Monday, July 1, 2013

Masters of Madness / Shock Therapy Review

Last Thursday I attended a concert at the Cricket Amphitheatre.  This is a rare event for me: usually I avoid such things like a gastropod fleeing from salt.  However, there are rare exceptions, and when a band that I love is playing and I have the scratch, sometimes I'll be there.

In this case, there were two performers that I loved: Marilyn Manson and Alice Cooper.

Right.  I'm in.

The venue was an outdoors one, but thankfully the Kansas Sky Gods were merciful and kept things mostly cloudy.  Otherwise I might not have been able to go.  As it was, since I was fortunate enough to have a friend who was willing to drive, I could attend.  Throughout the evening clouds coiled and uncoiled lazily along the dome of the sky, with occasional flashes and streaks of lightning as they went.  "Rain or shine," we'd been told.  Hot damn.

The theatre was strangely empty.  Normally, there is a standing area in front of the stage (excellent for moshing, etc), then seats, and then the lawn beyond that - which I have been cautioned is also excellent for moshing, with little to no notice.  But when we arrived we found that the lawn was closed off, and the seats were maybe a third of the way full.

What is wrong with people? I thought.  Do they not realize who is performing tonight?  As the first two acts went through, the seats filled up to maybe half capacity.  And I grant you, this made for a more comfortable experience for me then if I'd been jostled by strangers the whole eve.  But it was still a sad turnout for such magnificent performers.

The first band was local to Kansas: Hammerlord.

Hammerlord is an up-and-coming heavy metal band, and they own themselves from the ground up.  They handle their own publicity, burn and sell their own CDs, print their own T-shirts, maintain their own website.  And ladies and gentlemen, they are tight.  Their instrumentalists are immaculate, and their timing is without flaw.  The only problem I had with their performance was the vocals, though it's not really a complaint.  I couldn't understand any of the lyrics, and judging from the names of their songs their lyrics were probably pretty interesting.  However, to say that is a flaw would be nit-picking on a stylistic choice.

Hammerlord excels in the kind of old-school, glass-gargling, microphone-eating, heavy metal power that one doesn't hear much about any more.  And complaining about the vocalist doing what he does so well would be like someone complaining about Botticelli's The Birth of Venus because they don't like fantasy art.  Not my kind of music, but brilliantly done, I strongly recommend Hammerlord to anyone who loves to mosh and headbang while the band rips and screams away.

The second band was Picture Me Broken.

Picture Me Broken is not unknown.  They won an MTV award for Best Breakout Bay Area Artist in 2009 and were recognized as one of the best unsigned bands by Purevolume in the same year.  And if they were opening for Manson and Cooper, Hammerlord was opening for them.  Their energy was superb, their musical talent magnificent, and the lyrics were well-written and perfectly performed.  The singer for the band, Layla Allman, has an amazingly versatile voice.  There are techniques that allow vocalists to conserve their vocal cords while singing rock, and I hope and trust that she has learned them.  To have such an instrument damaged would be a tragedy beyond words.  They started out doing covers of famous artists, and have moved on to writing their own songs.  Those that I have heard have been beautifully done.  I also strongly recommend Picture Me Broken to anyone, and I plan to get some of their music myself.

Then, Alice took the stage.

"Drinking beer is easy.  Trashing your hotel room
is easy.  But being a Christian, that's a tough call.
That's rebellion." -- Alice Cooper.

What is left to be said about Alice Cooper that hasn't already been said in the last forty-plus years of his career on stage?  At age sixty-five the man is still burning, bleeding, and loving the dead.  Both Hammerlord and Picture Me Broken maintained a good rapport with the audience, but when the lights went low he stormed the stage and made the world love him, hate him, and masterbate screaming his name.  There was no doubt that night: the clouds parted so the stars could shine for Alice.

The instrumentalists were amazing, and everyone got a chance to shine.  From the most magnificent drum solo I have ever heard to a four-part guitar performance that would have rocked the house even if Alice had not been there, the band played through what seemed the shortest part of the entire night and showed themselves to be artists of the highest calibre.  One got a feeling of real camaraderie from the stage, and the music flowed from it.

The instrumental parts of the show were evenly distributed throughout the show, and I suspect that in part it was because Mr. Cooper himself needs the occasional breather these days.  But it was also an opportunity for him to show off some of the younger artists he's been working with.  Because Alice Cooper is that bloody cool.

The last song was School's Out, and we had all been waiting for it.  He held the mike out so we could sing the chorus, and led us along on a well-worn path of old-school rock and roll celebration of rebellion.  And then... the stage lights all turned pink, and there was the merest instance of silence before the Man himself shifted gears on us.

We don't need no education...
We don't need no thought control...

That's right.  Alice Cooper did a homage to Pink Floyd's The Wall right in the middle of his last song.  And it was beautiful.  Then he finished the song to thunderous applause, and the stage went black.

Seconds passed as the applause went on, and at last people started to relax.  Then, right when the audience started sitting back down, Alice Cooper came out and gave us Eighteen, finishing the act off with the song that had gotten him discovered so many years ago.

And then in the middle of it all, Manson came out.

At one time, there had been much ado about a serious dislike between Manson and Cooper.  So, I had been surprised to find they were touring together.  At first I thought perhaps it was just a business decision, though I certainly hoped not.  But while pressure from record labels can get bands to tour together, it generally takes more than that to make them put their arms around one another like comrades and sing duets.  And seeing Alice Cooper with Marilyn Manson, singing together the song that had started it all, made me wonder if we weren't seeing an historic occasion.  If maybe, just maybe, Alice Cooper was passing the torch.  It's a dangerous temptation to read into such events, and in the end only time will tell.  I hope not - not because Manson is unworthy, but because that would mean Cooper is retiring.  But Marilyn was very clear: kissing Alice's boots before he left was a very public acknowledgement of how deeply the man had inspired him.

Then it was Manson's turn.

Unfortunately, I saw very little of Marilyn Manson's part of the show.   Not because I wasn't there - I was - but because of the damned lights.  Huge square lights of incredible power, blasting their might out across the audience like a dragon's breath, song after song after song.  I was able most of the time to shield myself with my hands and watch a screen that showed a camera's view, and a few times I was able to watch the stage directly.  But many times I was just covering my eyes, head down.  So, lacking an appreciation of the visuals of his show, I relied upon the audio aspects.  This seemed only reasonable since it was a music concert.

Unfortunately, though it pains me to say it, Manson's part of the show was a disappointment.

Firstly, there was the sound mix.  The drums dominated everything, overshadowing all other sounds from on stage.  Writhing under it like a snake trying to escape a crushing rock were the guitars.  And somewhere, buried under all the rest and struggling to be heard, was the voice of Marilyn Manson himself.  For some bands such a mix would be fine.  But for an artist like Manson, who relies upon the dark cathartic release and irony of his lyrics, it was catastrophic.  His words were all but lost beneath the muffling blankets of the other instruments.

The other disappointment was, alas, Manson himself.  I had seen his Antichrist Superstar tour when he rolled through Kansas City at the height of his iconoclastic glory.  So, I was looking forward to seeing how he had grown as an artist since.  But as he wandered aimlessly on stage, occasionally writhing over props or putting on new costumes, he seemed to be sleepwalking through his performance in spite of his own best efforts.  Though he was able to shriek and trill on cue, for the most part he seemed to be reciting his lyrics, scrambling for energy he only occasionally found.  Frankly, he struck me as someone who was intoxicated on something and was trying desperately to perform though it.  He did manage to interact with the audience, though his energy levels were sluggish, even getting a camera to focus on one lovely who had taken off her shirt, saying,

"See?  This is what you get when rock is not dead!"  He pointed for emphasis.  "TITS!"

Despite the poor energy levels, I do not think he was stoned.  Certainly not because Marilyn Manson would never do hard drugs-- he has made his position on such things quite clear.  Rather, it is because, based on the microscopic iota that I know of him, he does not strike me as someone who would deliberately endanger his performance and his art.  I think it more likely that he was ill, and dedicated enough that he was determined to perform anyway.  Performance artists get sick too.  And if that was the case I hope he heals quickly and completely.

Towards the end of Manson's performance, the skies finally let loose their tears and thunder.  Many people started leaving right then, in the middle of his song.  I, on the other hand, love a good storm - some of my favorite walks have been in storms.  Even though it's sometimes blinding, I still consider lightning the most beautiful of fireworks.  And as for getting wet, why, who's afraid of a little water?  I don't recollect anyone in my family melting from it since poor Great-Aunt Elspatt ran into that farmer brat back around 1900.

Little thief.  She kept the shoes, too.

In any case, the storm finally ended the show.  Manson thanked everyone who stuck it out, despite the rain and the thunder.  But as he said, "Sometimes when you brave the storm you get caught by the lightning."  He gave us his love for sticking it out, and we returned it many-fold.  Then the audience dissolved and we went our own way, all of us returning to our own, private storms.

Sometime again,
(Marilyn Manson, Alice Cooper, Hammerlord, and Picture Me Broken all own themselves, and why would anyone want it to be otherwise; characters from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz were created by L. Frank. Baum; silver slippers courtesy of  All rights reserved by those who rightfully reserve them.)

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