Ulcerate, Vastum, Apocryphon, Man Among Wolves, Elbo Room, San Francisco, 02/05/2014

The many flavours of death, all in one convenient package!

These days, it's a good life being a metalhead. Not that there was necessarily a bad time to be a follower of the dark and metallic arts, but at present there is such a killer range of odd, ugly, and heavy out there, that it's easy to get spoiled. Add to that the fact that I live in one of the destination spots of the American Western Seaboard, and it happens that nary a weekend passes where I can't catch some live (or else undead) performance of great magnitude.

Case in point, a recent evening spent at SF's own Elbo Room with New Zealand texture-death luminaries Ulcerate. Navigate the more-staid-by-the-day environs of Valencia Street, stride past the bar's entrance now crowded with SF's none-too-popular but nevertheless powerful tech gentry, follow the cries of anguish and the rumble of low-end distortion up the stairs, and you've arrived. On May 2nd, the Elbo played host to a consortium of death metal ne'er-do-wells, each with their own unique flavour of black-breath heaviness. First up were local gear-grinders, Man Among Wolves, who charged ably through blasted terrain, getting the crowd nice and warm for what was to come. Next up were Apocryphon, practitioners of some pretty goddamn classic American-style death metal in the vein of Morbid Angel and Mutilated-era Cannibal Corpse. Their MO?  "All of our songs are about drugs." Indeed, their songs were harsh, disorienting, and depressing -- none too difficult to see the connection to their subject matter.

Now to be honest, for some (myself included) this show was as much about local rumblers done good Vastum as it was about Ulcerate. And goddamn, did Vastum deliver. If you haven't heard them yet, you've no doubt heard about them. Their latest, Patricidal Lust (20 Buck Spin), has caused a stir as much for its trippy inverted-Oedipal lyrical themes as for its sound, which has been most often described as old-school death metal. And while yes, Vastum shares more sonic affinities with, say, Grave and Entombed than with avant-deathlords Ulcerate, stylistic re-tread they are not. Rather, their chugged-out, conspicuously blast-free sound is tailor-fitted to their lyrical themes, and the overall effect is a true headbanger's dream. Their live show did not disappoint. Vocalist Daniel Butler's stage presence was well-suited to the band's prevailing themes, which often concern the perversions seemingly inherent in humans, those which can preempt all of society's agreed-upon codes of conduct in one fell, lustful swoop. Butler flourished the microphone like some man-child newly fascinated by his own phallic instrument, and repeatedly fell toward and into the audience like some outsized, frustratedly horny prepubescent boy. His performance certainly seemed of a piece with the battery of stripped-down but nevertheless well-composed dirges banged out by his counterparts. Meanwhile, Leila Abdul-Rauf handled her own vokills and banged out the chugging riffs alongside fellow guitarist Shelby Lermo (also of opener Apocryphon), the skeletal bassist Luca Indrio, and skinsmith Chad Gailey. Brutal.

As the clock struck midnight, Ulcerate took the stage. They were, I fear, hampered by a sound guy who really didn't know what to do with them, and got a bit of a late start on things. The first few songs alone had the crowd pleading "MORE GUITAR!" as it was hard to make out what was coming from guitarist Michael Hoggard's cab. Microphone issues left something to be desired, with vocals that cut the rest of the mix every time they were barked out by bassist-vocalist Paul Kelland. However, in the end, the Kiwis put on a hell of a show. Once the guitar issue was remedied, the textures and nuances of Ulcerate's unique approach to brutality started to emerge. The often strangled voicings of Hoggard's guitar were given room to asphyxiate, and the question of whether Ulcerate would be able to match live their studio performances was quickly laid to rest.  Drummer Jamie Saint Merat is a one-man show all his own -- his acumen is at once delicately nuanced and punishingly powerful. On that note, it's often hard to fathom that such noise can be conjured by three dudes. As I stated, this set would have been a slam-dunk if not for sound issues. However, it was still a gift to have such progressive, thoughtful, and heavy musicians visiting what is basically a glorified loft space in our humble burgh by the bay. And this in conjunction with Vastum's exceptional set? Salad days, indeed.