At 53rd and Broadway Thursday night, there’s a line stretched halfway around the block to get into The Color Purple. Wait, wait. No. That line is actually stretched entirely around the block and past The Color Purple to get into the Killswitch Engage show at Roseland. My mistake. I imagine the respective crowds for those two events would look remarkably similar from the right distance—i.e., from space.
You’ve never seen so many black hoodies in your life.
Finally filing into the venue at the resoundingly un-rock time of 6:15 p.m., we encounter an already-loaded floor of jovial dudes guys chanting, “Blow! Blow! Blow! Blow!” as a random gentleman in the center of the scrum frantically puffs up a giant white balloon. There are several such balloons, and they hold the crowd in absolute rapture as they float lazily above.
You’ve never seen people so fascinated by balloons in your life.
This is a four-band bill. Killswitch Engage is a righteous East Coast scream-the-verse/croon-the-chorus metalcore band with double-kick-drum fever and very earnest, possibly Christian lyrics of the macho self-help variety (“Through adversity/There is redemption”). Second in command: Dragonforce, a wheedly-deedly dork-metal outfit from London with hilariously self-indulgent guitar solos, glass-shattering shriekfest vocals, and ridiculous lyrics of the blacklight poster self-help variety (“Taste the steel/In pain you kneel/For glory we defend/Our fallen souls will rise to fight again”). These guys will be right in front of you in line to see 300. Like a Mad TV sketch spoofing Judas Priest. Just ludicrous.
Emotionally these two bands couldn’t possibly be any more diametrically opposed—one seems to be directly, derisively aping the other. It’s like having Bill O’Reilly and Stephen Colbert on the same bill. Is modern metal better dead-serious or dead-friggin’-stupid? The people will decide.
The people, of course, must first sit through two other sets; let it be said that metal fans seem to provide much warmer receptions to opening acts. As North Carolina’s He Is Legend rips into a half-hour of not-sleazy-enough Motörhead rawk, an enormous mosh pit blooms—a enormously sucky mosh pit, alas. Instead of crashing into each other, every entrant stomps out and starts wildly pantomiming his own personal jujitsu routine—a series of spastic punches and kicks that seem to be calculated pleas for attention and admiration, not uncontrollable bursts of catharsis. Any actual contact is incidental in that classic passive-aggressive Simpsons I’m-going-to-kick-my-legs-like-this-and-if-you-run-into-them-that’s-you’re-problem style. Even mosh pits are insular and self-absorbed now, for Christ’s sake. If the band doesn’t deserve better, the amused spectators in the mezzanine certainly do.
Thankfully, Cleveland’s Chimaira dispose of the Zzzzzzz Zzzzzz-Top boogie and drag out a double-kick drum kit bigger than your apartment, the better to properly deliver workmanlike robo-metal anthems like “Pure Hatred.” (“I! Hate! Everyone!”) The double-kick drum kit does not occur naturally in nature; it’s ironic that such brute physical force is required to play it properly and thus evoke that time-honored thukathukathukathukathuka, so repetitive it’s almost inhuman. “This is the fastest song we ever wrote,” crows frontman Mark Hunter proudly, and “Empire” indeed whisks by in a barely tangible thukathuka blur. These dudes are immensely likable, though—they repeatedly thank us for being totally cool in a way that feels sincere, and at triumphant set’s end they take a few minutes to stand at the lip of the stage and toss picks, water bottles, and other ephemera into the audience as souvenirs, like they were down at the river skipping stones.
Oh, you think that’s a little fey? Dragonforce are basically showoff-metal’s very own Journey, shamelessly flaunting their double helix of the technically breathtaking and the monumentally goofy. (Triple helix, if you count the leather pants.) If the double-kick drum is approaching inhuman, then the two lead guitarists here (one proudly clad in a CBGB T-shirt) are entirely alien, just shredding, man, with an accelerated vigor and so many notes per second you can barely hear them—it all melts into one solid, indistinguishable mass of duuuuuuuude. Technically they are superior, but the human ear is incapable of fully appreciating that superiority. Like a lossless MP3.
Regardless, they are clearly enjoying themselves, with a little riser set up at the front of the stage just in case anyone feels like being a little taller. Whether they’re having this fun at someone else’s expense is debatable; the crowd certainly does not act victimized, as everyone seems to know all the lyrics, though to be fair those lyrics primarily consist of Whoa oh oh oh oh oh oh. This show is like a 45-minute continuous high-five.
Killswitch Engage thus run the risk of being not only openly mocked but completely upstaged. Fortunately, they prove adept at pandering in a slightly less ostentatious way. “This one’s for the girls!” bellows frontman Young, Svelte George Foreman as an intro to “My Curse,” a scream-the-verse/croon-the-chorus tune with moody interludes of power balladry and “There is love burning to find you” sentiment. The girls seem just as enthralled with the harder, louder, angrier stuff, though, the guitars far less gregarious and solo-happy now, everything focused on the double-kick thukathuka and Young, Svelte George Foreman’s expertly schizo vocals, playing both parts of your typical metalcore two-lyricist good-cop/bad cop routine, like Two-Face or Norbit. Isolate the lyrics, though, and they’re suitable for framing as self-help slogans alongside photos of windsurfers and erupting volcanoes and shit.
It’s not that Killswitch Engage are humorless exactly—one of their guitarists, temporarily off the tour and laid up after back surgery, has demanded that fans mail him beef jerky to tide him over—they seem sincerely, admirably dedicated to the task of turning our adversity into redemption. Don’t stop believing, in other words.
The black-hoodied audience does not, at any point, stop believing, instead finally forming that one massive, pure, iconic mosh pit, everyone rumbling in the same direction with the same blind ferocity, crashing into each other with reckless abandon. Communal rage begets communal euphoria. Way in the back, by the bar, a couple guys from Dragonforce casually saunter by and start picking up chicks. Let the high-five be unbroken.