Metalcore, Moshpits, and Melee at the Masquerade

I went to hell last Thursday. It was incredibly hot and loud, with lots of shrieking, screams, spilled beer and young men furiously headbanging.

Hell is one of three stages owned by the Masquerade, a historic Atlanta venue that hosts medium-profile acts which draw a crowd, but won’t sell out a stadium. Over its 28 years, the Masquerade has staged some of the most influential and revered alternative acts in history, and I recommend that you catch a show there. Its other two stages are Heaven and Purgatory, but I, being a poor sinner, didn’t get into those. No, I danced with demons to hear the infernal music — heavy metal.

Hell played host to a demonic lineup of indie metalcore acts last Thursday: Greyhaven, Toothgrinder, Gideon and “the almighty” Norma Jean, all of which are terrorizing the country on Norma Jean’s “Redeemer” tour. If you look up those bands’ music, you’ll find that none sound exactly like I describe. It is one thing to listen to metal music in your headphones, and quite another to see a live show. The difference is like watching a pay-per-view boxing match versus stepping into the ring. The first is exhilarating and gets your blood pumping; the second does that too, while also inflicting blunt trauma.

Metal bands with quality live shows are interested both in entertaining the audience and in punishing them. Wearing ear protection is not a choice but a necessity. Amps are cranked up to their limits, singers test both their own throats and the listener’s ears with hellish screams and the chest-shaking thunder of a double-pedal kick drum pummels the crowd.

The crowd was, for a metal concert, surprisingly diverse. Only two-thirds of the attendees were young white men — for metal that’s a low turnout. Most of the women were with their boyfriends, but several were there for their own enjoyment and actively participated in the mosh pit. Parents chaperoned their adolescent sons, and women of color moshed side by side with tattooed skinheads wearing “F**k Racism” T-shirts.

I blended in when I arrived which, due to some Uber mishaps, was close to the end of Greyhaven’s set. The Louisville-based group does not neglect the “core” half of metalcore. Their lyrics are undeniably punk-tinged, with songs titled “Nixon,” “Hollywood Catholic” and “The Absolute American.” Their music is appropriately fast and hard-hitting, full of galloping riffs and tight, pounding drum patterns. I enjoyed their set, and I’ll check out their album, “Empty Black,” when it’s released later this month.

The second act of the night, Toothgrinder, took their music in a more mainstream direction. Once the New Jersey outfit finds a catchy riff, they build their song around it, returning to it again and again for the chorus. Their riffs are catchy indeed. A great example of this is “The Shadow,” the standout single from their latest album, “Phantom Amour.” When played live, Toothgrinder’s music is intense but clear and melodic, with long atmospheric build-ups. The audience clapped after every song and constrained their moshing to some polite headbanging. Middle-aged mothers nodded appreciatively, understanding why their sons liked metal. Then Gideon took the stage.

Gideon’s music was engineered on every level to turn the barren mosh pit into a goddamned battlefield. Mosh pits thrive on witheringly loud drum rhythms and chugging guitar riffs, and the other bands wove a section like that into about every other song. Gideon played four to five such parts in every song.

The single best adjective to describe their approach to music is “mean,” which Gideon absolutely intends. There are no frills, frivolity or flashiness in the Tuscaloosa-based band’s music. There’s only brutality. Gideon is metalcore for the working man. It’s rare to see a metal singer perform in an orange hunting cap and red flannel shirt, and even rarer to have that look mesh with the music. Gideon’s lead singer, Daniel McWhorter, was very interested in how hard the crowd moshed, and believe me, the crowd moshed hard.

I have sometimes wondered what soldiers in a Greek phalanx felt as they charged headlong into another army. Participating in a “wall of death” at a metal concert is probably the closest most people today will get to that experience. Near the end of the set, Gideon’s singer called for the crowd to do this, and we obliged. The wall of death broke apart on collision, and left the entire audience in one giant mosh pit. The wall broke my glasses and left me near sightless in the frenzy. It also destroyed any last reservations people had about moshing and left the crowd electric and ready for headliner Norma Jean.

While every other band played a set, Norma Jean put on a show. The headlining act, originally from Atlanta, enjoyed the full support of Hell’s production team, which bombarded the audience with a dizzying light show as the band played their album “Redeemer” in its entirety. The audience began to lose themselves in the sound and light, and by the end of the night there wasn’t a soul in Hell who had resisted.

Norma Jean’s music was as intricate as it was punishing. Crushing bass lines and drum blasts backed lethally sharp guitar leads. They were so loud they almost drowned out the audience, which was screaming along with singer Cory Putman. Norma Jean was on home turf, and they knew it. For almost an hour straight they drove the crowd wild, and when their set ended, encore chants sprang up faster than the band could leave the stage. Norma Jean obliged the chants, and they ended the night with a killer uplifting power ballad.  

If you have any interest in metal, hard rock or hardcore punk, do yourself a favor and check these bands out. If you’re new to heavy music in general, try Toothgrinder, or if you’re already acquainted with punk look up Greyhaven. Feeling adventurous? Listen to Norma Jean, and if you know that you’ve insured your possessions, then put on Gideon — you might end up smashing them in ecstatic rage. And regardless of your interest in metal, go catch a show at the Masquerade. You might end up in Heaven, and you might end up in Hell, but there’s good music for saints and sinners alike.

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