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Remembrance of Things Past: Iced Earth / Symphony X / Warbringer @ HoB in Houston, Texas 2/29/12

March 5, 2012

 
I have never been a fan of reading concert reviews. I find that most of them are overwhelmingly positive to a fault; you can often hear the giddy fanboy-ism of the writer lurking just beneath the sentences. I’m all about respecting the die hard fan, but I find that either I completely agree with their concert review, or am indifferent to it. In other words, I get little out of reading them. At best I’ll see what people are saying on message boards or Facebook about overall impressions of a particular tour, check out setlist.fm, and sometimes seek out any pictures available of the stage show. Usually all this is done in preparation for an upcoming show on a tour that I’ll be attending myself. This is why I’ll avoid going into gritty detail about this particular show, and merely offer some lasting impressions. Before I do that, let me indulge a little in a dose of nostalgia.

Nearly eight years have passed since the last time I saw Iced Earth live. I missed the Barlow years before the Ripper era, and again when he returned for the Crucible of Man album. Iced Earth had last played Houston on May 8th, 2004 at a tin box of a venue in downtown called The Engine Room with Children of Bodom and Evergrey as openers. It was a transitioning period for the band: Tim “The Ripper” Owens had made his debut on the highly divisive The Glorious Burden album, fans were trying to get used to the idea, and non-metal media had given the band its first press coverage thanks to the epic three-part closing track of the album, “Gettysburg”, and its use by high school history teachers as an educational tool (seriously it happened).

There I was, hours early at the venue with a friend of mine, shuffling around downtown Houston in the summer heat trying to find something to eat, bumping into an agitated and bewildered Alexi Laiho on the street who was baffled by the lack of any convenience store nearby (“No we’re serious man, you’d have to walk at least eight blocks in that direction…”), and watching in total amazement as the line to get into the show stretched further than I’d ever seen for a club show – multiple city blocks! The venue had a capacity of 650, and we had overheard the Atlanta Falcons jersey-wearing door guy say that they had oversold the show by hundreds. In effect, there could have been 800-1000 people out there. It was nuts. I couldn’t fathom how that many people came out of the woodwork to see a relatively underground metal band (at least in the States). I’d been going to metal shows in Houston for years before this, and the crowds were never THIS big. Where the hell did these people come from and why did I not see them out and about more often?!
 

Doors had opened, and inside the venue I could barely get from the merch booth to the bar, both on opposing ends of the venue. People were nearly standing shoulder to shoulder, and it took deft movements and side-walkin’ to navigate my way through. I recall buying bottles of water only, no beer, even though I was a year past being of age – I just had a feeling I would need the hydration severely. I was right. Hypocrisy and CoB were easy enough to watch, most of the crowd just idly banging their heads and moving slightly. It was when Iced Earth took stage that the maddening deathcrush of the crowd began. We were close to the front, and in the center, and all I can vividly remember is the feeling of being pushed forward along with the rest of the crowd like a floating buoy in the sea. I was having trouble breathing until I managed to wedge out my arms from my sides and use them as physical barriers against the bodies slamming against me, it gave my compacted torso space to take in glorious oxygen. Somehow I managed to keep my place, and once the initial deathcrush subsided I established my personal space and gulped down room temperature water, surprising myself at having held onto my water bottles. I had been a part of some intense shows before, but nothing that had me feeling anywhere close to “I could actually die here… ah well I guess it would be with my boots on right Bruce?”

The crowd swirled and slammed together in chaotic fashion for the rest of the show. I was battered and literally bruised upon my side. I have images and flashes of memory from Iced Earth’s actual performance, but far more overwhelming is the recollection that when the band launched into the thirty minute “Gettysburg” as the encore, I silently and ashamedly hoped that the power would be cut, the guitars would short out, ANYTHING to get out of there at that exact moment. I could barely stand upright, and once the band took their final bow I collapsed against the bar alongside several other worn out husks of metalheads, one of whom was my now barely standing friend. I distinctly remember the eye-widening on the bartender’s face as she poured us plastic cups of water and handed them over without asking for payment. We managed to crawl back to my car and somehow, I drove us back home. I can’t recall exactly, but I’m certain that not a word was spoken on the way back. It was a point of pride the next day at work to boast to everyone I could of how brutal that show was (and how by silent implication of me standing before them, and not in the hospital, I was a real hardass). I was 22 and shows like that were one more notch in my ever expanding list of concerts attended, slowly I was becoming a metal show veteran in my own right.

Fast forward to last Wednesday night, where I was all too keenly aware of how different I now feel at 29 than I did at 22, and how I imagined Jon Schaffer of Iced Earth (the only Iced Earth member onstage to have taken part in the 2004 show) felt himself, now 43, then 35. I wasn’t sure why I had thought about it so much until well after the show, when I realized that the eight year gap between the 04 show and now had represented the longest period between two shows by a band that I had ever experienced. I could only imagine at what an older concert attendee who had last seen Maiden back in the eighties felt recently upon seeing them say on the 2008 “Somewhere Back in Time Tour”. Personal thoughts to be sure of course, but its a goddamned show and you don’t talk about stuff like that there… though I’d bet that it had to cross the mind more than a few times.

Don’t get me wrong, this may sound melancholic, but its really not. Its not a lament about getting older, nor is it an admonition for younger fans to show the far older, grizzled metal veterans their due respect (even though you should, seriously, most of those guys are awesome and can tell you some tales). This is a dawning realization that apart from metal being the longest, most enduring thing in my life, it also creates markers by which I remember the past. Not all for sure, but many – how else would I remember who I was, and what I was doing in May of 2004 if not for this Iced Earth concert. Details of my life at that time come bubbling up to the surface, and I wince at some of them, and fondly remember others.

I was with some friends at the show Wednesday night, and I remember my buddy to my left speaking with two really short kids standing in front of us as we waited for Iced Earth to hit the stage. The kid pointed to his friend and said “Its his first metal show, not a bad one to start with right?” We approved and slapped the kid on his back and I looked directly over his head to see a greying man in the front row leaning against the barricade wearing a blue jeans jacket that was heavily decorated with concert memorabilia (caught guitar picks, metal band logo pins, badges, etc) including a huge Savatage Hall of the Mountain King patch on the back. It was a stunning juxtaposition.
 

I promised some impressions of the show earlier, and I’ll keep it simple: The crowd was mostly older, to be expected I suppose, but as shown above younger fans weren’t exempt. I found Iced Earth far more riveting this time with Stu Block at the helm than I did back in ’04 with the Ripper. He’s the right fit for the band and they genuinely seemed happy to be onstage. They really are a violent and eviscerating force onstage, those riffs can tear through your gut when being channeled out at those volumes, and when Stu did the highs it was the very definition of ear-splitting. I thoroughly enjoyed the performance by Symphony X, my 2011 album of the year winners, Russell Allen proved to be a far more engaging and humorous frontman than he was during the first time I saw them live. I will echo my friend’s sentiments however by saying that I wish the rest of the band could be as enthusiastic on stage as Allen, who has to carry the band live (no wonder he’s drinking straight rum from a glass skull decanter(!)). Warbringer are a band I’ll be paying far more attention to in the future, their Kreator-influenced approach impressed me so much I bought a t-shirt. I was disappointed when their opening set was over. All these details I’ll soon forget however, and it won’t matter. What matters is that it was a great show because we had a blast. I won’t remember the technical details, but I will find it hard to forget practically leaping in between my buddies to thrash out during the heaviest, most climactic moment of “Dante’s Inferno”. This is why I get bored reading show reviews: I want to read about why it was such a great experience for a person, not the ins and outs of every facet of the performance. I want to read stories.

Having headbanged and thrown horns for most of the three bands sets, I knew I’d be sore the following morning. Though it wasn’t as violent a show as the 2004 performance was, it didn’t need to be – standing for a long period of time hurts way more now than it did back then. I was relieved in a small way that the crowd apart from the circle pit was fairly cool tempered. You could drink a beer comfortably if you wanted to, and it seemed most wanted to. I got back to my apartment complex and could barely make it out of my car, as my back had seized up painfully. I briefly considered just falling back into the driver’s seat and sleeping there in the parking lot all night. Somehow I semi-hunchbacked it all the way up to my apartment, laughing aloud while doing my best Mort Goldman. A fitting bookend to this particular concert. At the 2004 show, I felt as thought I could have almost blacked out or worse, and I could barely make it from the venue to my car — only to bounce back the following day to head to work. On Wednesday night I could barely walk, and I could only be comfortable falling asleep sitting up on my sofa. I spent the next day sitting still and ice-packing my neck. Iced Earth 2012 had rendered me useless. I could have easily found it disheartening, but I honestly found it humorous instead — the more things change, the more they stay the same.

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