CONCERT REVIEW: POWERWOLF Unleashed In Times Square For First-Ever US Performance (February 23rd, 2023)

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Long-running German metal band Powerwolf have long maintained that they had no plans to tour the United States. It’s a reasonable position to take for a successful band of their genre; the US has generally been ambivalent to traditional and power metal, to the point that even the most massive Eurometallers – Nightwish, for example – had to slog away in tiny Stateside clubs before graduating to the modestly-sized theaters where they usually perform today.

But this has changed. A little over two weeks ago I photographed the smallest of the Big Four, Anthrax, when they headlined a 3100-capacity concert hall.  The granddaddy of power metal, the mighty Helloween, will soon kick off a US tour at the prestigious Dallas hall The Factory (capacity 4300), where the likes of Judas Priest and Erykah Badu perform. Astute readers might note that this is the same venue where Mercyful Fate played their first US show in over two decades last year, before a sold-out crowd. (You can read our thoughts about that show at BraveWords).

Photo by Gonzalo Pozo

Anthrax, Helloween, and Mercyful Fate all have this in common: I’d previously seen them in San Antonio at the old White Rabbit, a dingy little outhouse that was as active as it was underwhelming. The place could barely contain 500 concertgoers, and of these three bands, only Mercyful sold the place out. In my mind, that bands such as these are again finally playing to crowd sizes they deserve demonstrates that the American metal scene is healthier than it’s been in decades.

I can only assume that the Powerwolf camp noticed this and wisely acted on it, booking concerts in New York City and Massachusetts, as well as a date in Montreal. All sold out quickly, and prompted the band to add dates in Dallas, Denver, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, all in prestigious venues.

Powerwolf’s US debut took place on February 23, 2023 at the Palladium Times Square, a 2100 capacity venue on the corner of Broadway and 44th Street, in the heart of New York City’s vibrant Theater District. The line in front of the theater already wrapped around the corner by about 2PM, and the enthusiasm was evidenced by all the black shirts and leather jackets that bounced about Times Square. Fans traveled from as far as Nashville, North Carolina, DC, Atlanta, and Texas to attend the first Heavy Metal Mass to be celebrated on US soil, and all the familiar faces I saw gave a strong “ProgPower North” vibe. I even bumped into a few friends I’d made on my first trek on the 70,000 Tons of Metal cruise a few weeks ago, including my esteemed cabin-mate Mark Gromen, whose words I’d read voraciously in my Metal Maniacs-addled youth.

Photo by Gonzalo Pozo

The Palladium was packed. The floor felt like a Tokyo subway car even before openers Seven Kingdoms greeted the hungry crowd with a blistering ten-song set that easily appeased all the power metal nerds in the crowd. Meanwhile, the Powerwolf diehards tested their patience at the merch booth line. The wait was a good forty minutes and in my experience, the sheer length of that line was bested only by the one at the aforementioned Mercyful show in Dallas last fall. The commemorative New York shirt that was made specifically for this concert sold out by the time Sonic Perspectives honcho Joel Barrios and I even made it to the booth.

Powerwolf hit the stage at 9PM and were welcomed by an absolutely ravenous crowd whose shouts were nearly as loud as the opening band was. The expertly-designed set, built to resemble a sinister Gothic cathedral, proved to be the perfect visual representation of what Powerwolf is about: blasphemy and lycanthropy. Beneath the massive upstage riser were human-sized lancet windows bearing stained-glass depictions of werewolves donned in Catholic vestments, and at each end of the risers were lancets that had to have been a good twelve feet tall bearing the same. The downstage-left window looked particularly villainous: the stained glass depicted a howling werewolf crowned with thorns, an eerie if not exactly faithful interpretation of Christ’s agony in Gethsemane. The middle of the three pointed arches over the riser bore perhaps the most subtly irreverent symbol I’ve seen a metal band employ: an enormous bastardization of the Monogramma Christi, that Catholic “chi-rho/ p-x” monogram intended to symbolize Christ, stylized to look like the “p-w” that are essentially Powerwolf’s initials. The recovering Catholic and former altar server in me deemed it eerie as f**k, so mission brilliantly accomplished.

Photo by Gonzalo Pozo

Drummer Roel van Helden appeared first in front of the monogram, and was received with a roar befitting a touchdown before taking his place at the throne of his kit. Keyboardist Christian Jost, alias Falk Maria Schlegl, followed before guitarists Benjamin “Matthew Greywolf” Buss and David “Charles Greywolf” Vogt made their grand entrances. If the screams that awaited van Helden sounded like a crowd that just witnessed a sick sports-ball move, the ones that erupted when front-man Karsten “Atilla Dorn” Brill entered the stage would not have sounded out of place at a goddamn World Cup Final. This audience was pumped.

The corpse-painted quintet’s neo-gothic revival attire and defiled clergy-wear belied their demeanor: they were all smiles, clearly thrilled to be performing on US soil after twenty solid years. They tore into “Faster Than the Flame,”  the raucous opening cut of their most recent album, 2021’s “Call of the Wild.” This song is perhaps most emblematic of their classification as a “power metal” band in that despite its heretical nature and liberal use of church organs and Latin choirs, it is upbeat and  nearly cheerful. I personally reserve the “power metal” label to outwardly happy bands like Freedom Call and such, and I prefer to call groups like Pyramaze, Borealis, and Powerwolf simply “metal” in order to make that distinction, but that’s all whatever. What matters in this moment is that Powerwolf makes sick music for sick people who like to smile, and I count myself among them. And man, what sick smiles we wore.

Photo by Gonzalo Pozo

A cloaked thurifer then presented Dorn with a loaded and burning thurible, which  Dorn then swung around like a defrocked priest to de-consecreate the stage and continue the first American Heavy Metal Mass with “Incense and Iron” and “Army of the Night.” The eighteen-song set heavily favored the band’s three most recent albums, including such crowd pleasers as “Demons Are a Girl’s Best Friend,” as well as older favorites like “Sainted By the Storm,” “Sanctified With Dynamite,” and the gloriously cheesy “Resurrection By Erection.” Longtime fans were surely disappointed that “Lupus Dei” and “Return in Bloodred” were not represented, but the electrifying performance and “exchange of energy,” as Dorn put it, clearly overrode that upset. I’m not convinced that a single throat that was at the Palladium that night arose not sore the next morning.

Schlegl deserves special mention for being perhaps the most engaging keyboardist in metal. He seizes every opportunity and every key tacet to descend downstage to interact with the crowd, menacing the audience and taunting them with his stole. Easily the band’s most charismatic performer, Schlegl spends nearly as much time tinkling the ivories while standing next to his rig rather than behind it. Think of him as metal’s Lawrence Gowan and you might get the idea. The Greywolf brothers are no slouches either; their facial expressions change damn near as much as their positions on the stage, and their very presence and striking resemblance to one another is nearly as minacious as the music they play.

Photo by Gonzalo Pozo

“Werewolves of Armenia” concluded the nearly two-hour mass, and at last it was possible for folks on the floor to squirm around a bit. I suppose that’s just a part of New York life – everything is so close together that there’s simply no concept of personal space in a GA crowd. Another possibility is that much of the crowd was so hungry for this concert that they simply wanted to be as close to the action as they could. Either way, navigating that crowd was a task so daunting that I wanted no part in it, and I am forever grateful that there is literally no bad seat in the venue, and that Dear Leader Joel and I, short f**kers that we are, saw and heard everything with no difficulty from the very back of the auditorium. I’d have been pretty upset if the foremost purpose for my Unholy Pilgrimage were robbed from me by virtue of everyone else being taller than I am. Suffice it to say, this concert alone would have been worth the journey, and it will forever bolster my already noteworthy metal cred. In nomine lupus, amen.  

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