Show review: Plaguewielder, Habbas, The Catalyst, The Drugs.
The first band was called The Drugs. I don't know what sort of reaction other people have to a name like that, but my first thought was that they were going to be horrible. And while I will give them at least a little bit of credit for the fact that it was obvious both guitarists and the bass player knew how to play their instruments pretty well, other than that it was every bit as bad as I expected it to be. The Drugs were the ultimate in generic 1-2-fuck-you punk rock, playing four-chord songs with simplistic structures and a minimum of changes in riff and tempo. Usually, there were two riffs, a verse and a chorus, that they would alternate between, and sometimes there was just one riff, and the distinction between verse and chorus was marked by how choppily they played the riff. When they went faster, they sounded more like Blanks 77 or The Casualties, and when they went slower, it was more like D.I. or Youth Brigade (LA version), though I hasten to add that this would imply more songwriting prowess than The Drugs exhibited. The stringed-instrument players had obviously had lessons, but they didn't learn anything about how to actually write songs in their lessons, if the songs they wrote were any indication. Another strange element of The Drugs' performance was their stage presence. It reminded me of watching videos of early punk rock performances. Sometimes when I watch bands like The Ramones or The Dead Boys play on old videotapes, I'm surprised at the amount of 70s rock posturing that is still present in their performance, if not in their music. That's the kind of thing that punk was supposed to be a reaction against, but it took a few years for bands that were part of the punk rock movement to get past the more obviously unsavory elements of 70s rock (i.e. how much a lot of it sucked) and start deconstructing the subtler elements of it. The Drugs, who, in fairness, are a very young band (I can't imagine any of them are out of their teens), remind me of the type of band that I saw teenage kids playing in a lot 12 to 15 years ago, back when teenage kids didn't have the post-Nirvana/Green Day second wave of mainstream punk to look up to, and the only bands who could get their records into the mall stores where younger kids could find them were early punk bands, such as the aforementioned Ramones, or The Sex Pistols. If the kids were really lucky, they could maybe find The Dead Kennedys, Black Flag, or The Descendents, but that was about it. So instead of learning what punk rock was all about from the current practitioners of the style, they learned it from the early bands, and picked up some of the lingering traces of 70s rock excess right along with it. The Drugs definitely did that--the bass player made snotty snarly faces while he played, the lead guitarist did a lot of solos, the rhythm guitarist would wave his guitar around while contorting his face whenever he had to hold a note, and the singer wore big aviator sunglasses and those 80s vintage jeans that only skinheads wear anymore. On the whole, The Drugs offered nothing to recommend their band, and weirded me out besides. I feel like they're just kids starting to get into the scene, and I should therefore take it easy on them, but I don't feel like I should lie about my impression of the show, either, so there you have it.
I felt a lot better when The Catalyst started to play. Of course, I've seen those kids play a million times, but I always enjoy hearing their music, so I was excited. Since Jamie joined the band, they've generally played with two drumkits, and had Jamie switch between second drums and second guitar depending on the song. However, Paper Street's performance area was so small that they decided to just bring Kevin's drumset in and do an entire set with Jamie just on guitar. They proceeded to rock the hell out of the place. For some reason, the combination of their amps, the PA, and the space they were in was absolutely perfect where acoustics were concerned, and they sounded amazing. All the things I usually have trouble hearing--the bass, the difference between the two guitars, the vocals--were loud and clear, without anything else sacrificing any volume. The all-dual-guitar set worked well for me too--they didn't get to do any crazy jams, like they usually do on set centerpiece "Chronic the Hedgehog", but by cutting those elements of their sound out, they were able to attain focus for the more standard rocking elements and prove that they could be a hard-hitting, powerfully focused band when they want to be. New bassist Michael Backus has been settling in quite well, and they're even playing a couple of new songs these days, which I'm sure is a relief for the members who got used to playing the same set during a six-month period of fill-in bass players, after founding bassist Nate Prusinski quit the band. In the end, the only real problem with the set, at least for the band, was that they couldn't really pull of their usual smooth transitions between songs. The only one they really had a chance at got ruined by Eric breaking a string, and all the song-changes after that were complicated by confusion about which song was next in the set. Those guys should really see about using a set list.
Plaguewielder, from Baltimore, was next. Based on the clothes the band was wearing, I was expecting crust-punk, but that only goes to show that you shouldn't assume anything by the clothes people wear. I was totally wrong--instead of crust, I got a whopping dosage of dark, heavy, metallic hardcore. To some extent, the riffs reminded me of black metal, but moreso, I was reminded of hardcore bands that were influenced by black metal, such as One Eyed God Prophecy or His Hero Is Gone, or maybe the post-Neurosis doom-crust of Logical Nonsense or Dystopia. Plaguewielder featured 6 members--a female singer, two bass players (one playing a 5 string, one playing a 4 string), two guitarists, and a drummer. However, the female singer didn't sing on every song. On some songs, she would step back into the audience and the rhythm guitarist and 5-string bass player would trade off on vocals. I don't really understand why this was happening; I prefer for band members to justify their existence, and I always feel weird about any band who has one or more members that just stand around and do nothing for parts of their set. Besides, the female singer had the best voice in the band--a loud, piercing scream that was just pure evil. I say, let her sing all the songs.
Other than this weird personal objection of mine, I found Plaguewielder to be awesome. Their songs were long and epic, occasionally fast but more often midtempo and made up of a lot of shifting, dynamic parts. They didn't use a lot of complicated chords, and the rhythms stayed with the standard 4/4 for the most part, but they did very well with what they had to work with and created some catchy riffs. I was really into it.
The last band that played was called Habbas (sp?), who weren't originally on the show. Their guitarist is the 4 string bass player for Plaguewielder, though, and he knew the bassist and drummer from Habbas were coming to Richmond to see the show, so they decided at the last minute to jump on. Unfortunately, most of the people had cleared out by the time they played (at least one and maybe both of the local bands should probably have played after the out-of-towners, as they were obviously the real draw to this show), and even more unfortunately, technical problems ruined their set. They got through most of one song, then the amp the guitar player was playing through, which belonged to someone from Plaguewielder other than him, died. This wasn't a critical problem, though, as the other guitar amp Plaguewielder used was still set up. Once he switched his guitar to that amp and got the settings the way he wanted them, though, they were only able to play half a song before the second amp blew a tube. Habbas gave it one more shot, running the guitar through the same amp as the bass, but not only did it sound terrible, they only got through most of one song before the battery in the guitar player's distortion pedal chose that moment to die. Before he'd even realized that his pedal wasn't working, he broke the low e string on his guitar. At that point, Habbas decided to give up. They seemed really dejected, and I'd talked to them earlier and thought they were all really nice guys, so I felt bad for them. Sometimes shows go that way, though, I suppose. By the way, what I could learn of how they sounded was good--loud, rocking chaotic hardcore riffs with vocals that were intense at times and more melodic at others. The melodic sense they had in the moments of music I caught actually gave them a good bit of an edge over other music in a similar style that I've heard recently. I offered to do another show for them in Richmond in a few months, and I hope they take me up on it. I'd like to see them again, when their equipment is actually working.