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Live Report: Berserker IV Day 2

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

This is the second part of our Berserker IV Coverage. Read part 1 here.

I arrive in the evening to find several familiar faces gathered out front. The doorman recognizes me and says that about 90% of those in attendance are repeats from day 1 (he assures me that he’s good with faces). From the amount of crispy merch sporting heralds of the previous night’s bands, I am inclined to agree with the doorman, special talents or no. GWAR faithful break up the expanse of black with shocks of white tank tops and t-shirts. In another callback to yesterday, three Michigan bands kick off the evening’s festivities. As the bands begin across the Crofoot’s three stages, I begin my mad scramble throughout the facility, trying to take it all in.

Fell Ruin
“Everyone, please come forward.” Frontman Brian Sheehan (Scorned Deity, ex-Teratoma) invites the Pike Room into the world of Fell Ruin as a sludgy mess spills forth from the speakers, sweet and slow like cold molasses, but heavier than a bull moose. A talented bassist, creative use of a Kemper Profiler rack, and tasteful application of blast beats make for an interesting soundscape that Tom G Warrior would be proud of. Being the first performance of the night, attendance at the Pike stage is predictably sparse, but several familiar faces from the Lansing and Detroit metal undergrounds are present and bang heads enthusiastically.

Krista wails through the weeping branches of her blonde dreadlocks and the Vernor Room quickly fills with bodies swaying to the magic that Flint’s SWEAT weave onstage. She and her fellow guitarist cradle hollow-bodied guitars (almost unheard of at a metal show) and tapdance of pedalboards big enough to surf on. The sound is adventurous, captivating, and at times crushingly heavy. Earlier in the evening, Krista told me she hopes to play on the main stage next year. Based on their mesmerizing performance today, not to mention a packed and swaying Vernor Room, those aspirations seem well within reach. By the peak of their set, their energy shakes the literal stage, causing amps and cabinets to dance in time to their pensive yet aggressive ritual of sound. A lilting scrawl on my notepad from the show reads “like an introvert day-dreaming while stomping your face.” Yeah. It was kinda like that.

Against the Grain
By far the most “rock n’ roll” band on the bill, Detroit’s Against the Grain open the Ballroom to a crowd of enthusiastic headbangers, zebra-striped in their formation of mixed black and white shirts. The band plays maximum rock with a minimal setup and the result is a damn good time. Watching the band play, one gets the impression that ATG doesn’t just sound the part, they actually are the most criminally underrated hard rock band from the 1970’s transported to us as a fluke of that same timeline-jumping phenomenon that landed Trump in the White House and Lemmy in the grave. Faster songs get the Gwarriors moshing and a skinny teen in a Cattle Decapitation t shirt commands the center of the pit, stepping to any who approach her. The crowd is delighted with a surprise guest feature as an unmasked Pustulus Maximus plays guitar for a song of ATG’s upcoming album.

“Hold my beer while I plug an HM-2 into my HM-2…” Local chainsaw-music enthusiasts Centenary are a much tighter and better-rehearsed band than when I last saw them at the final Ogrefest They pack the Pike room with moshing bodies and a sound my editor lovingly calls “swamp-ass death metal”. Along with the swamp factor, no project born of the ashes of Genocya would be complete without enough cigarettes and beer onstage to open a party store. Centenary is no exception. The announcement of song “Orange Barrel Autopsy” comes with a promise to blow our dicks off. “I need my dick” protests an audience member. Too bad; this absurdity just turned into an episode of South Park, and we’re all getting glutened.

Coming out of the creative mind of bassist Aaron Tanner, the band play to a sparse but enthusiastic Vernor room sans guitarist Matt Glick, who is no longer with the band after having been “killed and raped by GWAR”. The ladies of SWEAT bob and weave up front as a drunk guy with a white trucker hat and bad adolescent facial hair rhythmically spanks a woman old enough to be his mother. With surprisingly adept clean vocals duties by drummer Matt McGuyer, the band craft an adventurous style of alt rock that is difficult to categorize, but with a groove as good as this, the music doesn’t really need labels.

Child Bite
Child Bite are a band that books fests who play like a band that headlines them. Visibly at home on the Ballroom main stage, their energy spills over into the crowd of bouncing headbangers. The influence of bands like GWAR and Dead Kennedys on frontman and festival organizer Shawn Knight is evident in his vocal style and his stage presence. Noticing a slump in the crowd energy, the band breaks out the heavy material and the ensuing mosh reaches all the way to the back of the Ballroom. The pounding floor toms cause a group of Gwarriors to turn the gaping pit space into a 1 on 1 “king of the hill” tournament. Bruce Lamont of Brain Tentacles plays guest saxophone on a song late in the set. Metal sax seems to be moving ever more towards being “a thing” and I couldn’t be happier about it. Shawn Knight continues to demonstrate masterful frontmanship throughout the set. Climbing over speaker cabinets and off the front of the stage, he engages the fist-pumpers up front who are splayed across the barrier several bodies deep like rows of teeth, arms gnashing at the humid air thick with distortion fuzz.

Sunlight’s Bane
Ronnie from Artillery Breath greets me in the way into a crowded Pike Room hosting a sonic onslaught as dark and evil as the name implies. A shaved-head guitarist with XXX neck tattoo kicks disdainfully at empty beer leavings from Centenary. Frontman Nick Holland’s hastily-applied and sloppy corpsepaint underpins the band’s clear philosophy of function-over-form. Banter between songs is surprisingly political, leaning militant left. The band is clearly comfortable with the medium-sized Pike Room stage, their antics catering well to its space and connection with the crowd.

Night Vapor
Heavy clean guitars dripping with effects pedals work clumsy, stoned melodies through the Vernor Room to a sparse crowd, most of whom don’t seem to “get it”. Personally, I’m interested to know more about the vapors these guys get into at night. Clearly among the more adventurous bands at the fest this year, they remind me of Cavalcade in a lot of ways. The frontman looks like a lost cousin of Napoleon Dynamite and writhes to the band’s bizarre soundscape in a loud bowling shirt that could only have come from a thrift store. One of the Spider Goths from yesterday stands in the front wearing a Japanese-murder-doctor outfit looking kind of like Björk. Hiran Daraniyagala, guitarist of Battlecross looks pensive as we try to decipher Night Vapor’s unique style.

The Obsessed
Three death metal dads conspicuously pass a pipe on the patio, but the presence of the previously “outed” member of GWAR nearby holds most of the attention. Most like-minded individuals must be off doing the same because when The Obsessed start, the Ballroom is almost empty. Wino and co don’t seem to notice the weak early turnout and proceed to dump the creamiest fuzz tones heard all weekend into the lucky few up front. Within ten minutes, the room is filled with grooving headbangers and the smell of second-hand weed smoke. The Obsessed look and sound like absolute professionals, spread out on the stage in a way that seems to add even more space to their already massive sound. The light show dazzles the glassy-eyed crowd and the new material is a hit with the old fans. “We’re gonna live forever” declares the big crowd-pleaser of the new record; and from here on the Ballroom floor, it looks like they might.

Immortal Bird
The majority of tonight’s berserkers flock to the Pike Room while Immortal Bird are still setting up, with Ronnie front and center. The band’s logo scrawled in sharpie on the bass drum is simultaneously the least professional and yet most serious thing I’ve seen all night. Photographers flock to the front to catch pictures of the Birds as vocalist Rae Amitay darts offstage in a flurry of camera flashes only to return moments later dripping with spilled beer. The room is so crowded that moshpits collapse under the pressure of gawking onlookers, transfixed by Immortal Bird’s musical spell and their captivating display onstage. The sound quality in the Pike Room is better than things were at this point last night, and Immortal Bird take advantage of the circumstance to maximal effect. The ambient lighting paired well with the guitar’s frigid timbre as the rhythm section stirred a furious storm or midwest black metal. In the eye of the storm, writhing and screaming as if in a trance, Amitay soars above us all on pipes as shrill as they are chilling.

Cotton Museum @ Berserker IV
Chuck Marshall

Cotton Museum
The Vernor is mostly empty as Cotton Museum mastermind Chris Pottinger leans a table laden with electronics dramatically at the audience. I’ve visited the Cotton Museum in Memphis, TN, but I don’t remember this part. Pottinger’s experimental freeform noise project has a few faithful fans, but almost everybody here is upstairs in the Bird’s nest during his set. What the appreciators in the Vernor witnessed tonight is the musical aspect of a larger multimedia arts project which Pottinger has been working on since 2002 with fans both in Detroit and abroad.

The band takes the stage to roars of glee from the Ballroom, which is already mostly full. Fat nuggets of professionally-grown stoner riffs are what’s for dinner and Berserker is eager to feast. A cadre of doods beside me try to pass a hash oil pen discreetly but in their trying not to draw attention to themselves they make it clear to me that something’s up. As the crowd reaches peak stoner sway, Cattle Decap Teen incites a furious moshpit that continues for the rest of the song. Adolescent Mustache jumps in, visibly wasted and looking for a fight. The big guys think it’s cute and just push him extra hard while CDT asserts her dominance by pushing down two guy at the same time. Frontman Dave Collins kneels and holds his bass upright as he wrestles a series of flourishes out of its neck before standing into a savage groove of wooly fuzz.

Brain Tentacles
Members of Immortal Bird are front and center for the vulgarity and filth of Brain Tentacle’s public sax show. The rest of the Pike Room is packed tighter than I’ve seen all weekend. Frontman Bruce Lamont blares his arsenal of saxophones through a single vocal mic that runs through a flood of subtle modulations. The same microphone is used for the banter between songs, to a jarring and memorable effect. Lamont’s sax shredding blows minds as he blows brain-bending jazz metal that sits somewhere between Naked City and Shining (not that Shining). You’d have to be insane to leave the Pike Room while this display is going on, but the festival continues downstairs and so must I.

Boreworm crowd the stage in an equally crowded Vernor room. I spill through through the doorway and tumble over several moshing bodies before coming to rest on the sidelines all mixed up in Wheels’ eponymous vessel. A barrage of homegrown Michigan tech death mirrors my disruptive acrobatics as fingers dance on fretboards, feet fly on kick pedals and vocal lines are roared over top. Members of SWEAT sway on the opposite wall with smiles wider than Woodward Avenue at the penultimate band’s scorching metal assault that blisters the audience, even compared to the unseasonable heat of the day. Boreworm topped the list of “excited-to-see” shoutouts among patrons throughout the day, and the claustrophobically full attendance makes it show.

It’s full 45 minutes before their scheduled set time, but the Ballroom floor is already half-full with Gwarriors staking claim to the best real estate in the performers’ legendary splash zone. After a short movie intro, manager Sleazy P. Martini brings out the band to deafening cheers from the now-capacity crowd in the Ballroom. The performance begins with a send-off to former President Barack Obama; consoling him on the way the political cookie crumbles and offering him the band’s unique variety of severance package. The mass of sing-along headbangers is a dozen rows deep of smiling faces soaked in GWAR fluid. The band’s next victim is the Jaegermonster, who is torn limb-from-limb as the band tear through crowd-favorite “Womb with a View”. The band pulls out old favorites, too, updating some for a fresh sound and new chance at relevancy. For example: Blothar declares “That other idiot is dead, so it should be ‘Assad-A-GoGo’ now!” After finishing “Let us Slay”, Martini returns to the stage with Donald Trump; his new business partner. Donnie promises to leave the niceties of yesterday behind and to “Bring Back the Bomb”. The rest of the band become so excited at the news they disembowel the So-Called Ruler of the United States. Signature shades of pink and purple cover the faces and t shirts of all in range of the band’s gruesome artillery. As the set crosses over midnight and into Easter Sunday, the band commemorate the holiday by doing battle with an Intergalactic Easter Bunny and later, Super Cyborg Jesus Christ. Front row fans spread arms open to receive the eucharist of the GWAR’s ministry. A mohawked festival goer flashes pierced breasts but all eyes here are for the alien force onstage. The massed crowd offer a series of crowdsurfed sacrifices to the mighty ones before and above us as GWAR show us what they think of modern musical subcultures by killing a series of hippies, emos and Nazi skinheads. Festival organizer and Child Bite frontman Shawn Knight sings on the final choruses of “Sick of You” before jumping into the crowd himself.

A combination of previous years’ successes, impeccable booking, astounding performances, and an unimaginable amount of hard work resulted in the best of all Berserkers yet. With this year’s addition of special meals and beverages from local businesses to supplement the festival, it’s hard to imagine how much bigger something like this can get unless the Knights plan to convert an entire piece of Detroit into a facsimile of GWAR’s fabled “Metal Metal Land” in the future. At the rate Berserker has grown in just a few short years, that’s not entirely off the table, either.

-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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