Leah’s 2012 Symphonic Metal Debut: Of Earth & Angels
Leah released her first full-length album in 2012, Of Earth & Angels, and I first learned of its existence when Leah’s song “Ex Cathedra” (featuring suitably epic Latin lyrics) found its way into my Facebook feed, thanks to a student who had taken a number of my Latin classes over the years. After a quick sample of the album’s songs online, I knew I had to download the whole thing.
That was back in September. This month, as I was assembling my Top Ten of 2012 for the Progarchy archives, I realized that Leah was in my upper echelon, because, months later, I had not moved on from her album; if anything, I was enjoying it more and more, which is a sure sign that an album is a rare and special find, especially with a new artist. I love this time of year, when I look back and survey the wreckage and the survivors: the many albums that I had such high hopes for (but then turned out to be sad disappointments); the few surprises that came out of nowhere (to become treasured discoveries). Leah’s music has surprised me, and it stormed its way into my Best of 2012.
Yes, I have musical ADD, so it is something rare, and a true joy, whenever after trial and error a favorite is found. Therefore, to celebrate Leah’s permanent inclusion in my personal Top Ten for the year, I decided to order a CD copy of the album. Although I have now (from necessity) embraced digital downloading and storage to its fullest extent, being a vinyl record collector since my earliest days (then CD collector), I still insist on retaining physical instantiations of my very favorites. More hard drive space is easy enough to come by; but bookshelf space is not, so these days a CD purchase is for me one of the highest compliments I can give. Space, like time, is precious.
After I ordered the CD online, Leah’s savvy manager emailed me and plugged her 12-12-12 show at The Columbia in New Westminster, British Columbia, where Leah was going to celebrate the release of her CD debut this year by making her debut live performance with an orchestra of metal musicians. What a lucky fluke that I learned of this just at the last minute!
Or was it? I was of two minds. On the one hand, the album was so accomplished, I feared that its excellence might not translate into a live setting and that the concert could be a letdown. I feared I might spoil some of my best audio memories for 2012 with a sour live rendition of them. On the other hand, I could be about to witness the epic debut of an artist of rare talents, about to ascend into the metal pantheon. Evanescence (Amy Lee), Lacuna Coil (Cristina Scabbia), Epica (Simone Simons), Nightwish (Tarja Turunen), Delain (Charlotte Wessels), Within Temptation (Sharon den Adel), Sirenia (Ailyn), Kells (Virginie Goncalves): this year, these had all found their way into my playlist; but then Leah’s album had suddenly overtaken them all, and emerged the clear victor of 2012.
What if I was about to miss the musical equivalent of a solar eclipse: a miracle about to appear in the skies, but one that could have been anticipated by the wise, by those ready for its arrival, because they had been watching the skies?
And so last night I made my musical Pascal’s Wager.
And then the long shot paid off.
Leah and her band were so good that I feel privileged to have witnessed their jaw-dropping live debut.
Concert Review: Leah at The Columbia 12-12-12
I arrived early at the venue, and from the lobby I heard Leah and the band doing their sound check. So I went inside to investigate. I had a brief chat with Leah’s manager, who welcomed me as a representative of Progarchy and who helped me find a good seat to do a review from. Since I came alone (my band teacher wife was busy conducting a school Christmas concert), I realized it wouldn’t be anti-social of me to commune with my cell phone and to take notes via Twitter (what a craze; as now even the Pope tweets).
Tweeting the epic Leah concert tonight from New West
Ten musicians on stage doing soundcheck
Heard two songs at soundcheck… Good stuff!
The soundcheck was bit of a circus. One fellow, the cello player (Derek Usher, whose name I first learned from the photographer sitting next to me), seemed to be the acting ringmaster. Ten musicians were onstage: Leah and a backup singer (Lizzi Klassen, who had friends who later sat next to me), two guitarists, drums, bass, keyboards (the amazing Jeff Caines), electric violin, electric cello, and harp. The two songs I heard at soundcheck were “Prisoner” and “Old World”. There was a lot of fine-tuning and tweaking to get the sound right, but the live soundcheck versions of these familiar songs sounded pretty solid, so my anticipation for the show itself began to rise. Leah seemed pretty subdued throughout and had her back to the empty house much of the time. (Doors would not be opened to the public until much later.) She seemed quiet or nervous or shy, but I couldn’t really tell; I wondered if that was going to be her live persona, or if she was saving another Leah for the show.
But first the opening act. I kept asking what the name of the opening act was, and I heard people reply, “The Van Cauldron”. That seemed odd to me, and so I wondered if I heard correctly. “The band ‘Cauldron'”? That seemed like a more sensible name: “Cauldron”. But no, I found out later, their real name was The Van Cauldron. Good thing I didn’t tweet just “Cauldron”. They had nine musicians, and even costumes and dance. Interesting, but ramshackle; although no doubt they intended to be charming ipso facto.
Opening act is done, now the stage change: from a setup for 9 musicians to a setup for 10… including harp!
The stage is set
Leah opens with Ex Cathedra
Leah’s band was a paragon of precision and professionalism. I was stunned by the transformation between the soundcheck and the opening number. I was also ecstatic that they unexpectedly opened with “Ex Cathedra”, my favorite Leah song!
My guess, surmised from the soundcheck, was that it was going to be “Prisoner”. So I was surprised and delighted when it was “Ex Cathedra”. What more could a Latin prof ask for than that the opening number be sung mostly in Latin? The thrill that I felt was almost indescribable.
Leah herself had totally transformed from soundcheck. Now she was the dominant personality controlling the stage. She was able to do this because her every gesture was consolidating her stature and anchoring the stagecraft of the entire band.
Tragedy and Magic; now Remember
The next two songs also came from the album: “Tragedy and Magic” and “Remember”. I was impressed that these songs sounded so good live. I was not disappointed in the way familiar to many a concertgoer; namely, that the live version is a pale replica of the studio version. No, I was impressed because these songs sounded even better live, because the music now had the necessary room to breathe. On the album, there is so much going on with all the different layers; the album grows on you as you take time to unravel them all. But the symphonic nature of the pieces shines best with a large contingent of musicians in a live setting who are disciplined and passionate. And that is what I witnessed. The band was so tight I couldn’t believe they were playing their first concert together. And what was even better, was that you could tell from their faces how much they loved playing together.
Awesome headbanging version of Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence
Next, Leah did something special with a lesser-known Christmas song, “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence”. It started out soft and tender (with the standout features being Leah’s voice and Esther Cannon’s harp playing), but then blindsided everybody with a shift into blistering head-banging metal. Unbelievably effective, this version immediately had me wishing for a recorded version. I didn’t want this exquisite experience to end; I wanted to be able to replay it again and again. Of course, you can never recreate the first time it surprised you; but you can remember it, and that is half the fun of the replay. The opening head fake is available on YouTube from a rehearsal session; but I would love for the band to hit the studio and record the full arrangement of theirs. It’s one for the ages.
Old World harp and violin intro
Next, the band did “Old World” from the album. It was a lovely chance for Dan Huget (violin) to work magic together with Esther Cannon (harp) and invite the rest of the band into a lovely musical dance. These songs by Leah are remarkable in that, due to the many instrumental layers they have, they are best experienced live. You can see and feel the spaces opened up by the musicians. It’s a tangible experience of musical expanse. It’s symphonic metal as it needs to be in order to be true to the potencies of its essence.
Leah joked with the crowd about the orchestra of talent surrounding her onstage, pronouncing them just “okay” (in a flash of ironic understatement). It’s the sort of ironic in-joke you can appreciate only if you are in the crowd, and you are looking around at the other people present, making silent acknowledgement: Yes, this is musicianship at its best; how lucky we are to hear these songs rendered live with such loving care.
O tidings of comfort and joy
Next, Leah and the band returned to Christmas spiritedness by doing an insanely joyous metal version of “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen”. Jason Skilton on five-string bass guitar and Sean Lang on drums rocked their faces off together with finely coordinated guitar mayhem from David Hughes (lead) and Levi Millar (rhythm).
It was like this: it was as if all the Christmas fun you knew when you were young had been locked up in a box, for years, by the Grinches of the world; but then Santa teaches Dave how to play guitar, in a magic way that smashes open the box, to unleash the imprisoned comfort and joy. It’s Christmas!
The Holly and the Ivy
Next, you would expect Leah to alternate back to an album track. But no, the band faked us out again. Leah sat down on a stool and proceeded, with the support of delicate instrumental support, to explore yet another Christmas song with yet another original interpretation. She sang one of my all-time seasonal favorites, “The Holly and the Ivy”, but using a haunting alternative melody.
It was during this number that I experienced one of those rare moments of musical transcendence. You know what I mean; people describe it with different phrases, but none of the linguistic descriptions can capture the bodily experience: “It gave me chills”; “I got goosebumps”; “the hair stood up on the back of my neck”. In any case, the power and sensitivity of the arrangement, when the strings swelled near the end, and suddenly a heavy metal elevation exploded forth as David Hughes (adept with expert guitar heroics) strode toward centre stage and led the thundering musical charge. What a thrill.
I hope the band records this some day; Leah sings it with such pure emotion. But even if they do, I know I will never be able to recreate the musical experience of it I had that night. It is the rare ecstasy that can only come from experiencing music live, embodied by accomplished musicians, who create the conditions for divine experience to occur: suddenly it arrives, rushing down over you as pure gift.
Leah announced that they would play their last song: It turned out to be “Prisoner”, which I first heard in a rough version at the soundcheck. Now it was much different. The band poured everything they had into it. The raw power and passion gave the song a hurricane force. Again, I noticed how clean and balanced the sound was, with each instrument having enough breathing room to articulate and be true to its symphonic role, in a way even more expansive than in the recorded version.
I remember being impressed again by Leah, as I was throughout the night, because of the way she worked the stage with the confidence, skill, and ease of a pro at the top of her game. I remember thinking that the beauty and charisma she projected was something unique, and again I was glad to have witnessed it. Sometimes when I listen to the album, I find myself wishing that her vocal line was mixed louder here and there; but at the concert last night, I was fully satisfied at how magnificently her vocal skills were shining out at a perfect volume level, all the more admirable for being on unedited display, yet now even more glorious.
Encore: I Fade
The enthusiastic audience roared for an encore, and Leah and her band obliged. She performed one of her most brilliant gems, the spectacular “I Fade”. She thus performed six of the twelve tracks from the album that night. They are arguably the six best tracks, but yet one of my favorites was still missing: “Confess My Love”. (I confess I love its genre-defining opening line.)
If I had to come up with any criticism of this epic concert evening, which was surely one of the best live musical experiences I have ever had the pleasure of engaging in, it would simply be this: it was too short. Yes, I would have loved to have heard the entire album live, especially since the band proved that these songs are their truest symphonic selves when they are sounded by a live electric orchestra.
But I can only imagine how much trouble it is to coordinate the schedules of so many people who are obviously dedicated to the highest principles of art and beauty, how much trouble it is to take enough time to be so meticulous and perfectionist and get everything done right. Whatever time they were able to carve out to create this oasis of musical beauty, they spent it well. The achievement was undeniable. The evening was perfect, as evidenced by the fact that my only complaint is that we were all left wanting more. But, maintaining standards has its cost, and so I admire the band for sticking to their standards and resolving to do nothing other than a show of the highest quality, and not a minute more.
When the song ended, the ten musicians lined up in a row, took their bow, and then disappeared backstage.
Second encore: God Rest Ye Merry
Yet, even after the band had departed, the audience still thundered, and stomped, and slammed their hands on the tabletops, demanding a second encore. To their credit, the delighted band obliged, returning to the stage to deliver a reprise of “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen”. Amazingly, this was no half-hearted repetition; it sounded even better this time around, if that was even possible. Perhaps this was due to the heightened sense of fun during this grand finale moment. Because, this time around, Leah drew the audience in for sing-along participation, pitting the ladies against the gentlemen in a singing contest involving the chorus’ refrain. The men were victorious only because their male counterparts in the band used their heavy metal powers to add extra oomph to the male choruses. But everyone emerged a winner, because they had dared to go see a live show of symphonic metal.
And it wasn’t just any live show of symphonic metal.
It’s was Leah’s jaw-dropping 2012 live debut.