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"There is no safe word." - An Evening of Music and Mayhem with Avatar

written and photographed by Tara McDermott, The Portrait Witch

I’m standing in the pouring rain waiting for a photo pass and chatting up the people in line about how excited they are for the show. Every band playing tonight has fans in this line. As I enter the building, the security guard is quite concerned about the pool of water sitting on the top of my camera bag. “I hope this thing is waterproof.” I hope so, too, buddy! When he checks my bag everything looks good and dry. I call that a win! I strip off my soaking wet hoodie (sorry, bunnyhug) and stuff it in the top of my bag, slap my media pass on my clown t-shirt and head in to get the lay of the land.

Coors Event Centre is much bigger than I expected it to be. There are many levels to view the show from, and a nice long bar stretches across one side. My husband is currently over there getting us drinks while I get my bearings. Beverages in hand, we go fulfill a promise to our daughter and grab her a t-shirt. She desperately wanted to come but alas, no minors for this freakshow.

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of chatting with the lead singer/guitarist of the opening band, Alex Holycross, and I’m excited to see their high-energy brand up close and personal. When The Native Howl takes the stage, I’m not disappointed. They brought their A-game to little old Saskatoon and the crowd is eating it up. Trust me, I wasn’t the only one in the crowd singing along to “Sons of Destruction.” “Waco” is clearly a song they enjoy playing and the crowd was invested in “Devil I’ve Become.” Both of which are songs that have yet to be released. They close their set with their “original thrash grass song, ‘Thunderhead’” and the mosh pit is right there with them. We are primed and ready for the next act.

The Native Howl on stage at Coors Event Centre for Avatar's Chimp Mosh Pit Tour in Saskatoon, SK

If The Native Howl brought the energy, well, Orbit Culture, they are bringing the heavy. They come in guns blazing and are taking no prisoners. Hair is flying, fog is erupting, and guitars are grinding. If you thought you were going to catch a breath during this set, you were sadly mistaken. I hope you were prepared for an onslaught because drummer Christopher Wallerstedt is tireless. Moshers are in their absolute glory as Niklas Karlsson belts out lyrics to “From the Inside”, “Carvings” and “Strangler.” Back when I was outside a fan told me that Orbit Culture was “going to shred” and they weren’t kidding. This crowd is now ready for anything.

Orbit Culture at Avatar's Chimp Mosh Pit Tour at Coors Event Centre in Saskatoon, SK

While I wait for the next act, I watch Holycross pass by me, not once, but twice. The third time I take a chance, say, “Alex!” and then introduce myself as the voice at the other end of the phone from a couple of weeks ago. He gives me a big smile and a hug and promises to catch up with me later. I just got a hug from ALEX HOLYCROSS. Holy shit!

To say I was unprepared for Avatar’s arrival on stage is putting it mildly. They appear in an explosion of sparks with “Dance Devil Dance” and I fumble my cameras. What is this madness? Now, I saw Avatar a few years back when they were the opening band and, in all fairness, I was told they had an incredible stage show now, but that entrance packed a bigger punch than I expected. It took me a minute to get past fangirling and get down to business.

After the first three songs, Johannes Eckerström addresses all of us freaks. He knows we’re “dirty” and proceeds to get “informed consent” from us but advises us . . . in extreme seriousness . . . “There is no safe word.” We don’t care! Give us more!

Claiming we are “such a peculiar crowd" he introduces the next song as “something of a fairytale.” The crowd begins to chant “KING!” but he advises it is not THAT king. Avatar likes to delay gratification in a big way! “The king in this next song . . . is a dick!” And they launch into “Puppet Show.”

I must confess that as is oft an issue at all good carnival affairs, things begin to get a little disorienting. I’m so invested in the moment, that my notes become a little muddy and the order of things might differ from reality. Forgive me.

Now, I knew that I would be blessed (yes blessed) with excellent music but I didn’t know that I would also be entranced by magic tricks, an epic guitar battle between Jonas Jarlsby and Tim Öhrström, and an entertaining encounter between the drummer, John Alfredsson, and, what shall I call him . . . the submissive masked assistant? At some point, Eckerström appears out in the crowd where he proceeds to make a balloon animal and then play the trombone. Yes, the trombone. Later he arrives back on stage, ascending from a gift box complete with balloons and a wicked smile.

Now don’t be lulled into thinking that the show is all just “show.” Though the show is partly what we came for. They can sing, they can dance, they can shred, they can thrash. And they do it all with extreme character. I’m beginning to wonder if there is anything they can’t do.

Appearing out of the darkness, a mysterious piano. Sitting down at the keys, Eckerström thanks us, because this being meaningful for us makes it meaningful for them. As he begins to play the opening notes to "Tower," I’m reminded of my conversation with Holycross about hoping that this heavy metal music helps people feel not alone. And in this sea of people, we are not alone. We are a family of freaks. It’s a powerful, palpable thing.

The next two songs are among my personal favourites, “Colossus” and “Let it Burn.” But, the song the crowd has been waiting for is, of course, the last one. Remember I mentioned delayed gratification earlier? Band members line each side of an entrance and stand at attention as Jarlsby, arrives in kingly attire for the much anticipated, “A Statue of the King” and we freaks scream out our release.

They thank us very much and exit the stage, but we’re having none of it. “AV-A-TAR” is chanted over and over. People are screaming “Smells Like a Freakshow” and “Hail The Apocalypse.” Finally, they return with “The Dirt I’m Buried In.” What teases they are. And when they finish, Eckerström promises us another two songs. But we’re greedy, we want more. So he takes one song away. “Did you just 'boo’ me?” he asks and informs us we now get none. We beg, plead, and grovel our way back to two songs.“ And they grant our wish showing us what true power looks like.

Before I head out for pancakes, because I’ve worked up an appetite, I catch up with the guys from The Native Howl. I tell them I can’t wait to see what they do when they headline their own show. Bassist Mark Chandler grins in response and says, “Oh it's happening!” Love that confidence. For now, I get them to sign my new t-shirt. Shoot, I should have bought two! This one’s getting framed.

Did the Avatar Chimp Mosh Pit Tour just ruin concerts for me? Maybe. They’ve definitely upped the ante on what a show should be. Rounding out their show with thrash grass, death metal, and their own avante-garde brand of metal. They also brought a spectacular stage show. True talent meets excellent performance. But where they really win, in my opinion, is in understanding the desires of our little black hearts. They get us. Until next time, freaks!

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