Thrash Veterans Onslaught Give Arena-Sized Show to Tiny Club Audience

By Avinash Mittur

March 21st 2012, The Avalon, Santa Clara CA: Some of you readers out there know that I often praise bay area thrash metal concerts. I am always happy to boast about packed houses for metal bands old and young, audiences made up of diverse backgrounds, ethnicities and ages, and a sense of camaraderie among strangers unlike any other location.

Well, this wasn’t one of those shows. Despite an insanely stacked lineup and a few hours of first class thrash metal, the bands on this bill played to only few dozen die hard fans, about a third of which was made up of myself and my friends. Despite this, every band at this show delivered stellar performances, and gave the fans that were smart enough to attend a show they’ll never forget.

First up was one of the bay’s best contributions to the modern day resurgence of thrash metal, Hatchet. After years of opening and headlining concerts all across the bay area, Hatchet have become an amazingly tight live act, and last night’s set was no exception. The band has been almost completely overhauled since the release of their debut album, Awaiting Evil, but the group is certainly better off for the changes. Primary songwriter, guitarist and singer Julz Ramos’ lightning solos were flawless as expected, and the man unleashed a thrash snarl that would make Mille Petrozza proud. His new partner in guitar duties, Clark Webb, ably held down rhythm guitar duties, and was given a great opportunity to shine with a killer solo during a new song, Signals of Infection. Bassist Travis Russey and drummer Eli Vogt did a great job of holding down the backline. Travis’s busy fleet-fingered basslines provided a fluid, yet solid bottom end while Eli’s furious beats relentlessly drove the songs forward. Just like the last time I saw the band live, Frozen Hell proved to the highlight of the set. There’s just something about those minor chord riffs and the harmonized instrumental chorus that gets my head moving every single time. Despite playing to only a handful of fans on the floor (and a couple of minor, if funny mishaps with Julz and Clark), Hatchet gave Santa Clara a solid 25 minutes of music and set the standard for the rest of the night.

Setlist:
1. Morlock’s Tomb
2. Silenced By Death
3. Frozen Hell
4. Attack Imminent
5. Signals of Infection

Second on the bill was one of Los Angeles’ best cult thrash acts, EvilDead. The band gave a performance worthy of their past reputation, albeit a far tighter one given their new level of musicianship and professionalism. The thirty minute set mainly focused on the band’s first record, The Annihilation of Civilization, but also featured a new song, Blasphemy Divine. Even though it would have been nice to hear a song or two from the band’s sophomore release, The Underworld, I can understand its exclusion from the set given that the only member of the present lineup that played on it was guitarist Juan Garcia. Regardless of that very minor issue though, the band still gave an amazingly fun performance. Vocalist Steve Nelson was more than happy to interact with the small number of fans in attendance; he even stuck the mic in one lucky fan’s face to let him announce the set closer, the title track to The Annihilation of Civilization. The entire set was a ton of fun. The first round of moshing began with EvilDead’s opener, The Awakening, and despite the pit’s small amount of bodies, we managed to have a great time. Everyone in EvilDead gave top notch performances, even if they weren’t the most active band on stage. The new track, Blasphemy Divine, sounded like a sign of good things to come for the band; the began at top speed and refused to let up until its end. Once again, Santa Clara was treated to a top notch thrash performance, but the best was still yet to come.

Setlist:
1. F.C.I./ The Awakening
2. Run Again
3. Blasphemy Divine
4. Gone Shooting
5. Parricide
6. Annihilation of Civilization

Next was Mpire of Evil, the newest project by ex-Venom axemen Tony “Demolition Man” Dolan and Jeff “Mantas” Dunn. I was looking forward to hearing some Venom classics as played by Mantas, but I was absolutely unprepared for the sheer aural havoc that the trio unleashed upon us. Mantas and Tony were total animals on stage, constantly running about and engaging the small, but enthusiastic audience. Thanks to a headset mic, Tony was able to run about and get up close to those at the front of the floor. Mantas meanwhile, entered total guitar hero mode and tore through the classic Venom riffs with a ferocity and technical ability that immensely exceeded the original studio versions. Tony’s voice was also phenomenal; it was frequently stronger than Cronos’ takes on the songs, yet still raspy enough to suit the songs well. The band’s replacement for Antton Lant, whose name I can’t seem to find anywhere, did a fine enough job throughout the set. His performances on the Venom songs were interesting to listen to- hearing a drummer who could actually keep time and play double bass drums well made the tracks sound infinitely better. It may have lacked the punk charm of the original versions, but the songs sounded so much tighter and heavier that it was worth it. Witching Hour in particular was an absolute blast to hear- I don’t think I’ll ever listen to a version of that song that surpasses Mpire of Evil’s take on it. The new songs from the band’s debut record, Hell to the Holy, were given a great reception by the small audience. An absolute scorcher of a track, Metal Messiah incited the most active pit of the whole night. That song in particular probably drew the largest applause out of the whole set. Although it would have been nice to hear some songs from the Dolan-era of Venom, the songs played were phenomenally played. At the end of Witching Hour, the audience immediately began chanting for one more song, a request that the band acquiesced to by playing the Venom classic, Black Metal. Shouting “lay down your soul to the gods’ rock and roll!” with about twenty to thirty true metal fans was an unadulterated delight. Mpire of Evil tore through one of my favorite sets of 2012, and it’ll be amazingly difficult for it to be topped any time soon.

Setlist:
1. Countess Bathory
2. Hell to the Holy
3. Die Hard
4. Metal Messiah
5. Leave Me in Hell
6. Hellspawn
7. Reptile
8. Witching Hour
Encore
9. Black Metal

Finally came the headliner, Onslaught. Coming from all the way across the Atlantic, the British thrash veterans played a damn good 75 minute set despite having to perform before an audience that was smaller than they deserved. Even the promoter came out before the set to apologize for the poor turnout. As unfortunate as the situation was, I couldn’t help but draw parallels to the Artie Fufkin record store scene from This is Spinal Tap. Luckily, Onslaught had a truly admirable attitude when it came to the turnout, and kicked their set off with the title track to their 2007 comeback record, Killing Peace. The band played with the confidence and professionalism of a group playing to an audience of thousands. Nearly every track had the kids in the front row tearing their necks apart, and small doses of moshing was a frequent occurrence. Vocalist Sy Keeler seemed to have a grin that just wouldn’t go away for the entire set; despite the disappointing turnout, he seemed to be having the time of his life. Throughout the set, Sy would tell thank us for coming out, and to tell our friends that they missed out on an awesome show. I couldn’t have imagined a better attitude the band could’ve had. It was truly nice to see a group of musicians who love performing before the people who love them, regardless of the quantity of those in attendance.

The entire set was a high octane rush. The band stuck to the neck-snappers in their catalog, but still managed to play a song from every album. The entire set was a blast, and even if the band’s energy didn’t quite match that of Mpire of Evil, the sheer aggression and brutality of Onslaught’s material more than made up for it. Bassist Jeff Williams, while not completely audible, was the most energetic of the four on stage and always encouraged the audience to scream and pumped their fists. Drummer Mic Hourihan, like Sy, seemed to have a smile etched into his face whilst having his arms fly about his kit like there was no tomorrow. Guitarists Nige Rockett and Andy Rosser-Davies possessed some of the heaviest thrash metal guitar tones I’ve heard (the closest I’ve seen to the razor sharp sound of Gary Holt and Lee Altus of Exodus), and the live riffs from the bands’ eighties albums sounded far more massive and bludgeoning than their original counterparts. While the full set was amazingly enjoyable, some of the highlights for me were Destroyer of Worlds, Burn, and Born For War. When Sy asked the audience to yell along with the chorus of Destroyer of Worlds, we more than happily obliged and yelled “kill in peace! kill in war!” with gleeful abandon. For my money, the newer material went over just as well as the older classics, if not even better. As the band finished the title track to their first album, Power from Hell, they said their goodbyes and began to walk offstage. It wasn’t long before we started chanted the band’s name though, and soon enough they returned for an encore that wasn’t written on their setlist. After tearing through the NWOBHM-style rocker, Thermonuclear Devastation, Onslaught finally said their last goodbye of the night.

Setlist:
1. Killing Peace
2. Born for War
3. Let There Be Death
4. Angels of Death
5. Destroyer of Worlds
6. Sounds of Violence
7. Metal Forces
8. Planting Seeds of Hate
9. Fight with the Beast
10. Godhead
11. Shellshock
12. Demoniac
13. Burn
14. Power from Hell
Encore
15. Thermonuclear Devastation

The promoter of the show perhaps described the night best when he told the audience to think of the show as an intimate performance just for us. It certainly felt that way, with only the bands’ most loyal fans in attendance and being close enough to high five everyone onstage. Every band played their hearts out despite the undeserving turnout, and those who were smart enough to attend were treated to a few hours of first rate thrash, all for only 15 dollars! Considering the super cheap ticket price, I have zero problems with the fact that Onslaught played for less than 90 minutes, unlike Deicide the night before who played for the same amount of time but charged nearly twice the price for their ticket. As much as I loved the fact that only myself and about thirty some odd people got to be a part of this amazing show, I genuinely hope the band receives a larger reception the next time they come by. Sy announced that the band would be back next year with yet another new album, I became massively excited. Needless to say, I will certainly be in attendance the next time Onslaught comes to town, but next time I’ll drag a few friends along for the ride.

Rating: 9.5/10

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