In a few days, a legion of heavy metal maniacs will throng the Event Center at San Jose State University for the third annual Gigantour. Created by Megadeth frontperson Dave Mustaine, the package consists of bands he has handpicked for their ability to deliver high-energy live sets to arena-size crowds. In addition to the venerable thrashers in Megadeth, the tour has included a number of the biggest names in both modern and classic metal such as Lamb of God, Anthrax, Overkill, and Opeth.
The 2008 incarnation of Gigantour has tapped Bay Area greats High on Fire, who seem to be playing in front of bigger audiences with each passing week, and given the youthful Arizonans in Job for a Cowboy their first taste of the big time. While American metal is robustly represented, Mustaine has also called on two European bands that are legendary in their own countries. Subsumed by the banner of Megadeth, Sweden’s In Flames and Finland’s Children of Bodom are holding down the kind of opening slots that have become unfamiliar to them, promoting new albums to each other’s fans and trying to reach that ever-elusive next echelon of success.
In Flames guitarist Jesper Strömblad sounded weary but enthusiastic when reached by phone from Worcester, Mass., where he was preparing to play the first day of the New England Metal and Hardcore Festival, which included the entire Gigantour lineup on its initial night. The group was honored to join the outing, he said, adding, "Megadeth is one of my personal favorite bands."
In Flames was formed by Strömblad in 1990 in Gothenburg, Sweden, a university town that during the ’90s hosted a profusion of melodic death metal, honed into a form so distinctive that it became known as the "Gothenburg sound." Typified by carefully composed neoclassical guitar harmonies, the style was popularized by bands such as At the Gates, Dark Tranquillity, and Soilwork (from nearby Helsingborg), but it reached a creative peak on In Flames’ 1996 full-length, The Jester Race (Nuclear Blast).
In Flames’ new A Sense of Purpose (Koch) hasn’t lost the searing dual leads that define the group, and as Strömblad was right to point out, "You can hear a song from today’s In Flames, or an old song you can hear it’s us." Creatively, however, the band has been caught in a downward spiral since 2002’s Reroute to Remain (Nuclear Blast), which introduced clean singing, slower tempos, and hollow electronic textures into the band’s repertoire. As Strömblad explained, "playing fast is not necessarily aggressive, or heavy. What we want to put in the music is big dynamics." Those musical contrasts are present, but accompanied by stark differences in quality between the outfit’s modern and classic material.
While In Flames has evolved, Finnish outfit Children of Bodom has mostly stuck to its guns, churning out adrenaline-fueled speed-metal full of catchy neoclassical shredding on the keyboard and guitar. Founded in 1993 in Helsinki, the band takes its name from Lake Bodom, a small body of water in the city’s suburbs that was host to the country’s most infamous triple murder, which claimed the lives of three teenagers on a camping trip in 1960.
The group’s frontperson, Alexi Laiho, is a veritable guitar hero, in addition to being an unrepentant party animal. Finally reached by phone in Baltimore after an initial hangover-thwarted attempt, he insisted that Children of Bodom’s daunting technicality was a natural outgrowth of his songwriting, rather than an attempt to show off. The band’s greatest strength is clear when Laiho and keyboardist Janne Wirman chase each other up and down the scales, and Children of Bodom, at its best, sounds like a demented, amplified string quartet. No surprise, then, when Laiho mentioned the artist the combo listened to for inspiration when recording its groundbreaking early albums: "Mozart."
Children of Bodom’s new Blooddrunk (Spinefarm) certainly cites the ax-master’s love of booze and is a more memorable effort than 2005’s Are You Dead Yet? (Spinefarm). The solos are as incendiary as ever, and the band’s embrace of progressive-rock tendencies has yet to blunt the Vivaldi-style virtuosity of its songs.
Speaking with two bands that have ascended to the metal mountaintop and gotten a look at the downward slope on the other side, it seemed important to ask if this new period of prosperity, exemplified by Gigantour, had a catch. After all, metal has fallen on hard times before, even when it seemed poised to conquer the world for good.
Surprisingly, Strömblad and Laiho provided nearly identical answers. "You always see different styles [of metal]," said the In Flames guitarist. "The genre of metal will always be popular. The different styles can grow big for a while and then go away." Laiho concurred: "Because the metal scene is so big and wide, and has different categories, it’s never going to implode on itself. It’s always going to be evolving." As long as people in Sweden, Finland, and America are willing to forge the next In Flames or Children of Bodom, these two six-string titans will be proven right.
With Megadeth, In Flames, Children of Bodom, Job for a Cowboy, and High on Fire
Mon/19, 5:30 p.m., $37.50
San Jose State University, Event Center Arena
290 S. Seventh St., San Jose