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I stand at the edge of a painted line. It’s 3 AM and our Lyft driver has just pulled off the road. Just moments ago, seconds before we arrived on the scene, two cars collided. One of them is flipped over, it’s front bender indented on the side of the highway. Further down the road the second car sits with a chunk taken out of its backside. Our driver and my fellow passengers have rushed out to help, joining two other good samaritans. I lag behind. I’ve never been the type to run towards danger, and the mix of shock and exhaustion isn’t doing me any favors. As we walk towards the first car, a man crawls out of the driver seat window. The dashboard lights are still on inside, cold blue glittering like the Seattle skyline in the distance. Shards of glass crunch under our feet. The driver of the second car stumbles outside. Both survivors are visibly unscathed save for a look of comprehensive disbelief. They may have said something out loud, but it’s hard to hear over the cars whirring past us.

Once we’ve made sure that everyone is ok we let the ambulance that’s just arrived handle the situation. The three of us, dressed in black shirts embroidered with all manner of skulls and morbid imagery, and our Lyft driver, dressed in shorts with a hawaiian pattern, climb back into the car and drive away. There’s a half hearted attempt to return to our conversation about how the horror movie “It Follows” captures the sense that death could strike at any moment, but it no longer feels appropriate. As metalheads we spend a lot of time pantomiming about our mortality, poking the devil with a stick while pissing into the void. But after looking into the eyes of two people who were nearly pulverized between metal and concrete I’m having a hard time playing along.

Day 2: Rise & Grind

I arrived in Seattle’s Capitol Hill district roughly twelve hours earlier, right as the second day of the inaugural Northwest Terror Fest was about to begin. Capitol Hill, decked out in the full colors of Pride, is crawling with a mix of gutter punks, smiling tech types with adorable dogs, and a battalion of metal fans. While the Pacific Northwest has a reputation for the slow and sludgy, Day 2 of Northwest Terror Fest focused on the more mosh friendly sounds of grindcore and powerviolence, all organized around a headlining set from Denver’s Cephalic Carnage. Northwest Terror Fest treated the evening’s final act as a center of gravity, and let the fans and other acts orbit around that center.

The day started with the one-two punch of Recluse and Fucked And Bound, both ‘meat & potatoes’ hardcore leaning grind bands. The two did an excellent job shaking off the rust by proving that like Mexican cuisine, a variety of heavy metal songs can be made out of a small number of ingredients. Both switched between a small cycle of riffs, before Fucked And Bound, who share members with He Whose Ox Is Gored, finished up the day’s opening salvo with a return to browbeating slow tempos.

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Next up at the underground stage in Barboza were Endorphins Lost. Word around town is these folks do a killer Sepultura cover set. While the fast paced powerviolence that made up most of their set didn’t bear too much resemblance to the Brazilian legends, their well timed digression into the mid tempo proved that they have mastered a similarly vicious physicality. Though their set drew from new material unfamiliar to their hometown crowd, the quickly filling room didn’t hold back their enthusiasm. “Good festival so far, nobody’s died” their bassist vocalist quipped, to which someone in the back yelled “YET!”.

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The zero-casualty streak continued with the next set at the Barboza stage, this time from Transient. Much like Endorphins Lost, Transient kept the pedal fully pressed into the floor with a flurry of micro-songs that demonstrated an impeccable sense of economy and pacing. Unlike Endorphins Lost, they had little use for inter-song chit chat. Instead of reciting the same rote cliches that crop in every band’s stage banter, they expedited the process to pre-recorded audio that thanked the fest, other bands & audience in turn. This gave them more time to focus on the more important matter at hand; melting faces.

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For those sick of grind (you came to the wrong fest, buddy) Anciients served as counter programing. The Canadian prog metal group build their songs patiently, finding a collection of riffs and grooves and sticking with them for extended periods of time, gradually wringing out every variation they can before moving on. The boomy sound on the Neumos main stage worked great for their most triumphant moments, but many of the details of the guitar work got lost in the shuffle. No great loss however, as this only highlighted the deft playing of their drummer, Mike Hannay.

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Speaking of terrific drummers given an extra leg up due to circumstance, boy howdy can Bryan Fajardo blast. Down a guitarist due to a missed flight, Noisear soldiered on and pummeled lemons into lemonade. I don’t wish this kind of scheduling stress on anyone, let alone a seminal grind act, but the end result is part of what makes festivals like this fun. When else are you going to see the singer of Cephalic Carnage jump on the stage to improvise over Noisear songs?

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“It is happening… again”

These words, from the voice of “Twin Peak”’s The Giant, echoed out over the crowd in Barboza as Call Of The Void prepared their next round of tunes. Call Of The Void are not Julee Cruise, but the red curtains and leather clad attendees did a decent job of turning Barboza into the Bang Bang Bar, albeit with more mosh riffs. Call of the Void are a more-bang-for-your-buck Nails, fewer slogans but just as much single minded intensity.

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But as good as Call of the Void were, they were just setting the mood for the real deal. When the void calls, Cult Leader pick up. That anyone else ever fronted this band is absurd. Anthony Lucero is a natural performer, moving across the stage as if being pulled by an unseen force. With his hood pulled over his head and stringy hair obscuring face, Lucero acted as the tip of the spear to Cult Leader’s otherworldly violence. Before this set I had considered Cult Leader a high quality act, but not one that had separated themselves from the herd. Now they stand on a tier of their own.

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While Cult Leader were building their reputation downstairs, Day 2’s headliners were trading in on their clout on the mainstage. Even though “only the old stuff is good” is a cliche for a reason, metal culture has a soft spot for any band that can stick around, especially if their sound hasn’t changed much over the years. This is the case with Goatwhore, who haven’t budged from their rubber on hot asphalt guitar tone over their long career. Goatwhore were a well oiled machine, efficiently pounding through hits from across their discography, but the slightly diminished crowd didn’t allow them to operate at their full potential. “I want you to scream for us like Judas Priest in 1984” singer Ben Falgoust demanded near the end of the set. He didn’t quite get what we wanted, but the request revealed the strength of the band’s ambition.

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Cephalic Carnage were less concerned with crowd pleasing. Their lengthy closing set featured little in the way concessions to their casual fan (no “Dying Will Be The Death Of Me”). Instead, it felt like the grindcore version of a stoner chuckling to himself in the corner of a party, piping up to occasionally make hair-brained jokes about black metal. There’s nothing inherently wrong about closing the doors to all but the true believers, after all this is a festival devoted to a niche genre of music. Metal fans are pedants, obsessed with minuta. If Cephalic Carnage aren’t the strain you’re into, there’s going to be something else that does the trick. By the end of their set, when they launched into their doom EP Halls Of Amenti only the most fanatical, or the most catatonically stoned, fans were left. The rest of the crowd had dispersed into the night, some to see Usnea fill The Highline with smoke, others to get some rest before Northwest Terror Fest’s third and final day.

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Interlude: A Crow Looked At Me

The next morning I woke up and put another black t-shirt on, this one featuring Anton Chigurh as portrayed by Javier Bardem, the unstoppable killing machine from Cormac McCarthy’s ‘No Country For Old Men’. In both McCarthy’s novel and the Coen Brother’s 2007 film adaptation, Chigurh is laid low by a freak occurrence, a car crash that rips bone from flesh. The message is clear. Our destinies are not our own. We can plan and prepare as much as we want, but violence doesn’t follow a schedule, it simply happens.

Maybe this is why metal culture is so death obsessed. Not to look tough, but as a way of imposing order on the unorderable. We refuse to be ruled by the fear of death, and instead wear it proudly on our bodies. Big talk from someone who sat in stunned silence after watching the aftermath of a non-fatal car crash? Most certainly. But despair and despondency isn’t an option in the face of death. Living is.

That morning a crow looked at me on my way into Capitol Hill. I threw it the horns.

Day 3: Upon The Sight Of The Other Shore

One of the neat quirks of Northwest Terror Fest is that the doors of Neumos remained open during the entirety of the live performances. This had a practical purpose, to help air out the fog machine and to ease entry and exit. But it had the funny side effect of opening up a portal to hell right across from a coffee shop. Of course, the famous “Seattle freeze” ensured that few yuppy pedestrians gave the racket pouring out of Neumos a second thought. Even when a group of festival staff carried a prop coffin down Pike street, the biggest reaction was a polite offer to get out of its way. Still, the open doors provided the perfect staging for a metal festival. If you can’t handle the heat, steer clear, but if you can, come on in and join the Coven.

After a late start, I returned to Barboza with ears ready for more high volume punishment, which Hands Of Thieves were happy to provide. Hands Of Thieves are an all purpose extreme metal act, switching between black metal and death metal, and slowing down for doom influenced breakdowns that might also appeal to former hardcore kids in biker jackets. No matter what your heavy music proclivities are, Hands Of Thieves were there to ease you into the night.

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If you were starting to settle into your comfort zone Young And In The Way came ready to kick you out of it. The banner behind them read ‘The Devil’s Rock & Roll’. It’s a fitting tag. Young And In The Way are heavy enough, and devilish enough, to slide into the same festival that boasted Wolves In The Throne and Goatwhore, but they also have a classic rock band’s swagger and showmanship. Their singer, rocking a mustache that made him look like a 70’s baseball player’s evil twin, wielded the mic stand with macho fervor, while the band behind dug deep into the pocket. At no point did they pander to the less-hardcore inclined crowd, but by sheer persistence and energy quickly won over the non-believers.

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It’s only right that the newly converted were taken to CHRCH. As their lead singer, Eva, donned a black veil, I was reminded of a Audrey Wollen image that gets passed around on my twitter feed every now and then. It reads:

“BEWARE MALE ARTISTS MAKING ARTWORK ABOUT EMPTINESS NOTHING DOES NOT BELONG TO YOU GIRLS OWN THE VOID BACK OFF FUCKERS!!!!”

CHRCH make music that would horrify passersby, but is spiritually fulfilling to those in the know. In the dense waves of distortion is something healing, behind Eve’s haunting wails something profoundly beautiful. This is deathly music, but it doesn’t wallow. It awes you and humbles you with its scale and scope.

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Elsewhere on the Neumos mainstage, Marissa Nadler was setting up the inverse of CHRCH’s earth engulfing sound. Armed with three guitars, one acoustic, two electric, Nadler stood alone. This is what the Boston based songwriter does best. After years of honing her live set on the road, Nadler has gained the ability to silence and hold command over any crowd. Though she proved her metal bona fides by covering Danzig’s “Blood & Tears” along with Black Sabbath’s “Solitude”, it was her original material that won the day. It shouldn’t matter what genre a song like “Drive” belongs to, melodies that strong work in any context. Nadler’s music wasn’t just a welcome addition to festival because of how well her slow pace matched the doom band’s billed next to her, but because it was so appreciably different from the rest of the bill. By pulling the walls inward with songs about addiction, depression, and desperation, Nadler established an intimacy that the festival’s final acts could build from. As the last notes of her acoustic guitar faded into silence, a new sound emerged; thundering applause.

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Soon after, a different kind of thunder struck the Neumos stage, following a much graver silence. For months YOB frontman Mike Scheidt had been sidelined by acute diverticulitis, a truly nasty intestinal disease. That he can perform live is a minor miracle. That he is alive at all is a much greater one. Greeted on stage by a roar from the crowd, Scheidt saluted the room with his hands placed palm to palm, as if in prayer. Then YOB proceeded to blow the roof off. Once they kicked into “Prepare The Ground”, a Sabbath shuffle expanded to cosmic proportions, the content of the air changed. It had been crystallized, each molecule frozen under the weight of distortion. YOB’s music has always had a spiritual component on record but live it takes on an additional level of transcendent intensity. The repetition is meditative, the volume high enough to shake loose any lingering anxieties. All that’s left is your body and its the walls of sound enveloping it. “Belief shaken to the core/Upon the sight of the other shore” Scheidt intoned in his trademark strained falsetto, the words taking on a deeper significance in light of what he has overcome.

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At the end of the set Scheidt gave another palm-to-palm prayer in gratitude and humility, and a second salute, his arms raised in defiance, shouting wordless. In that moment he was alive and so were we, our very existence spitting in the face of death. We stood at the edge of a painted line, and feared not what waited on the other side.

P.S. We Need To Talk About Coven

When I’m in the mood to sound really obnoxious, I like to call myself a Black Sabbath fundamentalist. By this I mean that I trace everything essential about heavy metal’s identity and sound to the original Black Sabbath lineup, specifically the classic six album run at the start of their career. This is heavy metal’s old testament. It’s the bedrock for everything you need to know about the genre. (By extension, Dio Sabbath is the New Testament and Tony Martin Sabbath is like, Mormonism or some shit. See, I told you I was obnoxious).

Seeing Coven suggested that this worldview might be a tad limited. From the very beginning of their set, the audience at Northwest Terror Fest was treated to a spectacle. Clothed in robes and shrouded in smoke, the members of the band surrounded a massive coffin at the stage and chanted “Hail Satan” until frontwoman Jinx Dawson emerged with a mirrored mask that would make both Kanye West and Attila Csihar jealous. But instead of the po-faced demeanor you’d expect from a modern band making such a dramatic entrance, Coven’s set was… really fun? Like, “shake your hips and clap along” fun. Coven’s performance was filled to the brim with winky melodrama, the kind of pure camp that black metal bands wouldn’t be caught dead near. Some of this is simply a matter of musical tone. Instead of Black Sabbath’s slowed down blues rock, Coven come from the lineage of psychedelia. The sound is sunny and upbeat, punctuated by organ stabs and soft folk interludes.

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Calling this heavy metal in the purest sense would be ahistorical, but I couldn’t help but wonder what our little genre would look like if oriented around treated Coven’s Witchcraft Destroys Minds & Reaps Souls instead of Black Sabbath, Paranoid. Perhaps not too different. Coven’s set didn’t feel like a non sequitur. Looking back on the previous two days, it wasn’t hard to catch glimpses of Coven in Young And In The Way’s rock swagger, YOB’s doom shuffle, or CHRCH’s ritualistic void-gazing, and holy shit is that an attempt at a blast beat that I hear on “Dignitaries Of Hell”. Yet Coven still don’t feel like an accepted part of metal’s canon. They still have to fight for recognition while clowns like Gene Simmons attempt to trademark and co-opt their imagery. Maybe it’s for the best that Coven still feel like a secret. Unlike Sabbath, Maiden & Priest, Coven aren’t handed down to you from on high by the arbitors of taste, instead you have to discover them on your own. Their very existence feels like a subversion of the known and accepted history of heavy metal. Instead of viewing Satan as a source of fear like Black Sabbath, they portray it as a source of power and freedom, as a way to live deliciously. A path to freedom.

I think I’d like Coven’s alternative metal history quite a bit.

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