as good as it gets for a modern day Meshuggah fan, mixing in a ton of recent material from Koloss and obZen with a handful of older classics like “Future Breed Machine”. ‘Monolithic’ is the best word that could describe Meshuggah’s show on this night: the band barely moved an inch but their music was as heavy as could be.
#13. Fog of War – June 16th, Red House, Walnut Creek CA: When I was in high school, Fog of War reigned over the ‘bay area thrash revival’ movement with truly mighty power. Of course in 2012, that scene is long dead and buried. If this set at the Red House was any indication though, Fog of War really couldn’t give a damn. It didn’t matter that barely a dozen people were clustered about the front of the stage, Fog of War delivered an absolutely punishing half hour of modern thrash. Mosh Branum’s shouts were just as commanding as I remembered, and he, Jon Fryman and Alex Winkley continue to be the best triple guitar team I’ve ever seen, save for a certain British act. No nonsense or messing around was to be had with this set, it was five songs of triple power metal harmonies, crossover tempos and neck-snapping riffs. This Fog of War set didn’t just bring back fond memories, it created some killer new ones too.
#12. Mpire of Evil – March 21st, Avalon Nightclub, Santa Clara CA: When I saw that Mpire of Evil were made up of ex-Venom members and that their name is a tribute to a Venom record that time has mostly forgotten, I didn’t give the band the chance they deserved. Then they went and melted my face off, and aurally bludgeoned a few other kids while they were at it. It didn’t matter to Mantas and Tony ‘Demolition Man’ Dolan that they were playing to a practically empty club, their sole intention was to give an absolutely blistering live set to those who had come to see them. Mantas was ten times the guitar hero he was as a youngster and having Tony shout the lyrics right in my face with true menace in his eyes was too cool. The Venom classics that this band played may have very well been definitive, and the then new material from Hell to the Holy stood tall against the likes of “Witching Hour” and “Black Metal”. We were only a couple dozen kids, but Mpire of Evil played before us like we were a packed house going wild. It’s hard to ask more out of a support act than that.
#11. Iron Maiden – August 3rd, Shoreline Amphitheater, Mountain View CA: Easily the largest attended heavy metal concert I have ever attended. The immensely friendly and communal vibe I experienced at this show would be enough to earn its position on this list, but the fact that it was an Iron Maiden show truly secures its spot. There isn’t a whole lot I can say about an Iron Maiden concert that hasn’t been said before. Bruce has lost just a little bit of bounce to his step and the band seems to play the songs a little slower than I remember, but Iron Maiden are going through middle-age with grace and majesty. It helps that this ‘Maiden England’ setlist ranks high among the band’s best. Had I not been buried in the deep recesses of the amphitheater lawn, this show would easily rank much higher on this list. As it stands though, Bruce Dickinson still is one of rock music’s greatest frontmen, and the band exhibits more energy and passion onstage than 90% of the acts out there, young or old.
#10. Cormorant – September 1st, Slim’s, San Francisco CA: Sheer perfection was the name of the game here. The sound at the consistently amazing Slim’s was flawless, showcasing the shocking accuracy with which Cormorant were executing their progressive black metal. The band played only four songs, but there was absolutely no magic lost between their records and the ensuing live performance. This time though, we could actually see the band nail their surprisingly complex parts. Guitarist Nick Cohon seemed to lose himself in his own world when he entered ‘guitar solo mode’ but that didn’t stop him from hitting every single note and bend perfectly. Matt Solis and Brennan Kunkel even pulled off their all-important clean vocals with apparent ease. The bar-hopper crowd at Slim’s at this night seemed completely unaware of the amazing music they were hearing, but Cormorant paid no attention to the crowd’s lack of interest, focusing on being as tight of a unit as possible. The four songs played were as good a representation of the band as a new fan could ask for, with then vocalist and bassist Arthur Von Nagel bringing newfound skill to the older tunes. Really, this set was all about stunning music being nailed in the live setting. No minute detail of these songs was left unchecked here, and its that utterly rare achievement of flawlessness that made this forty minute set one of the best of the year.
#9. Queensryche – November 24th, House of Blues, Hollywood CA: Before this show I had pretty much given up on Queensryche indefinitely. I wasn’t about to go and pay good money to see a supposed ‘heavy metal’ band play adult-contemporary-Euro-dance while looking bored out of their skulls onstage. Enter Todd La Torre. As soon as the guy wailed the opening scream to “Queen of the Reich” I realized that this show was going to kick ass. I never thought I’d wake up with a bangover after a Queensryche concert, but lo and behold my neck was sore the next morning. A full set of legit metal songs were played by this band- I mean who would have ever thought that I’d ever hear over half of The Warning not only played by Queensryche, but actually played well! This concert reminded of what an outstanding body of work Queensryche produced in the 80s and early 90s, and getting to hear that music performed with genuine passion (and hearing it sung with sheer capability and proficiency) was an absolute joy for me and the rest of the patrons of this sold out House of Blues. Todd was the source of an endless amount of jaw-dropping moments throughout the set, the best of which had to have been his downright ludicrous scream in the intro to “Take Hold of the Flame”. The band wisely laid off the long speeches and monologues with Todd only throwing in the occasional thanks and quick introductions for the songs and Scott Rockenfield doing the same after the encore break. The music did all the talking here, and luckily for Queensryche it was damn good music that chatted us up. If Queensryche can deliver in the studio like they delivered live at this show we may just witness heavy metal’s greatest comeback since Painkiller.
#8. Onslaught – March 21st, Avalon Nightclub, Santa Clara CA: Just like Mpire of Evil’s set on this same night, the 75 minutes from Onslaught truly felt special and intimate. There were maybe only a couple dozen people on the floor for this band, but Onslaught went and gave a world-class performance worthy of an audience of thousands. They even gave us an unplanned encore- a lesser band would have ended the night early and felt sorry for themselves for drawing such a small crowd. I hadn’t heard a note of Onslaught’s music before this night, but when Sy Keeler took the tiny stage and belted out the words ‘spitting blood in the face of God!’ I couldn’t help but go crazy. Nige Rockett and Andy Rosser-Davies’ insanely brutal guitar tone along with Sy’s venomous vocals added a rougher and more lethal edge to Onslaught’s eighties classics, and the new stuff turned out to be some of the most punishing modern thrash I had ever heard. Without having any prior knowledge of Onslaught’s material I somehow found myself singing ‘Kill in peace! Kill in war!’ with utter abandon. Hell, I even managed to mosh with only a handful of other crazy kids and still have an amazing time. For me, there wasn’t a show more personal than this one in 2012 and the music of Onslaught was the perfect thing to experience in that setting. It was a show just for us, played by true masters of thrash metal.
#7. Armored Saint – November 30th, House of Blues, Hollywood CA: Before this show I could say that I saw Armored Saint in 2010. After this show I can say I saw the Saint in 2012 and 1983. Well, it was the closest thing to Armored Saint in 1983 that I’ll ever get anyway. Seeing John Bush clad in a bleached denim vest with a full shock of curly brown hair while singing “Lesson Well Learned” was one of the most random yet amazing experiences I’ve ever had at a show- seeing John Bush bald and wearing a t-shirt and jeans while belting out “Reign of Fire” managed to be just as amazing. However, just like seemingly every Armored Saint show, this one felt unique. Hearing the band outdo Metallica with a cover of “Hit the Lights” with assistance from Amon Amarth’s Johan Hegg was about as badass as one might expect, and the other guests of the night made sure to offer some left-field contributions. Seriously, who would have ever expected Ray Alder to utterly kill on Slayer’s “Die By the Sword” of all songs? Armored Saint’s setlist was also as perfect as a die-hard fan like myself could ask for. The essentials were accounted for, but deep cuts like “Dropping Like Flies” and “Human Vulture” were what really made me happy throughout the set. Of course, John’s stunning performance was nothing to scoff at, nor was the badass swagger and confidence that Joey Vera, Phil Sandoval and Jeff Duncan brought to the stage. The guests made this concert a little more special, but that only reinforced the already stellar show that Armored Saint gave to this packed House of Blues.
#6. Vektor – September 2nd, Thee Parkside, San Francisco CA: ‘What’s up, we’re Vektor and we’ve come to melt your brains!’ was the opening line that David DiSanto uttered before he and his cohorts gave San Francisco a lesson in progressive thrash metal. Vektor really shouldn’t be this reliably incredible at such an early stage in their career. The band exuded a level of confidence and played with enough ability to show that this stellar performance was no fluke- it was merely the standard. Despite pulling from only two albums’ worth of material, Vektor gave us a full 90 minute headlining set and did a damn good job of it too. Every member of the band turned in note-perfect performances, but still managed to maneuver about their tiny stage. The fact that this hole-in-the-wall club was packed to the gills with rabid fans, a few of whom were fellow thrash musicians themselves, only intensified the jovial vibe that this entire show gave off. David DiSanto’s vocals were flawless for the whole set, and Erik Nelson refused to stop grinning whilst banging his head. Blake Anderson in turn seemed absolutely zoned in, with all of his focus on executing every one of his fills perfectly (dude was drenched when Vektor finally hopped off the stage). This is how a young band makes its mark on the metal world- world class music matched with world class live performances.
#5. Hellfire – September 14th, Slim’s, San Francisco CA: In the recent years I’ve spent in the Bay Area, this place has sadly been a pretty sorry place to catch a thrash or an old-school metal show. With a few notable exceptions, even the coolest lineups can hardly draw fifty people on a Friday night and many traditional metal bands have been forced to play bars for apathetic gatherings. With that in mind, imagine what a mind-blowing and astounding experience I had seeing Hell-Fire blow the roof off of Slims’, San Francisco’s greatest venue, to a feisty and deafening crowd of metalheads young and old. Hellfire’s music hit the perfect sweet spot between NWOBHM and thrash, and the band had to chops to pull the music off. Jon Mendle’s mind-boggling soloing was easily the most jawdropping feature of the set, prompting one extremely drunk patron to hail him as the second coming of Dave Murray. The guy may have been plastered, but his assertion probably wasn’t too far off. Alex Orozco’s mariachi-inspired wailing was also a unique element of Hellfire’s performance- Bruce Dickinson was hyperbolically dubbed “The Air-Raid Siren,” but I literally heard Alex make the sound of an air raid siren at this show. Seeing such an insanely talented young band with some genuinely kickass songs make so many folks go insane was one of the coolest moments I’ve ever experienced at a live show in the Bay Area, and having it be at my personal favorite venue was a hell of a bonus.
#4. Dr. Know – October 12th, Key Club, Hollywood CA: ‘I’d rather go in there and do a decimating hour, than be onstage for 90 minutes and have some of the lag’ is what Dr. Know mainman Kyle Toucher told Metal Assault earlier this year. A decimating hour is about as apt a description as it gets for Dr. Know’s set a few months back. Young ones flew about the floor like no tomorrow as this band went and showed everyone within earshot of the Key Club how to really play old school punk and crossover thrash. Dr. Know didn’t feature the sloppy endearing lack of musical ability that defined early punk though, Kyle and his partner Tim Harkins traded off solos with confidence and genuine skill. Kyle’s total command of the crowd was simply astounding and the band’s energy (a good deal of which has to be credited to the band’s killer young drummer, Mike Vega) breathed new life into the poorly recorded classics. I’m used to old punk veterans turning tired performances, but these guys ended up trouncing the other extremely talented bands on the bill with their sheer tightness and skill as a live unit. The first seconds of “God Told Me To” were enough to show that these old songs were finally being given a medium in which they could really shine and Kyle spat venom like he truly had something to prove to the kids at the Key Club. Dr. Know has never been a greater live band in their entire career, and they managed to undo over a decade of sub-standard shows and records within the span of only sixty minutes.
#3. Death Angel – October 19th, Whisky A Go-Go, Hollywood CA: For the last three years, Death Angel have been gaining a reputation as one of the fiercest and most deadly live thrash acts around. The lineup may be a bit different these days, but Death Angel circa 2012 are an outstanding live outfit and they performed The Ultra-Violence in its entirety with the instrumental tightness of grizzled road warriors but with the energy and enthusiasm of a band fresh out of their twenties. It helped that Death Angel offered a full second set where they got to showcase the rest of their catalog and even goof around for a bit (Mark Osegueda and Rob Cavestany’s banter about their original title of ‘the youngest band in thrash’ was admittedly pretty hilarious).. The sheer passion given off from the whole band fed right into the raging crowd- quite literally at one point when Ted Aguilar waltzed right into the center of a very active pit. Where other frontmen succeed with a towering and imposing stage presence, Mark won us over by constantly making eye contact and never stopping to engage the crowd. He made the set feel personal for every single one of us, and that’s a small detail that 90% of bands don’t even bother to consider. Death Angel was all business for the performance of The Ultra-Violence, so having them mess around and show us that they were having fun during the second set truly made the show feel like a complete experience. It had been almost a full year since I had seen Death Angel before this show, and I had nearly forgotten what a fantastic live band they were. After waking up with one of the gnarliest bangovers I’ve ever had, I won’t be making that mistake again any time soon.
#2. Exodus – February 4th, Oakland Metro, Oakland CA: Throughout the 1980s, the Bay Area had the greatest heavy metal scene in the world. Legendary bands, legendary albums, legendary venues and legendary turnouts were the standard in those days. This Exodus show, a tribute to their late frontman Paul Baloff, was the greatest celebration of that period of time one could possibly ask for. The older fans who were there for the original carnage reunited to celebrate their youth, and denim-clad youngsters were eager fly about the floor. This was as definitive gathering of Bay Area metal fans as it gets- Baloff’s soul eradicated the posers before they could make it through the door. Exodus is already one of the most brutal and punishing live acts in the game, but the band pulled out all the stops for this set. Songs from only the early years of the band made their appearance here and the guests hailed from that early era of Exodus as well. Rick Hunolt, Kirk Hammett and Jeff Andrews all joined the band to play songs both infamous (the entire Bonded by Blood album) and shockingly obscure (“Whipping Queen” from their 1982 demo). Gary Holt has always had one of the most menacing stage presences in thrash, this is the guy that managed to kick some life into Slayer last summer after all, so seeing him choke up as he told silly anecdotes about Paul Baloff was one of the more emotionally resonant experiences I’ve ever had as a metalhead. Not to mention, seeing the ‘H-Team’ reunited onstage playing songs from one of the greatest thrash metal albums ever was about as cool as it gets for this Exodus fan. This was one of the most joyous and happy concerts I’ve ever attended; not a single fan in the Metro wasn’t smiling, laughing or having a good time and Exodus managed to offer a performance to match that level of mirth.
#1. Death to All – June 22nd, Regency Ballroom, San Francisco CA: Words can’t do this event justice in any way, so bear with me here. This ‘Death to All’ tour was a live tribute to the music of Chuck Schuldiner, and there isn’t a single reasonable way it could have been better for those attending the Regency Ballroom on this night. This was over two hours of nothing but the greatest death metal music ever recorded, performed to perfection by not only the folks who played on the albums but also some true die-hard fans of the material. The chronological setlist was an amazing way of showing Chuck’s evolution as an artist- from his horror laced death-thrash beginnings to his monumental progressive metal albums, his genius was given the attention it truly deserved. The musicians on hand also turned in fantastic shows with drummer extraordinaire Gene Hoglan being let loose like a rabid dog in what had to have been one of the greatest drum performances I have ever seen. Being in the center of a perpetual pit along with a pile of other Death die-hards for “Flesh and the Power it Holds” was about as crazy as one could imagine, and seeing local hero Matt Harvey deliver the best performance of his career for “Crystal Mountain” was simply awe-inspiring. Really though, the high point of the night was the striking and beautiful performance of “Voice of the Soul” with black and white photos of Chuck showing in the background. It was easily the most gut-wrenching and emotional five minutes of live music I have ever heard. Those few minutes alone were enough to make this show the best of 2012, but the other couple hours of music were outstanding as well. Forget the financial drama that followed in the wake of this tour, objectively speaking this was one hell of a concert regardless of where our ticket money went. This concert had everything I look for in a heavy metal concert and then some, and I only hope that we will be lucky enough to see these ‘Death to All’ shows happen again in some form.