St. Vitus Bar
Saturday July 9th, 2016
Review by Kevin Emerson
Sitting at the gate at New York’s La Guardia airport on a Sunday afternoon, awaiting his return flight to Colorado, Jag Panzer’s introspective and understated guitarist Mark Briody paused for a moment to contemplate his response. “Well….I think it was a good show. I mean, the crowd seemed to be into it. But you know, it’s really always hard to tell with these things….” The night before, drummer Rikard Stjernquist had been less circumspect while sitting at the bar after coming offstage. “That show was amazing. Really incredible. So glad we came out for this.” Was the enthusiasm a function of the shot of Jägermeister Rikard had just taken down? NO. Truth be told, it was indeed an amazing show. And a long time in coming.
St. Vitus Bar is located on the far northern end of Manhattan Avenue in the Greenpoint neighborhood of Brooklyn, just south of the toxic waters of Newtown Creek. Greenpoint, an industrial, traditionally Polish area of Brooklyn, is rapidly turning into a working class, still rough-around-the-edges alternative to the increasingly over-hipsterized Williamsburg, and St. Vitus has become one of the primary the go-to joints for metal shows in the city.
This was Panzer’s 4th time playing New York City, but it’s first time headlining a mult-band line-up (the band’s last NYC gig was serving as the opening act for Germany’s Helloween at BB King’s on West 42nd Street). The show came on the heels of playing February’s 70,000 Tons of Metal cruise and May’s Ragnarökk festival in Chicago, and was the band’s sole East coast gig prior to returning to the studio to complete its soon-to-be-released new LP “The Deviant Chord,” the band’s 10th full-length studio album to date.
For those of you that are unfamiliar with Jag Panzer’s music, let me describe things as simply and accurately as possible. Jag Panzer plays heavy metal (period, full stop). Pure, unadulterated heavy metal from the old school, which should be no surprise, given they are one of the old school’s founding members, albeit probably also the least well known, and by far most underappreciated. Think classic Judas Priest. Think early Maiden. Think Armored Saint. Think a whole host of now-forgotten “NWOBHM-era” bands. Perhaps most of all, think Accept. In an age that’s addicted to hyper-segmenting its music genres, Panzer’s style of metal has been retroactively labeled “Power Metal,” and that’s probably about as accurate a moniker as one could come up with, but at the end of the day it’s just that hard-edged, up-tempo metal that prevailed on the scene before the split into its two extremes in the mid-1980s (glam/pop metal vs thrash and its various derivatives). No frills, no silly lifestyle image cultivation, just excellent songwriting and expert craftsmanship.
To understand Jag Panzer, you need to go back to the beginning. Jag Panzer traces its origins to the unlikeliest of places: Colorado Springs, Colorado…a mid-sized, typically “middle-American” city nestled in the foothills of the front range of the Rockies. In addition to its middle class mundanity, the city also contains an odd blend of Christian evangelicals, non-conformist biker types, and a heavy active duty and retiree military presence fueled by the no less than six separate U.S. military installations in a city of less than 500,000, this latter aspect always providing a steady supply of rowdy Army brawlers from Ft. Carson to the city’s various clubs and music venues. It was here that Jag Panzer first came together in the early 1980s as a four-piece, featuring founding and current band members Mark Briody on guitar, Harry Conklin on vocals, and John Tetley on bass.
The band made its vinyl debut in 1983 with the five-track EP “Tyrants.” The sensation one experiences when dropping the needle on the EP’s opening track “Battlezones” is best described as the overwhelming urge to jump off your couch, charge out into the street, grab the first complete stranger you meet, and pummel them mercilessly (”Oops! Sorry about that dude…no offense…I was listening to PANZER”). I mean this stuff is pure power, and foundational to the entire 9-album catalog the band would go on to release over the following two and a half decades. The talents of vocalist Harry Conklin, both then and now, are particularly worth noting. Harry is basically the specification list one would draft up when trying to design the perfect metal singer. He has a vocal range equal to or greater than the most renowned multi-octave range singers of the classic era, but without the operatic softness that often mars that style of singing. He’s got edge, and a sense of danger, and still hits his notes with the same power and conviction as he did in the 80s.
It was a fantastic debut, but it was missing one thing…a second guitarist to compliment Mark’s heavy riffing with some world-class shredding. Enter southern California’s Joey Tafolla, Panzer’s original fifth member and current lead guitarist. With Joey on board, the band returned to the studio and unleashed what is widely regarded as one of the greatest “underground” metal albums of the 1980s, Jag Panzer’s 1984 inaugural LP “Ample Destruction.” Joey’s guitar wizardry on Ample became a defining characteristic of Panzer’s sound and set the standard for an entire stable of truly excellent guitarists that would assume lead guitar duties for the band’s subsequent recordings when Joey was otherwise not in the lineup, including former Megadeth and current Act of Defiance guitar phenom Chris Broderick.
Jag Panzer took the stage at St. Vitus at 11:00PM, following a three-band undercard line up featuring October 31, Power Theory and Midnight Hellion. The performance area (a fully-enclosed, claustrophobia-inducing, all-black stage room in the back of the bar) was packed with eager supporters, an informal survey of whom revealing that many had driven from as far as three hours away for a chance to see the band live. The band strode out on stage, and within moments the chamber was being assaulted with the band’s opening number “License to Kill” from Ample Destruction. Rikard’s pounding double bass providing the backbone for furious tremlo picking on the guitars and accenting every word of the chorus … “Unleash this demon rage, a tiger in the cage, I’m on the prowl again”… Mark and Joey slinging their black and white Les Paul style LTDs while giant-sized John Tetley on bass loomed the stage in a very nifty Evil Dead throwback t-shirt. Panzer then upped the tempo even further and plowed immediately into its second number, “Let it Out,” from their most recent studio release, 2011’s The Scourge of the Light. This is an excellent song….like early-80s era Accept on steroids but with Harry’s vocal talents and Joey’s guitar work taking it to a whole other level.
Panzer would go on to deliver an astonishing 17-song set covering almost every era of their prolific, three-decade career. The set was firmly anchored, as it should be, on selections from Ample Destruction and Tyrants, but included multiple numbers from the best albums of the band’s 1990s/2000s-era work, including Age of Mastery (Iron Eagle), The 4th Judgement (Call of The Wild, Black, Future Shock), and Casting the Stones (The Mission).
Is there really a place for the Old School these days, when we are decades into this whole thing, and practically drowning in options for every possible taste preference, not to mention the segmentio ab absurdum within every genre category? I think so…the audience that night was hugely appreciative, and its age seemed to span from the barely 21 category to well into the 50s. Indeed, while doing the obligatory Brooklyn pizza shop tour the following night, Rikard and Joey were taken aback as they were approached by a just-out-of-college looking guy who apparently had been at Saturday night’s show: “Hey, are you guys with Jag Panzer? GREAT show last night. When are you coming back?”
The following evening, Rikard and Joey, joined by Aric Avina (Panzer’s occasional backup “touring” bassist) and a full bench of local area singers, again took the stage at St. Vitus with their special side project, the Randy Rhodes Experience. As the name implies, this is a “tribute” set of Rhodes-era Ozzy tunes, including Rhodes guitar versions of the various Black Sabbath songs that Ozzy included in his live sets during that era. If you are a fan of absolutely magnificent guitar playing, both its original composition, as wells as Tafolla’s flawless execution of it, go see this show if it comes to your town
Kevin Emerson, a resident of New York City, is a former musician, part-time mountaineer, occasional banker, and Colorado Springs native.