Sometime in the week leading up to Metalfest this year (the New England usage will remain throughout, as we've apparently usurped this title from Milwaukee), I found out that if things stayed lined up correctly, I could see the following bands in the following order:
downstairs - Cephalic Carnage
upstairs - Withered
upstairs - Revocation
upstairs - Believer
downstairs - Dying Fetus
The chance to roll up, see that lineup for $35, and then go home before the sun went down proved to be a powerful inducement for me to go back to NEMHF after a year's layoff in frustration with the, from my perspective, steadily decaying overall worthwhileness of the bill offered. As another festivalgoer (who played on Saturday) opined, "third-rate hardcore band after third-rate hardcore band" really saps the patience of the audience, especially someone like me who is more interested in the "metal" part of the festival as advertised. To see Believer, though, live in the flesh again and hopefully playing something off Dimensions, and to pack in Revocation, Withered, and most of the interesting death metal on offer over the entire three days as a bonus, I'd put up with 20-minute sets, schedule chaos, and the occasional second-run hardcore set. This story, then, is also about acceptance: accepting NEMHF for what it is, and enjoying the festival the way you can, in a way that minimizes the parts that people bitch about.
The Pike being nearly empty for most of the way out, I got in a little ahead of schedule and got set up: cheap beer, crap festival food, a browse through the merch stands, and then down to the tier above the floor, not really noticing the bands that were on to that point. As almost could've been expected, the schedule had gotten delayed by about 20 minutes, nearly a full set, so there was no way that The Tony Danza Tapdance Extravaganza was going to finish in enough time that Cephalic could go on after them and not clip Withered. No worries; you accept this sort of thing at this festival and roll with the punches.
The Tony Danza Tapdance Extravaganza [4.5/7]
Not quite in the does-this-festival-spontaneously-generate-these-bands caption so exhaustively bewailed in 2006, these guys did a crunchy but somewhat idea-light set of noise-fueled hardcore that stayed interesting for most of their allotted set time. Some of this, at least from the perspective of the old cranky metalheads in the audience, was in watching Josh do his shit; there's a real sense that his chops are wasted on this band, and I'd like to see what he'd do in a tech-death context, but if he had any interest in that, he'd have a death metal band by now. Still, good guitar work is good guitar work, no matter what it's applied to, and it lessened the sting of missing Cephalic.
Though I probably could've caught at least the start of CC's set, I went upstairs straight away, on the idea that it was anyone's guess when any given band was going to start, and doing it this way would minimize the potential sets missed. This pretty much turned out to be the case.
Severely pinched by the format, and maybe by the sound -- which several people, including some who'd played earlier in the fest, had complained about -- Withered still delivered three good songs, at least, if in a thrashier manner than I'd seen from them previously. The change in sound was ok, overall, with the ripping black and crushing doom parts still coming through as needed. Bands like Withered and Believer (see below), though, are really hurt by the format that the festival imposes; while a lot of hardcore bands benefit from a 20-minute set by playing six to eight songs and getting out before people can get tired of it, metal bands that rely on longer and more complex compositions get into this kind of hole where you play three songs and pack it in before the audience has a real impression of you. For volume (not quite to say variety), there's nothing like NEMHF, but that volume comes at a price.
After some ranting about pretty much that exact issue and another beer gathered, I was able to get marginally further forward. Revocation'd played previously on this stage, but that was as a late replacement, while they still only had the Summon the Spawn demo out (well, besides the Cryptic Warning material), and now, they were back with several Relapse-backed tours and a nationally-released record under their belts. The delta between performances was going to be interesting.
You're not really going to get a "7" level set on this stage, at least this early in the day; the time allotted doesn't really allow for it. However, Revocation sure as fuck made the argument that the above arbitrary number is too small, ripping through a frenetic, blasting set of Existence... material -- leading off with current T-shirt song "Re-Animaniac" and closing with "Exhumed Identity" -- with all the fire, chops, and humor that they've had since forever ("Who likes unnecessarily-long guitar solos? Then you must make THE WEEEDLY FINGERS!!"). There are changes, of course; more of the vocals are spread more evenly across the three non-drummers, and adding a live second guitarist's thickened up the sound somewhat, both working to overall benefit as Dave can put more into his solos. The crowd ate it up and was flying around like crazy, even before the "obligato breakdown" (ripping, of course, on the way this festival always pans out), which bodes well: if NEMHF may not be a tastemaker, it's pretty predictive of the mainstream in modern metal, and good performances upstairs here tend to lead to good performances downstairs further down the line.
Actually determining which of these sets was better than the other is going to be an extremely close-run thing, and an exercise in utter futility for, alone, the subsection of useless anoraks who are incapable of just listening to good music, full stop. They didn't play "Dies Irae" (not surprising), or, as far as I could remember, anything else off Dimensions, and 2/3 of the set was off the new record, but Believer is still Believer. They may be not as out-in-front Christian as on the old days, certainly not doing the Jesus-shoutouts that I've seen from hardcore bands on this fest in the past, but they're still playing, even on the Transhuman material, that same heavily-but-not-overbearingly-technical "culmination thrash" that has, for the most part, utterly disappeared. Realm, Toxik, Demolition Hammer, Devastation (the one from San Antonio), Xentrix, Dark Angel, all gone, only Believer having made it back from that oblivion so far; if you want to hear this music live, you go see this band, or see Revocation and hope that they pick only those songs where the influence from that period of thrash is the heaviest. As mentioned above, the set times limitation was a real pain, but the band claimed that they'd be back; hopefully this is the case, and we can get another set out of them in this part of the country. A full hour set with more stuff from Dimensions than Gabriel and later, maybe not likely when they've got a new record to push, but it'll be more Believer and Believer again, and that, as noted recently about a different band, is not something that many people thought we'd ever have the opportunity for even five years ago.
Via the offsets mentioned up at the start of this writeup, there was some un-inititally-planned-for lag time between the end of Believer's set and when Dying Fetus ended up starting. Since it's Metalfest, and you already paid your ticket, this is time to watch bands that you wouldn't bother to see otherwise; I picked up a Revocation shirt and the sports-parody festival shirt from this year (basketball, to compare with football two years ago), got another beer, and actually paid attention to most of Oceano.
I'm pretty sure there's better deathcore bands out there, even if I'm not listening to them either. That being said, these guys put out an eminently satisfactory set for this festival; a lot of brutality, a sprinkling of technicality, and not much that would complicate dudes in the pit moshing the fuck out of each other. Just as "it wouldn't be Metalfest without a breakdown", as Dave Davidson noted two sets back, it wouldn't be Metalfest without this band, and bands like them, composed largely of breakdowns if not breakdowns alone, bringing the violence to the floor downstairs. This is what the culture is here, not just at the fest but in the region, and as long as it works (and gets people in the door for Dying Fetus), there's not much that can be said against it.
Dying Fetus [6/7]
Since being surprised that I hadn't seen this band yet (admittedly, that was two and a half years ago), I've seen them what feels like over and over, in what feels like deliberate irony. This set maybe wasn't quite to the level of the set this summer, but I was less drunk for it (having to drive home rather than stumble back to a tent) and can thus remember more of it, and I'm not sure that we got "Grotesque Impalement" in Bad Berka either. Pick 'em; perennially awesome death metal band is perennially awesome at death metal. This set did feel a little short, but you can't argue with even this ration of Dying Fetus.
The bands that I cared about over, I went up to the balcony for a last swing through the merch stands. What really struck me about this fest was in this department: namely, that the dealer area was almost entirely depopulated, and that fuck-all anyone was selling music. In the past, this wasn't the case. You'd go up and there'd be four or five labels with actual CDs for sale, plus three or four DIY distro outfits; everyone had T-shirts taped to the wall in the back, but they had CDs out, mainly, and their setup was built around moving them. How quickly things change. This year, I'm not sure it'd be even possible to pick up 20 different CDs, let alone past years where it was wicked normal to end up with 20 new records by the end, not even counting promos and grab-bag swag. Either Scott's priced out the DIY dealers, nobody decided to run a shingle out on Saturday, or the market for physical copies not on vinyl really has crashed that badly, at least among this festival's target demographic. I did end up buying stuff -- new albums from Ensign and Black Anvil, plus Cannabis Corpse's newish EP (all on vinyl, pay to die) -- but could not escape the feeling of change and melancholia. Darkness and silence, the light will flicker out.
3 Inches of Blood [NR]
These guys were playing during said merch run, to a packed upstairs that was so close to capacity that the security were only letting people through the door who were going up to the balcony. They played well enough -- "Deadly Sinners" an especially ripping closer -- but I wasn't paying enough attention to paste an arbitrary label on the set as a whole. The impression, though, is that they deserved the crowd they had, and that the audience was about as for-serious about the music as the band, a good sign for diversity at this festival as long as someone picks it up.
Records under my arm, I headed out; unlike CDs, this is really all you can do with a stack of vinyl, however few or many, as 12" slabs of wax with no rigid hulls around them don't really lend themselves to getting stuffed in a kutte inside pocket. You put down on records, and you've got to carry them around, and somewhat necessarily stop thrashing. However, I'd seen four of the five bands I'd planned to see, and two and a half that I didn't, gotten for the most part pretty good to really good performances, and now was hitting the mark I'd originally set to leave. This is how I can approach Metalfest now: to take on defined terms and to leave satisfied even at six in the afternoon. Others, with a greater tolerance for "third-rate hardcore band after third-rate hardcore band" than I've got remaining, can stick for every set on every day as I've done in the past, but with so few bands I had a legit interest in, even relative to other years (this stretch was pretty much it, modulo Faces of Bayon and Death Ray Vision on Friday), it's not so much the fact that the festival's a parade of mediocre deathcore as how uninterrupted that parade is.
NEMHF has always been a parade of mediocre deathcore and metalcore. It is in the festival's DNA, maybe in the DNA of the New England metal scene at large over the past decade and a half. We can't ignore or hide from this fact. This region is one of the major producers of blended hardcore and metal, of various stripes, in the US and in the world at large. It shouldn't be surprising that there's a lot of this blended music on a big commercial festival located smack dab in the middle of it, population-wise. The strength of the festival in previous years, though, has been to salt enough underground or "true" stuff through the run of the bill, on all days, that people from deeper in the scene "have" to go, not just to see one band -- like Believer for me this year -- but half a dozen, and end up seeing more or less the whole run of the bill; not only does this get the underground in, but it exposes the people who go to the festival for the headliners and the balance of the acts to kinds of music they might not have heard otherwise. The last two years, that's fallen off; I was pretty much in the same position last year, but all the bands they had, I was going to be seeing in Europe. We'll see how the balance works next year; this may be the last one for me, but it doesn't have to be. This fest is ours, all of ours in New England, and I remain optimistic about its potential to continue to regenerate itself to appeal to every corner of the New England scene, not just the most commercially attractive ones.
Regarding other festivals, even if NEDF is no more, my ticket for Wacken is in, and the ticket for Party.San should be in shortly (though I may need to do some re-organizing). Formal "tour" RFM (request for merch) to go out once plans are actually finalized.