Nader Sadek: In The Living Flesh
Santos Party House
Sunday, November 20
Better than: Watching Phantom of the Opera while listening to Incipit Satan.
At its core, metal is theater. That’s not the same as saying it’s all an act—anyone who’s spent any time reading interviews with the members of Watain, or knows why Gaahl from Gorgoroth spent six months in jail in 2006, knows it’s plenty serious. What it does mean, though, is that it thrives on dramatic gestures, and that its most successful acts are the ones who are able to pass off its more theatrical aspects as unquestionably real.
So there’s plenty of room for a guy like Nader Sadek, the Cairo-born, New York-based visual artist best known for crafting gruesome death masks for metal luminaries like Mayhem vocalist Attilla Csihar. His work is truly remarkable; when I saw Mayhem in 2009, Csihar was wearing one of Sadek’s masks and it still ranks as one of the most terrifying and unforgettable things I’ve ever seen.
Sadek doesn’t play or sing a note on his debut album, In the Flesh, nor did he write any of the lyrics. Instead, he takes a role similar to that of Omar Souleyman’s muse: he relayed his concept to a team of musicians—in this case, members of Morbid Angel, Aura Noir and Behemoth—told them how the songs should sound, and entrusted them with bringing his vision to life. Fortunately, his concept was a heady, clever one. Flesh is primarily concerned with the Western world’s unhealthy dependence on oil, and the grim paradox that results: Wars are fought over oil, which cause people to die and be buried; they then decompose, and their bodies turn into oil, which new generations fight wars and die over. It’s a sly trick, taking something as rote as metal’s fascination with the dead and funneling it into something thought-provoking and complex while slyly suggesting an alternate interpretation of the notion of a “Culture of Death.” The videos shot to promote the album are the stuff of nightmares, the band members in dark caves and shadowy forests, clad Sadek’s horrific, cultish masks.
But there’s a downside to leading with such high-minded, high-concept visuals; you have to either commit fully to the theatricality, or risk looking foolish. Sunday’s Nader Sadek show at Santos Party House felt less like a black mass and more like a community theater production of Clan of the Cave Bear. A press release promoting the event promised a stage design resembling “a Wagnerian opera” with “glowing sulfuric crystals, caves… a female vocalist performing inside a mirrored cube and guitarists enveloped by a web of vines.” Exactly none of that actually came to pass. Instead, there was a makeshift throne at the back of the stage, where ex-Morbid Angel vocalist Steve Tucker, dressed in a decidedly unthreatening, papier-mâché-like Sadek mask, reclined in during the few moments he wasn’t singing. In addition to a garish frightwig, Tucker also wore a slick black breastplate and aqueous black wristbands, all of which, along with his regal position on the throne, suggested he was playing the part of oil. Sadek himself remained tucked away in a corner, his face fully obscured behind what looked like a phantasmagoric take on a welder’s mask, furiously directing the action with dramatic arm-waving like some kind of psychopathic conductor. Drummer Flo Mounier was at the front of the stage, with his back to the audience. Overall, the setup felt naggingly half-complete, a set for some kind of prehistoric horror/fantasy film whose director ran out of funding halfway through.
All that was left, then, was the music, which was lean and ferocious. Given the lineup, it’s not surprising that the songs tend toward a slightly blackened take on death metal. The band proved expert at kicking up violent tornadoes of sound, which former Mayhem guitarist Rune Erikson—who wrote most of the music on Flesh—would lace up with a series of searing fretboard runs. At times, the sound felt apocalyptic, percussion hammering down like a hail of comets, guitars arriving in frenzied, half-second bursts. Though she never actually appeared inside a mirrored cube, the female vocalist—donning a modest eye mask—added a necessary edge of eeriness. Her voice served as a counter to Tucker’s scorched growl, adding an eerie, spectral glow to the music’s violent grinding.
Yet for all its ire and velocity, last night’s show still felt like something of a missed opportunity. At the end of the night, a fight broke out near the front of the venue; it elicited such bone-chilling shrieks from its female participant that, for a moment, it felt like it might have been part of the show. It wasn’t, but it was the most unsettling thing to happen during the evening.
Critical bias: As a former participant in both high school drama and Dungeons and Dragons, I have kind of high standards when it comes to costumes.
Overheard: If you could overhear anything over that torrent of sound, you have better ears than I do.
Random notebook dump: If you’re the lead singer of Morbid Angel, and your eccentric friend who’s always making those creepy masks calls you up and asks you to portray the physical manifestation of oil on an album and in concert, what are the first words out of your mouth?