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Richard Street-Jammer traveled 12 hours away from his home to Joliet, Illinois. Why? He explains: “If somebody puts Slauter Xstroyes, Brocas Helm, Pharaoh, and Blacksmith on a bill, I’ll be there, bank account permitting. Ragnarokkr Fest put those bands and 10 others on a bill and scheduled them to play in Joliet, Illinois, on the weekend of May 18th. When I asked permission, my bank account said yes.”
[See Monday's post for a recap of Ragnarokkr Fest, Day 1]
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Ancient Creation opens the second day. They play the kind of US power metal that’s squarely in my wheelhouse. Work called me, literally, while I was watching them, and so I missed most of their set. Sorry, guys. I wish I had seen more. It would’ve been worth it.
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Ancient Creation – Carrion: The Horde (live)
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I don’t know why I hadn’t hurt of Voz before the show, but I wish I had. The band calls themselves power metal, but they are damned near thrash. The band is named after their frontman, which is appropriate considering that he handles guitar and vocals Mustaine-style. If you listen closely enough, it’s like Bob Mitchell is threatening you over Painkiller. Voz’s performance is airtight and as blistering and mean as power metal can get.
Like Virgin Steele, Damien Thorne are lifers. Actually, many of the bands on the bill, and the individuals who populate them, are lifers. Also like Virgin Steele, Damien Thorne need only one guitar to be heavy. Their set pulled material from all of their albums. Martin DeBourge announced songs but would forget the album the song originated from. All was forgiven, because his performance was excellent. Guitarist Ken Starr is Damien Thorne at this point. His guitar playing shows his pride in the band. His playing reflects both his talent and years of hard work.
My expectations for Slauter Xstroyes were absurdly high. Their sound is esoteric. Each instrument is equally important. Any sonic imbalance will ruin their set. Pharaoh’s sound issues were rough on me as well as the band. If the soundguy fucks up Slauter Xstroyes’ sound, I’m going to . . . never mind. He got it right.
Steve Reimer struts around the stage. He’s not rocking out so much as commanding the crowd. He surveys. His gestures are expansive and majestic. Majestic is the perfect word for Slauter’s music. It’s stately, regal, and melancholy. It’s unique without being avante-garde, articulate without being technical. Brent Sullivan’s bass playing is unmistakable. He uses a technique which is usually associated with funk, but it’s part of why Slauter is great.
Winter Kill is one of my all time favorites, and I was disappointed that they only played “The Stage” and the title track. The rest of their set was songs from Free the Beast. None of that matters, though. I can always say I saw Slauter Xstroyes play a perfect set once in some Chicago suburb.
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Slauter Xstroyes – “Winter Kill”
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Skull Fist was another band I had neither heard nor heard of before the show. Frankly, I was pissed that they were on the bill. I unfairly viewed them as stealing stage time from Slauter Xstroyes and was prepared to hate the band.
Thirty seconds into the first song, the crowd is theirs. “Can I take a moment of your time . . . to shred?” asks Jackie Slaughter. He does, and then the band drops into a song. He sometimes sings with his guitar slung across his back, pointing at the crowd, pumping his fist. The band headbangs so hard and moves so fast around stage that I can’t understand how they perform so well.
The set is 45 minutes of ’80s metal heroics. Guitars are fired at the crowd, guitars are shredded and guitar leads are traded. Jackie Slaughter and Johnny Nesta exhort each other. Each plays a lead in turn and then makes insulting gestures at the other, goading the crowd into choosing the victor, but really, we all win this little exchange.
Towards the end of their set, Jackie Slaughter suddenly crouches, still playing the rhythm riff, and Nesta stands above him. Jackie stands up, Nesta sitting on his shoulders, and the two proceed to trade leads, Nesta playing with his guitar hanging next to Jackie’s head.
My friend and I gawp, doing double takes between the stage and each other. The following silent conversation occurs:
Me: “Are they?”
Buddy: “I think so . . . ”
Me: “No way.”
Me: “This isn’t happening.”
Buddy: “Take a picture of what is not happening. Nobody will believe what is not happening unless we have a picture of what they are not doing.”
I take the picture. Afterwards, I still can’t believe what I saw. Like any culture, metal has myths. I think this is destined to become one of them. The line for Skull Fist merch forms before the band has even unplugged.
If such things mattered, Bob Wright is the least ‘metal-looking’ dude at the Fest. If Lebowski played guitar as well as he made White Russians, he’d be Bob Wright. “Can you hear us ok, can you hear the guitar? Can you hear it? You can hear it ok. Here we go,” and they break into “Drive and Drive.” Contrast that with the usual band member statements about sound: Turn my guitar up. More guitar. I can’t hear the guitar. More vocal in the monitor.”
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Skull Fist live at Ragnarokkr 2012
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After Skull Fist’s eruption, Brocas Helm is calming. The band is having fun. There’s a loose, jammy feel to their performance. Chunks of their set are literally solos. It’s impressive, entertaining, and archaic all at the same time. The actual set list is maybe three songs, and the rest are chosen by fan request. A fan calls for a song, the words inaudible to me, and Wright obliges. Jim Schumacher mills around on stage. “This sad bastard forgot the song!” Wright chortles. “Uh, pick another.”
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Later, fans demand for “Cry of the Banshee.” Wright acknowledges. Jim Schumacher mills around on stage. Wright looks at him in exasperation. They confer. Wright explains, “I played bass on the record. This fucker forgot doesn’t know how to play “Cry of the Banshee”. Now I gotta teach him.” Incredibly, Wright teaches Schumacher how to play the bass part on the spot, using his guitar to show Schumacher the note patterns for the bass. If anybody but Brocas Helm did this, I’d call bullshit and say they planned it.
Some would call the band’s performance unprofessional, but I will call bullshit on that. I’m here because I appreciate bands that are willfully archaic. They don’t compromise, so I’m not going to either; I enjoy Brocas Helm’s performance as it is, not by the standards of other live performances I’ve seen. I’ve never seen a metal band perform like Brocas Helm. I suspect I never will.
Wizard have been touring and recording for over 15 years, and it shows. Like Voltax, this is their first U.S. show. They’re here to have a good time with us and that shows as well. They get the best sound of the concert, a monster guitar tone and a crisp mix. They play stadium grade power metal. Sven D’Anna works all the stadium rock devices, priming the crowd to chant choruses and pump their fists in unison. He thanks us after every song.
Wizard is the funniest band I’ve ever seen. D’Anna wears a leather vest over a black tank top. He takes off the tank top, waves his belly at us, and says, “I’ve been in America for two days. I have nothing but Kentucky Fried Chicken, Pizza Hut, and Mack Donalds. And I hef nothing to fahck.” I think you could fit a golf ball in his belly button. His gut dominates the rest of the set, surveilling us like the Eye of Sauron. The Eye gets randomly toweled off, poked, and patted by the guitarists. One tries to jam his finger into the Eye’s iris.
In between bits of Eye worship, we sing songs about Norse gods, battles, magic, and werewolves. Wizard’s good times vibes should clash with all of the serious power metal that has preceded them. Instead, it feel right to end the festival on a happy note. If Immortal played power metal, I think they’d be Wizard.
As the night winds down, the bassist takes the microphone. “I have a story.”
“I was in airport in Munich to fly over here. A friend says to me, ‘Why you go to America? There is no metal there. No metal people. Waste of time.’ And I say, ‘We go to America to have heavy metal party with heavy metal people. We know they are there.’ So now I call friend’s phone. I will tell him what we are doing, then on count of three, you chant ‘Fuck You!’
He dials on his cell phone. We hear rings over the PA, a muffled message from whatever Deutscher is getting called at 6:15 am local. The bassist says, ‘Hi. I am in America. We found heavy metal people, and now we are having heavy metal party with them. They have something to tell you. 1,2,3!’
At this point, my car is stuffed with CDs and band shirts. I’m exhausted, drunk, and I hate the inside of my car. I got a speeding ticket in Indiana. I’ve thanked my bank account by punishing its good deed. I’ve eaten nothing but KFC, Pizza Hut, and Mack Donalds, and my gut is plotting rebellion. I’m heavy metal people, this is my heavy metal party, and I’m having all the heavy metal fun that humorless power metal haters can’t have.
When the bassist says, “three” I chant ‘fuck you!’ and I mean every syllable of it. I won’t begrudge people their sludge/doom and old-school Incantation death, but that doesn’t mean I can’t be angry that it’s popular. Send more power metals, Germany. We’re here. We’ll lend you Manilla Road and Pharaoh in return. You’ll get your spinach and collard greens, and we’ll get some sugar powdered, deep-fried cheese in return.
Wizard pulls the Fest’s organizers on-stage for the last song. Massive thanks go to Thor and Odin. I don’t know how they pulled all those bands together. Getting Pharaoh on the bill was already absurd. Throw in 2 bands’ US debuts plus Slauter Xstroyes, Brocas Helm, and Virgin Steele, and those two heavy metal people pulled together a heavy metal miracle.
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Wizard – “Mighty Wizard”
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So, why Joliet? Like the town and the Midwest in general, the kind of metal that Ragnarokkr features is depressed. Yes, there are numerous labels now that specialize in it. But no, that kind of metal, my kind of metal, is not popular. I get the sense that labels like High Roller and Stormspell operate just like the Mom and Pop coffee shop, turning on the lights when a few people show up to ask for a Borrowed Time album or Manilla Road reissue. The product is quality, but it’s not exotic enough. Nobody’s paying attention for all the wrong reasons.
As we pass Lordstown Assembly again, GM is turning a profit, at least according to itself. It took some legal wrangling and big loans and a lot of angry taxpayers, but it happened . . . probably. General Motors was one of the companies that helped turn America into an industrial and economic powerhouse. It, along with Ford and Chrysler and the Industrial Midwest, are the roots of 20th century American excellence. Bands like those at Ragnarokkr are based in heavy metal’s roots, the same roots that eventually gave us heavy metal’s manifold exotic and excellent strains.
The Detroit Three suffered in part because they refused to change and adapt, but doing so would not have destroyed them. Bands like Wizard and Brocas Helm are never going to change or adapt. To do so would destroy them, but so too might their refusal to change and adapt. Instead, their kind of metal needs new champions. It needs Borrowed Time, Voltax, and A Sound of Distant Thunder. It needs Pharaoh. It can’t get a loan or legal assistance from the government either, but there are substitutes. Given a little legal wrangling, labels like Arekyn Steel, Heaven and Hell, Stormspell, and so on can reissue lost classics. Festivals like Ragnarokkr are loans of a sort, gathering people together to celebrate and promote the genre. Thor and Odin, thankfully, are there to fight the good fight. Within their respective genres, Maryland Deathfest’s and Ragnarokkr’s first two years are of equal quality. Think about that for a second and imagine what Ragnarokkr 2017 could be like. Ragnarokkr and Warriors of Metal are what we need to keep True Metal going.
Hell, I’d put MDF’s first two years up against Ragnarokkr’s first two years for quality regardless of genre, but I’d get shouted down.
Seeing bands like those at Ragnarokkr in Chicago’s love-handles makes sense. If heavy metal had a big pan-genre festival, all of the other genres would be in Chicago, having a blast. Bands like Slauter Xstroyes would still be out in Joliet, serenading the dead concrete and miles of fast food restaurants. If that pan-genre fest ever happened, I’d sneak through Chicago to see a few highlights and then I’d leave. I’d head back to Joliet and play Romeo for the kind of metal that I love.
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