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Live Report: Decibel Metal & Beer Fest 2018

Last year Decibel Magazine launched the first Metal & Beer Fest in its hometown of Philadelphia. The event, which featured headliners Agoraphobic Nosebleed and Sleep was a huge success, prompting a second edition this year. Decibel has been on the forefront of the collaboration of metal and beer with the cleverly titled Brewtal Truthcolumn penned by Adam Tepedelen since 2009, but they aren’t responsible for the combination, they’re merely documented a trend that makes perfect sense.

This isn’t only because metal and beer go together like… Well, metal and beer. It’s because independent breweries and independent bands face many of the same struggles. Craft breweries make the same product as Anheuser-Busch but can’t buy a Super Bowl spot to introduce a new IPA. Additionally, Scion is no longer around to subsidize the metallic arts. Extreme bands don’t have major labels promoting them to huge radio stations and they sure won’t be doing the Super Bowl halftime show.

Beers crafted with unique flavors and ingredients are far too intense for the average Coors Light drinker, just as most metal, punk and hardcore are too harsh for the average Metallica fan. Besides, there’s solidarity amongst nonconformists. There’s a reason most every craft brewery employs a metalhead or three. The weekend in Philly is a great way to thank them for all their service.

Even in a venue with a smorgasbord of stouts, plentiful pilsners, a multitude of malts and loads of lager, Decibel knows moderation is key. There’s no Sam Adams side stage and dozens of bands playing 20 minute sets before noon (who cares if it’s five o’clock somewhere). They bumped up the start time to a still-reasonable 5 PM each day and added one more band in that slot, but there was still ample time for set changes, encouraging fans to drink ‘em all.

Traditional metal is always a nice way to kick off the fest. It allows you to pace yourself, or mid-pace yourself, as is Spirit Adrift‘s specialty. The Phoenix foursome’s riffs wrangled from dual guitars and the occasional hint at boogie makes one imagine Thin Lizzy as a doom metal band.

The folks sympathetic to this style who wished for stronger vocals on last year’s Curse of Conception should give the band a chance in concert – Nate Garrett’s enthusiasm and the band’s occasional backing harmonies are far more powerful live, especially when you consider the band is still so new (this is actually their first tour). It will be interesting to see how the he and his bandmates divide time between Spirit Adrift and the surging Gatecreeper whom they split duties with.

The term “bass-heavy death metal” probably doesn’t have many Google hits (I checked; only 25 at the time of writing) but there aren’t many death metal bands like Horrendous. It might have been just an anomalous live mix, but it fit the band’s overarching and unique death metal perfectly.

Although the Philly band has been cooped up recording a highly anticipated new album, the show felt less like a homecoming than a chance to play for the new faces that turn out for this kind of event. They hammed it up on stage, a refreshing change from the grimmer-than-thou types, and their technical prowess never descends into tech-death monotony. If Chuck Schuldiner was still around, he would love the way Horrendous pushes the boundaries of death metal. The band certainly keeps his pioneering spirit alive.

A contrast to the speed and virtuosity were the majestic doomscapes of Evoken. The venue, at least to this point, was keeping the house lights on. This did a disservice to the sprawling, dark funeral doom that Evoken specializes in. Their lethargic, twisting, beautiful chamber doom may be more befitting a cemetery than a metal and beer fest but you should definitely see them in either locale. Or anyplace, really.

The lights came down and the fists came up for Integrity as the reunited hardcore stalwarts instigated the first actual pit of the fest. Maybe it’s just a bias from years enjoying the metallic hardcore that rose from New York tenement halls and graffiti scrawls, but it was fantastic to see Howling, for the Nightmare Shall Consume become one of the most critically acclaimed extreme music albums last year.

Dwid Hellion skulked across the stage like an angry panther, tattooed arms rippling through his black tee-shirt. You’d think he was a tough guy (and you likely don’t want to test this theory) but then during “String up My Teeth” he had a tambourine player and a female vocalist take the song over and turn it into a hardcore-gospel hybrid. Agnostic Front and Cro-Mags could never have pulled that off.

Continuing the whiplash-inducing tempo-changes between bands, Pallbearer brought everything down several notches. It may have been because they followed Integrity, but the band seemed much more of a classic metal band than a straight doom outfit; more likely the band realizes that Black Sabbath didn’t just start doom metal, it started all metal. Pallbearer just prefer the more introspective stuff. Especially indicative of this were how Devin Holt and singer Brett Campbell traded off leads. Prototypical doom bands are not usually this musically adept.

When Campbell said “enough of the short songs,” the band threw down the gauntlet and proceeded to rip out the nearly twelve minute opus “Dancing in Madness.” It was at that exact moment when the greatness of this band was truly revealed. At their best, Pallbearer makes you feel like you are slowly drowning before bring you up for air at the last second before death.

Monster Magnet. Man, how does a band manage to be a relic of the ‘90s aping relics from the ‘70s but still seem so goddamn relevant now? Even on a festival where these space rock cadets stuck out like a sore thumb, the band was met with rapt attention from a black-tee-shirt-clad crowd whose median age was zero when Wyndorf launched the band some three decades ago.

The crowd weren’t just respecting their elders either. When Monster Magnet went right from MTV hit “Powertrip” and segued into the title track of the brand new Mindfucker album, there was no letdown. As Monster Magnet closed with two more hits that have been played on American radio more than the rest of the fest’s lineup combined – “Negasonic Teenage Warhead” and “Spacelord” – it showed there was a reason all those death metal bands started playing greasy rock and roll for a while there. Monster Magnet is the greasiest.

Among the crowd, one kid stood out. He had a Watain backpatch on his jean jacket but was totally rocking out to “Spacelord” with horn hands punching into the air. Even the biggest fans of the smallest cult bands have their gateway groups. Monster Magnet on the radio begat death and black metal for a sizable contingency of metal fans; most of them are smart enough to still show loyalty the same way us oldsters kept listening to Van Halen after discovering Slayer.

An even bigger shock than Monster Magnet appealing to the metal masses was how heavy At the Gates is live. It’s easy to forget that the band had the temerity to break up soon after pioneering the Gothenburg Sound. While the nucleus of the band would join their peers introducing more melody into the scene’s patented death metal as The Haunted, At the Gates proper was not around to evolve.

This arrested development is quite obvious from the large Fillmore stage. Tomas Lindberg, long curly blonde mane spilling out of his ubiquitous black trucker hat, flails across the stage, his high-pitched screech sounded like it was weaned on hardcore. Meanwhile the proto-groove riffs of Marton Larsson and newcomer Jonas Stålhammar alongside drummer Adrian Erlandsson’s triggered double bass made you think that had they not broke up, they could have occupied the spot that Lamb of God does as one of extreme metal’s biggest sellers.

The set list mostly drew from Slaughter of the Soul and the comeback album At War with Reality with a smattering of choice older cuts, most notably the hardcore blast of “Kingdom Gone” from the band’s 1992 debut. Even so it was as abrasive and brutal as anything any of the youngsters on the bill would come up with. It lacked the polish of the studio recordings but that almost seemed like that was the point. The title track of the forthcoming To Drink from the Night Itself album did nothing to dissuade those thinking it might be the best metal album of the year.

Day Two

There was once a time when extreme metal fans were still supportive of more mainstream fare. When a young and upcoming Metallica supported Ozzy, even the kids trading tapes stuck around for the headliner, whose legend at that point was slathered in mascara. Sumerlands recalls those long gone days when even the most underground types still had a soft spot for Dokken’s guitar histrionics. John Powers and Arthur Rizk did a nice job of approximating the pomp and circumstance of ‘80s metal, amped up for today’s more discerning fans.

It was a bit surprising when vocalist Phil Swanson left early, his bandmates left behind and looking a little confused. Maybe he was in a rush to drink some of the Haunted Forever Black IPA that local brewery Yards brewed in collaboration with the band before it ran out.

All Hell not only makes more noise than a three-piece should be allowed, but shows serious musicianship in the process. Erik Ballantyne slaps his bass like it talked shit about his momma, but the output is not funky in the slightest. When Jacob Curwen took off on some tasty Jeff Hanneman leads, Ballantyne and his battery mate Kurt Henderson filled the void so well you didn’t miss a rhythm guitarist.

The North Carolina band seemed more adept on the big stage than most bands performing before the sun went down. Last year’s The Grave Alchemist slipped under the radar a little bit. Based on the impressive set, it bears revisiting.

Spectral Voice hails from Denver, a hotbed for metallic activity well represented at this festival: Khemmis played it last year and Primitive Man performed an unofficial after-show at 1 AM walking distance from the Fillmore. Maybe it’s in the beer water – several craft brewers are super supportive of the dark arts (TRVE Brewing Company who made the trek east and Black Sky Brewery being the most prominent). Maybe it’s in the bong water – weed has been freed in Colorado.

Based on tempo and aesthetics, Spectral Voice prefers the latter. The band proffers guttural death metal so morose and languid, funeral doom fans will likely think they’re the ones being courted. Based on atmosphere – the band demanded the venue turn off all of the lights – they seem like a stout blacker than a trillion midnights. Watching them was futile; it was for all intents and purposes pitch-black on and off the stage. So you closed your eyes and let your mind wander past gothic spires and somber poltergeists and whatever else got conjured up in your head.

Decibel had the good fortune to have Incantation available as a replacement when Dream Death fell off the bill in late February for unexplained reasons. The lights were back on when they hit the stage. Honestly at this point in their career, they can have anything they want. They are one of a small handful of American bands that have continuously churned out quality death metal without a substantial hiatus. Despite so many lineup changes that Encyclopaedia Metallum can’t even keep track, you can always count on John McEntee to deliver the goods. There may be exceptions to that rule but not tonight.

McEntee wears his years in his nearly white beard and grey hair that he whips into a fury whenever he’s not singing. He and the brand new guitarist Sonny Lomberdozzi already have chemistry together as they – with the help from longtime drummer Kyle Severn – thrashed out tracks spanning the distinguished career of one of the most consistent death metal bands around.

Repulsion kicked off their set with a rousing rendition of “Breaking The Law,” after which Scott Carlson said that the band was going to play a whole set of everyone’s favorite ’80s metal. They broke into “Rock You like a Hurricane” for a few mangled riffs before finally reminding everyone it was April Fool’s Day. He totally fooled us!

You can’t blame him for fleshing out the set. At the end of the day, Repulsion has given us Horrified, a cornerstone album in extreme metal history, but little else. Even when Carlson referenced a track from the band’s first demo, it was “Slaughter of the Innocent” which still found its way onto that classic, perfect album. They tacked on a spirited version of Slaughter’s “Death Dealer” as well.

The band, rounded out with original guitarist Matt Olivo and Chris Moore, who is able to keep up with the notoriously rapid pace Repulsion helped pioneer, had a lot of fun considering they were blowing the minds of tons of fans who might have never had the chance to see the band live before. None of them would leave unsatisfied.

If the festival’s theme was to celebrate how metal and beer culture intertwine, the last half of the fest’s final evening were all about bands that kicked off movements. Repulsion gave a nascent death metal scene a huge push while Mayhem is synonymous with the genesis of Norwegian black metal.

Of course Mayhem has had an entirely new life since the notorious days of Oslo burning, original bassist Necrobutcher notwithstanding (I would love to hear him tell stories about the old days) and Hellhammer has certainly put in his time. Even if they are not as scandalous, in many ways they are far more potent. “A Bloodsword and a Colder Sun, Part II,” with its gothic sheen and industrial swing, is as brilliant as it is far removed from the band’s primordial existence.

Attila Csihar was scarily captivating. His corpse paint dripped from his head, bald save for a hint of a mohawk down the center, making any pattern indiscernible. It’s as if he rubbed his face into a tray of black and white semi-gloss and stuck with the results. His caterwaul is sometimes seemingly of alien origin, high-pitched squeals one moment and animalistic growls the next. He staggered around the stage like someone who wants you to think he’s out of control but really knows exactly what he’s doing. You just hope he isn’t planning on doing it to you.

Mayhem ended the set as Attila idly toyed with a noose and the band played like it was the last song they would play ever, not just this evening. You knew you witnessed metal royalty.

Carcass managed to spearhead not one but two extreme metal trends. In the late ‘80s they were leading lights of grindcore and a few years later, after brushing up their chops, they became melodic death metal kingpins. Just as the reunion album Surgical Steel endeavored to reconcile that entire history into one release (and succeeded), the band’s continued touring in support of the album also attempts to encapsulate these distinct periods into a concise career statement (which also succeeded).

It’s appropriate that Bill Steer and Jeff Walker are from Liverpool for they are the Lennon and McCartney of extreme metal. They’re also smart enough to surround themselves with musicians who share their vision. Drummer Daniel Wilding played on the last album so his prowess is already established; he even got a drum solo which is usually reserved for arena geezers. Tom Draper just joined the band in time for the Netherlands Deathfest less than a month before and the youngster fit in perfectly. The dual harmonies between Walker and himself were impeccably performed. It’s hard to believe it was only his second show with the band.

Although Carcass allegedly has several songs for a new album ready to go, none of them were performed. However, it was impressive that the new guitarist was able to learn from every era of the band’s history. Although an emphasis was made on the 2013 comeback album and Heartwork, Carcass went as far back as “Genital Grinder” and “Pyosisified (Rotten to the Gore)” from the inimitable Reek of Putrefaction debut to a biting version of “Keep on Rotting in the Free World” from Swansong.The band closed with a surprising medley of “Ruptured in Purulence” and “Heartwork,” two songs that you wouldn’t think would mesh very well. Hopefully Carcass continues its well-deserved victory lap.

It’s a safe bet that Decibel will continue on with the Metal & Beer Fest. If they do make it an annual event and they continue to emphasize quality over quantity (and they can keep getting the heaviest craft brewers to lug suds across the country) it has the potential to be one of those “destination” fests up there with Maryland Deathfest and the New England Metal and Hardcore Festival. Just drunker.

—Brian O’Neill

photos by Tashina Byrd

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