I couldn't believe the number of people that came out for this show. Don't get me wrong; the bill alone is enough to draw massive crowds, but it's been a while since I've seen so many fans packed so closely together to hear an evening of great music. The reason for the excitement was easy enough to figure out, though--Symphony X has never played Utah before and Iced Earth hasn't been here for at least 8 years. The excitement in the air, then, could easily be attributed to sheer anticipation, a desire to welcome some well established metal bands to play in our own back yard--Salt Lake City, Utah, the crossroads of the West, home to a rapidly growing metal scene.
The evening started out with a strong set from Warbringer, a speed / thrash band out of Ventura, California. Though they only played six songs, they were distributed equally across their three releases. They brought a great deal of energy to the venue, particularly with John Kevill's harsh vocal style and his constant invitations for fans to great a pit so large that people would brush up against the sides of the venue. Fans responded in kind--the pit expanded while older and wary fans (like me) backed away as they watched this all-ages crowd shove each other in a rhythmic moshing. Warbringer is a solid band that should gain a larger following with each set they play. Some of the highlights of their set were "Living in a Whirlwind," (the song that inspired the large pit) and set-closer "Combat Shock." I overheard someone after the set comparing them to Megadeth, but I didn't think that was quite right. The militaristic overtones are certainly there, but Warbringer is more of what I can only call a dirty thrash band, one in which the punk influences can be heard clearly. Keep an eye out especially for Warbringer and especially Kevill as a possible star frontman. He's young, but he brings out lots of energy from the audience.
Next on the bill was Iced Earth who played a great selection of songs, mostly drawn from their new release Dystopia, but also a strong selection of old favorites like "Damien," "Dante's Inferno," and "Iced Earth." I've never seen Iced Earth before, but I know that they've had lots of line-up changes and that fans have strong preferences for either the work of Matt Barlow, Tim "Ripper" Owens, or the new lead Stu Block. All I can tell you is that Block is quite a bit of fun to watch. He does this thing where he winds up his index finger behind his back and then pushes it forward toward the audience to elicit a cheer and a wave of hands raised to the sky. It was a small thing, but the fans loved it.
Their set started off well enough, but Iced Earth seemed to grow in strength and power as the night went on. There was a pretty obvious shift in the quality of the evening when Jon Schaffer introduced "Damien," a classic tune off of Horror Show, also a fan favorite. This is a creepy song that, like Iron Maiden's "Number of the Beast," draws on The Omen horror movies for inspiration. Block played up the dark mood of the song by telling fans how much the song scares him and especially how effectively Schaffer's whispered interlude really tapped the mood of a good horror film. He was right. The band later announced that they wouldn't be playing "Watching Over Me" so that they could play "Anguish of Youth" for a special member of the audience. The other highlight of the set was "Dante's Inferno" which they played with as much relish as "Damien." What is it about metal bands and horror? Whatever the answer, the results are usually great. When Block asked fans if they were ready to tour the nine circles of hell, I knew we were in for an epic performance. I was especially drawn to Troy Seele's guitar solos. I had never appreciated how good a lead player he is until tonight. He's flashy, fast, and melodic--a perfect combination.
Symphony X closed the show with a strong set of songs mostly drawn from their last three releases, but especially from their 2011 release Iconoclast. To me, they were the highlight of the evening. There's just something special about a band that closes a show. They bring an extra level of energy and power to the stage. The band started out with "Iconoclast," the title track from the new album. I couldn't believe how cool it was to watch Michael Romero and Michael Lepond play the opening lines so perfectly. Their tapping styles synched together perfectly and I caught a glimpse of how cool it would be to watch these guys improvise, a dream, I'm sure, of most fans. When Russell Allen came onstage, the magic visibly increased. He is a terrific frontman with a fantastic voice. Not only does he sound great, he also plays to the crowd in ways that makes for a fun evening. I loved watching him stir the crowd into a room of jumping and screaming fans. It was also fun to hear Allen comment on the enthusiastic reception they were receiving all night long. Welcome to Salt Lake City, home for great heavy metal. Symphony X needs to play here more often because we'll come out in larger numbers and show them how to have a good time.
I realize that some fans are disappointed with the darker tone of Iconoclast and Paradise Lost, but I thought that the tracks from these albums sounded superb. Yes, they have a different, heavier, feel from earlier work, but they only represent an expansion of Symphony X's already-impressive range. I tend to prefer the band's darker edge, especially since Romeo's own classical influences have a certain darkness to them--think portions of Holst's "The Planets" or John Williams "Imperial March" from The Empire Strikes Back. He writes soundtrack-style heavy metal, as though scoring a suspenseful science fiction movie yet to be made.
To me, the three-song encore from Paradise Lost was the highlight of their set, mainly because that's my favorite album and I thought that they played "Eve of Seduction," "Serpent's Kiss" and, especially, "Set the World on Fire (the Lie of Lies)" flawlessly. As with Iced Earth, Symphony X excels at playing songs that deal with the nature of human evil and the challenges of understanding the current state of the world. They don't preach, but like a good book, give audiences something to think about. Heavy metal used to get a bad rap, but there's enough intelligence in the music these days to keep the critics at bay.
Before the show, I noticed Jon Schaffer from Iced Earth walking around outside the venue. Some fans that came early approached him eagerly to talk about their love for his band and their pleasure at having him back in Salt Lake City. He was gracious and stopped for a few photos. In some ways, music is about such moments of sincere appreciation. It isn't enough to perform, there needs to be an excited encouraging audience to prompt more from the music. Tonight was one of those nights.