LEGIONS OF METAL FESTIVAL - Heavy Metal (Time) Machine!

May 20, 2022, a month ago

By Mark Gromen

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If there's any sort of silver lining to the 2+ year Covid pandemic/shutdown, it's that I've had the desire to discover domestic metal events that otherwise would have gone unattended (had my dance card been filled with the usual suspects), neither time (especially during the school year), nor money, in infinite supply (despite the perceived overflowing BraveWords coffers)! Case in point, the die-hard/boutique Legions Of Metal confab, in Chicago. Rising from the ashes of the like-minded Ragnarokkr Metal Apocalypse, the two-day show borrows a European blueprint, in that it caters to burgeoning bands with an old school (traditional/NWOTHM) bent, as well as a couple of the classic acts that are "still alive & well." As such, events like Legions serve a vital purpose. While many fans just want to see the biggest acts, on tour, the lifeblood of heavy metal has always been discovering new bands, in small clubs, replenishing the underground's insatiable need for (if not new sounds) exciting new faces/names. While most of those outfits can't physically/fiscally undertake a cross-country trek (let alone international jaunt), showcases like Legions Of Metal allow the faithful to meet, learn, get turned on and ultimately, spread the word! Essential!  

Reggie's, in the McCormick Place neighborhood (just outside of Chinatown) is an old school, rock ‘n’ roll bar: graffiti and band stickers plastered in the bathrooms and bar staff who will do shots while working (with patrons, as well as co-workers). Three rooms, including the rooftop bar, plenty of space to rock out! The main room is a brick enclave, with slanted cement floor (so everyone is not at the same level). There's also a small balcony, this weekend housing merch and a few vendors. Apparently from some previous incarnation, the room has a sewer grate/manhole squarely in the middle of the stage! Makes clean-up easier. Just ask promoter Bob Byrne, seen sweeping the remnants of Nasty Savage's set, into the void, post-gig. The stage rises about 3.5 feet and there were about 30 lighting cans, including motorized, robotic ones, illuminating the deck, although the LD (unfortunately) had a proclivity for basic red. A small, booth lined hallway connects the adjoining venues, and from there, most bands set up their stalls, with shirts, patches/pins, CDs, etc. The smaller room/stage is a typical bar set-up, complete with table & chairs. In fact, it (like the roof-top oasis) remain open to non-festival going patrons, throughout the weekend. Thus, it's possible to see half the bands without paying anything!

Big stage or small, only the biggest bands get more than 40 minutes, 75 minutes for each night's headliner. Everyone's anxious to get things started, and as such Prehistoria, the first band up, garners early attendee’s full attention. Several members were part of Zephaniah, an Indiana based act who showcased speedy, technical playing. The current outfit has a more aggressive, power metal/proto-thrash approach. Chilean born singer Alonso Zo Donoso worked the crowd. When not belting out piercing highs, he'd wave/thrust the inverted the mic stand as a prop and move around the stage, as opposed to his generally static bandmates. That said, they were heads down, lots of flailing hair, including the bearded, John Kalodner-looking bassist. It was, however, just their first live show. At one point, the singer had the crowd Facetime his daughter. Announced as a new track (aren't they all, to most of us, apart from the 3-song Ep for sale?), "Sudden Death" sees the two guitarists together, center stage. There was also some attempted synchronized stage movements. The "Cursed Lands" finale was ambitious, beginning slowly, building, before eventually taking off. Acquitted themselves well, would definitely check them out again.

The movement between the two rooms is effortless, but does create more meet & greet opportunities (fans, friends, bands, and strangers) than merely being camped out in one spot, all show. Thus, intentions of seeing all/parts of certain bands may get interrupted. So, before the complaints: "Can't believe you didn't see/enjoy Band XY," it was never in the cards to see every/all bands. Sorry, not everyone's tastes/convictions are the same, unless you're a sycophant. Then how much does your opinion count? For some acts, there was just a passing curiosity. Others, a burning desire to check them out and a couple, nothing beyond a cursory look, to just time. Necrofier, one of the bands fronted by Hell's Heroes organizer Christian Larson, churned out some blackened death & roll to christen the small, so-called Joint stage. Meanwhile, Michigan's three guitar quintet, Prelude To Ruin, offered some rollicking power metal. Still in their concert infancy (another onstage debut), the band lacked a cohesive look (looking like arrival at band practice, all members in jeans & various old school t-shirts). Announcing "Dreams (Won't Fade)", the singer quipped, "I won't tell you what it's about, 'cause I don't fucking know either." Under the right circumstances (like your own show), that can come off as funny. To people that aren't necessarily aware of your material (like a mixed festival crowd), probably better to opt for different stage banter. Musically, lots of none-to-easy, speedy fretboard stuff.

Baretta, from Seattle, are a lone guitar foursome, offering hard rock/proto-metal with a groove and plenty of ride cymbal. The shirtless, bald namesake frontman Max Beretta providing a visual dichotomy to long haired, headband wearing guitarist Myles Kent. Drummer Sweet n' Sweaty Ricky J (don't know about sweet, but everyone was feeling the heat in the Joint) stood to introduce "Life On The Wire". High energy rockers. Ran into Jag Panzer guitarist Mark Briody, in town for a metallic respite from the studio, where he's waiting for Harry "The Tyrant" Conklin to add his vocals to a record that's currently homeless. They have an offer to re-up their existing contract with Steamhammer, as well as a couple of other players. The artwork, by the same artist they've been using, looks killer, a wintry scene with snow-covered warrior. No final product before next year.

Despite playing the tiny stage, Greyhawk brought one of the more elaborate (relative term) stage shows of the weekend. Not content to merely entertain with the music, which was enjoyable by itself (epic power metal). To begin "Call Of The Hawk" opener, bearded frontman Rev Taylor opened a book, whose pages illuminated. It was not the first light-up prop in the set. "Steelbound" was an early favorite, crowd adding to the "This I swear" lyric. Well tattooed guitarist Jacquelynn Ziel (in Halford tee!) engaged in some synchro-movements with Taylor, who adopted a hood and became infatuated with a multi-color, illuminating orb. The sphere began blue, then turned white and eventually purple: Magic 8 Ball meets mood ring. "Demon Star" and "Black Peak" were also aired. Between songs, in a feats of strength bit out of the Thor playbook, they bent a 1/4 inch steel bar. Fun, fast paced set, one of the day's best.

Audio, visual and overall presentation that transcends a mere club outing, a different level of professionalism was evident when Silver Talon hit the stage. A shirtless Bryce VanHoosen (guitar) displayed his collection of band inspired tats, including King Diamond's looped, inverted cross and emblazoned (as big as day) across his entire chest, the fang toothed, horned skull off Danzig's debut. The toned physique evident how he spent the downtime, during the pandemic. Looking like a six-string wielding Cousin Itt, left foot on the wedge monitor, as he blazed away, Bryce occasionally flips the blonde mane out of his face. Since our last meeting, singer Wyatt Howell projects a more confident presence onstage: his vocals having always been first rate. In terms of technicality and speed, Savatage cover aside, Silver Talon keeps the Nevermore/Sanctuary Pacific Northwest lineage intact. Brought the physical audience participation to a new level too. Old favorites like "Speed Of The Night" and "Warriors End" are nestled beside hyper drive newbies "Deceiver, I Am". Seem poised for a European festival slot, or two. Anyone listening, overseas?

25 years in the making, Emissary are a resurrected act, fronted by Jym Harris, recently of Sylent Storm. While musically similar, the new/old moniker seems geared towards a less frenetic/grittier traditional metal sound, especially the detuned "Silent Treatment", while "Out Of Reach" chugs along. "Witches' Blood" is a Storm track, noticeable by it's different timbre. "Chemical Hatred", "Crash & Burn" and current video single, Hypochondriac" to close out the set. Nasty Ronnie Galetti, one-time professional wrestler, full-time TV destroyer! Devoted a full report to Nasty Savage here. Suffice to say, great way to end the evening.

Bring on Day 2.

Things kicked off at 3:30 PM, a few extra hours of music and mayhem. Might not be "Ladies Night In Buffalo", but Saturday saw five (of the day's 14) bands with female members, beginning with Mandy Martillo and local favorites Midnight Dice, a one guitar foursome created from the demise of Satan's Hallow. Newbie "Breaking The Chains" is a mid-tempo fist thruster punctuated (like most others) by a guitar flourish. There's a riffing intro to the title track off their Hypnotized EP. Might have escaped notice, but when she sang the lyric, "You turn on a dime", Mandy does a half pirouette, to face the crowd. That's art, folks. "Roll On" has a Speranza/Riot vibe, before ending with "Lazer Tears".  

You can take the boys out of San Antonio, but you can't take Texas out of the boys, as three of the Ryghar guys wore cowboy hats, prior to taking the stage, and two kept them on, during the performance. Not hairy, tattooed, wildman Ryghar Highwind (or maybe that should be whirlwind) as the singer was in constant, convulsive motion, throughout. They claimed to have just 25 minutes’ worth of material, so they began a little after the scheduled start. During "A Baleful Wind Cries Above The Ziggurat Esoternium", Highwind jumps off the stage, slapping hands with the fans. "The Witching Blade" is also aired during the slightly off-kilter vocal performance. Next, under the microscope was the young, Black Sabbath worshiping Early Moods, with a left-handed Iommi protégé owing more to the Birmingham guitarist than just a choice of which hand to finger the fretboard: not just the sludgy riffs, but up-tempo guitar jams, similar to "Never Say Die". Good to see the youngsters embracing the classics. The LA kids are fronted by Alberto Alcaraz, sporting the most staggering, teased out fright 'do this side of Diana Ross meets Eddie Murphy's Buckwheat imitation. Fittingly, big volume! When he headbangs, he almost does a complete bow, bending at the waist. They proved to be the antithesis, in sight and sound, of the local graybeards Reflexicon, who were taking advantage of a "cancellation," playing a longer set in the smaller Joint. Crossed Hearts missed their time, due a flat tire on the way from Atlanta. Luckily, upon arrival, the promoter allowed them to play, just prior to Riot. 

Tower are noisy, brash, but self-assured, much like the NYC underbelly from much they were spawned. Singer Sarabeth Linden has a look that's part Amy Winehouse, part young Cher, decked out in fire engine red vinyl pants and similarly colored bra. In a frenzied, evocative display, that's somewhere between possession and convulsive electrocution, Linden cavorts around the stage, atop the drum riser, and even venturing into the audience. Behind her, the band delivered a kick ass set of hard driving rock, beginning with (appropriately enough), "Blood Moon". A lunar eclipse would create the titular celestial phenomenon a couple days hence. Front of stages, arms raised overhead she yells "Yeah, yeah, yeah" and announces "Raceway Rock", then goes into a KISS inspired side-to-side bend, hair moving in time. "Running Out Of Time" is followed by the catchy thrash & roll in "Prince Of Darkness". Later, she'll dangle a phallic mic between her legs. Video track, "Run For My Life" has even more bottom end, live. Safe to say lots of new converts, judging by the number of selfie requests Linden received, post-gig, walking around the bar, chatting with fans.

At German festivals, it's de rigueur to see uniformed police officers wandering through the crowd, interacting friendly with the patrons. Not so in the USA, so when a couple of Chicago's finest, showed up in Reggie's, filming video, it raised a few eyebrows. Seems at least one of the cops in question was one of us, a fan of Morgul Blade, and there to buy some of the band's merch. As it was only their fourth gig, so Blade swag has been somewhat hard to come by. "A Last Waltz of Gevaudan" is up early. Contributor to several pre-pandemic Philly bands, guitarist High Priestess NightHawk recently decided to throw in her lot with the Morguls, fronted by the gravel throat, cryptic monikered Klauf, who also adds guitar and eerily sinister keyboards. The galloping "In the Grip Of The Dark Lord" offers clean vocals to start, before reverting to more gremlin-like tones. So does the bass dominated Fell Sorcery Abounds title track, a soundtrack for heavy footed horses (a herd of Clydesdales?) at play, in a field. In conversation, between songs, Klauf adopts a normal, speaking voice. "Sons Of The Night", the initial Morgul Blade composition sees the impressive gathering lapping up every morel. Damn this band needs to play more often, so more people can see/hear their unique presentations. 

Recent Metal Blade signee Sanhedrin is comprised of a singing female bassist and a guitarist who looks a bit like a lanky version of the WWE wrestling legend, Undertaker, long straight hair drooping from under a flat brimmed, cowboy hat. Not sure what to make of By Fire & Sword, bearded guys in suits & ties screaming about the errors of our way. Have to admit, the music was catchy, but couldn't determine if it was some religious movement, surreptitiously masquerading as metal music, or a sarcastic parody of the same.  Medieval Steel, who I'd seen at Hell's Heroes a fortnight earlier, had one of the biggest crowds. Didn't stick around to see/hear their signature tune (as was more into seeing Midas), but did take in renditions of standouts like "Eyes Of Fire" and "Lost In The City".

Shirtless, in a hot, sweaty club, I'll bet it's not the first time for Midas. The two guitar Detroit quartet absolute owed the setting. Opening with a cover seems counter-intuitive, but they made it work. Helps that it's the instantly recognizable "Love Gun" (KISS). Perked up the ears of the disinterested at the bar, more intent on ordering late night food/drink, or watching sports on the multiple screens. A few even got off their stool and moved close to the stage. Like Houston, a few weeks earlier, the set was tilted towards the new eponymous release (actually for sale, in house!), but peppered with a few leftovers from the Demo Tapes. Eyes bugging out, Joe Kupiec (guitar/vocals) directed the crowd, through the groove of "Frozen Over", even asking, "Scream for me Chicago!" The husky voiced "Golden Chariot" might have something to do with the Old Style tall boys Joe kept tasting form the stage. To his left was well tattooed guitar ace Casey O'Ryan. After "Slaves to The Night', it was twin leads to open "Usurper", which were reprised, come the end. Seemingly concluding with "Nobody Gets Out Alive", they had one last surprise: a second cover. On paper, a certain no-no: opening and closing with someone else's music, but Midas knew what they were doing. "Detroit Rock City" saw people literally pushing others out of the way, so they could rock out, stage front! As it was nearly 10 PM and there was not a band on opposite, the small Joint was filled with as many fans as possible. Rock ‘n’ roll over! 

The aforementioned Crossed Hearts' arrival sees three head-banded guys, in matching blue/white horizontally striped shirts (beneath leather jacket/vests) backing singer Carlee Jackson, in black jumpsuit. Together they churn out high intensity rock n roll, like "Speedin' For Your Love". The faster/heavier sound is reminiscent of the NWOBHM days, with the slower stuff recalls early Lita Ford solo works. Odd, having the opportunity to see Riot V twice, in three weeks. Thankfully they altered the set (considerably) between performances. And I'm scheduled to see them again, in two weeks: a third festival headlining show! Still, on such a small stage? What a treat. What hasn't changed, is the preponderance of each dedicated to Thundersteel (a sadly underrated, albeit major label album, at the time of its release). Makes sense that Donnie Van Staven (bass), the lone participant from that era, would include the material, but it has (over time) become the calling card for the Riot legacy, especially domestically (title track now closes the show!), and especially amongst the younger generation of power metal fans. No sweat here, even if it's to the detriment of the classic Guy Speranza material that I grew up on. 

Singer Todd Michael Hall is a great talent (as witnessed by his stint on the nationally televised Voice program), but never truly gets his due in the conversations about top flight metal vocalists. Probably has something to do with the lack of material that he had a hand in creating, as much of the time he's singing "other people's/singer's'" music. Shouldn't matter, he's good! The inclusion of two songs off both Armor Of Light and Unleash The Fire (the pair recorded by the current line-up) goes a long way towards that end. Couple with four from Thundersteel, doesn't leave a lot of room for embellishment, in a baker's dozen. “Victory" has a built in intro, then morphs into a spirited, double bass drum concert opener. One of the many Riot compositions with warrior in the title (and not the last tonight), "Flight Of The Warrior" follows. Lots of purple lights initially, Hall works his way around the stage, fist-bumping with many in the crowd. Mainstay bassist has the brim of his cap almost covering his eyes, but it doesn't impede his playing. Opposite side of the stage, Mike Flyntz, in sleeveless denim, blazes away, tapping on guitar, seemingly oblivious to the fact there's screaming fans, mere feet away. Later in the set, he'll get a spotlighted solo.

Surprise of the night, uncovering a Rhett Forrester era tune, in this case, the title track to Restless Breed. Although I've never heard the current incarnation go there and wouldn't want them to dust off just anything, there are a couple of selections from that album, or the Born In America follow-up that are worthy of investigation, since the guys have already broken the ice. Time will tell. Initial foray into Thundersteel is the appropriately colored lighting for mid-tempo "Sign Of The Crimson Storm" (complete with synchronized guitar/bass stage moves). Truthfully, it's a bit of a rest, before a more frenetic "Johnny's Back", the latter met with a roar, within the first few telltale bass/drum notes. A trio of classic ‘70s Riot (the only such played) comes more than 45 minutes into the show. A pounding "Road Racin'" brings the tightly packed throng to life, fists aloft. "Swords And Tequila" is a virtual sing-along before "Warrior" speeds to the conclusion. But the night is not over. Hall's falsetto (including an a cappella finale) and chartreuse lights sweep the stage as the song many (most?) came to see/hear Riot play, "Thundersteel", has the honor of sending everyone home happy. A few last minute crowd surfers and the singer steps to the side, allowing the stringed musicians have a moment, together, center stage. Already can't wait for their appearance at ProgPower!

So, do we do it all again next year? You bet! Hope to see you there.

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