Milwaukee Metalfest XIV

August 1st, 2000

This was the third Milwaukee Metalfest I have attended. For many years, the show has been somewhat of a joke that I’ve felt has never lived up to its potential. While there is always a huge number of bands, the percentage of bands worth seeing is rather low. There also have been chronic difficulties with the advertised bands not appearing for various reasons, and the schedules are always a bit chaotic. The old venue, the Rave/Eagle’s Ballroom, was quite unsuitable for a fest like this, and sound quality was generally poor. Adding wrestlers and porn stars didn’t really help too much. Still, it has always been worth going to, simply for the “event”.

This year, however, many of those complaints I had were eliminated or greatly reduced. Last year’s confusing, eleventh hour change of venue from the Rave to the Milwaukee Auditorium is the best thing that could have happened to the fest. It stayed there this year, and the band list remained surprisingly consistent leading up to the show. The venue is huge, air-conditioned, has plenty of space to sit down, and the sound quality was amazingly good for the most part. Although there were still plenty of useless bands (no less than five bands with the word “flesh” in their names), there was a great pool of international talent as well as a nice selection of up-and-coming American bands. The four stages generally did a pretty good job of sticking to their schedules, and creative scheduling put “headliners” on at different times of the day to avoid major conflicts. Even the wrestling and the porn star seemed to be a little less annoying than last year.

Now, on to the bands. As usual, I actually saw only of the small percentage of the bands performing at the Metalfest. I was there for only about 16 hours of the 27 hour fest, so that eliminates a lot of bands right there. And I’ve never really been one to run around to as many bands I can see, as listening to brutal death metal band after brutal death metal band can quickly dull your senses. It’s really quite easy to fall asleep there with bands blasting in your face; I took a little nap during Destruction’s set.

This year, the three biggest highlights for me were Opeth, Anathema, and Mayhem, in that order. Some thoughts on each, as well as the other bands I saw:

Opeth – Although Opeth is one of my favorite bands, and Morningrise is my favorite album, I wasn’t expecting too much from them, since I knew they didn’t have too much live experience, and I didn’t think their music would translate too well to a live environment, particularly the Metalfest’s live environment of shitty sound and bad lighting. Well, it’s rare for me to admit being wrong, but damn, what a dumbass I was, because they totally ruled. Sound was just about perfect, and they really rocked the place. Their execution wasn’t flawless, but some of their start/stop/guitar explosions were just awesome. It was fun watching the guitar interplay and seeing who does what. They played Moonlapse Vertigo, Forest of October, Advent, White Cluster, and Demon of the Fall, in that order. Forest of October and Advent were the obvious highlights for me, and even though My Arms, Your Hearse is my least favorite Opeth album, Demon of the Fall absolutely crushes, and was a great way to end the show. Mikael’s clean vocals weren’t quite as perfect as they are on record, but his growls were great, and it showed that his shift to a lower growl is a style choice rather than a physical change. Also, hearing the new stuff back-to-back with the old stuff really highlights how much the band has changed musically. Their stage presence was nothing special, but Mikael walking out and simply saying “Hi, we’re Opeth” got a tremendous response and chant from the crowd. One of the best sets from a band I’ve seen in a long time.

Anathema – I own the two latest Anathema albums, and I think they’re fine pieces of work, but the band has always remained only semi-interesting to me. No longer. Seeing them perform live totally ignited my interest in the band, and now I wonder why I never noticed how great they are before. Upon arriving home I read a whole bunch of interviews and album reviews and definitely plan on getting some of their other releases. I haven’t done anything that “fanboy”-ish in a long time. So what was the powerful force that converted me? Simply their undeniable emotional presence and their uncanny ability to create a nearly tangible two-way connection between the audience and the band. The focal point of the band is singer/guitarist Vincent Cavanaugh, and while it’s difficult to compare the personal, emotional Anathema to other metal bands, I think Vincent is probably the best frontman I’ve ever seen. Anyone who doubts that Anathema is still a “metal” band only needs to see Vincent’s left hand shaking violently behind his fretboard before grabbing hold and launching into a powerful riff. His brother Danny is no slouch either, pouring his soul into each piercing guitar lead. Seeing Lector (ex-Cradle of Filth) on stage with them playing keyboards was just an added bonus. And what other band besides Anathema would be drinking bottles of wine and champagne on stage? They played two songs from Judgement (“Deep” and “One Last Goodbye”, the latter of which was the obvious highlight of the show), “Fragile Dreams” from Alternative 4, and then the rest were songs I didn’t know from their other albums. At the end of the show they found out they had 10 extra minutes to play, so they had a little conference and played Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb” and then bashed through the Misfits’s “Halloween” with bassist Dave Pybus on vocals to close things. If I had been familiar with their older material, I’m sure it would have been my favorite set of the fest. From seeing other opinions around here, it seems like they had a similar effect on everyone.

Mayhem – I’ve always thought Mayhem was pretty much crap until I got their latest album, A Grand Declaration of War, which is a great concept album of well-produced, adventurous, and progressive post-black metal. I watched Mayhem’s set two years ago at the Metalfest just so I could say that I’d seen them, and it was just terrible, one huge mess of random noise. They were about a million times better this year. They still managed to sneak in all of their, um, “classics” amidst cuts from the new album, including “Chainsaw Gutsfuck”, “Under a Freezing Moon”, and “Pure Fucking Armageddon”, but even they sounded decent enough with the good sound and top-notch playing of the band. Their new stuff was great. Super-tall singer Maniac was the only one who was really corpsepainted up, and halfway through the set he lived up to his name by slicing open his left forearm with a large knife. Nothing like a little blood and black metal! Who knows, if Mayhem keeps going like this, someday people might not even remember who Euronymous and Dead were.

Children of Bodom – I ran down to catch their set already in progress right after Anathema finished. Now THAT’S quite a contrast. Once again the sound was amazingly good, and I could actually hear all six of the instruments clearly. The band was pretty intense, and was playing great, even the seemingly 12-year old keyboard player. Alexi strangely reminded me of Larry Tarnowski of Iced Earth. The band and the crowd appeared to be having a great time. “Children of Bodom” was the highlight for me, although all the songs sounded great.

Maudlin of the Well – I saw this strange and unique band with 10 members after watching Hate Eternal’s 3-man approach to death metal. Once again, quite a contrast, and a bit too much of a contrast for many in the room. Definitely not for me though, as Maudlin’s album rules and they did an admirable job reproducing it live. I’m really glad that they had the balls to play their wussiest song, “Blight of River Systems”, since it totally rules, both on record and live. Female vocals were unfortunately a bit quiet, but they’ve got this big lead guitarist dude who just nails that shit. Three songs doesn’t sound like too much, but they did a good job with the time they had.

Rain Fell Within – These guys ‘opened’ for Anathema (and were obviously quite pleased about that). They did a nice job, and like Maudlin, only managed to make it through three rather lengthy songs. I figured super-skinny singer/keyboardist Dawn would have a hard time reproducing her vocal lines live, but she seemed to be dead-on as far as I could tell. Interestingly, they had another female singer to do backups, harmonies, and tradeoffs with Dawn, and I thought that worked out really well. It was also fun watching one of their guitar players who appeared to be a total posing rock star.

Garden of Shadows – This is an American melodic death metal band who I really wanted to see. They’re somewhat similar to Rain Fell Within, except with death growls, and the female in the band plays guitar, believe it or not. They were scheduled for really early on the first day, so I thought I’d miss them, but somehow they ended up with a slot later on the second day. They only managed to play two songs, neither of which was one of the better ones from their album, but they were still cool and I’m glad I was able to catch them.

October Thorns – We were waiting in the hallway after Children of Bodom, waiting for OT to come on. Suddenly some pretty serious death metal came blasting out from the stage, and I was sure that there had been some kind of mixup. Nope, it was really October Thorns, wisely playing to suit their audience. They put together a nice stage presence with the outfits, the OT logos, and the crazy bassist. The guys can play the shit out of their instruments, and when they’re doing the dirty, heavy stuff, they’re awesome, but I just can’t handle Paul’s high, “prog-metal” vocals. Normally I like high-pitched vocals just fine, but these seem so generic and characterless, especially when contrasted with all the other really cool stuff he can do with his voice. While metal fans are getting more and more open-minded, there still aren’t a lot of death metal fans who can handle high vocals like that, and not a lot of prog-metal fans who can handle the death vocals. It’s great to see a band like them taking chances and mixing stuff up, I just hope the metal world is ready for them.

Hate Eternal – I watched this death metal band for no particular reason, but they were great. An incredible amount of sound coming from three guys, mostly from guitarist Eric Rutan. Not only was his playing hand a constant blur, his fret hand was also nearly invisible flying up and down the neck. Pretty amazing to watch. The dual vocalist attack was pretty cool too.

The Chasm – I’d seen them open for In Flames when they were without a bass player, and strangely, I think they sounded better then.

Immolation – Saw them play on the main stage to a couple thousand people for the second year in a row, and I still have no idea why anyone likes them.

Destruction – Also drew a huge crowd and had quite a light show. I wonder if their fans realize that there are a bunch of new bands out there who actually make interesting music.

Ok, enough music. How about the people? First, the Milwaukee newspaper said their were 5000 people there the first night, which sounds about right to me. But what was cool was all the great people I knew/met there. I went up with Goughmer, and met up with Jen G and dweeb as soon as we got there. Dweeb sneakily tried to get us all wasted, but only really succeeded with Jen. After reading all the Powermad stories, I knew it might not be a good idea to try and keep up with him, unless I wanted to be the subject of embarassing stories for years to come! 🙂 I think we did a good job of showing him the darkside, he bought a Mayhem CD after all! We also spent a lot of time with Greg Massi, the famous celebrity from Maudlin of the Well, and it was nice to see that he was just as cool in the U.S. as he was in Italy. Also spent some time hanging out with the conspicuously white-shirted mental hygiene, who was just as cool and contrary as he appears on the board. Definitely fun to see some more PM-ers there, and hopefully there will be more next year. Oh yeah, the picture above is one of the promo shots for the newest and best metal band ever. Left to right is Jen G (lead vocals and hiding), Goughmer (lead posing, phat beats), Greg (guitar, solos only!!!), and dweeb (gangsta rapping and sissydrum). Sadly, they disbanded seconds after the photo was taken, well before they could even think up a name.

Oh yeah, can’t forget about the cool vendors too. I got:

Primordial – Spirit the Earth Aflame
Primordial – The Burning Season: both better than A Journey’s end
User Ne – Nibelum Das Uhort: Cool weirdo black folk metal.
Haggard – Awaking the Centuries: much better than their first, mostly because of the great production
Rajna – Yahili: non-metal Tibetan music from Holy Records
Lux Occulta – My Guardian Anger: symphonic yet original black metal
Havayoth – His Creation Reversed: The best of the bunch so far, gothic rock/metal with Vintersorg on vocals, singing English and sounding a hell of a lot like Dan Swano. A must for Nightingale fans.
The Black League – Ichor: Taneli Jarva’s new band, seems like it pretty much takes off from where he left Sentenced.

It was definitely the best Metalfest so far, and I’d like to hope that it’s turned the corner into becoming something even better.