by Joseph Tingle
On September 22nd, the Epic Kings & Idols Tour arrived in Philadelphia, marking the antepenultimate date of the festival tour featuring avant-garde sophomores Stolen Babies, heavy metal veterans Paradise Lost, doom legends Katatonia, and the bizarre, indescribable Devin Townsend Project. With bands hailing from the United States, Great Britain, Sweden, and Canada respectively, the Epic Kings & Idols show was a rare chance for the Greater Philadelphia Area audience to witness some of the world’s most renown heavy metal performers in an up-close and intimate setting provided by the Theater of Living Arts.
Stolen Babies opened the show with a unique aggression that was one part Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, one part Diablo Swing Orchestra, and one part Emilie Autumn. Vocalist and accordionist Dominique Lenore Persi, always the central figure, can screech and scream with the best black metal vocalists. But she can also play her accordion on and, in an instant, transform her show into a Gothic Cabaret performance. And that’s exactly what happened when bassist Rani Sharone put down his electric guitar in favor for a humongous red double bass. Ultimately, as an opening act Stolen Babies did not have much time to perform. But their individuality and competence playing a variety of styles resonated well with the Epic Kings & Idols audience; and if the job of an opening band is to get everyone pumped for the main acts, Stolen Babies could not have done it better.
Up next were Paradise Lost, who’ve enjoyed a long-standing reputation as heavy metal legends and pioneers of the gothic metal genre, especially for their breakaway albums Icon (1993) and Draconian Times (1995). Opening the show with the always-popular “Enchantment” from the latter record, and playing several others from the rest of their discography (including Tragic Idols, largely considered to be a “return to form” for the band by critics), Paradise Lost did not disappoint the sector of the audience that had come to see them– or anyone else, for that matter. While poor mixing (something that would become the one tragic flaw of the Epic Kings & Idols show) may have sucked some energy from the Paradise Lost set during the first few songs, it was not long before Paradise Lost were chugging along with the audience completely rallied behind them.
Katatonia and Devin Townsend Project were the headlining acts. While the two bands have– or had– been alternating the headlining spot, Devin would close the Philly show and– apparently– had closed almost every show since the first couple dates. That left Katatonia to perform second-to-last. Initially, I had reservations about what Katatonia’s live performance would be like. Having developed into what can be aptly described as an “alternative” doom metal band, Katatonia have a habit of taking their listeners on melancholic dirges into “greyness”– something that might work in the studio, but what about live? Regardless, Katatonia completely owned that style, and performed it with an energy and heaviness I was not expecting from the downtrodden soundscapes I’ve heard on their studio records. Vocalist Jonas Renkse delivered his lyrics in a pronounced and emotive way, which resonated with even unseasoned members of the audience. And the live arrangements of songs genuinely gave the impression that new life had been breathed into them: performances of “My Twin” and “The Racing Heart”, for example, rivaled their studio counterparts in terms of vitality and power. The highlight of the set, however, was a song from this year’s new record Dead End Kings. “Lethean” left myself, everyone standing beside me, and probably the entire audience in a collective gasp. With that single performance, Katatonia owned their set and possibly the entire evening.
That leaves Devin Townsend Project. Known for his bizarre antics and Frank Zappa-esque attitude towards heavy metal, Devin did not disappoint, going so far as to treat the audience to ridiculous YouTube videos, children’s songs, and a hilarious slideshow during stage set-up. When Devin did finally begin, some 30 minutes later, he came with balloons– normal and penis-shaped– for everyone to knock around. With a massive 14 album discography (not included b-sides and Strapping Young Lad material) and only about 70 minutes to perform, much of Devin’s best material (like anything from Terria, Ziltoid the Omniscient, and Ghost) went unplayed. Still, new material and old fan favorites were performed alike. “Supercrush!” from Addicted (2009) opened the show, and “Grace”, the best song from Devin’s new record Epicloud (2012), served as the feel-good closer for the night. Though the absence of the myriad of guests performers Devin’s been known to work with, like Anneke Van Giersbergen and Between the Buried and Me’s Tommy Rogers, left a void in many of the performances, Devin’s energy and classy showmanship made up for it; and their absence was duly acknowledged: Devin constantly referred to the “ghost Anneke” before her parts and, during the performance of “Planet of the Apes” from Deconstruction (2009), a Muppet version of Tommy appeared, delivering supplementary vocals from a projector behind the band.
If there’s one bad thing to say about the Epic Kings & Idols show, it’s the shaky sound-quality often marred good performances. With four bands and little means to thoroughly sound check, the soundboard crew often took a song or two to get a comfortable mix going. Paradise Lost, for example, gave a great performance of “Enchanted” that was almost ruined by vocals that were just way too dry, and high in the mix. Katatonia’s opening song, “Dead Letters”, sounded like a muddy mess. And when Devin began chugging the ever-important opening chords of “Supercrush!”, almost no-sound at all came out of the speakers. It’s unfortunate that all of these soundboard mistakes were made at the beginning of the performances, when maintaining a high energy level is most important. And it’s strange that towards the end of the tour, the performers mixes still hasn’t been perfected. But even if these mistakes were consistent, they were all corrected, and fans of heavy metal were still given a chance to see quality performances from legendary bands who don’t tour this side of the world as often as they do Europe, where there’s more of a demand for experimental heavy metal shows.