Photo of Cradle of Filth by Jen Ruff
As the setting for many formative experiences in my coming-of-age as a metalhead, Pop’s will always hold a special place in my heart. My very first “big boy” concert—going to see a band that I wanted to see, rather than one my parents were dragging me to—was at Pop’s, when I saw Between the Buried and 2006. Pop’s was the place to go for extreme metal and hardcore shows around St. Louis in the mid-2000s, especially after the closure of Mississippi Nights in 2007, which had historically booked many high-caliber metal artists as well.
Nowadays, Pop’s has some significant competition for the giant metal tours that come through town, with Red Flag and the Factory booking many of the same acts that would have played Pop’s in a previous era. As much fun as I’ve had at these venues in recent years, there is a certain uncanny atmosphere to Pop’s, with its surrounding landscape of manufacturing plants and strip clubs, that I wouldn’t trade for anything.
Consequently, going to the Sauget nightclub to see DevilDriver and Cradle of Filth’s co-headlining tour felt like something of a homecoming for me. Beyond my personal excitement to catch another major metal tour at Pop’s, the contrast between the co-headliners—one of the most popular groove metal acts of the mid-00s paired with arguably the most iconic non-Scandinavian black metal band—was inherently fascinating to me. Likewise for their very different touring histories in St. Louis: DevilDriver is a certified Pop’s staple, having played there over a dozen times in the past two decades, while Cradle of Filth was playing St. Louis for the first time in 16 years.
With the show happening the week before Halloween to boot, my concert buddy and I decided that the long-awaited return of Dani Filth to Midwestern soil was the perfect opportunity to practice our amateur corpse paint skills in the Pop’s parking lot. (It was not lost on us that we would have also been perfectly dressed to see KISS, who, as it happens, were playing the Enterprise Center the very same night).
The bill for this tour was packed, featuring three opening acts in addition to the co-headliners. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to Pop’s until an hour after the show had started, so I missed the first two openers—Black Satellite and Savage Existence. Black Satellite (Larissa Vale and Kyle Hawken) is a Gothic/industrial metal duo hailing from NYC; to date, they have released a single album in 2017 (Endless), as well as many singles, including covers of well-known artists like Rammstein and Type O Negative. Their music certainly pairs well with the Goth-tinged atmospherics of Cradle of Filth—likewise, it is easy to see why Savage Existence, an energetic, hardcore-influenced groove metal band from San José, Costa Rica, would naturally compliment DevilDriver.
I did, however, catch the next opener: Ill Niño, a long-running alternative metal group that is likely familiar to anyone who grew up in the post-Korn era. Formed in Union City, NJ in 1999, the sole remaining founding members of Ill Niño are drummer Dave Chavarri and bassist Laz Pina—the rest of its current lineup (vocalist Marcos Leal, guitarists Sal Dominguez and Jess Dehoyos) was recruited in 2019, after the departure of original vocalist Cristian Machado and guitarists Ahrue Luster and Diego Verduzco (whose current project, Lions at the Gate, opened for Fear Factory at Pop’s just the week prior).
Having never seen Ill Niño’s classic lineup, I can certainly say that the current iteration of the group still puts on an incredible performance. It is difficult to tell from listening to their studio albums just how impressive of a drummer Chavarri is—throughout their set, he was twirling and catching his sticks as he laid down some very impressive and complex rhythms. It is also pretty rare to see a nu-metal group who include an extended drum solo during their set, which is certainly a testament to how important the rhythm section is to the group’s enduring appeal as a live act. In retrospect, I do regret never having seen Ill Niño with its Cristian Machado lineup—in my opinion, he belongs to the pantheon of alternative metal’s greatest vocalists, along with Chino Moreno from Deftones—but I found Marcos Leal to be more than up to the task, showing his impressive range between the group’s more rap-oriented songs (“I Am Loco”) as well as their ballads (“How Can I Live”).
The first headliner of the evening, DevilDriver, should be a household name for any Pop’s regular: including the October 25th show, they have played Pop’s over a dozen times over the past 20 years. Formed in Santa Barbara, CA in 2002, DevilDriver emerged as one of the most successful groove metal bands of the post-Pantera era, combining the chugging riffs and infectious rhythms of the genre with the raw intensity of death metal. “A lot of bands call themselves groove metal, but if you can’t fuck to it and you can’t fight to it, then it ain’t groove, it’s prog,” said frontman Dez Fafara during their set, offering as concise a mission statement for the genre as any.
Like any band that has been touring and recording for as long as they have, DevilDriver has undergone several lineup changes over the years, with the only consistent member being Fafara. The current iteration of the band also features two members from its classic lineup—original bassist Jon Miller and guitarist Mike Spreitzer—as well as two recent additions: guitarist Alex Lee, known for his work with the thrash throwback band Bonded by Blood, and drummer Davier Pérez, a touring drummer who has also played with Coal Chamber and Lorna Shore.
To see DevilDriver live is to witness a ruthlessly efficient groove metal machine in action: Miller and Pérez keep the rhythmic foundation tight and pummeling, while Spreitzer and Lee pound out the power chords before punching through with a rapid-fire melodic solo. Fafara, for his part, seems to use a higher register than the deep-throated growls you typically hear on their studio albums, presumably to avoid straining his voice. He kept the speechifying to a minimum during the band’s set, acknowledging that he “doesn’t speak much” during their performances. That said, his enthusiasm and respect for the audience was clear—clad in the band’s signature glow-in-the-dark Jack Daniel’s shirt, he was all smiles, offering the occasional word of inspiration and high-fiving crowd surfers as they went over the barricade.
The band’s set featured a few songs from their latest album, Dealing with Demons II, as well as many of the best-known songs from their early ’00s releases (“End of the Line,” “Meet the Wretched,” “Clouds Over California”). While groove metal was never my favorite style of metal (with all due respect to Fafara, I guess I’m more of a prog guy), I have always appreciated this band’s work ethic. It is easy to see why DevilDriver, and groove metal in general, continues to draw a crowd—prog be damned!
While DevilDriver’s set had an air of “good ol’ boys making their long-awaited homecoming,” it is safe to say that Cradle of Filth (CoF) were greeted as living legends. Cheers rang out as soon as Dani Filth took to the stage, clad in his iconic Gothic armor, and let out his inimitable banshee shriek.
“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. We are, unfortunately, still the vestiges of scum known as Cradle of Filth,” said Filth as he introduced the band. “For the next hour, I want to see these two digits [index and pinky] raised in the air!”
As with DevilDriver, CoF’s sole founding member is vocalist Dani Filth. The current iteration of the band also features guitarists Richard Shaw and Marek “Ashok” Šmerda (who, appropriately for the upcoming holiday, was dressed as Pinhead); drummer Martin “Marthus” Škaroupka; bassist Daniel Firth; and keyboardist and vocalist Anabelle Iratni.
I would have to assume this was almost everyone’s first time seeing CoF, and the enthusiasm to see these classic songs in their full glory was palpable. The set began with some of the band’s most recent material (“Existential Terror” from 2021’s Existence is Futile and “She is a Fire” from the live album Trouble and Their Double Lives, released earlier this year), but the rest of it was heavily weighted towards “the hits”: “Dusk and Her Embrace,” “Cruelty Brought Thee Orchids,” “Nymphetamine Fix,” and so on. I stood on the periphery of a fairly inexhaustible mosh pit, with total strangers throwing their arms around my shoulder as they belted out the chorus to songs like “Her Ghost in the Fog.”
The crowd eagerly embraced the vampiric pageantry and unrelenting pace of the performance. The highlights were innumerable: beyond the spectacle of seeing Dani Filth in the flesh, I was continuously amused by stone-faced cenobite Škaroupka, who seemed like he very well could tear my soul apart if given the chance, as well as Iratni’s beautiful and operatic voice, used to great effect in the aforementioned “Nymphetamine Fix,” one of many CoF songs prominently featuring a duet. It was cheesy, theatrical, ridiculous, juvenile, and impressively technical all at once: in other words, pure entertainment. | David Von Nordheim