Show Review: Sleep with Oxbow and Kowloon Walled City at the Fox Oakland, 6/5/2012

by Jonathan Pirro on June 7, 2012

Matt Pike of Sleep

Matt Pike of Sleep

It’s fairly easy to forget that one of the most important factors of a live performance that distinguishes it from a record is the sheer loudness of the music being played. Concertgoers far and wide are usually pretty good about remembering earplugs, as a result of this fact, and those that don’t can usually protect themselves with handy booths located within the walls of whatever theater they’re ready to get sonically disintegrated within. Generally, though, one can take a blast of churning riffs and thundering beats to the face for a few hours over the course of one evening, and come out relatively unscathed, albeit with their ears possibly ringing for a day or two afterwards. Thus, there lies an entire world of experimentation in the form of performing music at tremendously high levels of volume — although the songs can become almost painful in their intensity. Channel that sound into baleful, fearsome riffs, add a rhythm section that seeks to destroy bricks with its ferocity, and back it up with ludicrously powerful bass and howling, hellish vocals, and you’ll begin to glimpse what a set by the San Jose doom metal trio known as Sleep is like.

Scott Evans and Jeff Fagundes of Kowloon Walled City

Scott Evans and Jeff Fagundes of Kowloon Walled City

Doom metal is an often-diabolically-slow and brutally loud offshoot of the fuzzy, sludgy rock movement of recent decades known colloquially as “stoner rock”, and brings with it the ancient blues riffs and Black Sabbath-style melodies of darkness and woe that its forefathers were known for. The father genre, however, incorporates a decent spread of sound within itself, and thus provided San Francisco metal quartet Kowloon Walled City with a decently-sized audience for their short but energetic set. Chugging, growling licks on guitar were provided by guitarist Jon Howell and frontman Scott Evans, who roared furiously into his mic as he and his bandmates plowed through their 30 minutes onstage at the Fox Theater. Evans hurled between Howell and bassist Ian Miller, who both seemed in perpetual motion on the sides of the stage, keeping up a steady thrashing-about under the harsh red and blue hues that lit up the theater.

Eugene Robinson of Oxbow

Eugene Robinson of Oxbow

As dynamic as Kowloon Walled City’s set was, however, it paled in comparison to the experimental-cum-pulverizing-stoner-thrash of Oxbow, another San Francisco act that threw nigh-twangy blues metal into a melting pot with careening blasts of guitar and bass. Above the audio cyclone that ebbed, waxed and waned its way ever onward was vocalist Eugene Robinson, a visual tour de force as much as an aural one, who moved with the grace of a panther and the terrifying energy of a man possessed by a hellspawn. Every single song was a new world to explore, and with the stage slowly filling with smoke from the burning incense on either side of the stage, the men of Oxbow transported their Oakland onlookers into their universe of chaos and wonder for nearly an hour. Robinson tore his clothes asunder with every passing song, and the rest of the band spent their time abandoning constrictive rhythms and melodies in favor of sounds and passages that lived and breathed for every note that was hurled from the musicians on stage.

Al Cisneros of Sleep

Al Cisneros of Sleep

Within the first few minutes of Sleep’s two-hour, bone-crushingly intense set, it was clear that Oxbow had ripped out the last shreds of violent and flamboyant chaos. All that was left, for the second half of the evening, was the unyielding onslaught of doom metal that guitarist Matt Pike and bassist/vocalist Al Cisneros delivered in the purest possible form. Every note, punctuated by consistent blasts of percussion from drummer Jason Roeder (formerly of Neurosis), had set itself out to throttle the skulls of the crowd that had now filled the floor of the Fox Theater, and did so with stunning gusto. For some, the alternate dimension had arrived at last, in the form of eight- to twenty-minute songs that rode on the pretense of four or five notes at a time, in steady, dizzyingly forceful melodies that were both calming in their musical candor and unsettling in their darkness and fury. The end of every song was abrupt — no long-standing thrash-fests with the continued, ever-slowing hailstorm of cymbals, no long notes belted out in power metal style — and at each moment that a piece came grinding to a stop, one could feel their entire body release the vibrating, jarring sensation of the sonic avalanche that had beset them.

Matt Pike and his signature guitar

Matt Pike and his signature guitar

For an outsider to the world of doom metal, this show might have been perceived to be an endurance test. Massive in size and yet simple in scope were the songs that Sleep played for their titanic set, which came to an end just shy of the hour of midnight. They exchanged very few words with the crowd, despite some lengthy pauses and moments of serene calm between each of their juggernaut pieces, and only slipped in a brief interlude in the middle of the set, amidst a pairing of many lengthy numbers before and after. Above everything, the decibel level and staggeringly persistent riffs kept the set barreling along with a shocking level of power, and all of those who arrived to listen could find themselves, and many parts of their body, buried, twisted, and forcefully pressed through every snarling note of the night. As they had begun their set with the opening section of “Dopesmoker”, the band’s 60-minute magnum opus, they ended with another section of the song, subtitled “Cultivator/Improved Morris”, and gave many great thanks to their onlookers and most passionate of fans, departing amidst cries for an encore as the house lights came up.

Jason Roeder and Matt Pike of Sleep

Jason Roeder and Matt Pike of Sleep

I have listened to doom metal records like Dopesmoker, The Telestic Disfracture by the Boston duo 5ive, and many classic works by bands like Isis and Neurosis, though I would never consider myself an expert in the genre. While I was prepared for what notes I would hear and for the chance to experience the music of a legendary, once-long-disbanded act like Sleep, I was steamrollered over by the no-punches-pulled intensity of the set, and I’m certain I was not alone in this. Some particularly cynical and snide critics would argue that Sleep has the most appropriate namesake of a band, but I found each song to be its own mesmerizing journey, a new experience in sound and its effect on the human body when hurled out with all of the fury of a rabid hyena. There are few bands that exist today that offer the same unflinching delivery of their music the way that Sleep does, and it is a hypnotic, frightening, and idyllic thing to behold.

Sleep's setlist

Sleep's setlist

Additional photos from the show below. All photos © 2012 Jonathan Pirro.

Oxbow:

Kowloon Walled City:

Jonathan Pirro

Off-kilter multimedia enthusiast.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Gordon June 8, 2012 at 9:31 am

Knowing that Matt Pike went into rehab yesterday, would you have looked at the show any differently?

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