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Live Report: Berserker IV Day 1

EyeHateGod @ Berserker IV
Words by Jason Gilbert
Photos by Chuck Marshall

Detroit’s Berserker festival returns this year, marking the return (and coincidentally 50th birthday) of Eyehategod frontman Mike IX after a liver transplant surgery late last year. Started three short years ago by Detroit couple Shawn and Veronica Knight, the festival has grown by leaps and bounds every year and this is perhaps the biggest leap so far. Like a hermit crab on growth hormones, the festival finds itself in a new and larger shell; this year filling every room of the Crofoot Ballroom in Pontiac, Michigan. this year, the festival hosted over thirty bands, ranging from fresh faces such as Law and Nightkin to classic titans like The Obsessed, Negative Approach, and GWAR.The Knights are major supporters of local metal, and the showing of Michigan and Ohio bands on this year’s bill is strong.

Euphoria
A mom in full Wonder Woman getup moshes harder than most as local sci-fi enthusiasts Euphoria open the Pike Room stage, the first act of the night. Vocalist Justin Kelter’s growl does rethrash proud, as does riffage from lead guitarist Bubba Colonna. Despite having formed in 2012, their debut album was released just last spring and received good reviews from several websites. Here in the crofoot, with a large turnout of Michigan’s metal scene regulars, they look the part of a rising star in modern thrash.

Law
A bald beef-a-saurus leads a group of young guys in opening the Vernor Room. Law are relatively new on the Detroit hardcore scene, but they’ve already released a demo and a 7” to the delight of The Sanctuary & friends. The vocalist makes controversial statements about the new Star Wars trailer to audible boo’s. Thenceforth, his soapbox declarations are mostly concerned with current political affairs: a far less divisive subject.

Hollow Earth
Rounding out the first wave of Berserker’s onslaught is another Detroit band. Hollow Earth open the Ballroom main stage to a sparse but dedicated crowd with their unique style of “way hard alt rock”. Moshpit music it may not be, but this is early in the evening and few are a moshy mood yet, anyway. By the time their first song finishes dropping like a bag of cement mix, the ballroom has filled all the way back to the merch tables. Hollow Earth is one of the few truly “modern”-sounding bands on the bill tonight, and would not be out of place on tour with Intronaut or Mastodon. Their slow, heavy and serious sounds fill theCrofoot as the crowd stands transfixed, spellbound by vocalist Steve Muczynski’s mesmerizing sway and the hypnotic tone of the string section. Nobody moves much except for Wonder Woman, who headbangs enthusiastically to the pounding drums.

Horrible Earth
Steve Milionis sings on a Pike Room floor commanded by a wheelchair-bound fanatic. Moshes are had, beers are spilled, and Steve apologizes to the offended party with the explanation that “it’s all just theatrics” and the promise of a replacement beer on him. Top tier human being. Fans object to a quick reset between songs, proclaiming “there’s no tuning in grindcore!” Steve expresses concern that the band’s cover has been blown. Around this time, Wonder Woman enters with a cocktail in one hand and an “is that it??” expression in the other announcing her intention to throw down. Horrible Earth’s set consists of short stretches of banter & silence perforated by brief moments of sheer sonic intensity. A smiling Mike IX goes unnoticed at the back of the room until Steve sends him a birthday shout out at the end of the set.

Artillery Breath
The Columbus, OH, thrashers are underway when I arrive to a packed Vernor Room. The pit up front is dominated once again by the dangerous duo of Wonder Woman and Wheels. Artillery Breath are full of frantic riffage and equally vivacious energy but the moshpit stays at the very front. As surprising as the small pit is in Artillery Breath’s huge metal storm, what’s even more surprising is the reason why: the Vernor Room is absolutely sardines-in-a-can full from the pit all the way back past the end of the bar, all while Ringworm’s set on mainstage is at its energetic and chronological peak.

Ringworm
While their fellow Ohioans lay claim to the entire Vernor Room, Ringworm have a similar commanding presence on the Ballroom main stage. The quintet occupy the stage like a formation of football players: rehearsed, coordinated, purposeful. Ringworm say they’re keeping the banter at a minimum because set times are so short, even for main stage bands. The crowd makes the most of their time with Ringworm by maintaining a constant circle pit which spans the entire gap between the Ballroom’s flanking balconies. The pit may yawn wide, but the crowd is just getting started.

Cemetery Piss
Cemetery Piss play to an enthusiastic but moshless crowd in the Pike Room. Fun-club kids jostle and headbang on the left spider-goths with crossed arms and cross makeup sway on the right. Wonder Woman pushes through them, looking for a mosh. Finding no challengers amidst the Piss, she leaves. The band weaves a xanthic tapestry of 2nd-Wave black metal worship with all of the sleaze and cock-rock elements that most of their progenitors failed to take from Venom. Crowd-favorite songs “Sex and Metal” along with “Rest in Piss” are representative of the aesthetic. Frontman Adam Savage (no, not that one) ends the set curled up and screaming on the floor, a circle of mourners around him.

Snafu
Rushing downstairs from the end of Cemetery Piss, I enter the Vernor Room to a flurry of bodies and riffs mirrored by frontman. Alex from Horrible Earth is up front at the edge of yet another moshpit which waves the flag of Wonder Woman’s conquering swagger. SNAFU are twice the band tonight compared to when I saw them open for Iron Reagan and Power Trip a few short weeks ago. With home field advantage in the Vernor Room, they command an energy and crowd response beyond any of their prior tenants tonight.

Negative Approach
In the center of the Ballroom stage, Negative Approach frontman John Brannon stands as a symphony conductor and we, the berserk, are his Philharmonic Mosh Pit Orchestra. In short, savage bursts, he directs us to swell into action and then lull into a hush. The band plays the largest, best-equipped stage in the venue with no fog machines, no fancy laser show, not even any colored lights. Just a set list packed with damn-near every song they’ve ever written delivered through a coordinated front of mean-mug expressions which confirm their no-frills-no-bullshit attitude. The pack of fist-pumpers up front is five bodies deep all across the Ballroom’s wide stage as the night’s meanest band plays more major chord progressions than anybody else all weekend. I have a personal weakness for bands who can play large stages and still replicate the intensity of a packed show at a tiny venue; Negative Approach has this in spades. Somewhere in the symphony of circle pits, I lose many of my notes from earlier in the evening. Considering them a worthy sacrifice to the divine forces of punk rock, I send them off to the beer-stained beyond with a four-count prayer from bassist Ron Sakowski as Negative Approach rip into another half-minute banger.

Nightkin
Mike McKenzie (The Red Chord) shrieks an adventurous vocal style as he leads a flood of drum triggers and death metal riffs. Outside of McKenzie, the band has extensive Michigan metal pedigree as well, and the crowd includes several familiar faces from the Detroit and Lansing metal scenes. The sound quality in the Pike Room is unfortunately poor during Nightkin’s set, but the crowd doesn’t seem to mind and support for the band runs high.

Fuck You Pay Me
The third in a strong showing of Ohio bands, FYPM cut short my interview with Artillery Breath as they unleash their own salvo of furious hardcore below the media lounge. The Vernor Room instantly fills to the brim with moshing bodies, still hungry from Negative Approach’s main stage set which has just ended and their energy continues well into FYPM’s performance as well. The band plays with similar intensity to their Detroit counterparts, although this time the songs are supplemented with stories from frontman Tony Erba’s long history in the hardcore scene. Of particular note is a story about a gig in the 80’s at a Detroit Blondie’s full of skinheads. A song chorus of “I’m just like you” echoes the sentiment of unity at the show tonight as fans of heavy music from all walks of life mingle and mosh up front.

Off!
As punk rock supergroup OFF! take to the main Ballroom stage, the crowd up front is packed predictably tight. Yet the center and sides of the Ballroom are made noticeably sparse by the absence of an entire Vernor Room full of Fuck You Pay Me fans as the set times overlap. The end of Nightkin upstairs brings many of the perennial Michigan metalers down to the Ballroom, but the floor still looks a reflection of Detroit, herself: growing, but still peppered with vacant holes. With the end of Fuck You Pay Me, about 15 minutes in, the punks and hardcore kids swarm the Ballroom floor and OFF! really get going. The band is thankful for the turnout, and the crowd is thankful for the music as the huge pit suggests that even though it’s approaching midnight, the berserkers have enough energy left for a great show.

Blurring
When I arrive in the Pike Room for Blurring, the crowd is sparse; OFF! having gone slightly over schedule. The sound quality continues to get worse on the small stages over the evening, adding to the feeling of wear that comes from a six hour show. Here and now in the Pike Room the dedicated fanbase doesn’t seem to notice. Neither does a bearded muscle-dad who is falling asleep at a table in the back; en the most blistering metal assault can turn into a soothing jacuzzi of sonic texture after sitting in it long enough. The fans up front are wild with delight as Dan Lilker (ex-Anthrax) sports a grin as big as his bass tone. The end of OFF! on the main stage downstairs is made evident by a sudden influx of new people just as Blurring’s set is coming to peak intensity.

Nuke
The crossbred product of Michigan’s incestuous metal community, Nuke, play to a half-full but mostly moshless Vernor Room. As with Blurring and Nightkin before them, the sound quality on the side stages is suffering as we draw nearer to midnight. Nuke’s frontman Richie Riot (Shitfucker) demonstrates an exciting variety of daring vocal styles, but much of the rest of the band is lost in a bad mix. The sound cleans up about halfway through the set, but many are still moshless and fatigued.


Eyehategod
All other bands are done playing. There are no side stage spectacles to draw attendance away from the Ballroom main stage and the true size of Friday night’s crowd is shown in full force. A tangible excitement hangs in the air as the Ballroom fills to the brim and those who can’t find space on the floor pack into the balconies above. Eyehategod take to the stage to swells of cheers and chants of “Mike! Mike! Mike!” The band express great thanks and praise for all their supporters and proceed to drop a 16-ton bag of sludge on our heads. The mosh moves through the crowd like waves of fanaticism: isolated and small at first, they draw huge sweeping shapes through the Ballroom floor before subsiding for a moment, only to begin anew elsewhere. Mike IX may be showing some signs of his age, as are many on and off the stage tonight, but he also looks energetic and healthy. He is visibly moved by supporters chanting his name en masse, but tries to laugh it off by assuring us that “nothin’s changed, we’re still retarded!” Before the energetic peak of their set in “Agitation!Propaganda!”, Mike explains: “I fought to stay alive so I could see the end of the world…” which, he assures us, is coming very soon.

Image courtesy of the Eyehategod Facebook page.
Image courtesy of the Eyehategod Facebook page.

Near the end of the set, a birthday cake is presented in the shape of a bandaged liver along with a framed picture of Mike from the first EHG tour which includes a check from their then-record label for “zero dollars and zero cents”. The crowd sings the worst, most fitting rendition of “Happy Birthday” that Weedeater frontman Dave Collins says he’s ever heard.

-Jason Gilbert

All photos by Chuck Marshall.
Special thanks to Metal Wani for their help in making this report a reality.

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