Thursday, May 24, 2007

Metalfest (NEMHF) Report

New England Metal (Blade) and "Hardcore" Festival 2007
Worcester Palladium, 4/27/2007 and 4/28/2007

This is the rundown of this year's Metalfest; the snideness in the title is the result of the writer's inherently sarcastic nature rather than any real displeasure with the fest. This was a decent year, not as good as last, but not as bad as it could have been. There are probably two reasons for this.

First, last year was not merely great, but historically great in terms of lineup depth, drawing across all styles, running 3 full days, and gathering in a large number of bands from overseas. It was an expensive ticket, but worth it when it was considered that we got a lineup worthy of, say, Summer Breeze or With Full Force to do an indoor fest in North America that ran in the low four figures attendance-wise. This year was a step down, but still good, and very importantly a lot less expensive to put up. If Jabba the Scott (no disrespect intended, especially since he got Revocation on this year) took a hiding last year, it makes sense that he'd tighten his belt a little this year and do something like handing the second day (of only 2) over to Metal Blade. This is the second reason; while they do still have a bunch of good bands, I'm not entirely satisfied with the current direction of Metal Blade as a label. I recognize that it's difficult to survive as a record label in the present day, and if Job For A Cowboy's record sales help underwrite 3's recording and tour support, that's cool; the real issue is that if marketed properly, 3 could sell a ton of records on their own hook, and I still believe that labels have a responsibility to promote good music over crap that sells easily.

Of course, this is my definition of "good music" in play, and at this kind of festival I'm slipping out of the general population and into that upper tier of "cranky old men in kuttes who think everything (new) sucks". This is not precisely the case -- yet; give me another five years and I'm sure that I'll be insufferable if the band onstage isn't either Kreator or obviously ripping them off.

or, God Damn It, Scott, Buy A God Damn Whiteboard

The weather for this weekend was wet, meaning that it was actually a good thing that I had a normal jacket on, not my kutte, while I was standing in line waiting for initial entry, which was forced by the fact that my hotel wasn't opening for check-in for another couple hours and I was squatting a space in a mini-mart parking lot. The line was a little shorter than last year, which mean that I actually got inside fairly close to the start of The Funeral Pyre's set.

The Funeral Pyre [5/7]
I was pleasantly surprised by the raw quality of this band's mix of black and death metal, especially going on so early on the second stage with a name that evokes the hordes of xYouthxCrewxRevivalx clones that are expected to pad the front of the bill at NEMHF. It just goes to show that you can't tell a book by its cover -- though in this case the band's Enslaved shirts did indicate that they were actually influenced by Enslaved. I didn't get to pick up their CD as a result of various antics trying to get my car off the street, but I will have to pick it up in the future.

Colin of Arabia [4/7]
Since I don't have a dominant interest in hardcore and didn't seek out the hardcore or alleged HC performances on the bill, I can't really comment on what proportion of the real hardcore at this festival this band represented. They were decent for their style, but while I often find hardcore intellectually interesting, I can't really bring myself to actually listen to it being played for any non-trivial amount of time. Those who are into this style or who were on the floor for it rather than up in the (sparsely populated) dealers' area buying the first installment of too many CDs from Oak Knoll would probably have enjoyed this set rather than simply appreciating it.

xDeathstarx [3.5/7]
The people who see commonalities between the rise in the early '80s of rap and thrash metal as racially divided responses to the same situation -- "urban blight music", in Peter Steele's words -- might want to take a look at the current generations of gangsta rap and toughguy hardcore: coming from someplace authentic, but often taking everything so far over the top as to make the result impossible to take seriously. This band fits the description, executing an average set of menacing but completely generic material while spreading the vocal load across three singers with approximately zero variance in style or range, and concluding their performance with an altar call. We've had Christian bands at Metalfest before, and while they weren't shy about declaring their beliefs, they kept it much more on the lines of "Jesus is there" rather than "come to Jesus". This is the first time I've actually seen a band laughed at at a gig; a significant portion of the second-stage crowd just cracked the hell up at the God promo. Musically, they were basically the same as any other random toughguy act, nothing special either way, but the instantiation of their Jesus-message was just laughable. (And yes, Nergal's rantings about how Behemoth hates Christians soooo much later at night were just as lame, so this isn't a religious discrimination issue.) God is Lulz.

Palehorse [4.5/7]
The main comment on this band in my notes is "When does it end?" which is not really fair; Palehorse is a toughguy hardcore band like many, many other toughguy hardcore bands on this bill, so while they were decent, they did kind of get caught in the undertow. My tolerance for extended exposure to this kind of music is kind of low, so if they'd been on a shorter local hardcore/thrash bill, I'd probably have liked this fairly decent set better.

Bloodlined Calligraphy [4/7]
Despite (or perhaps because of) their female singer, this band came off as yet another fairly generic hardcore band, with precious little particularly memorable about their set. Neither particularly good nor particularly bad, they didn't leave much of a strong impression, but they might have on someone who was either into this style or paying attention instead of wondering when the hell Revocation was going to go on, damnit.

At this point, those who have seen the schedule are going "Revo-who?", because Boston's best tech-thrash band is nowhere to be found on the programs. Well, welcome to the First Day of Metalfest Circus, in which the second-stage schedule gets it in the head with a shotgun and the organizers play Humpty Dumpty with it while not telling people who they're getting in to fill holes. What has been posted so far looks like the online schedule, but doesn't resemble at all what was posted on a single sheet of office paper next to the doors, let alone what was in the program. It surely would not kill the budget to get a whiteboard and write on it in magic marker who was playing when, then put it behind the second-stage bar where everyone could see it, and most people couldn't erase bits or draw penises on it. Revocation were a late add, and Scott could have hardly found better.

This wasn't their absolute best outing, but for a twenty-minute set from a complex and challenging band, it's difficult to ask for more. They pretty much played Summon The Spawn straight down, then closed with a sharp and cutting cover of "Symbolic" to complete the devastation. I hadn't heard this from them before, but it's Revocation covering Death, of course it's going to be good. They hopefully made a bunch of new fans as well as a good impression, but the confusion and anxiety they induced in the streams of kids leaving at the start may be more immediately satifying. Better that they'd stayed to experience the awesomeness, but it meant that I got up towards the front, and it's not as if everyone got Atheist on the first pass either. The hope is that, like 3 who was musically challenging and completely awesome early on the second stage last year, Revocation will get a decent slot on the main stage in the succeeding year as a followup.

Having seen Revocation, I could stop camping the second stage, go check in at my hotel, get some food and non-overpriced beer in, then come back in time to catch much of the metal portion of the main stage.

Still Remains [NR]
I got back in just at the end of their set, which they didn't announce as such, but which everyone was able to easily recognize because they were playing "The Worst Is Yet To Come". LOLZ WRIET ANOTEHR SONG BAND. I like this song, but I also have heard enough Still Remains to know that it's not sufficient to judge the band -- or any random performance of theirs -- by.

Despised Icon [5/7]
What do you call six Canucks -- sorry, five Canucks and a Masshole -- who can't decide whether they want to be Morbid Angel or Hatebreed? Replace the simple "?" with a ", Alex?", and you have a correct Jeopardy answer-question pair. Silliness aside, this was about the best performance that I've heard from Despised Icon, the most together and with the best sound, but while they've gotten their feet under them as a band, they now need to go out and do something with that foundation. Deathcore fans may be willing to take them as they are, and this set was pretty solid, but they showed enough talent here to demonstrate that they can do more than this -- as soon as they decide which direction they're going to move in, whether more death, more core, or forward to create something more distinctly their own.

Skinless [6/7]
I almost went up to Mark's to see Skinless on the Sunday following Metalfest, but didn't due to being sick and also because the last place you want to see Skinless is at a no-mosh venue. The snide thing to say is that they spend the time that they save by writing fairly simple death metal on thinking of new things for the audience to do, but this ignores the fact that Skinless is fun, if not very challenging, to listen to, and it's always a trip to see what they'll think of next. This time they had three "prepared" "mosh events"; first a normal but epically-sized circle pit that actually stayed going in a circle for a while rather than immediately breaking down into kung fu, then a few songs later their patented Tsunami of Death, and finally, at the end, the "zombie mosh", a full-floor Wall of Death done at a snail's pace against slow, brutal, riffage, which was one of the few times that the whole floor was actually moving. I wasn't down in among them, but watching the action and hearing the music was still plently cool.

Nachtmystium [6/7]
Black, thrashy, and grooving, this performance may or may not have been better than when I saw them at Mark's with 1349, but I definitely got more out of it due to being somewhere that I could actually hear them. Good stuff, and I'm going to have to get some of their records sooner rather than later.

Kataklysm [5/7]
This set focused on new music -- kind of hard not to, when you only get 20 minutes -- and as a result everyone was hugely into them...except one cranky old man in a kutte, who was standing on the first row above the floor grumbling to himself about how this was bullshit easy-listening-Kataklysm, and that they had no business hanging up their old logo and then not doing anything that could reasonably be described as hyperblast. Abstractly, Kataklysm did a solid and well-received set of mosh-friendly brutal death metal. Subjectively, this was easy-listening sellout bullshit that stomped all over the legacy of their old material with football boots, but this is hardly anything new. I feel bad for anyone into only their new material who bought Sorcery, like I did, from the CM table, but without knowing what's on it and then either crying as they get their ears spiked or becoming immensely disappointed with the band's current direction.

3 Inches of Blood [5/7]
The jury is still out on whether this band is a gag or not, or if they ever were, but regardless, they're a fun time, and they put together a solid set here. If hardcore was a template that you could add to various kinds of music rather than a genre of its own, this would be what you'd get on applying hardcore to power metal. As yet, there's no genre for this, but all that means is that 3 Inches of Blood don't have any competition (yet...still waiting for Volatile to record something), and fortunately this hasn't really induced them to slack off.

Walls of Jericho [4.5/7]
Before getting into this review, note that I went into this band's set with an open mind and did not have any existing prejudice against them for being from Ypsi. If I hadn't gotten a cheap apartment within walking distance of the Engineering campus while I was at Michigan, I'd have lived in Ypsilanti too.
That being said, if this band had a dude singer rather than a chick, nobody would care about them. Actually, they might still be a big deal, but this doesn't mean that they should be; there's just no accounting for taste when it comes to absolutely, totally generic metalcore. Most of the set was well-delivered enough, but the wheels came off over the last few songs to a certain degree; they need to get it together as well as come up with something to hang their hat on as a band other than their vocalist's gender, because otherwise they're going to be rapidly lapped and forgotten by the next wave of generic hardcore/metalcore bands with chick singers.

Devildriver [5/7]
Other people have been convinced somehow that Dez has seen the light and turned away from the darkness, but on the basis of this set, what he's done is salvage the rolling chassis of nu-metal and rebuild it into something worthwhile rather than doing something new from the ground up. This set was definitely more metal than nu, but in a wide sense could still be described as nu-metal and a little more narrowly as kinda boring. Respect is due, though, for coming out strongly against the pit ninjas, telling them to go back to the karate dojo if they want to kung fu fight, and just let people in the pit mosh. Maybe it's that we're both old farts at this point, but definitely, respect as well as lulz.

Bury Your Dead [5/7]
Though I hadn't seen this band before, they basically fulfilled expectations: strong and competently delivered brutal hardcore, but also fairly one-dimensional. There's only so far that passion and dedication will carry you, and this distance is right up to the point where people realize how silly it is that your biggest hit involves screaming your band's name over and over while the audience throws themselves into a pigpile in front of the stage. There's a fine line between clever and stupid, and we all think we're on the 'clever' side while other people are laughing up their sleeves and placing us in the second caption. BYD was entertaining, but unfortunately tough to take seriously without a large grain of salt.

Behemoth [5/7]
This was a nice set, and at least more visually black metal than the last time that they were around -- I can't recall whether they were corpsepainted when they came around with Morbid Angel, but they were this time -- but this is still, at least from my lookout, a fairly mediocre band; just good enough that some people wanted an encore, but not good enough that many people were disappointed when they didn't do one. I was glad for my part; I had heard quite enough Behemoth for one night and had a riddle to crack.

There is a riff in "Conquer All" taken directly from one of the few good or memorable songs that Morgana Lefay ever wrote; the riddle was in figuring out that it was from Lefay that I'd first heard this riff. Unfortunately, I don't have the time or the stomach to listen through Maleficarum again to figure out which song in particular it was. (A quick look at metal-archives found that the lyrics matched the title track, one of the few good ones, again.) Weird as all hell, and I have no idea how Nergal found it given his supposed tastes (though there weren't many in the Polish underground in the late '90s who had a lot of respect for him); probably a re-invention at this point.

Dimmu Borgir [6.5/7]
This was a really well-staged and well-executed performance, but Dimmu's material isn't, overall, good enough to merit a top score. Regardless, it was a hell of an entertaining set, and at least Shagrath has finally ditched that ratty bathrobe that he used to wear all the time. At times, the visual aspect seemed creepily like Judas Priest, which may not be a bad thing; Dimmu Borgir has long since lost all credence and standing with the true kvlts, so they might as well bring their symphonic black metal attack to the largest possible audience by taking on a more universally-appealing and nostalgically-resonating image. It's still good music, just not especially true any more...if it ever was.

or, No, We Are Not Just A Metalcore Label, Look At These Good Bands We Still Have

So after getting a good dose of schadenfreude watching the emo QB from Notre Dame squirm on the verge of tears because nobody'd drafted him yet, I headed over for Metal Blade day, with anticipation (3 and Cannibal Corpse) as well as trepidation (many other bands), because Metal Blade quite obviously isn't exactly what it once was.

The Destro [4/7]
This bunch was from Dallas, but it's really difficult to tell how you'd know that without being told; their sound is basically the same kind of brutal hardcore/metalcore that we see all the time locally in New England. It had its good points, and admittedly I was on my final scalping of the dealers' tables at the time, but overall it did come off as somewhat generic.

Jacket now thoroughly packed with CDs, I headed downstairs to see what Metal Blade had set up as headliners.

Shai Hulud [5/7]
The performance was pretty good (even though this band's material has been described in the past as "everything about '90s hardcore that needed a bullet in the head and a shallow grave"), and the oddly-somewhat-sparse crowd dug them, but it's not as though we haven't all heard this kind of material before. I missed Beyond The Embrace and Hallows Eve, but this was a decent enough start to the main stage for me.

3 [7/7]
As last year, this was simply a superb performance, though with a little more guitar firepower (both flamenco and conventional metal styles) and a few minor difficulties with the drum/percussion solo than the last time I saw them. The overall effect was still as stellar, with the only difference being that there were a hell of a lot more people standing around being impressed this time. There are not nearly enough bands like this, in metal or out, and if you like great music, they, like Pelican, should definitely be on your short list to check out.

Goatwhore [6/7]
Oh, Goatwhore. It just wouldn't be a metal show without them, and I'm surprised that they didn't find some way to get onto the first day as well. This was one of the better sets I've seen from them, and they definitely seemed a little better adjusted to this stage than the last time I saw them here, with Celtic Frost back in November. Five-plus months of constant touring will all kinds of bands over all kinds of venues will do that for you. A nice set, but you're likely to see a similar or better one from them within three matter where you are...and then another one three weeks after that...

Impious [6/7]
I hadn't heard or really heard of this band prior to seeing them, and now I'm mad at myself for this fact. No pretensions, just a damn, damn good set of solid NWOSDM-driven thrash fuckin' metal. Kickass; just hope that they come around soon with a tour where they'll get more than 20 minutes to show off.

God Dethroned [5/7]
People besides me were calling out for their older material, but they focused principally on the new stuff; while kind of a bummer, this is unsurprising, as playing, say, "Soulcapture 1562", would leave approximately no room for anything else in a 20-minute set (sure 11 minutes, but when 20's all you get, every minute counts), and the new stuff is solid as well. It was at this point that I started to feel the effects of whatever virus I picked up while my system was surpressed from jetlag, exhaustion, and mild food poisoning, and at several points I literally was falling asleep on my feet -- while listening to live black/death blasting, natch.

Lizzy Borden [5/7]
I had not seen this band live before, but I'd heard enough of their material to wonder why in the hell Lizzy thought it was still worth trying to have a career. The answer is that the stage antics around the music are at least somewhat entertaining: the short definition of this band's style is "prop comedy of NWOBHM", and if that doesn't suggest "entertaining but played out", nothing will. The music was decent most of the time, but the gimmicks were often pretty much half-assed, like King Diamond without a budget for blood capsules. They didn't seem to be too happy with the crowd's less-than-exuberant reaction, but still hammed it up at the end like they'd just blown them out of their seats with a triple-encore at Madison Square Garden or Hammersmith. Metal Blade was filming this for a DVD, so my guess is that they were hoping the crowd would be brought up in post. For the historical record, NEMHF cheered these guys in accord with the quality of their performance, but any kind of "going wild" is false representation.

Job For A Cowboy [4/7]
This band more than any other illustrates the divide between the old and the new internet, because since Trey Azagthoth was too busy doing Sailor Moon RPG chats with his Quake-clan buddies over IRC, JFAC was able to eat his lunch by whoring themselves on Myspace. Generic in concept and execution, they would probably still have put me to sleep even if I hadn't been sick at the time, and everything they do that's actually good is done much better by other bands. In the last analysis, JFAC is a much less-inspired, less-interesting clone of Morbid Angel that unexplainably a bunch of 12-year-olds are into. This may not be the popular opinion, but it does happen to be TRUE. :P

The Red Chord [7/7]
This is the first proper set I've seen from this band (they did a three-song fix-the-schedule fill-in at last year's fest), and damn if they weren't absolutely impressive. They brought a tremendous amount of thrash sophistication and complexity without losing the power and directness of their hardcore roots, creating probably the optimium single set for this festival, reminding people that the idea of 'metalcore' need not be solely the wasteland that it's become since becoming popular. Great stuff, and maybe now I can finally persuade myself to buy some of their records -- I should have listened to Kreider and gotten into them back in '01 and '02.

The Black Dahlia Murder [6/7]
I have absolutely no idea how this band continues to do such killer live sets yet suck so relentlessly hard on record. The total effect of their performance was pretty much the same as the other two times I've seen them, both in this hall; we'll see how well they adapt to the Party Stage this summer as far as variance goes. Somehow, the power of their delivery pushes the material that comes off as so pedestrian on CD, and so it's hard to think of someone who'd really react negatively to this set.

Unfortunately, I was in no condition to continue on for the last three acts of the night. I wanted strongly to see Cannibal Corpse, but I'm seeing them at Wacken this summer, so it wasn't worth turning myself into one of their album covers to stick around for their set. And then, of course, there was no motivation to survive Unearth and make it to the "special guest jam"; people had been rumoring about Sacred Reich and Slayer, but Slayer is an active band, so you can see them sometime else, and Sacred Reich is also on the Wacken bill, so even if this had been how it went, I wouldn't have felt bad missing it. CC with Barnes? Also not interesting, and it also didn't happen; the only way I would have legitimately felt bad about not staying for this alleged once-in-a-lifetime event is if they somehow got Cirith Ungol back together to play down Frost & Fire. Metal Blade being what it is now, I was pretty confident that this wasn't going to happen -- and it didn't, though maybe sometime in the future NEMHF will be big enough to do the "cash offer you can't refuse" to get bands back together like Wacken and other top Euro fests regularly put up (the famous rumors of a million-euro guarantee for a Carcass reunion are probably fiction, but probably not far off the mark).

All in all, this was a good festival, though not great, but if all festivals were great, the standard would just be raised. This year was hurt greatly by several bands cancelling late; Cellador scratched due to illness, I Killed The Prom Queen and Abigail Williams broke up, and Satyricon couldn't get visas due to past criminal behavior. While I don't much miss many of the above (only Satyricon, and better to try and see them somewhere where Fenriz and Nocturno Culto may come out to play a few "covers"), the cancellations played hell with the schedule and enhanced the atmosphere of pure chaos that often seems to surround the fest. After the super-A-list lineup of last year, this two-day version has to feel like a letdown, but it's really just coming back to earth; as always, there's the hope that next year the scheduling will be tighter, the overall lineup quality a little better, and a little more real metal and real hardcore instead of just all metalcore, all the time, and it's realistic to believe that this step can be made from this year, while last year's was really too good to be sustained. Contrary to what might be implied from a lot of the commentary on the Saturday headliners, I did have a good time at this fest, met a bunch of cool people, and stuffed my ears and jacket with a bunch of good music. NEMHF is at least on the short list of the best festivals in North America, and we in New England are fortunate that it's right where we live.

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