(By Pat ‘Riot’ Whitaker, Senior Writer/Journalist, RiffRelevant.com)
On Saturday, May 26, 2018, I was able to scratch a top band off of my own personal Bucket List of bands to see live: Nashville, Tennessee’s HOWLING GIANT!
The band itself, which is mostly the duo of guitarist / vocalist Tom Polzine and drummer / vocalist Zach Wheeler these days, has been on my radar for several years now. With a string of EP releases in recent times, HOWLING GIANT have cemented themselves as one of the heavy underground’s best rising acts, but damn, their live presentation is a spectacle to behold!
They, along with regional support bands ELECTRIC PHANTOM and VIC CROWN, would bring HOWLING GIANT‘s recent “Escape From The Lab 2018 Tour” to an epic end at the Sly Grog Lounge in Asheville, North Carolina this night. But, before we get into all of that, let’s develop the tale with a bit of a prequel, shall we?
I, along with my trusty videographer / photographer and friend, Will Bouton of Fugo Films, would trek from the mountains of the Kentucky – Virginia state line to beautiful AVL for this show. Now, though I frequent the town quite regularly, this would be my introductory visit to Sly Grog Lounge and wow, were we in for a treat.
The venue is a mostly open-air setting with a wide berth of seating areas toward the front, then a bar and stage area toward a more enclosed back area. This is where things get interesting, i.e. the decor of Sly Grog Lounge – which is retro pop culture chic to the Nth Degree.
Oldschool, er … “vintage” video game consoles, ala early Atari, Nintendo, etc., adorn several play stations throughout the place. A couple of pinball machines, video games, several shelves laden with books, VHS movie tapes, weird curios and other eclectic items are littered throughout. All of this adds to and ultimately creates one hella-interesting spot to see a band, it is intimate and entertaining both.
OK, now let’s get down to the business at hand, which is, of course rockin’… and folks, let me tell ya: Business would be good, and good to go on this humid summer night in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains.
In the spirit of full disclosure, or my “tell it how it is” nature, take your pick, I was admittedly unfamiliar with this evening’s pair of initial prime movers, VIC CROWN and ELECTRIC PHANTOM. Sure, I’d briefly delved into each’s social media presence on Facebook prior to the gig, but that did not provide a real feel for what they do musically.
No, that would have to be inspected, investigated, and ultimately experienced in the live setting of the real-time rock ‘n roll show. First up: VIC CROWN, a quartet comprised of Falcon Faust (vocals), Colin Townsend (drums), Sam Steele (bass), and Patrick Rothe (guitar), and one with a damned groovy delivery, too.
Songs with such titles as “Knee Deep“, “BRN“, “Montreal“, “Here & Now“, “Caution“, and “Trust” were served with abundant punch and aplomb. Rut-deep riffs got galvanized with rumbling rhythms and the result was a solid early Clutch-meets-Scissorfight sound and style from these heavyweights. VIC CROWN clearly has a loyal fan following who turned out to support them. I must mention two facts of interest for me: First, Faust’s use of what I can only describe as an “antique-y” (???) mic that gives his vocals a cool, muddier output, and one that fits right nicely with the band’s sonic discharge. He also displays a great rapport with the crowd, often stepping out in their midst to present his vocals from right there, with and for the people.
Second, Townsend’s drumming. The guy is a damn dynamo of chaotic kit-work, he is engrossing to observe, thrilling to hear and energetically propels the songs, while Rothe and Steele’s more laid back, relaxed playing rides tight upon those drums. I look forward to finding out more about VIC CROWN, especially their recorded material for any releases, out or upcoming, whichever.
From the moment ELECTRIC PHANTOM began setting up, I surmised they were going to be of a “different” breed altogether. How did I come to such a conclusion, you ask? After decades of doing what I do, I just know these things. That realization was helped along by their stage props, use of lights, and colorful items, all that type stuff. Once the cast of characters, Eli “Mansome Dan” Williams (bass / vocals), Shane “The Bat” Francis (drums), and guitarists Randy Hampton and Ki Adams, began playing, my surmising was validated as spot-on.
The freakish foursome – which I attach with all due respect and admiration – play a melded amalgamation of progressive rock and metal. They insert elements of punk, funk, speed metal, and alt. country into it and Dan / Eli keeps shit comically enhanced with his zany banter and off-the-wall antics. Songs like “Witch Moon Baby”, “Phantom Man”, “Cooler Than You“, and “Motormouth” were riddled with tempo alterations and applied with non-stop energy and, like the preceding Vic Crown, ELECTRIC PHANTOM have a solid, adulating fan base for sure.
They would end their set on an interesting high note, ala a country-fied cover of the Ludacris hit “Move Bitch (Get Out Da Way)“! Yep, all twangy and served with a side of hill-folk funk, ELECTRIC PHANTOM are definitely one of the more unique bands I’ve caught in awhile.
Speaking of country music – ok not really – Nashville’s HOWLING GIANT commandeered the stage next and what ensued is the stuff of unforgettable recollections. Guitarist / vocalist Tom Polzine and drummer / vocalist Zach Wheeler, joined on this trek by touring bassist and friend Mike Kerr, would proceed to decimate those of us witnessing in attendance.
The trio would launch their set in a most appropriate place, with the first song that introduces their 2015 S/T EP, “Husk“. They followed it with the last song from that same EP, “Camel Crusher” and let me tell you, Asheville was barely prepared for what these guys were transmitting. Super tight playing and precise interaction between the three in this live setting added a whole new dimension to the already epic music from HOWLING GIANT.
I, along with the crowd, were mostly lost in a sonic-fueled euphoria of frenzied headbanging amid animated activity at this point. The rapid-fire tempo changes and subsequent heavy musical discharge from the stage was incredible as the guys rolled out “Mothership“, “Visions“, and “The Pioneer“. The songs were staples from HOWLING GIANT‘s recent pair of back to back, conceptually connected EP releases, “Black Hole Space Wizard: Part 1” (2016) and 2017’s “Black Hole Space Wizard: Part 2“. [Learn about that conceptual theme and more in my interview with Howling Giant from this same night, HERE].
We then arrived at the heavily psychedelia-infused “Earth Wizard“, a lengthy tune rife with laid back jamming and heady vocals. See, that’s what HOWLING GIANT excels at, fantastic songs that meld progressive metal, doom, and psychedelics into magnificent compositions. This would now be reinforced within the confines of “Whale Lord“, one of this night’s highlights, where the threesome unfurled this hellishly massive song. It’s ebbing, flowing music fluidity is an absolutely enthralling delivery indeed, made even better by Tom and Zach’s trade-off vocals.
Things would begin to wind down a bit at this point, but not before we would be treated to a powerful reinterpretation of the Blue Öyster Cult classic “Godzilla“. Slowed down somewhat, with inserts of doomier nuances and choppier vocals, the song, much like its namesake, crushed everything in its path. The night would be brought to its cessation with a return to the aforementioned ’15 S/T EP for the set-ending “Doug“. Its upbeat, airier styling led everyone in the place to get active and involved.
I must mention that throughout their set, this trio of Tom, Zach, and Mike delivered jaw-dropping individual performances that left me awestruck. From Mike’s manhandling of his bass, with the thunderous rhythms created, to Zach’s frenetic kit-work on the drums, both were engrossing and inspiring. Along with Tom’s monstrous riffery and fiery soloing assaults, the interactions between this live version of HOWLING GIANT was magnificent. Words fail to do it the proper justice, but I have tried…
*All photos courtesy of Will Bouton / FUGO Films.