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Show Review: Hoverfest

I know nothing about amplifiers. To me, they are magic boxes used by musician-wizards to call forth the elder gods of Tone and Volume. I understand why people get excited over the things and their internal workings, but I almost don’t want to know how that particular type of sausage is made, as I think it would take away from the mystery of the whole deal. What I do know is that heavy music is indebted to those who create these cabinets of sound, and last week’s Hoverfest was a great way to literally feel their impact. In fact, it couldn’t be missed: A festival in Portland, Oregon, headlined by YOB with support from the region’s best heavy acts, all playing through custom amps, and engineered by legendary sound terrorist Billy Anderson? One would pretty much need to turn in their ‘heavy metal’ card to dismiss such an event, so off I went to Hoverfest.

The event started as an idea between friends Nial McGaughey and Nathan Carson. McGaughey began Hovercraft Amplifiers in Portland as a middle ground between cheap mass production and expensive boutique amps. Carson drums for doom stalwarts Witch Mountain, and along with local merch gurus Cravedog Inc, decided to collaborate with McGaughey to book a local outdoor festival to showcase the amplifiers and the bands who use them.

Situated in North Portland’s industrial area, the festival location is in an unassuming alley behind a collective recording studio called Type Foundry. Surrounded by thriving small businesses, and filled with whirring air ducts, black motorcycles, and propane tanks, the atmosphere here seems premade for the type of sounds to be produced. As I arrive, the small wooden stage is decorated with various cables and microphones, with self proclaimed “engine-ear” Billy Anderson doing the directing. Elsewhere, bands are setting up gear in the morning sun, beer is being loaded into place, local food vendors are quietly assembling their trucks. There is no panic, no rush, which is a sign to me that this is an event run by those who know what they are doing. Behind the stage sits the Hoverfest backline, a collection of sonic monoliths waiting to take off.

Mountain God, the first band of the day, came all the way from Brooklyn to play in front of a handful of curious but enthusiastic Portlanders. Mountain God play a fairly straight forward brand of cosmic doom, with plenty of atmosphere and skill, and having Hovercraft’s power behind the music certainly added to their swirling layers. However, performing this kind of style in daylight requires more than just good musicianship, it needs physical expression and soul onstage to cut through the barrier between crowd and performer, and it is my opinion that a band like Mountain God would function better in an indoor venue. Their new drummer is full of piss and fun to watch, but otherwise they lack the critical “onstage personality” department that can make live shows so memorable. Check them out on Bandcamp.

Onstage energy is not a problem for locals Holy Grove. Vocalist Andrea Vidal grabs the microphone and steals the crowd’s collective heart with her enthusiasm and total commitment to the moment. With rich, deep tones oozing off the stage and hair flying, the band flays the crowd wide open, exposing their riff-rock-loving guts. Songs like “Huntress” and “Hanged Man” are terrific examples of Holy Grove’s sound, which is a stew of riffs and rhythms that would fit well on a shelf next to some old Man’s Ruin label releases. Vidal seems born to rouse the crowd, and her vocals are belted out in the same fashion, while bassist Gregg and guitarist Trent splash sweat, wah, and fuzz all over the audience. Holy Grove end their set with “Nix”, leaving the growing crowd cheering.

Next up is Seattle’s Wounded Giant, who continue the energy from the previous act, but are ultimately less memorable. Wounded Giant play a brand of spacey doom rock, the kind that is very prevalent nowadays, and they do it well, but it just doesn’t sit right with me. Every show usually has one band I don’t connect with, and this is it. The band has the volume and technique of their peers, and their music is quite good if you are a fan of the genre. However, the performance does not provide the kick I was expecting, and unfortunately by the time their set ends, my stomach has already demanded lunch.

Portland’s own Eight Bells came to play with two members of the band dressed in blinding white, a sharp contrast to the biker chic and facial hair present in the alley. Eight Bells mix atmospheric darkness and technical prowess to great effect, though it’s one you wouldn’t think would translate well to a sunny day. However, any concerns about the open sky were quickly blasted away as drummer Chris Van Huffel uses his considerable talent to usher in “Tributaries”, and the crowd becomes entranced. Singer/guitarist Melynda Jackson and bassist/vocalist Haley Westeiner seem to forget there is anything else in existence while playing, bouncing each riff off each other in a sonic game of dodge ball, while occasionally glaring or smiling at the audience as an afterthought. During their last song, a helicopter takes off from a nearby hospital, its rotor blades matching the rhythm of Van Huffels relentless kick drum assault as it passes overhead. When the set ends, and the silence comes, the crowd is noticeably more subdued and almost dazed. Eight Bells are the first band of the day to actually bring the feeling of impending doom and darkness to Hoverfest, and they did it while dressed in pure white under a shadowless sun.

Witch Mountain are up next. The crowd has packed in the empty spots in the alley that were previously occupied by sunlight. The band has amassed a dedicated following over the years with their take on traditional doom, and they quickly set to work proving why with opener “Psycho Animundi” from their upcoming Mobile of Angels. Anchored by festival organizer and drummer Nathan Carson and new bassist Charles Thomas, long time guitarist Rob Wrong shows off the band’s slow-burn-blues crunch while vocalist Uta Plotkin projects her keening wails to the clear blue sky. One of the joys of watching a band like Witch Mountain play is their inherent sense of, well, fun. Carson, perched on his drum throne, clearly enjoys the hell out of entertaining people, as do his bandmates, and they do a tremendous job of it. The crowd soon livens right up, and the set continues raucously through until closer “Shelter”, when the announcement was made that Plotkin would be leaving the band after their upcoming tour. Witch Mountain finish, obviously a bit emotional, and leaves the crowd feeling lucky to have shared some of their final live moments in this incarnation. Farewell, Uta.

California fuzz giants Acid King go on at exactly 4:20, proving there is some thought behind today’s set times. “Heeeey, heeeey, yeeaahh,” says singer/guitarist Lori S. The pavement suddenly shakes violently as the band rolls through a mix of old songs and new. The thick indica tone cloud from Lori’s guitar and wall of gut rumble from bassist Mark Lamb’s 800 watt(!) Hovercraft rig, combined with drummer Joey Osbourne’s undulating hands and feet, produces a tonic that could logically tranquilize much of downtown Portland. Songs like “Two Wheel Nation” from 2005’s III renders the crowd incapable of anything more than vigorous head nodding and smiles. After their set is over, it is clear that the world needs more Acid King. Flawless.

Replacing the hypnotic siren call of Acid King with a force-fed dose of classic tinged punky prog, Portland’s Danava completely captivate the audience soon after taking the stage. One second, some old-school-rock-looking dudes are setting up their gear, the next we’re battered with gems like “Shoot Straight With a Crooked Gun” and “I Am the Skull.” Danava evokes the good days gone by in heavy music, and guitarist/vocalist Gregory Meleney and his crew have honed their sound into a rock n’ roll tornado which lays waste in a live setting. The group appears to have gone through some line-up changes recently as well, taking aboard a brand new bassist who doesn’t miss a note. Their perfectly placed set prompts the audience to clap along and cheer with abandon as the time absolutely flies by. When it ends, the collective gasp of “wow” fills the evening air.

With the sun crossing behind the bridge overlooking the festival, the alleyway is bathed in orange, setting the stage for YOB. Singer/guitarist Mike Scheidt has a way of putting total strangers at ease before confronting their demons, and he does so tonight by casually tuning up and chatting with the eager crowd before unleashing “Quantum Mystic” without warning. The song’s hypnotic, repetitive intro and follow-on attack of crushing doom are classic YOB, and every living thing in that alley is hooked from the opening note. Bassist Aaron Rieseberg and drummer Travis Foster are mesmerizing to watch as they perform, swaying and grimacing with the flow of sound while Scheidt wrenches his interpretation of the universe out of bent strings. I do not think it is controversial in the least to state that Mike Scheidt is one of the most versatile vocalists around, and during new songs “In Our Blood” and “Unmask the Spectre” (from the upcoming Neurot release Clearing the Path to Ascend), it was made clear why. The man can go from impossibly high falsetto wails to roaring like a bear in seconds, and he does it with a depth and power that crumbles concrete. The spiritual energy the band conveys seems to turn the crowd into a swaying mass of humanity bent on expelling their pain. YOB end their set with “Adrift in the Ocean,” and as Foster beats his toms in time with Rieseberg’s weaponized bass, Scheidt channels visions in the air above our heads with his riffs. The music reaches its peak and suddenly ends. While to a bystander the crowd appears to have just witnessed a rock show, the look in their eyes shows they had actually been looking inward.

Still numb and deaf days later, I continue to be impressed by the professionalism of the festival creators. The attention to detail, from location to bands to sound, was meticulous, and the message I left with was one of community and cohesiveness. There were no 10 dollar water bottles, nor were there egotistical attitudes and overbearing staff. My fears of daylight ruining the mood of the music were unfounded. Instead, for one day, we were treated to some of the best heavy music around, with impeccable sound provided by masters of the craft. Hoverfest set the bar high, and and I think the 500 people in attendance would agree.

— Words by Matt Schmahl
— Video by Doomed & Stoned

Billy Anderson

Mountain God

Holy Grove

Wounded Giant

Eight Bells

Witch Mountain

Acid King

Danava

YOB

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