There was a palpitation in the Heart of the Commonwealth when it looked like not just a great old building but a whole thriving musical subculture faced the wrecking ball.
Aggravated by a sharp increase in their property taxes, owners of the Worcester Palladium began the process of seeking demolition permits to take down the theater erected in 1928 as part of the E.M. Loew’s chain. The Worcester Historical Commission in July refused to fast-track the process, citing the Palladium’s historical and cultural significance to the city.
And why the Palladium matters so much will be on display tonight when the Summer Slaughter tour rolls into the building with nationally touring acts Cannibal Corpse, Between the Buried and Me, The Faceless and others, plus a whole second stage of heavy metal bands from Massachusetts and neighboring locales. It’s classic Palladium, turning a tour into an event, one that brings in bands defining a genre–in this case extreme heavy metal–and nurturing the ones who are constantly reshaping the genre. It’s a dynamic no different than the one I saw last week at the Newport Jazz Festival.
It’s an especially interesting time for aggressive music right now, as the gunman accused of opening fire this week in a Sikh temple has been identified as being part of the “hate metal” movement. Metal of all stripes is brutal, aggressive music. However, I have never seen outright “hate” pouring from the stage or stewing in the crowd as I’ve covered the metal scene for nearly 20 years. The metal world is certainly a bit removed from mainstream cultural spotlights, and it’s easy to see how bad things can foment in those shadows. Yet hate is not an aesthetic value among serious musicians, and the metal mavens driving the genre are as serious as the musicians working other types of purer, less commercially conscious strains of music, from jazz to folk.
In the mid ’90s, the Palladium underwent a rebirth when independent concert producer MassConcerts set up shop in the building. At the time, Boston venues ignored metal bands, focusing instead on the various waves of grunge and alternative rock that were far more popular. A casual observer would have surmised that metal was dead.
But there is no killing this beast as long as there are guitars that plug into amplifiers and people who like to vent. MassConcerts worked closely with metal bands, bringing them into the centrally located Palladium and slowly fostering a scene that blossomed into the New England Metal and Hardcore Festival, an annual barometer of all things heavy, which draws an international audience to the venue. This year alone, I met fans from England and Australia.
Nobody travels that far for hate. They come for release.
Heavy metal music fans at the Palladium (photo by Sam McLennan.)
Sure, Cannibal Corpse sings horrifying lyrics, but the presentation is akin to a horror movie, not a manifesto. Musically the metal bands are forever pushing the boundaries. Between the Buried and Me plays the sort of intricate, multi-tiered music that pulls the Berklee kids to the edges of the mosh pit.
And, yes, those slam-dancing DMZs at a metal show do look dangerous, but again, it’s a controlled aggression. Bodies collide, but punches are rarely thrown, and when it does look like something is turning into trouble, fans themselves inevitably step in to stop it. I’ve seen a singer dive into the crowd, lose his wallet in the process, crawl back to the stage, sheepishly ask if someone found it, and get it returned a few minutes later.
My falling into the metal world still perplexes those who knew me back when I blasted Grateful Dead all day and all night (still much love for Jerry and the boys). But covering music for a newspaper in Worcester for so long unwittingly led me into one of metal’s primo cauldrons. It did not take long to find the brains and beauty belied by the outwardly brawny and thuggish characteristics of the music. It’s almost like the music taunts you to turn away, unless you are willing to really listen to what’s going on¬–the writing, the arranging, the technicality of it all. And like any good art form, those willing to take the risk are often met with a satisfying reward. This reward here just happens to be very loud.
Summer Slaughter begins at 2:00 p.m. today. For ticket information, go online to tickets.com.