Tonight was a first. While my memory is sometimes hazy, when it comes to live concert experiences, it’s fairly sharp. So, I’m pretty certain that this was my first concert of the heavy variety on a Monday. There is nothing as rejuvenating as crawling out of your slumbering suburban residence on a day that society generally bemoans and head downtown to a sexy dive bar and catch Massachusetts’ mighty Elder with Poland’s doom kings, Belzebong, and Colorado’s hypnotic Dreadnought.
Any night where I can catch the best bands of this genre, it’s always going to feel like Saturday night on Mars partying with Odin.
Elder – Belzebong – Dreadnought
Velvet Underground, Toronto. 5 September 2022
Words: Sunil Singh
Photography: Melanie Webster
It was an early show, with Dreadnought getting on sometime before 7:30. And, not surprisingly, The Velvet Underground was already to capacity. One of the security guards mentioned to Melanie Webster, the photographer, that he was surprised by the turnout for a Monday show. He obviously is not aware of the scene’s talent and its fans’ fierce loyalty.
The Dreadnought was a UK battleship that was built in 1906. So powerful was the ship that it dominated naval vessels for the next 35 years. The five-piece band carves a musical landscape that is just as impressive.
Armed with not one but two female vocalists, Kelly Schilling and Lauren Viera, the band’s dense alchemy of all its varied influences, prog, doom, folk, jazz, classical, Black Metal, and post rock, is a haunting sonic testimonial that is desperately needed in these bleak times.
As Ronnie James Dio said in an early ’90s interview in reference to the need for Heavy Metal music, “you sometimes have to be violent in expression to seek peaceful solutions.” Opening with Worlds Break, from their fifth and latest album, Dreadnought chartered a short but emotionally intense set to unconsciously honour the wisdom of the greatest Heavy Metal singer ever.
The balance between the angelic and light moments that the band earnestly creates with the beautifully brutal ones is the music duality that is Dreadnought’s signature. Gears Of Violent Endurance ended the show, and to be frank, the band sapped so much of my emotional attention with their four-song performance I was overwhelmed, more than happy to now ponder what the hell I just witnessed.
Next up were four Polish dudes from Kielce. I mean that literally, as all four band members have “dude” pseudonyms, Cheesy Dude, Alky Dude, Sheepy, and Hexy Dude. The band has been around since 2008, playing “slow and low” instrumental doom. They were the perfect band to get slotted in between two more complex ones. Their simplicity of riff after riff after riff, extolling all good stoner imagery of weed, beer, and Sabbath, was a brilliant contrast to what just came and what was about to come.
Opening with Bong Thrower and closing with Goat Smokin’ Blues, their 45-minute set was an unrelenting and uncompromising serving of well-aged doom. Known for having their faces concealed by their long hair during their shows, some of the Dudes look like they were cast members in Braveheart, ready to fight even if they got pierced with arrows.
That attitude/look was demonstrated wonderfully as they battled the audience with guitars, bass, and drum until we could take no more. Another band that crushed the audience. This time more physically than anything else.
Very few bands could follow the collective greatness of Dreadnought and Belzebong, but Elder, who now call Berlin home, certainly could. Elder has been on my Bucket List for the longest time, so the anticipation for them was pretty damn high.
Elder are so brilliant at their craft, that one might think NASA was somehow involved in their creation. You know, throwing four guys in some kind of planetarium in the middle of the desert with albums from Rush, Yes, and Hawkwind, and lesser-known work like Anthony Phillips (ex-Genesis guitarist), Lucifer’s Friend and Cathedral, and seeing what kind of art could be created in this musical think tank. It’s just another way of saying that Elder is a living embodiment of prog rock’s encyclopedia.
It’s one thing to be a fan of such complexity. It’s quite another to have the collective talent to harness your musical references and curate your own signature sound out of them.
Sure enough, as they opened with Compendium, so much of their pedigree of influence started showing up in just the first two minutes of the song but bursting with Elder colours. Like Dreadnought, Elder are masters of creating an atmosphere which is bigger than the sum of their individual parts.
There is something magically ineffable about their sound. Sure, distilling it down their sound could be easily characterized as space-prog-rock, but even that sounds limiting. Some of the best instrumentals ever created actually belong to soundtracks of RPG video games, namely the ones scored by Nobuo Uematsu in the Final Fantasy series. They are epic and deeply affecting. Trust me, I have been moved by them with their meticulous attention in reflecting the emotive depth of the complex narratives. In a similar way, Elder delivers this precise kind of listening experience.
One of the things I do when I see live shows is close my eyes so that my ears get full attention. It’s a slightly different listening experience that lets you pick up on nuances that sometimes get missed while watching a band. And Elder’s music is definitely something that demands that kind of special attention.
Their 75-minute set was a sweeping symphony of guitar suites, passionate vocals, and general interstellar overdrive. By the time they were winding down with Halcyon and Sanctuary, there was this Mountain Jam vibe, courtesy of The Allman Brothers, that was beginning to shimmer in their music. But, with, of course, a more cosmic sensibility.
We all spilled out onto the sidewalk after the show. Talking with Melanie, there was a deep sense of satisfaction. We had temporarily lost our coordinates of it being Monday in downtown Toronto.
For a few hours at least, we were all transported to magical forests, primal sounds, and heavenly landscapes through the most nuanced, inclusive, and experimental genre of music–stoner rock/doom.