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Shout at the Devil: Lamb of God’s Randy Blythe (foreground).

Big-Time Sensibilities

By David King

Lamb of God, Killswitch Engage

Washington Avenue Armory, Dec. 2

There are no two bands who better represent what mainstream metal currently has to offer than Lamb of God and Killswitch Engage. A tour featuring the pair hearkens back to the days when Guns N’ Roses and Metallica co-headlined in ’92. Sure, neither band have yet captured the elements that made their forefathers so universally appealing, but they are getting there.

Killswitch Engage could easily play the Guns role. Featuring a love-obsessed lead singer with pipes to die for and an energetic stage presence that can draw in even the most jaded metal-head, Killswitch could write a hit single as sappy and epic as “November Rain” if they decided to drop the breakdowns and screaming. Unfortunately on Sunday the band had to soldier on with only a fraction of their normal vocal impact because lead singer Howard Jones “had the ‘hiv’ ”—or at least that’s how obnoxious, cape-bearing lead guitarist Adam Dutkiewicz described Jones’ condition, one that left Jones pointing the microphone to the crowd during more intensive vocal parts.

On CD, the Killswitch formula can induce seasickness, jumping quickly from sappy, overdramatic choruses to angry breakdowns with no middle ground, no slowdown, no ambivalence. Live, the formula is rousing. Set highlights included “My Curse,” the band’s slinky interpretation of New Orleans-style metal (a la Eyehategod, Soilent Green or Acid Bath), and the Meshuggah-aping wallop of “A Bid Farewell.” “Rose of Sharyn,” the band’s most mainstream effort drew a circle pit out of the rather pit-stingy crowd. Seeing the Armory split wide-open by sprinting, jubilant metalheads was worth the price of admission. The band could have, however, excised their set-ending cover of Dio’s “Holy Diver,” as the best part of the Killswitch version is the lead vocal, and on this night, Jones was simply unable to reach Dioesque heights.

If Killswitch are Guns N’ Roses, Lamb of God are the Metallica of their day. Shredding no-nonsense metal about war, politics and social issues, the band effectively have filled the spot in the average metalhead’s heart vacated by Pantera’s breakup, Metallica’s pussification and the revelation that Slipknot really were nü-metal after all.

But despite their metal canonization, Lamb have stagnated with their last few releases. Even their flirtation with a mainstream direction with their last album (Sacrament) felt rehashed. Similar-sounding breakdowns and lead-guitar lines make up their newer material, as if the band have started to eat themselves alive.

In a metal sense, there is something quintessential about the band’s biggest anthems—“Laid to Rest,” “Ruin,” “Now You’ve Got Something to Die For”—but the band are otherwise in a rut. After opening with their heavy hitters, Lamb of God’s set was simultaneously catchy and hideous thanks to Randy Blythe’s razor-thin, tattered scream/hiss. Lamb of God are at their best when they are being as ugly as possible. Mainstream metal sensibilities be damned, when Lamb of God finally tore into the big, threatening mess of a song “Black Label,” the crowd stopped looking intimidated by the rows of stacks that towered behind the band—who only a few years ago were playing tiny clubs—and threw down like they were moshing with old friends, like there was nothing left to lose.

Sing the Season

The Bobs

Caffé Lena, Dec. 1

A cappella means “from the chapel,” and often connotes a reverent approach to singing, even if the songs themselves are not. Barbershop quartets and other such groups often aspire to an aural blend in which the vowel sounds are perfectly matched among the singers, who also breathe in unison.

The Bobs, an instruments-free quartet who performed at Caffé Lena last Saturday, have no such blend. And there’s no doubt, after the program they presented, that they’d be kicked out of the chapel. But their four very distinctive voices go together the way an orchestra blends, making a virtue out of the contrasting sounds.

Bass Richard Greene has a molasses quality to his voice: sweet but persistent, and he sings with a jazzy edge. Amy Engelhardt’s voice can be brassy or gentle or even quasi-operatic, as in “Disappointment Pants,” an original Bobs song about, as they put it, “an imaginary spaghetti western.” She hits impressive high notes, while Dan Schumacher often cranks into a falsetto that goes higher still—when he’s not backing a song with astonishing percussion effects. So it was only natural that he was given the lead vocal in Oscar Brown, Jr.’s “But I Was Cool,” which has at the heart of its refrain a hip kind of keening.

Then there’s Matthew Stull, a Bobs co-founder (with Greene) who has an excellent vocal presence when singing lead, yet switches easily into backup when needed. He was particularly effective in “The Tight Pants Tango,” an ode to ringing-cellphone retrieval that’s featured on the group’s new CD, Get Your Monkey Off My Dog.

The Christmas program started brilliantly—literally, with “Fifty Kilowatt Tree,” a Greene-penned celebration of decorative excess. Other holiday songs peppered the show, some of them—“Christmas in L.A.,” “Yuleman vs. the Anti-Claus” among them—from their Too Many Santas CD. Awaiting recording are their rewrite of “Eight Days a Week,” an unexpectedly hilarious tribute to the flaming hanukiah, and a not-for-the-uptight speculation about the Virgin Mary’s reaction to an unexpected pregnancy (“How Did This Thing Get in Me?”)

Between-the-songs banter can be a highlight of a Bobs show, and this one was no exception. There’s usually some microphone choreography, as the singers reconfigure positions to accommodate the lead and backup requirements of the next number, along with a joke-laden introduction. What’s charming is how much they amuse one another, which can even overtake the song itself, as when the intro to “Christmas in Jail” sent the group into such paroxysms that they had to restart twice.

The Bobs have crafted songs about bumper stickers (“Kill Your Television”), cats (“Fluffy’s Master Plan for World Domination”) and even farting (“Vapor Carioca”), and it’s a treat to hear the catalogue grow. But it’s also fun to revisit the covers that they’ve made their own, starting with one of their first-ever recordings, “Helter Skelter,” enthusiastically re-created for the Caffé audience, and including a straightforward version of Kurt Weill’s “Moon of Alabama,” a madrigal styling, if you can believe it, of the Doors’s “Light My Fire,” and a high-spirited “White Room” with lead vocal by Schumacher, gentle refrains by Stull, and a holiday-themed voice-guitar solo by Engelhardt.

Sure, their stuff is virtuosic and funny and ingeniously arranged, but can they ever just settle down and sing? Sure: They gave us, as an encore, Vince Guaraldi’s “Christmas Time Is Here,” and it would have been the envy of the Hi-Lo’s or the Persuasions.

—B.A. Nilsson

The Man, the Machine

Hamell on Trial

Club Helsinki, Great Barrington, Mass., Nov. 30

For as long as Ed Hamell’s been out performing as Hamell on Trial, since the late 1980s, people whose opinions I highly respect having been telling me to go see him. And I have no good excuse for not having done it before last Friday. And now I realize I’ve lived a poorer life as a result.

Happily, the one-man Red Bull-chugging acousto-punk wrecking crew remains on top of his game. So much so that after seeing a recent New York performance, mondo-critic Robert Christgau went back, relistened to Hamell’s records, and announced that he’d underrated all of Hamell’s recorded output. I don’t think Bob does that often.

Alone on the stage, save a small stack of amplifiers pointed away from the audience (and at him), Hamell frantically skewered Bush, hypocrisy and bigotry; told funny and bittersweet stories; sang songs about his gritty former life in Syracuse (he now lives in Ossining, and is married to a college dean), drugs and pussy; and told some more stories about his 5-year-old son, along with some insanely tasteless and hysterical jokes. (Sample: “I went to the doctor and he told me I had to stop masturbating. I asked why and he said, ‘because I’m trying to examine you.’”)

Friday’s show was at least a partial run of his “theatrical” one-man show The Terrorism of Everyday Life, which was a huge hit at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in Scotland last summer, and which will be staged in New York City this spring. I don’t know what differentiates his one-man show from his regular gig, save perhaps a certain amount of refinement, and I say that in jest. Hamell’s too quick-on-the-draw, too immediate, too damn good in his natural state for much in the way of honing or even a whole lot of forethought.

There’s a calm center to Hamell, amid all the histrionics and machine-gun guitar work. You can see it in his eyes sometimes. It’s the look of someone who knows his mission, knows it’s important and right, and loves accomplishing it. And after all these years, he’s still nailing it, better and sharper and more ruthless and brutal and real than ever.

—Paul Rapp

Good Olde Days

Jethro Tull

Palace Theatre, Nov. 29

Once upon a time—37 years ago, to be exact— Jethro Tull could cut the mustard as one of the heavier English bands of the blues-rock persuasion, even claiming a pre-Sabbath Tony Iommi as a member for a short time. But Ian Anderson’s persona as the hopping-mad medieval flautist of rock eventually won out, and the crunch of early Tull gave way to airier, sword-and-sorcery-friendly folk-rock, custom-made for the Renaissance Faire set. Not that there’s anything wrong with that: To hear Anderson and company perform music dating back to the 16th century last Thursday night at a sold-out Palace Theater was downright refreshing. If you’re an Anglo-Saxon or a fan of any music derived thereof, it’s hard to get any rootsier than a song written by King Henry VIII.

Like most of their late-’60s rock brethren, Tull were born steeped in American blues, and Anderson started the night in this mode, taking the stage with harmonica in hand, longtime cohort guitarist Martin (Lancelot!) Barre at his side, for a version of their first album’s “Someday the Sun Won’t Shine for You.” Picking things up with the jaunty “Living in the Past,” Anderson started his signature Shiva-with-one-leg-raised dance thing, kicking, whooping and braying his way through what would be a series of impressive flute solos.

Things were pleasant if a little ho-hum until the introduction of the Calliandra String Quartet, four talented young musicians from the New England Conservatory of Music. Bawdily characterized by Anderson as his “ladies of the night,” the quartet brought a welcome depth and warmth to the sound: While technically stellar as musicians, the tones and textures of guitarist Barre and keyboardist John O’Hara were sometimes oversaturated with the tinny sound of digital processing.

While he’s only gotten better as an instrumentalist, Anderson seemed to be having quite a bit of trouble in the vocal department, forcing words out and often falling behind the beat, especially as the night drew toward its close. Accordingly, many of the older songs were transformed into instrumental medleys, marrying “Songs From the Wood” to “Heavy Horses,” and “Sossity, You’re a Woman” to Stand Up’s “Reasons for Waiting,” a particularly beautiful tune that has to be one of Anderson’s best.

The show reached its peak with a rendition of the first few parts of “Thick as a Brick.” One of Anderson’s undeniable triumphs, the song’s more frenetic moments made it obvious that this must have been where Rush got inspiration for some of their multi-chaptered opuses. A reworked “orchestral” version of “Aqualung” didn’t work quite as well, though one had to admire the band’s decision to freshen up what must be their hoariest standard. Before a version of Bernstein’s “America” (by way of Keith Emerson), Anderson seemed to insinuate that he was feeling the cold of his autumn days. It didn’t stop him from closing out with the rockers “Nothing is Easy” and “Locomotive Breath,” subverting the sentiment once spelled out in the title of one of Tull’s lesser albums: Too Old to Rock and Roll, Too Young to Die.

—Mike Hotter


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