The stage opened to candelabras and a human skull. Lights syncopated to the throb of the beat.
The crowd was enthralled.
Orchid returned to their home base of San Francisco Friday night, fresh off their tour of Europe in support of their new album, "The Mouths of Madness," on Nuclear Blast Records. Europe embraced the band of retro-rockers with open, sweaty arms and a salivating, metal-hungry heart; pulling Orchid into their heavy-loving embrace and threatening to never let go. Their post-Sabbath brand of metallic doom speared right into the hearts of the metal loving communities of Germany, Italy, Benelux, Austria, Switzerland, Poland and the UK. Highlights were the headlining slot at the Berlin Desertfest in front of 2000 fans and a frenetically celebrated gig in front of around 8.000 euphoric fans at renowned ROCK HARD Festival, in Gelsenkirchen, Germany.
Orchid had triumphed. They were anointed as the kings, the monarchs who returned heavy rock to the people.
Now, back home, the band didn't know what to expect.
San Francisco is not the place to go if you're looking for a great heavy rock scene. Indy rock? sure. Art rock? OK. Something pretentious and amelodic and loved only by critics? You bet. But not good old fashioned, knuckle-dragging heavy rock. Hanging out with the band in the Green Room before the show, we talked about this. About what reception was going to await the returning hometown rockers. Vocalist, Theo Mindell; “San Francisco is a hard place to believe in yourself. San Francisco is classically intellectual and heavy rock music is fairly stupid. And intellectualism breeds critics and they’re always trying to tear you down. So, I don’t think it’s easy to be a heavy rock band in San Francisco. We don’t really fit in anywhere. I always felt like we were going to war. We had to fucking bring it. But I don’t know what to think about tonight. I don’t know how people feel about us at home. We booked this show at this big club on a weekend and I’m super paranoid. Wondering are we going to have 100 people here. Are we gonna fall on our fucking faces?”
Slims is a big club. The type of club that The Sword would have trouble selling out. Owned by Boz Scaggs, Slims is the sort of club that gets written about in the San Francisco Chronicle. The music hall is huge and cavernous and empty spaces stand out like bald spots on a putting green.
Orchid needn't have worried.
Each member of Orchid brought their own mastery. Mark Thomas Baker, dressed in a sleek black button down, was the suave owner of riff, crushing out power chords and sneaking in licks with abandon. Keith Nickel on bass was a phenom to watch. His right hand flipped across the strings with cheetah-attack speed, while his left hand never strayed from the high-end of the neck. I was mesmerized in disbelief at this fluidity of his playing until I recognized the mutation that gave him 19 fingers on each hand. Behind, Carter Kennedy on the drums, the quite southerner, was the secret weapon, tossing in complex beats with ferocity and solidity, while never losing a heavy swing and swagger. And in front of it all was Theo. Draped in charisma, tattoos, and a bare chest, he became the natural focal point for the adoring audience. Between riffs he danced and thrust, all the time clenching the microphone as if it were the holy grail.
"Mouths of Madness," cranked out next with it's charging riff and uptempo assault of doom. Again, Nickel's fingers assaulted the upper reaches of his bass like Roosevelt's Rough Rider's charging up San Juan hill. Mark was the wall of solidity as he churned out the riffage. Carter held it all together and Theo lost his mind behind the mic. It was doom with melody. Metal with swagger. Infectious like a killer microbe.
My conversation with Orchid brought up reverence to classic rock bands like Pentagram, Venom, Kiss, Black Sabbath, Jethro Tull, Pink Floyd, Nazareth, and Alice Cooper. But the one thing that couldn't be avoided was the obvious reference to Sabbath. So rather than pussyfoot around the issue, we tackled it dead on. What was their take on the Sabbath comparisons?
"But to me, Ozzy is the greatest singer in Metal. There was such a wounded desperation in his voice. It's what kept them real. When I sing heavy music, that's the place I go to. That sincerity of desperation. I wish I sounded more like Ozzy."
Nickel jumps in: “To me there’s way more Pink Floyd in our music than people ever say. When we finished Capricorn, I went to Theo and said, ‘Oh My God, we’re a space rock band!’
“Influences are a weird thing,” Carter expands. “Because as a band we have influences that are the band influence, then we all have really diverse individual influences that spread all over the place. So I think in a way, the Sabbath thing was like a meeting point. A middle ground. Where we could take all our different unique influences and put them in place.”
Influence or nicking? Is there a difference? How many bands in the post-Sabbath era of doom aren't borrowing here or being influenced there. As "Eyes Behind the Wall" blasted out of the system, Theo in full Ozzy mode, Mark tossing lead note flurries a la Tony Iommi, Nickel riding his bass like Geezer and Carter's Ward inspired drumming, I realized it didn't matter. The guys were amazingly tight. The doom assaulting me was visceral, double forearm smashes to my solar plexus. The audience was rapt. No one was making comparisons at that moment. "Eyes Behind the Wall," was my favorite cut from the Capricorn album, and looking around, I wasn't alone. Fist pounded in regimented fury. Head thrusts of doom filled the audience like a ritualistic bowing ceremony. Orchid was creating a tsunami of doom metal and and audience was swept up in their undertow.
And the show goes, and the adoration grows, and the hometown heroes can let their fears go and realize that their return was just as triumphant as their journey away. And through it all, I'm mesmerized by the men who are making it all happen. Rock stars? Maybe. Yes, they were christened saviors of metal in Germany, but hanging out with them back home, there's no hint of attitude. I've been with much smaller bands who had much grander ideas of themselves. The guys of Orchid are approachable and honest. Sincere and humble. They love music. Both the music they play and the music that came before them. When I ask them each about the first album that truly terrified them, they launch into spirited discussions of Sabbath and Kiss and Venom and Bowie. Their love of the music bleeds through loud and clear.
There's no sense of entitlement here. Just hard working guys doing what they know how to do and doing it incredibly well.
So, how did a band from the non-heavy rock capital of San Francisco leap to the upper reaches of rock recognition in Europe? How did it all happen? I asked.
There was a moment of silence, before Theo responded.
“We’re just the luckiest bar band in the world.”
And so are their fans.
If you dig NWOBHM, check these guys out. I understand a CD is coming soon.