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sonata tour flyer

It was a perhaps unseasonably warm post-Labor Day Wednesday evening that hearkened the arrival to our shores of an unusual package tour consisting of two stalwart veteran acts in the gothic (and more recently in one case, gothic/symphonic) metal scene and a similarly hoary if wholly unrelated Finnish power metal wolfpack.

Scratching our heads at the strangeness of the bill but thankful for their arrival all the same, we headed down once again to the infamous Mexicali Live to catch an interesting if unfortunately problem plagued first date on their tour…

Despite the headliner having some history of bringing along interesting opening acts from essentially unrelated metal scenes, it still seems a bit odd to mix such distinctly divergent genres on a bill – much like seeing a trio of black metal openers sharing a bill with Motley Crüe or something.  Maybe not quite that bizarre of a mismatch, but it’s still sorta weird.

And sure, we’ve seen a few odd duck unbilled openers in the past – The Agonist and Unexpect opening for Visions of Atlantis and Epica?  For that matter, as good as they were, Gypsyhawk opening for the good humored drinkin’ metal of Alestorm and Trollfest?

But generally bills tend to make sense – up and coming punk bands with established ones, rockabilly revival acts with Mike Ness’ roots based solo tour, smaller if not local gothic metal bands with more notable ones, long historied traditional metal bands with younger, more retro-minded versions thereof.

It’d have made more sense for Arctica to sail in with a roster of AFM acts than a pair of Napalm ones…but then, much of tonight’s audience would have been unlikely to attend.  And while I did in fact follow the band up till around the time of Reckoning Night, I have to admit to being among that group.

For me, at least, this was definitely a case of coming for the opening acts, with the headliner as something of a bonus rather than the draw.  And on walking in to the venue and overhearing the club owner ask everyone entering who on the bill it was that they came to see, I was heartened to see that I was far from alone in really showing up for the two opening acts.

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Once again, the venue’s ridiculously tiny stage would serve to plague yet another multi band package tour, with an unbilled troupe of up and comers going by the name of Midnight Eternal apparently set to perform on the club floor(!) before some last minute changes that did allow them some (rather cramped) stage space.  As you can imagine, this didn’t allow them much room to work the stage, with each of them more or less rooted in place throughout.

Yes, strangely enough, upon entering, attendees were greeted by the sight of an entire drum set and gear assembled on the floor in front of the stage, with a velvet rope partition keeping the punters away.  Over the first 45 minutes or so, fans watched while roadies and band members moved the gear onstage (in front of two already waiting sets for Delain and Sonata Arctica, mind), with the partition eventually removed just in time for said opening set to begin.  Always an adventure at Mexicali…

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Despite the horrific space-related conditions the band was forced to perform under, cute if diminutive Raine Hilai (apparently a native of Israel before relocating to more familiar NYC climes, and quite a friendly person when encountered on the floor) did her best to shimmy and emote to the audience in a very retro styled go go dress, whose frills remained in constant motion throughout their brief set.

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The band’s website shows Symphony X’s Mike LePond, who sat in for one song, as a permanent member, though they did have another fella (possibly listed rhythm guitarist Greg Manning) working the four string for the better part of their brief four song set.  But by far their most impressive member, no doubt aided and abetted by by the downside up sound mix the club plagued tonight’s bill with, was the rather Schwarzeneggeresque visaged drummer Dan Prestup, all pounding aggression and driving if precisely technical speed.

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This was a good thing, as his powerhouse drumming proved only the first of many instances of heavily overmic’ed drums this evening.  Unfortunately, the intense, front and center drum mix managed to entirely overpower Midnight Eternal’s  keyboards and guitars and nearly bury Hilai’s vocals (which, from what could be discerned behind the throbbing and relentless drums, seemed to be a decent cross between pop and operatic).  Luckily the guy was a damn good drummer!

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The opening ceremonies over and after the band cleared their gear en toto, we had another lengthy wait before it was time for what we came to see, a pair of Dutch treats.*

*when Dianne asked the crowd where Xandria hails from, they understandably replied “Germany”…to which I was tempted to tag in “Holland” in deference to the willowy vocalist.

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Listeners to the podcast and readers of the monthly music roundup reviews are already aware of my feelings on Xandria and it’s surprising reinvigoration of late, but suffice to say that losing a pair of (for all intents and purposes) founding members appears to be the best thing that ever happened to the band.SAM_0416_E20140904_005619770_e

Thus it was that with founders Marco Heubaum (guitars) and Gerit Lamm (drums) and longtime member Philip Restemeier (doo rag…uh, guitars) bolstered by recent recruits Steven Wussow (bass) and the stunning Dianne Van Giersbergen delivering the goods like never before, it was truly painful to see the band pushed into a rather truncated set.

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It was clear that at least Dianne and drummer Gerit Lamm appeared to be having the time of their lives up there, but technical difficulties of some sort left them saddled with a miserly three song set (two off Sacrificium, one off Neverworld’s End) bolstered by a seemingly impromptu but blazing take on Neverworld’s “Valentine” that very likely bested the original.  All told, we were left with a whopping four song performance.  Insert pained, audible sigh here.

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Again, the drums seemed to be rather overmic’ed, though this time Dianne’s powerful lyric soprano and the guitars were able to fight to some measure of near-equanimity.  Similarly, we were lucky in that Gerit is another rather accomplished drummer, though perhaps not as Phil Tayloresque and driven as Prestup (who seemed about to break into a serious sweat if not pass out throughout, so hard was he working that kit…).

Even though Xandria was granted use of the Delain drumset, there was another half hour plus wait before the storied gothic metal visionaries hit the stage, with audience members treated to the unusual sight of bandleader Martijn Westerholt setting up and taping set lists down himself(!).

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The sound mix was much better this time around, though the drums were still ridiculously loud (we’re talking every hair on your body being flattened and throbbing with each beat – at points it was like being under artillery fire).  At least you could actually hear the guitars, keyboards and in particular the vocals this time around. And a good thing that was.

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Despite never attempting the sort of operatic affectations many of her peers (and in fact the genre as a whole) are renowned for, Charlotte Wessels absolutely owned the stage and audience, with assured moves, powerful yet smooth vocals and a short but crowd pleasing set that ran throughout the band’s catalogue, tapping into two from Lucidity (“Sleepwalker’s Dream” and “The Gathering”), three from We Are The Others (the title track, “Not Enough” and “Get the Devil Out of Me’), and Human Contradiction’s “Army of Dolls”.  It was an intense, headline-deserving set.

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One thing that can certainly be said, there were a lot of really nice guys and gals on stage, between Hilai and this crowd of Europeans.  For various reasons, I had personal run ins with Hailai, Wessels, Van Giersbergen and Lamm throughout the course of the evening, and stood behind a very unassuming if not humble legend of gothic metal apologizing profusely for holding up traffic at the door while hauling equipment back out to the bus.

Yeah, in case you missed the hint?  This was a founding member of Within Temptation and longtime bandleader for Delain.

I’ll allow a pause so you all can let that one sink in, and perhaps compare to the ‘rockstar egos’ and ‘diva’ petulance we’re far more familiar with domestically…

Strangely, the crowd seemed to thin out noticeably after Delain’s set, leaving a smaller if appreciative core of predominantly male power metal fans in their wake.  It’s as if the gothic symphonic folks up and left and took the better part of the ladies with them…and suddenly, you began to notice the rancid, sour odor of farts from multiple sources…

Did I mention the sweat? The venue, already tiny and somewhat overcrowded, was at least tolerable during the Xandria and Delain sets, suffused as they were in dry ice.  By the time they both packed up and cleared their gear from the stage, there was nothing left but stillness, abetted in no small part by a venue who chose to shut off the ceiling fans early, presumably in the interest of selling bottled waters for an unconscionable $6 apiece(!).

Regardless of attribution of intent, it was rough, and the endless waits between sets (and recurrently noted technical issues and glitches plaguing and cutting the length of most or all of the bands’ performances) were strangely reminiscent of, if perhaps worse than, those impacting last year’s Alestorm/Trollfest/Gypsyhawk show at the same location.

And when you’re greeted at the door by a clearly flustered tour manager who admits there have been any number of screw ups and last minute issues today, you have to wonder to what extent the venue itself plays a part in all this…

Anyway, 3 1/2 hours past start time, and despite two four song sets and one closer to 6, at least half the evening has gone to waiting around for setups, and the headliner still hasn’t begun it’s set.

What seemed for the better part of the evening to be a fairly mellow if introspective crowd quickly morphed into a rowdier one when the headliner finally took the stage, closing in on 4 hours after the listed start time.

While still quite unlike the much friendlier, boozy attendees of last year’s Alestorm/Trollfest show (in fact, I barely saw a beer on the floor all evening), there was an immediate and obvious change from the quieter, mixed gender audience for the gothic symphonic acts so many of us came to see and that of the more mainstream if still melodic power metal of Sonata Arctica.

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Finally, sometime after 11, Tony Kakko and Sonata Arctica made their way onstage, and despite being renowned for a catalogue driven by high speed melodic power metal paeans to wolves running free in the snow, they turned out to have what still managed to feel like one of the least exciting sets of the evening.

“We didn’t come to hear ballads!” an audience member yelled, so Kakko promptly delivered a set heavily packed with them, featuring everything from “Love” to “In the Dark” to “Replica” and more in between.  There were also a number of musical oddities hailing from more recent albums in the band’s catalogue which left the normally 120 bpm plus double bass assault of Tommy Portimo plodding along at a sub John Bonham rate, all thudding alternating bass and snare, and once again, ridiculously over mic’ed and driving the entire mix.

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Kakko, all mugging, silly faces and rolling eyes, seemed in fine vocal form, air guitaring and making strange high speed pronouncements in Finnish between songs (when not telling somewhat rambling stories or cracking wise at audience requests).  Nonetheless, it was only when Kakko and company actually made obeisance to their earlier material that the audience truly got into the spirit of things, singing along to every word of tracks like “My Land”, “Kingdom for a Heart”, “Replica” and especially “Full Moon”, which song actually proved to be the high point of the set.

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Though constantly in motion and therefore hard to pin down for a decent photo, Kakko and his far more sedate and rooted to the floor bandmates still managed to somehow deliver much less energy than any of their trio of tourmates, even when kicking into Reckoning Night-era if not earlier crowd favorites inclusive of the aforementioned and “Victoria’s Secret”, “Don’t Say a Word” and “San Sebastian”.  Of course, you wouldn’t know that from a devoted frontstage audience who pogoed along with the hyperactive frontman and offered song suggestions between regular pronouncements of “we love you, Tony!”.

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In retrospect, perhaps it was just a case of a very long night plagued by undeservedly shortened sets, unnecessary and possibly deliberate heating issues and ridiculously long waits between each of four performances, but the fact of the matter is that the evening felt well and truly done before the headliners even took the stage.

Worse, persistent drum based sound issues throughout the entire evening left Sonata Arctica’s rather lengthy set feeling more like an endurance test under combat conditions than an expression of communal celebration of ostensible freedom from lives far more fettered than Kakko’s wolves could ever be.

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