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Famine Fest 2016 Highlights

Famine Fest 2016

I didn’t go to Portland Oregon’s annual Famine Fest with the expectation of writing about it. I didn’t write about the fest last year, when I attended in order to see Terrorizer perform World Downfall in its entirety. This year, though, a combination of interesting plot twists leading up to the fest, as well as several unforgettable performances, inspired me to write the show up, even though all I have are crappy iPhone photos.

The 2015 edition of the fest wound up being an unexpected highlight of my concert going life last year, but 2016 could have been a bust. On February 17, two days before the fest, scheduled headliners Coffins dropped from the bill after being deported to Japan at the outset of their US tour in Chicago. Their direct support, Noothgrush, also dropped from the bill. It wasn’t a deal breaker—I’ve seen both bands before—but it did dampen my expectations.

If you’re expecting a comprehensive run-down of every band who played the fest, I’d seek coverage elsewhere. I took the three-hour drive south to Portland with my good friend Islander of No Clean Singing with the expectation that we’d spend the weekend enjoying some well-earned time off work with a few good drinks and a few good friends, including staff writer Greg Majewski and Noisey contributor Cat Jones.

En route there, yours truly decided to skip lunch in favor of getting to the fest on time, which turned out to be a poor decision for two reasons. First, because it completely failed to get us to the fest on time. In fact the weekend narrative consisted of variations of “try to get there on time, party too much, only see the headliners.” Second, it failed because we decided to get cheap-ish sushi and happy hour drinks with Jones at the Portland City Grill before headed to the show. One day, I will learn that Macallan on an empty stomach leads to more and more Macallan and, pursuant to that scotch, tardiness. At least the restaurant had a spectacular view.

Two scotches deep I leaned over a guest’s table and surveyed Portland from 30 stories up. Two blankets of light sparkling on either side of a lazy, bridge-caged river, it looks like a college town that’s grown a handful of young skyscrapers.

The Panic Room, where Famine Fest was held, is also a young place. It’s only existed by this name for less than a year–in 2015 Famine Fest was held in the same building, but at that point in time it was called The Tonic Lounge. In the interim the venue was featured in an episode of Bar Rescue, a fact which pretty much every local patron that I struck up a conversation with saw fit to mention.

I’m not sure that the airing of grievances had much impact; The Panic Room seemed exactly like The Tonic Lounge, complete with its bizarre circular design and small front bar area which served as a second stage–the venue was formerly a strip club.

At this point it’s worth noting that I actually liked The Panic Room when I came last time, so seeing the place virtually identical actually warranted a sigh of relief. The venue’s faustian reality TV bargain worked out fine as far as I’m concerned: most of Spike TV’s meddling budget went to a new and powerful sound system.

I missed one band that I had wanted to see on each day, such is the hidden cost of libations. On the first day, that band was Auroch. Majewski reported that they put on a crushing performance shortly after I reconnoitered with him and Assistant Editor Vanessa Salvia, who got there a bit earlier than I did, in time to see Sempiternal Dusk knock the power out three times while trying to get their set started.

Iskra Photo by Joseph Schafer
Photo by Joseph Schafer

Then came Vancouver’s Iskra, one of the fest’s bigger draws for me. Their vocalist Danielle struck an imposing figure and screamed with aplomb, though she kept still most of the time and did not speak between songs—founding guitarist Wolf Edwards called out the song titles. If Iskra has an energetic centerpoint, it’s their drummer, who played as if mid-solo on some ’70s monster rock stage. Their 2009 album Bureval remains a favorite, but they played a set culled mostly from their more recent LP, Ruins, which left me wanting more, but they did end their set with “Predator Drone MQ-1,” their newest record’s unquestionable highlight. Hearing its titanic closing riff in person sealed the deal: I want to see Iskra again.

Acephalix Photo by Vile Metal vids
Photo by Phil Springer, Vile Metal Vids

Next came newly reformed San Francisco death metal four-piece Acephalix, the band I was most excited to see once Coffins dropped from the bill. The group’s 2012 album Deathless Master remains a personal favorite, and lead singer Dan Butler continues to make excellent music as the frontman in Vastum. Both bands play mid-paced and punky death metal with a heavy dose of Bolt Thrower beats and twisted, often sexual lyrics, but Acephalix is the more straightforward, hooky band of the two.

Acephalix played the best set of the fest that I saw. Butler in particular gives his all onstage. I’ve spoken with him on the phone, and in that arena he comes off as a reserved and thoughtful individual (which, of course, he is), but onstage he’s an absolute dynamo. When he wasn’t hurling himself into the crowd at high speed he was licking his chops or air drumming to his own band.

Their sexual overtones somehow connected with some of the audience, even though that aspect of the band is not emphasized or readily apparent in a live setting. Butler’s lyrics are incomprehensible without a lyric sheet, and he doesn’t announce his song titles. By the end of the set, while Butler lay screaming, suspended in a minutes-long crowd surf, women gyrated in front of bassist Luca Indrio. Squirming, vital and soaked in primeval slop (okay mostly just my sweat and the sweat of everyone around me), I caught my breath after their set and promised myself that I would see Acephalix again at the earliest opportunity.

In fact, I found their performance so overwhelming that their follow up, Unholy Death, formerly N.M.E., failed to make much of an impression. Bands which put out influential material in the ’80s, which N.M.E. did, don’t always come across as all that special live because their innovations have been copied so many times. So it went, I thought to myself “Maybe Toxic Holocaust should do a split with them,” and then got another beer.

Sadistic Intent Photo by Phil Springer, Vile Metal Vids
Sadistic Intent
Photo by Vile Metal Vids

Said tallboy kept me cool while I stood hugging the stage left monitor and watched Sadistic Intent set up. The band made the unfortunate decision of playing the entirety of Slayer’s Reign in Blood as house music while they set up. The trouble is, in a live setting, Sadistic Intent sound so much like Slayer, complete with Tom Araya-ish high screams, that I found myself wishing that I was seeing Slayer instead. Not that this is any of Sadistic Intent’s fault. They are an almost militaristically tight unit. I’ve just heard so much death thrash in the same vein that it takes more than extraordinary consistency and competence to hold my attention, particularly in the wake of an Acephalix set. I’d like to see them a second time and see if a different room or an earlier set time might warm me up to them. I maintained my monitor-hugging position until the end of their set and then made my way back to the hotel, bruised, wet and eager for more metal.

Saturday, February 20 greeted me entirely too early. I woke up and took a walk to Portland’s riverfront. The day before had been dismal and rainy, but that Saturday belonged to an almost northern Californian sun. Shamefully, I spent most of the day editing in a cafe until my cohorts and I convened for dinner at Laurelhurst Market where, for better or for worse, we once again discussed metal and drank cocktails until well past doors at Famine Fest.

I missed Triumvir Foul’s 6:30 set in favor of having a second round of Laurelhurst’s “Smoke Signals” cocktail, a rye and sherry concoction which features a smoked ice cube. It’s the kind of ridiculous idea that might be highlighted on an episode of Portlandia. Still, as absurd as the idea of smoking ice is, I found the cocktail well worth the lost time. It really does add a pleasant smoky flavor to the liquor as it melts. Sorry, Triumvir Foul. I’ll see you and Auroch soon. Promise.

Rather than start watching Mysticism Black halfway through their set, I posted up close for Ascended Dead. The San Diego outfit first came to my attention with their 2015 compilation, The Advent. As far as blackened death metal goes, they play it well, but that compilation’s raw production style obscured much of their sound. I prefer them live. Drummer Charlie Koryn, also of Funebrarum and Golgotha, is a wonder to watch. He hit faster and harder than any drummer I saw that weekend and the whole time barely broke a sweat. In fact, his deadpan affect unnerved me. In a crew of leather-clad wildmen, it’s the quiet ones you need to look out for.

After that, Sakrificer set up on the main stage and played a set that I now remember as an out of left field highlight. They self-released their last album, Desolate Darkness, but it would fit in well on Tankcrimes. Like Sadistic Intent, they play the kind of sweaty leather jacket-wearing satanic thrash that seems to only really come from LA. Unlike Sadistic Intent, I loved their set. Sakrificer don’t skimp on the fun ruffs, and genuinely seemed to be enjoying themselves. Skeletal Remains? Same idea, but with lower vocals, more blasts, and a little less fun. That both bands teamed up with Sadistic Intent and Raptor for a short run of dates after the fest makes entirely too much sense.

Sakrificer Photo by Gita Castallian
Photo by Gita Castallian

Feeling a little thrashed out, I skipped Rude…

In honesty though, Vancouver’s Mitochondrion played the only set that mattered that day. Like many groups, they’ve had frequent visa issues preventing them from playing in the US–they were unable to attend their MDF appearance two years ago, for example. Famine Fest was their first appearance on US soil in over two years.

The four-piece plays a kind of technically adept atmospheric death metal that’s earned them critical adoration. I like to think of them as Portal with actual songs and no bullshit, though that’s not to suggest they have no flair for the theatrical. the band opened with the overlapping chants of “Vitriol!” before exploding into choice cuts from their 2011 album Parasignosis as well as, to the best of my fact-checking, a new song. Between song banter was kept to a minimum of vaguely metaphysical threats, to wit: “Your trials have only just begun!” Normally such posturing leaves me cold, but if said trails just mean being able to marvel over Sebastian Montesi’s light-speed finger picked bass work, then put me back on the rack, inquisitor.

Most impressive, perhaps was the band’s synced screaming delivery. All three members possess distinct fry vocals in different ranges, and their respective singing parts overlap and entwine with a similar complexity to their guitar and bass work—this detail is not readily apparent on their recordings, but takes a central position live. Once, I turned to Majewski and said “They’re like the death metal Zombies”.

The vocal japes didn’t end with screaming. At the end of their set, a fifth musician wearing a hood accompanied the band on bone flute before harmonizing with the Mitochondrion in a bout of Tibetan throat singing.

Two years in a row, Famine Fest has proven itself to be one of the most well-run metal fests that I’ve attended on any level. That it takes place in a “rescued” bar housed in a former strip club? Who cares? As long as bands like Acephalix and Mitochondrion are going to play through their killer sound system, I’m in.

—Joseph Schafer

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