Part of the way through KEN mode
’s soundcheck Tuesday night at the Orpheum
, bassist Andrew LaCour paused to note that it sounded like “a big room with no one in it,” a comment that was met with knowing chuckles from the nearly 20 people gathered in the room’s vast hardwood expanses. Esoteric art-metallers aren’t likely to draw stadium-filling crowds anywhere, but a bill bearing the aforementioned Winnepeg-based noise-rock aesthetes and the weedy mythologists in Richmond, Va.’s Inter Arma
was, by my count, one of the most exciting to hit town this summer.
For those select few who chose to venture out into the balmy night -- the number of attendees could still be counted on two hands when Inter Arma took the stage -- the evening did not disappoint. Inter Arma thundered through a number of cuts from their outstanding 2013 release Sky Burial
. On record, the band trudges through all corners of the modern metal universe. They lap up the blast beats, adenoidal screeches, and that sense of all-encompassing dread associated with black metal, and hold onto the bong-ripping bass riffs of doom and the ‘70s rock proggy-spaciness of the bands from their youth.
Tuesday, however, the show clearly belonged to vocalist Mike Paparo and drummer TJ Childers. The band largely did away with the record’s lighter fare, opening with Sky Burial’s apocalyptic 10-minute opening cut, “Survival Fires,” and clinging to tracks that skewed more toward ear-shattering than atmospheric. Childers veered away from the precise thunder of his studio fills in favor of something more slippery. Interspersed amid the totemic grooves that he and bassist Joe Kerkes locked into were fills that managed to give highlights like “'sblood” even more rhythmic dynamism than is present on their recordings. Paparo, for his part, was a roiling ball of charisma even to a mostly empty room. His throaty growls were exclamation points on the wandering and interlocking riffs, spewing heady darkness every time he threw back his hair and bugged his eyes for another line. After 40 minutes of their incense-laden gloom, a few more had wandered into the room, but those initiated were very clearly enraptured.
After a short set break and the arrival of another handful of onlookers, KEN mode quickly cleared the sonic haze that Inter Arma’s set conjured. Coming out swinging with a couple of cuts from this year’s Entrench
, the trio of Andrew LaCour and brothers Jesse and Shane Matthewson (who handle guitars and drums respectively), illustrated the power of an entirely different corner of the metal sphere. Riffs were faster, more complex, unrelenting. Their M.O. is all-out assault in contrast to Inter Arma’s heaving cannibis head nod. Even as their set drew to a close following a tight and tense hour, things never really cooled down. After Jesse triggered the opening loop to “Never Was,” he settled into the most staid moment of their set, whispering his way over foreboding palm-muted chords before launching into the swaying dissonance of that track’s chorus. It was far and away the most striking moment of their set, pulling back on the reins to allow the dynamic shift to hit even harder – a terrifying version of the sort of loud-soft-loud move that everyone gave the Pixies credit for. It bore all the hallmarks of a tightly wound band that’s been issuing records for the last 10 years –precise, polished and really fucking loud.
And then afterward, polite applause from 16 sets of hands. Two incredible performances were met with one of the weakest audiences I’ve seen in Tampa. Aren’t we supposed to like metal here? Here's hoping when (if) KEN mode returns, they won't face any more big empty rooms.