Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Carnival of Madness 2013 Raises The Bar For Hard Rock Package Tours

One of the highlights of 2012's outdoor concert season was Carnival of Madness - an annual tour featuring five of the year's top hard rock bands.  While last year's lineup (Evanescence, Chevelle, Halestorm, Cavo and New Medicine) was exceptional, this year's Carnival appeared to be even least on paper.  At Helping Hands Rock Reviews, we set out to the First Niagara Pavillion in Burgettstown, PA (near Pittsburgh) on August 20, 2013 to find out whether this year's line up was as amazing as it sounded.

First up at the early hour of 5:00PM was the relatively new band We As Human.  With a debut album that is a legitimate contender to be among 2013's top five hard rock albums in a year characterized by the release of lots of great music, our eyes were focused sharply on this band to see if their live show could convey the magic that their album does.  They blasted onto the stage with "Sever" in a way that demonstrated a full intention to win over the thin crowd that had trickled in early.  Follow-up tune "Dead Man" featured a sweet solo from guitarist Justin Forshaw in between a couple of the song's soaring choruses.

 It is common knowledge that John Cooper of Skillet played a role in We As Human getting signed so, being that those bands are on the same tour, one wondered if Cooper would join the band for "Zombie" - a song on which he was featured in the recorded version.  Sure enough he did, singing the second verse to the delight of the steadily growing crowd.

We As Human finished up their short set with the Saliva-esque "I Stand" and the aggressive modern rock anthem-in-waiting, "Strike Back."  The excellent songwriting of the band helped them deliver a strong set, overcoming the less-than-optimal mix that commonly plagues opening bands (no fault of their own).  All things considered, We As Human was a great choice for kicking off this year's Carnival.  More experience and exposure to the more seasoned rockers on the tour should help We As Human feel more comfortable using such copious amounts of stage space afforded to them and recreating the slick sound that characterizes their album.

Next up was arguably the most exciting touring band of 2013, In This Moment.  Any concert that has two bands between In This Moment and the headliner is certainly a stacked show:  In This Moment is a band poised to be the top act on any hard rock show.

In This Moment was just in Pittsburgh in March and that show was more theatrical than their prior area appearance.  As soon as the intro music began, it was clear that In This Moment was kicking it up yet another notch as two female dancers in nude and white bodysuits, face masks, and red X's over their breasts emerged among the visually astounding gates, skulls and mannequins of In This Moment's stage setup.

As the band took the stage, Western Pennsylvania native and In This Moment guitarist, Randy Weitzel, twirled a Terrible Towel to the roar of the crowd.  The band launched into "Adrenalize" and many in the crowd, including this author, were surprised to see vocalist Maria Brink execute some dance moves in perfect sync with the dancers.  Those dancers then held up 5'-long hypodermic needles as a sexy-nurse-outfit-clad Maria Brink blasted the air with a smoke-spewing gun during "Blazin'" - the lone song in the set not from In This Moment's Blood album.

As it does for every song, another outfit change for Brink preceded "Whore."  She donned a schoolgirl outfit and dunce cap emblazoned with the song's title for a performance that was every bit as powerful musically as it was visually.  The synth-driven "Burn" led to the set's finale, "Blood."  Brink's raging screams prior to the choruses of "Blood" drew aggressive, almost involuntary, roars from the crowd, making it a song born to be played live.  "Blood" featured the most impressive choreography of the night between Brink and the dancers with lots of spread eagle squats thrown in for good measure.  In an artsy way, of course.  All in all, In This Moment's set is the pinnacle of theatrical hard rock today.  Maria Brink has clearly staked her claim as the Alice Cooper of this generation.

Can a musician have the, um, guts to follow such an awe-inspiring performance as In This Moment's?  Well, you can if you're Jacoby Shaddix - lead singer of Papa Roach and one of the standout frontmen of the past decade.  Papa Roach roared onto stage with a vengeance and Shaddix and company had themselves and the crowd bouncing literally right from the first measure of their opening tune, "Still Swinging."

One of the big question marks for the night was the quality of vocal performance to expect from Shaddix.  Papa Roach had to recently cancel a tour of South America due to vocal problems Shaddix was experiencing and his need to rest his pipes.  Well, the rest obviously did the singer well.  His voice was powerful and crystal clear and his pitch was right on the money, despite him bouncing around the stage like a man half his age. 

After a couple of newer songs, Shaddix sent the next tune, "Between Angels and Insects," out to "the old-school Papa Roach fans in the house."  On that song and virtually all that followed, the veteran band had their refined entertainment skills going full bore, engaging the crowd at every opportunity.
Every good rock performance needs a twist of some sort and Papa Roach provided one at the beginning of "Forever" as Shaddix joined drummer Tony Palermo behind the drums for a proper beating of the band's floor toms.  That song was followed by their latest single, "Leader of the Broken Hearts," the first song of Papa Roach's set that featured obvious electronic tracks.  Those tracks were a welcome sonic addition, giving the band's material a cutting-edge, modern feel while retaining the core of the Papa Roach sound.
As the band progressed through a set much longer than those of the first two acts, they eventually satisfied the audience's appetite to hear "Scars" - a modern-day power ballad that was a huge radio hit a few years back.  The amazing guitar tone of Jerry Horton and his pitch-perfect harmony vocals helped this song achieve maximum impact and not lose one bit of its awesomeness live.

As Papa Roach kicked out "Getting Away With Murder," the crowd was whipped into a frenzy and it was difficult to spot an audience member's hand that was not in the air.  That energy perfectly set the stage for the closing tune, "Last Resort" - a song that solidified the fact that Papa Roach has been going strong since nu-metal was
During the set, Shaddix mentioned that 2013 was the band's 20-year anniversary.  Despite this long tenure in a musical genre that has seen more than its share of ups and downs, it was a great experience to see a band whose smiles indicated that they still enjoyed performing at least as much as the crowd enjoyed watching them - which was quite a lot.  Papa Roach brought it with each and every song and Western Pennsylvania responded with nothing but love.

The multimedia concert experience was set to begin as the time approached for Skillet to take the stage.  Their intro consisted of a huge screen flashing images of members of the band while excerpts of a Skillet recording or two weaved in and out of a dubstep beat.  And that screen stayed on to display select lyrics as the band hit the stage with long-time Skillet favorite, "Hero." 

Probably the most noticeable aspect of any Skillet performance is the beast-like stage presence of guitarist Korey Cooper.  She lets no square inch of stage space go unused as she stomps wildly from one side of the stage to the other and whips her hair with moves that would have any chiropractor seeing dollar signs.

Skillet alternated between older material and songs from their new album, Rise.  One of those older songs, "Comatose," saw one of Skillet's trademarks being deployed - a violinist and cellist that play their instruments through amplifiers and rock out as hard as any self-respecting metal guitarist.  Another Skillet staple is the proliferation of vocals from hard-hitting drummer, Jen Ledger, and those vocals were unapologetically on display as the band ripped through the title track from their latest release. 

Though Skillet is regarded as a Christian band - and perhaps the most famous Christian hard rock band - there's not really a lot of on-stage preaching that comes from them.  They did insert a few positive monologues, such as one rant about the audience being set free from whatever they are sick of, one story about trying to convince a friend not to take her life, and one extremely brief shoutout to Jesus.  But the profanity that spews from other singer's mouths is not part of vocalist John
Cooper's repertoire.  And the girls in the band definitely do not take advantage of their gender (or pander to primal urges) to lure in male fans...with one innocent-enough little exception.

During "Circus for a Psycho," the big screen showed a video set in a boxing ring where John Cooper "fought" with a clown, presumably representing evil.  The acting was bad and the overall concept was cheesy, but with Korey Cooper and Ledger doing synchronized cheerleader routines while wearing mid-length skirts, bright lipstick, and pretty smiles, there was an ever-so-slight amount of girly hotness in this late part of Skillet's set.

If there was any doubt about whether Skillet was giving everything they had to give the crowd their money's worth, all you had to do was look at John Cooper for a second to know that they were.  By the time the band got to their 10th song, "Monster," his arms were glistening with what appeared to be a half-inch thick film of sweat and his grey skinny jeans had become 90% black with soaked-up perspiration.  But he still had enough energy to close the band's set with a rousing rendition of
2006's "Rebirthing."

As each band gave props to the other Carnival bands, it was clear that the majority of the crowd was there for the headliner, ShinedownShinedown built up a bit of extra anticipation for the fans by erecting a curtain to cover the stage that was being prepared for the madness that was about to ensue.

The band actually started into their opening tune, "I'm Not Alright," with the curtain in place.  But it dropped right on time for the first chorus to reveal a stage replete with staircases, fire dancers, and the most (and loudest) on-stage pyro that this author has seen since the last Avenged Sevenfold concert.  The sound was absolutely perfect for Shinedown, with easily the best vocal harmonies of the night and perfectly executed musicianship.  The audience responded with undeniable approval with almost everyone on their feet by the end of the song.

Vocalist Brent Smith, also known for his positive message-laden on-stage banter, got right down to that business after the first song, urging the crowd to high-five or shake hands with their neighbors to which the crowd gladly obliged.  That little lovefest among rock-n-rollers made for an odd segue into the next song, "Enemies." 

Not to be outdone by Skillet, Shinedown also utilized a video screen above their drum set and, for this song, they displayed an animated version of their epic video for the song which famously features a violent fight between the band members.  During the song, it became apparent that one couldn't see the long locks of Brent Smith's hair not because it was tied back in his signature tight ponytail, but because it wasn't there.  Smith apparently has cut his hair uber-short, making him look like current-day Bruce Dickinson as much as his viking-like stage clothes did.

After "Enemies" - which, like "I'm Not Alright," is a track from their latest album, Amaryllis - the band went back to their previous release for "Devour."  Playing "Enemies" and "Devour" back-to-back was a curious choice.  The beginning of "Enemies" borrows the riff from Black Sabbath's "Children of the Grave" while the ending of "Devour" clearly draws from the coda of that same Sabbath classic.  Shinedown saved their best material for last, ensuring that the crowd didn't go home unhappy by playing songs like "Second Chance" and "Bully" as they put the finishing touches on a night of incredible music.

If the lineup for Carnival of Madness 2013 sounded too good to be true, let this be clear:  the lineup was definitely as good as it sounded!  This year's Carnival of Madness treated fans to a start-to-finish onslaught of great band after great band.  It definitely set the bar quite high for future Carnivals...Helping Hands Rock Reviews is excited to see how the tour organizers try to outdo themselves next year.