From the coffins full of kindergarteners, Is this what you call free? From the hate that drips from all your crosses, Are your hands so clean?
Unlikely words to spark a tender dance between a loved-up couple, but from the balcony of Prague’s Incheba Arena on June 9 2015, that is exactly what I witnessed. Returning to the stage after a solid 13-song set, Rise Against’s acoustic offerings prompted what had been a seething mosh pit to settle on the floor and listen. As the vulnerable and politically loaded ballad People Live Here progressed, a single pair stood up in the centre of the human crater and, starry-eyed, began to dance. I had to wonder whether the couple and the cheering crowd of Czechs around them understood the lyrics fully, or whether they simply responded to the lilting melody, unaware of its irony. Regardless, one thing remains sure: the band held a very real power over the sea of people below me, and from my vantage point I could chronicle the changing emotions of the masses, guided unerringly by the anger and ecstasy of Rise Against’s anthemic sound.
The Chicago-based melodic hardcore band was preceded by two warm-up acts. Donnie Darko (a Czech four-piece putting a progressive twist on post-grunge) were certainly talented, but they had a hard act to follow in Man With a Mission. The Japanese group made up for my disappointment over this year’s relatively sensible Eurovision Song Contest with an act that included hard rock, electronic dance music, rap, and enormous wolf masks. While my initial appreciation was of the ‘so bad it’s good’ variety, as the wolf-men unleashed their set I couldn’t help but be drawn into their bizarre energy.
Rise Against’s eventual ascent to the stage was marked by the illumination of the word ‘RISE’ spelled out in ten-foot letters across the stage, and met with wild applause. They opened with a well-received rendition of The Great Die-Off, one of only three offerings taken from their most recent album, The Black Market. These were scattered amongst thunderous fan favorites including the legendary Re-Education Through Labour and the high-octane Prayer of the Refugee, both of which resulted in two separate and equally exuberant circle pits. A particularly pleasant surprise for me was hearing The Dirt Whispered, an emotive anthem of sacrifice and redemption taken from 2008’s Appeal to Reason.
What struck me throughout the ever-energetic set was how remarkably identical the band’s live sound was to their recorded tracks. The musicianship was jaw-droppingly tight, Zach Blair’s tireless leaping around the stage never once detracting from his driving riffs, and the three-part vocal harmonies between Tim McIlrath, Joe Principe and Blair filling the arena as a single multi-faceted sound. McIlrath’s voice, as ever, stole the show – for a vocal style seemingly so racked with spontaneous emotion, the performance was unerringly precise, every break and waver exactly where it ought to be. In fact, the only major discrepancy between these well-loved tracks and their recorded counterparts was a number of extended musical interludes, such as the immediately identifiable intro to Re-Education, allowing drummer Brandon Barnes to build tension before releasing the crowd into an even greater frenzy.
The band concluded with a double encore – a stunt that sometimes seems a touch self-indulgent, but which in this case managed the material perfectly. The first encore consisted of McIlrath and Blair alone on stage, cycling through three heart-rending acoustic numbers: People Live Here, Hero of War, and Swing Life Away. Hero of War in particular had an unsettling effect – watching the crowd sway and sing along to McIlrath’s unflinchingly brutal descriptions of military corruption, I wondered once again whether something was lost in translation. Mercifully, the acoustic set was followed by a final up-tempo encore, ending the night on an ultimate high with one of the tracks of my University years – Savior.
Walking home through Prague, I continued to muse on the language thing – to me it has always been this band’s hard-hitting messages that sets them apart. I wondered if McIlrath as the lyricist ever worries that his political anthems are too often taken at face value. Thinking back to my own uninhibited head-banging and fist-pumping over the night, I started to see things differently: even more than the words themselves, it was the soaring chorus melodies that cut straight to the heart, making each of us sweaty rockers feel that, by wailing along breathlessly, we were a part of something bigger. I guess Rise Against themselves summed it up pretty well with an epic rendition of their breakthrough single: “Give it all, now there’s a reason why I sing”. Whatever our reasons, giving it our all was exactly what we did that night.