Pop-Break Live: HELLYEAH (Starland Ballroom)

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Pop-Break Live: HELLYEAH, Sekond Skyn, Devour the Day,

In the midst of a nor’easter, sometimes the winter never ceases to ruin plans for everyone as snowfall and rain made my trip to the Starland Ballroom extremely difficult. While I drove like a senior citizen down some icy roads, the phrase “hell yeah” resembled my relief after I arrived to the venue and saw the words “HELLYEAH” across the marquee.

On behalf of the brave few hundred concert attendees, the risky weather conditions wouldn’t prevent us from enjoying a nonstop onslaught of metal after a long workweek. I must say – this was an interesting show as it was evident that people chose to stay home rather than drive in the dangerous weather, which is perfectly understandable. I mention this tidbit as I give major kudos to each performer for displaying a true sense of professionalism by giving this audience every single ounce of their energy.

Sekond Skyn. Photo Credit: Jeff Crespi
Sekond Skyn. Photo Credit: Jeff Crespi

Keeping things local, Jersey boys Sekond Skyn set the tone for the night by refusing to let the conditions outside ruin their moment opening for HELLYEAH. Most local bands leave much to be desired, especially during high profile shows, but this group managed to shun away the stereotype. First off, my hat goes off to vocalist Jesse Shar whose voice embodies the higher range of Layne Staley from Alice In Chains during the Facelift-era. In terms of grittiness and power, his rebellious vocal delivery perfectly complimented the groove-infused instrumental background. Random note, I’d also like to give a shout out to guitarist Thomas Butler for playing an LTD-EC1000 since I play the same guitar.

Once the stage crew prepared for the next act, DJ “Rockin” Robin Lane from local Jersey station 95.9 WRAT walked onto the stage and introduced this young band called Like A Storm. For those unfamiliar, Like A Storm is a modern rock outfit from New Zealand and their sound draws influence from groups like Three Days Grace and Breaking Benjamin. Talk about outside the box, vocalist Chris Brooks kicked off the set by playing a didgeridoo – a wind instrument from Australia. The ‘didgeridoo’ gave their sound a world-music inspired dash of ambience, which created some musically intriguing moments when combined with distorted guitars and bashing drum fills.

Like a Storm. Photo Credit: Jeff Crespi.
Like a Storm. Photo Credit: Jeff Crespi.

Right from the opening chords of “Chemical Infatuation,” Like A Storm transformed the Starland Ballroom into a full-fledged rock n’ roll party. Case in point, Chris Brooks jumped into the crowd multiple times and preceded to high five nearly everyone standing towards the stage. In keeping with the ‘land down under’ theme, the group even performed a modern rock cover of AC/DC’s “TNT” while everyone chanted “Oi/ Oi/ Oi.” There was also this family near the stage that brought their two young daughters to the show. Honestly, it was great to see Like A Storm display such generosity by singing to this family and giving them guitar picks throughout the set. Those kinds of moments completely nullify the dreaded stereotypes of heavier music and demonstrate how rock n’ roll listeners embrace the ‘unity’ in community.

Next up, “Rockin” Robin walked on stage to show her support and introduce Memphis hard rock outfit Devour The Day. Long story short, I saw this band open for Korn a year and a half ago in front of a sold out audience. While they were still a relatively new band, they proceeded to unleash this monstrous sound that totally caught the crowd by surprise. These kinds of opportunities determine a band’s fate – it’s a true test of character to win over a hostile crowd. While the state of ‘modern rock’ radio is stale, this band’s growing popularity on a mainstream level is positive sign for the talented underground bands out there.

Devour the Day. Photo Credit: Jeff Crespi.
Devour the Day. Photo Credit: Jeff Crespi.

Devour The Day combines borderline progressive metalcore with uptempo punk rock and this relentless sense of aggression translates into songs layered with contagious melodies. Right from the opening riff of “Respect,” the guitar combination of Blake Allison and David Hoffman put forth a rhythmic clinic of hard-hitting riffs while the time changes provided by the backbeat of Ronnie Farris were seemingly effortless. In terms of stage presence, bassist Joey “Chicago” Walser occupied every square inch of the stage like a hunter closing in on its pray. Aside from Walser’s impressive bass lines, it’s been a longtime since I’ve seen a bassist of his caliber commandeer the stage with such noticeable charisma. Much credit goes to Devour The Day for putting forth an incredible effort as they once again made a positive impression on this audience. Going off the Rage Against The Machine inspired conclusion of this group’s new single “Faith,” I’m looking forward to hearing what this band has in store on their upcoming album.

Cue in the entrance of a world heavyweight champion – HELLYEAH proceeded to knock this crowd off its feet quicker than Ronda Rousey. Simply stated, “WOW!” It’s no secret how some Pantera or Mudvayne fans feel about HELLYEAH but I’d challenge anyone to walk away unimpressed after seeing this band’s live show. The band’s new LP Blood For Blood marks a return to each individual member’s heavier roots and it’s no coincidence how this comeback resulted in their best album to-date. Case in point, the setlist was comprised of mostly new tracks.

HELLYEAH. Photo Credit: Jeff Crespi.
HELLYEAH. Photo Credit: Jeff Crespi.

Once the band kicked into the opener, “HELLYEAH,” I nearly fell backwards from the ear shattering veracity pouring out of the amplifiers. Quite frankly, Chad Gray sounds better than ever – this even includes his early years in Mudvayne. For anyone who questioned his quench for party anthems over the last few years, this man still embodies the emotional relentlessness of “Dig,” especially on new tracks like “Cross To Bier (Cradle Of Bones).”

Throughout the night, Gray’s ability to openly discuss his personal struggles resonated with concert attendees that related to his message. In his own words, “People spend money on psychologists for therapy, metalheads spend our money on concert tickets.” He frequently extended his screams and the haunting glare in his eyes surmised his ability to instantaneously put himself into the mindset of his lyrical content. That’s the mark a true frontman – this man could manifest his emotional angst at any given moment.

Speaking of stage presence, I also attribute this group’s current momentum to new bassist Kyle Sanders and guitarist Christian Brady. First off, most metal bassists use guitar picks for high tempo material, meanwhile, Sanders fingers flew across the bottom half of the strings. Sander’s virtuosic precision as a bassist perfectly complimented Vinnie Paul’s drumming and this combination translated into one of the tightest metal rhythm sections that I’ve heard in a long time.

Standing next to Sanders on stage, Christian Brady fit so naturally with HELLYEAH that I’m pulling for him to become a full time member. The guitar combination of Tom Maxwell and Christian Brady sounded like they performed together for nearly a decade, yet it’s only been six months. Brady uses Dean guitars and when he soloed in front of Vinnie Paul’s drumset – he summoned some Dimebag influenced nuances that gave me the chills. Both Brady and Sanders are highly capable vocalists and their backing vocals created an immense backdrop for Chad Gray to properly utilize his voice. This might seem miniscule to the average listener but having two vocalists ease the burden that Gray’s material demands will preserve and benefit his voice in the long run.

Let’s talk about the core members – Tom Maxwell is a modern riff machine. I interviewed him before the show and I’m excited for HELLYEAH listeners to hear his perspective about the band. Even though Vinnie Paul or Chad Gray might be the face of HELLYEAH, Maxwell is truly the heart and soul. The average listener might not recognize his unique ability to accent the notes and create such a gritty aura in his riffs. When he’s performing on stage, his guitar tone is so intense yet never loses the bluesier style of his playing and that’s an extremely difficult combination to master. Straight up, I found myself blown away by his world-class skillset as a rhythm guitarist and his chemistry with Vinnie Paul is one-of-a-kind.

Speaking of Vinnie Paul, I’m a longtime Pantera fanatic and his drumming never ceases to amaze me. From a musician’s standpoint, Vinnie Paul sounds as inspired as ever and his drumming still reaches a level equal to his performance on a Vulgar Display of Power. Few drummers hit the snare or high-hat with such groove and ferocity and HELLYEAH wouldn’t sound anywhere near as good without him. Just like a real drummer should – Vinnie Paul raises the bar for his bandmates and his leadership turns HELLYEAH into one of the tightest metal bands on the planet.

For any of the reluctant Pantera fans, I encourage those listeners to see HELLYEAH and not walk away with a smile on their face since the Pantera element of his sound is still kicking ass. Unfortunately, I never saw Pantera as I discovered their music during their tumultuous breakup after Reinventing The Steel. However, listening to Vinnie Paul in a different context makes me appreciate what he brought to Pantera since it’s immediately recognizable. Most importantly, he looked as happy as I’ve seen him in over a decade. When he stood on his drum stool and encouraged the fans to chant “hell yeah!” I could genuinely see the passion in his eyes for performing once again. Speaking up for Vinnie, this man is unfairly criticized for refusing to support a Pantera reunion with Zakk Wylde. Personally speaking, I will forever cherish his contribution to Pantera but I’m also willing to move forward and support whatever musical outlet makes him happy…as long as it’s metal! If Vinnie Paul is kicking ass on the drums again, all I can say is “HELLYEAH!”

All Photos Are Courtesy of JeffCrespiRocks.

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