LEGIONS OF METAL 2024 - Launching Pad: A Fistful Of Firsts!

May 10, 2024, 2 months ago

By Mark Gromen

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With their sixth edition of Chicago based Legions Of Metal, organizers Bob Byrne and Shane Merrill have solidified their niche within the growing domestic festival landscape: concentrate on providing younger bands (some with only one or two releases) with a chance to play in front of a large crowd, and then sprinkle in a few established acts. Not only were there several bands making their debut (or decades long return) in Chi-town, but a handful celebrated their initial foray into the USA, and in the case of Owlbear, their first live performance, ever! That said, such an "underground" aspect (i.e. acts most are unfamiliar with), the fans who attend Legions (particularly those traveling from outside the metro area) are some of the most ardent supporters of our music. 

True metal warriors who understand metal is more than the Big 4, Ozzy and the glories from the ‘80s. Lining the coffers of multi-millionaires (or those that have lost a fortune and are looking for a second bite of the apple) does nothing to advance the scene. As a matter of fact, can make a case that the last few dollars spent to prop up Motley Leppard Jett (and the ilk), for one more tour (or a few more years) comes at the expense of fledgling acts, whose very existence is threatened by a mere portion of those same funds. Hats off for keeping the lifeblood of the scene (live shows) vibrant, while planting the seeds for the future. Will all these bands survive and thrive. Would be great to think so, but realistically, no. Yet, Legions Of Metal (and like-minded events cropping up across North America) gives them all an equal chance, in front of a rabid crowd (willing to spend money on merch!) at a top flight club.

Hosted at Reggies, a long running venue that supports all styles of music, there are two stages. The main room is accessible only with a Legions ticket, but the smaller, "Joint" stage, is amongst the tables, in the bar's eating area. It is open to the general (non-paying) public throughout the weekend. Thus, it's possible to see five or six bands, each day, without being part of the festival. Everyone seems happy with the arrangement, as 2024 was a complete sell-out, regardless. 

Traveling to the Lower 48, for the first time, Canada's Lycanthro were happy to make their American debut. Singer James Delbridge wore sunglasses and a cowl, as he played guitar, center stage. Rookie mistake, opening with a brooding, mellower cut, that eventually took off, but that all important, initial impact was missed. Something akin to the hard charging "In Metal We Trust" (any more apt introduction?), which followed, would hold them in greater steed, moving forward.  By the second song, Delbridge had removed the hood. He got the early arrivals to offer a brief call & response segment for the aforementioned metallic anthem. The guys lean on one another and play off each other, like a seasoned live act. By "Mark Of The Wolf", the shades were tossed aside. Due to time overlaps, missed the finale, when Shield of Wings (one of last year's "discoveries") singer Lara Mordian joined them onstage. The intention is always to attempt to see at least a portion of every band, but life sometimes gets in the way: eat, drink, talk (with friends, bands, fans, merch people, etc.). Lycanthro came, they saw, they conquered. Off to a good start!

Next up, Cleveland friends Olathia, fronted by Chris Emig. Most of those taking the stage are afforded 40 minutes. Direct support to the headliner gets an hour. Olathia used their time wisely, pulling out the big tunes, as well as a couple off the new The Forest Witch CD (including the thrashy title cut). Opener, "Snake Charmer" was a shot across the bow to those that were unfamiliar with the band, making that "statement" mentioned earlier. The sound is gritty, especially for a one guitar outfit, but subtleties still shine through, although newbie "Who's The Devil" temporarily steers into screaming vocals/black metal territory. During "Shotgun", Chris fist bumps those pressed against the stage. "Hellhound" is still the calling card and seems several in attendance were familiar with this chestnut. A few more are, now. They end with a robust rendition of Savatage's "Hall Of The Mountain King", aided (? Debatable!) by myself and Kit Ekman, on the high pitched, Olivia accents. Thanks guys. Good to see you again. More traveling (overseas?) seems destined for Olathia.

OK, time for another debut, Owlbear playing their first show, ever! One of the biggest crowds of the night, would have understood if the band looked/acted unsure, or had momentary lapse/pauses, between songs, but you'd never had known this was the Boston outfit's maiden voyage. "Believe it or not, a bunch of D&D nerds do not get out of the house much!" Began with "The Night Below" and then speedy twin lead ending "Bastard Sons" to great applause. High pitched vocalist Katy Scary needs a little more work on stage raps, jokingly referencing the Dungeons & Dragons origins that coined the band moniker is cool, but blatantly admitting ignorance to the lyrical content elsewhere, or selling folky pirate metal "The Voyage Of The Wraith" short, is probably not in the band's best long term interest, no matter how heartfelt the sentiment. Claimed it was only the fourth time Katy and guitarist Jeff Taft had been in the same room. Continuing the decent into the gamer realm, there's the catchy Final Fantasy inspired "Fiend Of Fire". Chaos Of the Realm title track was dedicated "to what's going on at Columbia University (see: D&D parlance, "murder hobo"). The storming, guitar driven gallop of "Steel At My Side" was the highlight. The two guitars got together, center stage, along with bass, on "Cult Of The Serpent". Feel most who witnessed this impressive performance would agree, Owlbear are on to something and certainly have brighter days ahead. Check 'em out.

If there was one band I needed to see this weekend, it was Tower Hill. Unlike many of the others on the bill, was already invested. Had favorably reviewed them (going back to the Fighting Spirits demo) even before they were announced at Legions. This their first US gig, was my first chance to witness the music live and a not-to-be-missed moment. Andrew "R. F." Traynor is an imposing figure, the singer center stage, bandanna around the head, in shades as the two guitar, Canuck quintet opened with "Port Of Saints". Lots of hammer-ons in spirited, high energy traditional metal. Later, he'd reference lunch (where we met, by circumstance), saying, "I ate deep dish. I think I ate my weight, which is a lot of pizza!" Cue the red lit, somewhat thrashy "Kings Who Die". There's some high pitched, occasional falsetto and Traynor possesses a similar, trilling timbre to ‘80s Lizzy Borden. Blue lit "Deathstalker" showcases more outstanding vocal range, with guitars and bass interchanging, alongside Traynor, at the foot of the stage, depending upon the verse. The very Iron Maiden sounding "All The Little Devils Are Proud Of Hell" is a noticeable departure from the rest of the set, which concluded with old school "Antigone" and an over the top "The Claw Is The Law". Love it when a band lives up (or even exceeds) your expectations. European ready, enjoy the ride guys. Remember that name, Tower Hill.

Spent less time in the Joint bar. Only caught "The Immortal Sons", from Perennial Quest and shot some photos of the frenetic, red bedecked Dyspläcer, (singer with reflective ski goggles), performing under hyperbolic pseudonyms. Seattle based Greyhawk have seemingly been at every festival in the last year or so, and that was before they issued the Thunderheart album (released just a month ago). Strategy seems to be working, as a good percentage of the audience was familiar with the Greyhawk songbook. Chugging "Spellstone" begins things. Rev Taylor, brandishing a green/blue orb, wore his tradition monk's cowl, to start, but much of the show he was just in a tank top. Seamlessly morphs into "Steelbound", which sees the crowd, in unison, roar back with the "This I swear" chorus. "Frozen Star" followed. An extended, call & response segment with the crowd on "Rock N Roll City", then some "whoa whoa" moments for the new title track. Blue lit "The Golden Candle" starts almost a cappella. Stage fog and a short drum solo for "Ride Out". Rev brought out the multi-color changing orb again (originally orange) for their upbeat "Don't Wait For The Wizard" finale. Good stuff and proof quality songs and constant touring/appearances is still a way to create a profile, Stateside. 

Striker were the most brightly attired outfit, all weekend, in Day-Glo colors. No black shirts for these Canadians. Compared to the bassist and guitar player, even frontman Dan Cleary was understated. Hard to believe this is the same group that toured with Bewitcher and Holy Grail, pre-pandemic. Guess the illness had a more devastating effect than we knew! Their first album since, Ultrapower is a markedly different sound and the boys were all in early. Seven of those eleven cuts were aired, all in the first half of the set, opening with the same pair that kicks off the disc, video single "Circle Of Evil" and the tongue-in-cheek entitled "Best Of The Best Of The Best". Otherwise it was mostly singles/video tracks, the band apparently looking for a new, younger demographic. Backwards ball cap wearing bassist Pete Klassen sported a sleeveless yellow shirt in praise of new song "Sucks To Suck", which was aired too. Cleary claimed "The Front" was inspired by Judas Priest's "Turbo". Easy to hear why. 

Speaking of a younger demographic, between North American tours and high profile festival slots, Unleash The Archers are certainly on the upswing. Brittney Slayes is a genuine frontwoman and it translates to the fans, from the stage. Initially, it was four straight Abyss tunes, beginning with the titular cut. After taking the opening notes up an octave or two, Slayes punctuates "Soulbound" with a kick. Even without the perpetual smile on her face, it was obvious she was having fun, as were those pressing close to the stage (no barricade at Reggies). The band was poised to release their artificial intelligence themed concept album, Phantoma (a week later), but that didn't prevent them from playing a couple of (previously available, via Bandcamp) tracks, like "Ghosts In The Mist" and the onstage debut of "Green & Glass". Lit in red (probably for the last time, as undoubtedly their own lighting rig will, unlike Legions, possess a green filter), it features some harsh, death-like vocal accents from guitarist Grant Truesdell. 

Foggy blue stage, for traditional minded "Awakening", is pierced by repeated bursts of strobes, and then Hayes' (aka Slayes') wail, as she pirouettes behind the musicians. Throughout this and others, she shakes her hair, air guitars and playfully mugs to the crowd. They return for an encore, with "Carry The Flame". Beforehand, Brittney expressed her hope that fans could initially experience the upcoming album in its entirety. The Archers are serious musicians, but never take themselves too seriously. That laidback approach seems to be winning fans over, in droves. Band will be back in the States, this September, opening for Powerwolf. If you haven't seen them yet, there's another opportunity.

DAY 2
Beginning at 3:30 provides a couple extra hours, on Saturday, but with significant portions of the bands (on opposing stages) overlapping set times. Rough start, especially with Midnight Vice's singer coming up "sick" and their set rescheduled (albeit reduced to just 25 minutes, on the smaller "Joint" stage) prior to WatchTower's festival ending, headlining slot. The day commences with the Windy City's own Fer De Lance, a two guitar foursome who have recorded for the Cruz Del Sur label and plan to have material on the way, airing a pair of new songs today. "City In The Sea", off the debut Ep was up early. Lot of open chord strumming that suddenly becomes a fleet fingered flourish. Of the forthcoming tracks, "Children Of Sky & Sea" followed much the same pattern, until midway through, when it briefly veered toward folk metal, before finishing strong. Promoted to be "heavier," red lit "Ravens" saw frontman/guitarist MP Papai ditch the sunglasses, as it began as a janglier cut. After the rescheduling lull, Devolution (a two guitar foursome) featuring some old-timers, alongside a younger drummer, hammered out Bay area inspired thrash. 

Mean Mistreater, out of Austin, TX were the day's first bright spot. Coincidentally (?) to this point, attendance was sparse. The rooftop patio/bar/restaurant, usually a hub of pre-game activity, was nearly empty for a few hours beforehand. Yesterday, there was a line, waiting to get into Reggies, before doors opened (on a work day!) The five, female fronted Texans are proved to be a long haired, chest tattooed pair of shirtless guitarists; down & dirty, no frills rock n rollers. Brash, in-you-face, no hold barred, like an early/dangerous version of GN’R, only more metallic, less concerned about pretense. The high energy, crunchy riffs of "Visions" and the title track off Razor Wire are but two examples of what they do best. Despite the sweat and spit dripping onto those in the front, Janiece Gonzalez is at the foot of stage, leading the charge. Bouncy single "Bleeding The Nights" is still aggressive, as it's pretty much four bodies aligned across the stage throughout the set. They end with a red lit "Waiting To Die". Shit kicking, head banging music to have a few beers and enjoy, on a Saturday night, regardless of your locale. Highly recommended, for a live night out.

Speaking of the Lone Star state, Night Cobra feature the head of Hell's Heroes, Christian Larson, in one of his other guises (he also fronts Necrofier). He wears a knee length, black cassock and his mic is embedded in the shape of their namesake serpent. Plenty of energy, onstage and off, as a two-man circle pit, in the crowd, entices a couple of additional participants. To Larson's right, and seemingly out of place, stylistically, is a younger, shredding guitarist/seeming Yngwie Malmsteen protégé, Brandon Barger.  When he's not climbing atop the wedge monitor, center stage, he bends down to the crowd, Flying V braced against his thigh and makes it all appear so effortless. Stage left appears to be a punked out Nick Cage on guitar (aka Bill Fool). Despite his shaman-esque presence, Larson is a pinwheel of motion, back n forth, side-to-side. His rapid fire, non-stop delivery carries over to the music, never bothering to introduce the next song. Tunes like "Chain Of The Beast", "The Serpent's Kiss" and "For Those Who Walk The Night" fly by, in the blaze of Barger's fingertips.

Viperwitch, out of Denver, also have a woman at the helm, Danica "Lynx the Huntress" Minor, on guitar and vocals. She's had the band for almost a decade and pre-pandemic was the US entry in the annual Wacken Battle. After some technical issues (in-ear monitor set-up) caused a 20 minute delay getting started, the band were finally ready to rock, first deploying "Hellbound”. The band's debut, Witch Hunt: Road To Vengeance was supposed to be available, May 1st, via Stormspell. The pink hued signature tune offers no let-up and video track, "Huntress" (music set to visuals from the Red Sonja film) is more of the same; loud screaming NWOTHM (post-apocalyptic style, according to the band). Tidbit, for bigger rooms/more distant audiences: from afar, Minor's sparkly make-up makes it look like she's wearing eyeglasses. Close-up, in a club, no problem. "She Wolves Of The Wasteland" continue the onslaught, although with a bit of subtlety. The late start meant I wasn't around for the end, but were scheduled to conclude with a cover of W.A.S.P.'s "Wild Child". 

Caught a bit of Mourn The Light, before moving on to the big room. A Connecticut based sextet, with two guitars, plus keyboards, the Mourns are the closest Legions had to doom metal, this year. The more restrained "We Are The Night" comes off a split with three other acts, including the female fronted Ice Howl ("Snowfire"), who played a few hours earlier. On the main stage, Dawnbringer is one of Prof. Chris Black's non-High Spirits incarnations. As such, they don't play out often (despite four domestic festival appearances, this year, in a few months). Disseminating a lot of notes, in a little time, the sound is a mix of traditional minded vocals and early black metal influences. "Into The Maze" was aired early. In fact, at times, Black's voice reminds one of Volbeat's Michael Poulsen. Gruff intonations, as on "There And Back" are provided by the guitarist. "Into The Lair Of The Sun God" was dedicated to the "glory of heavy metal," while "North By North" (with "woah woah" vocal) featured some synchronized stage moves, Black and guitarist raising axes vertically, at the same time. Not sure when they'll reappear again, so keep your eyes peeled.

Leather Duchess brought a little retro LA, to Chicago. Not really glammy, but shirtless/bespectacled singer Tyler Heath was proud of his red, fringed, hip hugger leather pants (made by his girlfriend). He's got a look, but none of his bandmates have bought into the image. Onstage, he employs a yelping, high pitched register, as well as an Axel Rose shimmy, around the stage. "White Leather", the stand-alone single from the Fatal Moon CD (their most recent, dating back to late '22) was showcased, as was "Fortune Favors The Bold", from the same disc.

On a dark stage, accented in red, sirens blare to herald the arrival of Hirax, tearing into the aptly named "Hellion Rising". Katon de Pena is an OG headbanger, dating back to the Bay Area scene, although he threw in his lot with a more punk/crossover sound. Don't know if his "hairy" guitarist would have cut it, back in the day, but today, it's all about the music. Of his own musical tastes, de Pena opined, "As long as it has integrity, doesn't matter what genre it is." Tonight, he was on fire, slapping hands/fist bumping fans, down front, telling jokes, relating entertaining anecdotes and giving a shout out to early ‘80s Chi-town acts Znowhite and Zeoptrope. "With a Z in front. If you don't know them, go home and Google it."

The songs flash by, literally, in less than two or three minutes, for most. "Warlords Command" is up early. Prior to "The Plague". Katon jokingly recalls the surprise of Metal Blade offering them a chance to record a second album, "Fools! Thank you Brian (Slagel)." Continuing, he suggested new bands make a demo and, "Give it to your most fucked up friend. They will shove it up someone's ass. Someone put it up Brian Slagel's and here we are (almost 40 years later)!" Needless to say a circle pit (re)appeared, multiple times, without prompting. "Faster Than Death", the title track off the forthcoming album, begins with a trip around the drum kit. 

"Lightning Thunder", "Raging Violence", "El Diablo Negro", it's a mix of the expected, as well as deep cuts. Katon jumps off the rum riser, headbangs and spits out the incessant lyrics, at hyper-speed, occasionally punctuated by an F-bomb, for emphasis. Prior to the vicious "Bombs Of Death" finale, Katon indirectly invited people to stage dive, warning folks to hold on to those high priced beers. A circle pit instantly reforms and a few intrepid youngsters heed the call and leap off the stage, but there wasn't enough of a cushion, to catch them. As the last notes are bashed out, de Pena takes a brief, appreciative ride on the crowd. All together as one, Hirax and the fans.

Midnight Vice are young guys who get the classic vibe, yelping singer Tyler Gray with a bullet belt. "Strike In The Night" and "Baptized By Fire" are aces dealt to the crowd. Seems the lighting guy left the red/pink gels on and went home as there's no real "light show" to speak of, but the Floridians are undeterred. A cover of Judas Priest's "Sentinel", while unwarranted (showcase your music to a new audience, maybe they'll buy a CD, or shirt. Did you ever, in your life think, “What was a great cover version of _____! I've got to buy a shirt from that band?") Glad the organizers went out of their way to give Midnight Vice a second chance.

Always been a fan of Energetic Disassembly, was a pen pal with bassist Doug Keyser (in the early ‘90s) and saw WatchTower a couple of times with Alan Tecchio, but never with Jason McMaster. They played Hell's Heroes a couple of months earlier, but I was busy talking to others, during the entire set. No way was I going miss THIS opportunity. The technical dexterity, at the speed they play, especially guitarist Ron Jarzombek (Man, could you imagine the wild band he and his brother, Bobby, could put together?) is nothing short of amazing! In the years since its initial release, the metal world has heard the mind-bending likes of Atheist, Dream Theater, Primus and Meshuggah all tempering the "weirdness" of WatchTower. Actually, throughout the night, McMaster served as something of an onstage apologist/translator, reassuring fans that what they were listening to was "different" as well as explaining some of the impetus, or how they ended up orbiting Venus, rather than constructing conventional melodic tunes: "We will play as many notes as we can, as fast as we can, while we flail around, like fools."

All eight songs off the debut were aired, as well as half of Control And Resistance, opening with "Asylum". During "The Eldritch". The singer points to Keyser and Jarzombek, as each take a solo. Keyser didn't really "perfect" his current stage antics until stepping away from WatchTower, when he played in a poncho and sombrero, as part of Retarded Elf. Tonight he wore a vintage, open chest 7-ll employee kimono, hair tied back in a short ponytail. "Cimmerian Shadows" is followed by "Instruments Of Random Murder", while Jarzombek starts "Argonne Forest". Jason called them "weirdo metal. When we were in high school, writing songs, we didn't care if you guys would like it, 40 years later, but thank you." The bassist and guitarist begin "Energetic Disassembly" together, center stage. "Control And Resistance" sees the pair dabble a couple of notes, then completely go off! Pulsating lights only add to the schizoid effect. While the band plays, Jason, tongue waggling, arms flailing, mimes people perception of the sonic incongruity. At times, the "singer" is needed solely for screaming, no lyrics. 

What many don't understand, is the intelligence behind the lyrics, often social/political commentary (especially under the shadow of the Cold War). Some may say the CCCP/Cold War ethos of that era belongs in the history books, but I disagree. "Social Fears" see more Keyser circuits around the stage and McMaster's tongue-in-cheek sabotaging of the show. "The Fall Of Reason" showcases a Jarzombek run, speed tapping and a crazy pattern. How do they know when they hit a wrong note? Do they? "Tyrants In Distress" sees Jason repeatedly shrieking the word "tyrants". During proper set ending "Meltdown", the singer snatches a cellphone from a fan's hand, takes it around the stage, including a close-up of the bassist, and then returns it. That's some exclusive footage, for one lucky soul. For an encore, they opt for another band that was once seen as radically left of center, Rush, covering "By-Tor & The Snow Dog". Wild!

So another Legions Of Metal festival is in the books. Plans are already afoot for next year. Maybe BraveWords will see you there!

More Legions Of Metal 2024 coverage:
Day 1
Day 2

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