Milwaukee Metalfest 2K3

Event review by Thrash-head

I live for Milwaukee Metalfest. It’s a bit of a bold statement, but please let me explain it to you. Metalfest to me is a release. It is the one weekend of the year when no matter what happens while I’m there, no matter what brings me down, I can look around me and just go, “oh yeah, well at least I’m here, so all is well.” I save, quite literally, for months; pinching pennies and going for freebies in an effort to bring up what I call my Metalfest Fund, an amount of money that eventually ends numbering up near $400 every year around the tail end of July, thus giving me plenty of buying power at the annual event. I request my days off several months in advance, and when approaching the date of the fest, I am the annoying little gnat buzzing around my manager’s head reminding them that I need those days off and that I was the first to request said days off. I don’t even care who is playing so long as there are a few acts I find enjoyable, and so long as there are plenty of booths to buy shit from. How did this year’s fest fare compared to past events? Well, where do I start?

Last year, the event was moved from one side of this particular building to the other, and therefore the Metalfest now resides in what is called the U.S. Cellular arena. The arena itself is bigger and much more accommodating of a main stage than the adjoining Milwaukee auditorium was (even if the reverb is still as bad a problem if not worse), but there are no extra rooms set aside for the smaller stages like there was as little as two years ago. In an effort to accommodate the smaller stages, they have been placed in one of the concession areas. ONE concession area. TWO stages! Side-by-Side! In a space so cramped that a speaker column blocks about a third of the one stage. This is a serious problem and the reverb is so ungodly horrible that only by standing just in front of the stage do you actually have a chance of experiencing a good band with an equally good sound. I would suggest searching around for a more appropriate spot to host two side-by-side stages, because that aspect of the whole thing is one I thoroughly enjoy, because it means that at any given time I only miss ONE other band, as the two stages in either the main arena or in the concession area alternate so that theoretically as soon as one band is over, the next one starts right up. Great idea, not-so-well carried out, but still a great idea.

Another thing that I am really beginning to notice is the lack of substantial, quality bands. While I myself could care less and I just go for the overall experience, I must admit I’d like to see some bigger headliners, and more signed acts, as it is becoming more and more like an unsigned bands’ showcase. Furthermore, the signed bands need to placed better and the schedules need to be figured out well in advance, so that there are fewer problems. Every year, there is always some glitch at some point. Case in point: on Saturday, the schedule became mucked up because someone thought it a good idea to put M.O.D. on far earlier in the day, like around 5:00 pm or something else just as ridiculous. This was brought to the promoter’s attention, and they were moved to 10:30 that evening, but this abrupt change threw off the main stage for the rest of the day, when before this incident it was running close to ten minutes ahead. This is an every year occurrence that you’d figure they would have figured out how to handle better by now. AS far as having good headlining bands, it’s getting to the point where a record label is lucky if they are represented. If memory serves, I believe the only band from Metal Blade records this year was Black Dahlia Murder, and I don’t think there was even one single band from Earache…and no, the fact that Deicide (now signed to Earache) frontman Glen Benton was there as part of Vital Remains does not count.

That being said, there were some damn memorable sets this year, some for good reasons and some for bad (I now have a list of bands that desperately need better drummers, among them Dying Fetus, Usurper, Divine Empire, Blood Storm, Stump, etc.). Among these sets are the following:
Suffocation: A near-complete reunion of the original lineup (“Doug Cerrito ain’t here ‘cause he’d rather sit at home” ?Frank Mullen), they absolutely killed. A brutal set that contained quite a bit of the old favorites, plus, to everyone’s surprise, some new songs scheduled for inclusion on a brand new CD. They were really awesome! Old school death metal played the way it should be played! No better way to describe it!
M.O.D.: Short set made shorter by political bantering. I don’t care if he doesn’t care, but I’m there to rock, not listen to anyone’s personal beliefs. Still, fuckin’ awesome set by Billy Milano and co. Who will ever forget the all-star jam at the end of the set that included Danny Lilker (Nuclear Assault), Scott Seargeant (ex-Skinlab, M.O.D.’s touring bassist), Glen Benton (Deicide, Vital Remains), and Pope Scum (The Mentors) on “United Forces.”
Nuclear Assault: Definitely the band that had the most fun being there, as John Connolly loved nothing more than to get right up into the crowd with the fans that came to watch. They plowed through several favorites, including “Brainwashed,” “Wake Up,” and “Game Over.” Awesome old school thrash metal. Definitely one of my favorites over the weekend.
Slavedriver: Not a bad band by any means, but worth mentioning just for the vocalist/guitarist’s goofy cosmetics and his unbelievable growl (which I’m almost convinced was a processor).
Summon: I made a promise to Chas (Necromodeus, bass/vocals) that I’d definitely check out their set this year, to make up for not seeing them last year. They absolutely floored the crowd, and the crowd was definitely vast in numbers, especially considering that Macabre was just starting on the other stage. Focusing more on cuts from the new album, Summon gave everyone their necessary fix of brutal blackened death, and everyone loved them. There wasn’t any way they could’ve done better. This was purely awesome!
Asgaroth: Not even a fantastic sound could save these brits from the bowels of mediocrity. Not exactly my favorite Goth/Death/Doom band if you can’t tell.
Repulsion: The reunited Repulsion definitely looked out of place here. Long hair and death metal t-shirts have been replaced by short, mild-mannered hairstyles, glasses, and shirts reading off “Marshall” or “MC5”. Regardless of what looks like the onslaught of domesticity, this band was purely awesome and reminded everyone here that many of the really brutal bands today would be nothing without them.
Enforsaken: Newly signed to Olympic/Century Media, our awesome buds from Chicago were playing what seemed to be more of an artist showcase, like “here’s the next big thing on Olympic, and you all are getting your chance to hear them now before they really take off.” They didn’t disappoint, and in my opinion they will be the ones to usurp Shadows Fall as the band that utilizes the euro-hyperthrash sound/influence to the best results. Imagine At The Gates and earlier In Flames, and you sorta kinda have an idea of what was going on, but really that description is fairly limiting to this band.
Summer Dying: I was incredibly impressed by these Michigan mainstays not only for their knack at performing in the classic European hyperthrash style a la At the Gates, Haunted, etc., but also the fact that here and there they threw in a really brutal groove riff, not unlike a Hatebreed or Chimaira thing. Though those elements may have been few and far between, they made the music stand out all the more. Also, the vocalist’s clean singing is incredibly effective, even if it’s more subdued on the CD. Keep an eye on these guys. I have a feeling they’ll give Enforsaken a run for their money.
Lullacry: Honestly, I do not have a clue why people give two shits about this band (must be the band’s legacy for nabbing hot singers), but the 5 Finns are absolutely horrid. I tried to go up there with an objective point of view, but all I could hear in the speakers was Abba only heavier. Thoroughly annoying.
Antipathy: Remember the early ‘90s, when tech-death bands like Death, Gorguts, Atrocity, Morbid Angel, and the ilk were first coming into their own? Imagine the best elements of that era of tech-death, but with better sound quality and a little more new school influence, and you have Antipathy, who were extremely excellent.
Skinless: They wowed us as usual. Having disliked the band’s previous efforts but being incredibly pleased with the new disc, I’ve come to really enjoy the fact that this band is what all live death metal bands should strive to be. Vocalist Sherwood is not content to be the typical, tough-looking, headbanging death metal singer, and he’s all over the place. Very cool!
Gotham Road: The new band formed by Michael Graves, the worst singer the Misfits ever had, actually started off not too bad. The early songs in their set had a sort of not-so-violent hardcore aggression to them, as well as in places more of a thrash-style song structure. But then he threw an alright gig right into the toilet by playing punk. Nothing against it folks, but Michael Graves is to punk what Joel Schumacher was to the Batman films.
Strapping Young Lad: Definetely one of the best sets of the weekend (in my opinion only offered good competition by Vital Remains and Suffocation), SYL hit the stage running. Devin Townsend has surrounded himself with the ultimate metal backing band, and it shows in the member’s unique traits at their instruments and the brutal sound they pumped forth. Gene Hoglan may have sounded a bit off a couple of times, but nevertheless he definitely showed us that he still has what it takes to be one of the most driving forces in extreme metal. Devin’s onstage rants are stuff of legend too, but a bit vulgar to put in this article (they were thoroughly hilarious though, and you had to be there).
Body Count: I was purely amazed to see how many actually stuck around to see this band. I was also really hoping for some shit to hit the fan between this band and the racist morons at the Unholy Records booth. They played an AWESOME set complete with disrespect towards a “No Moshing” sign, huge titties, awesome guitar-playing, and all the hits, including the banned tune, “Cop Killer.”
Macabre: As is always the case, Macabre played an awesome set of the old classics like “Nightstalker,” “Dog Guts,” and “Vampire of Dusseldorf,” but also let us into their creative psyche to see some of the new tunes unfold in the live setting. The new CD will definitely please hardcore Macabre fans from the sound of it.
Cage: I have a friend of mine who hates these guys but for one reason or the other absolutely loves the now-defunct “featuring Toby Knapp” project Onward. Both power metal, slightly different styles though, but only one actually sounds good to me, and that being the band performing here. Great vocals, typical yet well-performed melodies, not to mention a fairly bitchin’ lead guitarist made it quite an awesome set.
Naglfar: Honestly, a sort of disappointment. I’ve been a fan ever since a promo copy of Jens Ryden’s side project Dead Silent Slumber came into my mailbox, and shortly thereafter I located a copy of “Diabolical”. Jens Ryden is one who I’d put up high on a pedestal as being the elite black metal vocalist. Not merely demon-like, or very sinister at all, but his vocal style is one of combined evil-influence and pure anguish, and thus tends to carry his band past his peers. In the live setting it seems though, that his approach is unapproachable, even to him, as he could have passed for any number of similar vocalists of the weekend. Whether it was a sub-par PA system, or just that his unique style was too good to be true, it really ruined their live set.
Vital Remains: In my opinion, easily the best set of the weekend, with SYL and Suffocation in close contention. Incredible brutality only supplemented by the addition of drummer Tim Yeung (ex-Hate Eternal), and the moving of Dave Suzuki to lead guitar, a position that he handles just as effortlessly as his breakneck drumming. Seriously folks, this guy was playing lines off of a MacAlpine record and making them work for such an extreme band. Glen Benton was in top form, taking the stage with a leather mask, and continuously mentioning that this was like a glorified practice as it might have been only the 4th or 5th time the band had played together with the lineup we saw today. Still, purely awesome. You should have been there!

Regardless of factors working against Jack Koshick and crew, I had fun, and I walked away having blown a good $400 and change on CDs, magazines, food, and beverage. Purchasing stuff at Metalfest is awesome because 99.9% of this crap you can’t really find anywhere else unless you want to pay hideous amounts for shipping charges. My old favorites were still there, the horrifically overpriced Rare T-shirt booth (fantastic shirts that are sure to turn heads at Metalfests in the future, but still way too fucking much), the inexpensive and helpful Century Media and The End records booths, and the awesome Blackened Moon Productions booth run by Summon’s Chas Necromodeus (DUDE, THANKS FOR THE SUGGESTIONS!!! HEGEMON RULED!!!). On the negative side though, the assholes from Unholy Records were back with their Nazi propaganda. If I could control minds, Body Count and Suffocation would have been beating the piss outta these turds.

All in all, it was metalfest, so I enjoyed myself regardless, but I think that honestly I didn’t enjoy myself as much as I had in years previous. It’s a slow deterioration though, and I’m hoping and praying that when the Milwaukee Auditorium is finished getting renovated, the show will be moved back in there, and everything will improve immensely. Until then, we just have to suffer through the low points.