Like every other organized event in existence, Chicago's Forever Deaf Fest didn't make an appearance in 2020. Starting off in 2018 with Novembers Doom and The Atlas Moth as headliners, the fest is a concerted effort to harness Chicago's notable underground-ish metal might and distill it into a event that has the same wide range as our metal scene: everything from no-thoughts-only-riff thrash aggression to thoughtful, progressive experiments. 2019's return edition, featuring Broken Hope and The Skull, indicated that there was obviously a market here for the idea—sure, we have local shows damn near every night, but stacking major names along with up-and-coming talent and giving them an enviable backline of Emperor cabinets (another local export) made for an authentic and underground celebration of Chicago's metal culture.

After an expected (in hindsight, anyway) absence in 2020, Forever Deaf Fest returned, though it was only one night this time—plus a pre-party. With six bands on the lineup and a reasonable start time of 7:00 PM, I suppose the line between "fest" and "show" blurs a bit, but to me the biggest difference, beyond the pre-party and themed deals you could find at local merchants like Bucket o' Blood Records, is that people actually showed up on time for this and stayed the whole time. Try getting that on your average six band bill!

As it happens, one of those people was me—check out some photos of the show and read more below.

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Forever Deaf Fest III

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Hot off an EP from early September, Coyote Man opened up the show with their progressive-rock-meets-post-metal attack. Drummer Ian Wheeler sets the tone for their live sound, absolutely crushing his drum set with practiced ease and vehemence. This made for a significant–perhaps an understatement—difference in dynamics between the band's more introspective portions and their full-fury instrumental assault.

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Suncrusher (or SvnCrvsher, going by their logo) followed, pulling an LCD monitor out on stage and plugging in a laptop to drive some programmed elements—a bassline, I think, along with some sound effects to enhance their melodic groove metal/metalcore.

With the first two openers done and everything running smoothly, Beat Kitchen began to fill up to the brim, as the traditional gap between stage and audience decreased due to volumetric constraints. Repentance and Speedfreak, filling out the middle of the bill, provided the energetic middle act of the fest—though they don't share a ton of similarities (Repentance is a mix of thrash and groove, while Speedfreak is speedy rock 'n' roll), what they do have in common is an uncanny ability to whip up a crowd. Literally—they were the only bands to get mosh pits going.

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"Roll that fuckin' intro like a god damn Dokken concert," Repentance guitarist Shaun Glass declared as their set started. Repentance's members boast a ton of collective experience: most notably, founding member Glass is also a founding member of Soil and ex-bassist for Broken Hope. Looking excited to finally be hitting stages again, Glass effortlessly dashed off ten to fifteen classic riffs throughout soundcheck and proceeded to lay down heaps of his own throughout the show, hopping up on the monitors and having a blast. Genre labels seem sort of ineffectual here, and maybe it's better to simplify: Repentance are a modernized expression of heavy metal's infectious energy—and a ton of fun.

Speedfreak has been a Chicago institution for over a decade now, but one of those institutions that plays far more shows than they record music, which is actually kind of a rarity. Since 2018, they've had local legend Dave Hornyak (owner of Live Wire Lounge, ex-drummer for Cathedral, and much more) on drums, whose madcap playing only served to escalate the band's insane live energy even further. Hornyak finally found a way to answer the audience's inevitable demands for "more cowbell"—with two cowbells, plus a handheld one for vocalist Tommy Kooch to pick up at one point. It's been years since I've seen Speedfreak, unfortunately, but I was surprised at how many songs I recognized anyway. Heavy rock 'n' roll isn't really that hard to find here, but the good stuff sticks with you.

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Huntsmen and Yakuza, headliners for the night, delivered an artful conclusion to Forever Deaf Fest III—the former two bands riled up the crowd and raised the temperature, and now these two progressive acts had a chance to close out the night with poignant volume. Up first was Huntsmen, who released their second album Mandala of Fear with Prosthetic Records right at the point in 2020 where everything went to shit. Fortunately, their future seems even brighter than before with a massive European tour coming up next year, and, judging by the new song they opened up their set with, tons more killer material on the way.

Shrouded in fog (bassist Marc Stranger-Najjar was not shy about his appreciation and desire for more 'haze') and equipped with their own lighting augmentation, Huntsmen's live show is a delicate balance of heaviness and gentle harmonies. The band's live set features traded-off and combined vocals between guitarist/vocalist Chris Kang and dedicated vocalist Aimee Bueno, who joined the band right around Mandala of Fear, and Stranger-Najjar and drummer Ray Knipe also contribute backing vocals. Knipe bellowing screams into a mic while viciously pounding his drums is impressive, but so is managing to have four people in a band sing and making it all work cohesively. Huntsmen is a rare example of a band that's added an additional vocalist and come off even better than before. Bueno adds an ethereal, wistful tone to Huntsmen's Americana-tinged progressive doom that helped make Mandala of Fear a significant step forward for the band. Their sound translates exceptionally well to the live stage, where the huge riffs and chilling delicate moments both cause a visceral impact—every time I've seen Huntsmen live (must be six or seven times now) they've outdone themselves.

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Yakuza honestly doesn't even feel like a human band to me—more like a group of supernatural beings that, upon judging the rest of the evening to their satisfaction, deign to grant us earthly beings a performance. Technically, yes, I'm aware they're mortal, but the band's live show is crafted to leave as much doubt as possible, operating in mystery. The avant-garde band excels at transitioning from doomy, meditative drone right into mind-twisting grind, switching from ritualistic pacing to blast beats without so much as a hint that such a shift was coming. Bruce Lamont, vocalist and multi-instrumentalist (saxophone, clarinet), stands at the nexus of the chaos, as much an orchestrator as a consequence of it all: when the crazier parts started, Lamont seemed to be thrown across the stage, contorting with each twist and turn of the music, but he also upped the ante on the insanity, at times grabbing a mic in both hands (one routed to a delay/chorus kind of pedal) to thicken the atmosphere. Lamont is definitely the focal point of Yakuza, but the rest of the band is also fascinating live, implacably demonstrating complete mastery over their instruments.

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Again channeling that supernatural aspect, with barely a word spoken to the audience, Yakuza's set ended without warning—Lamont dashed off stage, the house music started playing, and that was that. Just around 12:30 AM, Forever Deaf Fest III, hopefully not the last edition, ended on schedule—which I'm grateful for, but I should point out is not really in keeping with Chicago traditions.

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