by Dr. Abner Mality
The foregoing quote comes as Theoden, King of Rohan, sees his kingdom under assault by an endless army of orcs, trolls and monsters. It sums up quite nicely my feelings after attending the 2004 edition of the venerable Milwaukee Metalfest, the oldest gathering of its kind in the nation.
Before digging further into the autopsy of this reeking corpse, let me first extend very heartfelt gratitude to Debbie Sellnow, publicity queen of Mazur PR. Thanks to her great efforts, I was able to attend the show on a press pass. Thank you, Ms. Sellnow, you are a true credit to your profession. Also, I felt a hell of a lot better that I did not have to spend $60 for two days of cancelled bands, atrocious sound quality and general ineptitude.
I knew the line-up this year was perhaps the worst ever, but I still maintained optimism as I made the yearly trek to Milwaukee. However, ominous feelings increased as I found myself traveling through a neighborhood more akin to downtown Tiajuana than Milwaukee. The forebodings then doubled upon seeing the Modjeska Theater, a decaying hulk whose best years were likely before the Great Depression. The second stage this year was a tent in the parking lot. Exactly the same as the kind 70's cover bands play at the county fair. Inside, I kept looking nervously at the theater ceiling, as it looked like chunks of it could drop on the thin crowd at any time. A trip to the restroom required nerves of steel, as it reeked like a stable and the urinals didn't look like they had been cleaned since Capone visited in the 20's.
The smaller venue did contribute to a feeling of intimacy which had been lacking at the U.S. Cellular Arena the last couple of years. It also covered up the lack of crowd. I doubt if the attendance topped more than 1000 this year, I don't know for sure. It would have been nice if there had been real air conditioning, though.
In 1997, I attended my first Metalfest at the Eagles Club. The line-up that year: Venom, Cradle of Filth, Obituary, Napalm Death, Impaled Nazarene. And a further cast of great bands from all around the world, large and small. In 2004, NOT ONE EUROPEAN BAND made an appearance. It used to be that Milwaukee was the place to see these bands. Remember the likes of Emperor, Sodom, Naglfar, Windir, Darkane, Primal Fear? They all played great sets at Milwaukee Metalfest. Only a memory this year, metal fans..."How did it come to this?"
To be fair, this may not all be promoter Jack Koschick's fault. The heavy-handed security and travel restrictions placed on foreign bands falling after 9/11 have certainly contributed to the lack of bangers from abroad. But to the point where not a single band could make the trip? I think not. Rather, I think Koschick has burned just about all his bridges with bad treatment of bands like Sodom and Emperor and I seriously doubt that foreign bands will return as long as his hand is on the driver's wheel.
Relapse Records used to have a very strong hand in Metalfest but perhaps seeing the declining trend in Milwaukee over the last few years gave them the push to pull out. If they would have stayed in, I'll bet anything we would have seen bands like Suffocation, Mastodon, Dillinger Escape Plan, Zeke, Exhumed. But such was not to be and the withdrawal of Relapse...they didn't even have a merch booth...was a brutal blow. It looks like the only strong supporter Jack has got left is Don Decker of Anal Blast and that's not exactly going to set the metal world on fire.
So that leaves us with the ultimate quantity over quality band line-up, a seemingly endless array of gullible, hapless "pay to play" bands whose only purpose is to help pay for Koshick's downtown Milwaukee penthouse and maybe a down payment on the Lexus. It's no secret that this is the way Jack likes to operate and I don't feel sorry for any band stupid enough to pay him $1500 and then get stuck with a Saturday 11:00 A.M. slot playing in front of the few family and friends willing to make the trip to Milwaukee. This year, Jack made a mint...any money from actual ticket-buying fans is just icing on the cake. A nervous and visibly upset member of Arizona band SOH virtually begged me and Joe Who to see his band play and buy his merch. He was probably wondering if he would make it home. Well, I never did see SOH. Welcome to Milwaukee, son.
"How did it come to this?"
And then we have the "name" bands who are advertised and never show. You payed $60 to see Prong? Ooops, doesn't look like they're going to make it. Sorry, Charlie. What's that about a refund? Get serious. The no-shows this year included the aforementioned Prong, Dying Fetus, Fleshgrind, MOD, Usurper (who had announced weeks earlier they weren't playing and still their name appeared in advertising) and who knows who the fuck else. Macabre was off, then on, then playing Friday, then playing Saturday. You get the picture. This goes on every year, really, but this year it was worse than usual and made more irritating because there weren't many great bands to begin with.
Let's talk about the sound quality at Metalfest. Always a sticking point for some, I've usually been pretty forgiving, even when bands played in the fuckin' GARAGE at the US Cellular Arena, but 2004 sees an all time low in sonic quality. We saw our friends from Michigan Summon play on so-called "mainstage" and if there has ever been a shittier guitar sound anywhere in the history of humanity, tell me where. It sucked the life right out of one of the most intense bands to play the show. It is just pathetic that the one-time major underground metal festival in the US sounds worse than Mary's Place in Rockford on a Saturday night. In the beer tent stage, the bass player from Wartorn basically just walked off because he couldn't get ANY sound. I think the sound crew for this event should be stripped naked, dipped in honey and tied to an ant hill. They made good bands sound mediocre and mediocre bands sound unendurable. On Saturday, Corporate Death of Macabre kept asking for more adjustments on the monitors. Well, if they didn't work for the previous 70 or 80 bands, they're not gonna work for you.
Was there any redeeming factor to Metalfest 2004? Actually, yes. Parking was free. I had a pretty good bratwurst for a very reasonable $2.75. The beer was good and cold.
And you know something else? Despite all the fuck-ups, all the creeping mediocrity which gave the Fest the feeling of a wake, there is still a lot of fun and fellowship to be had at this event. It's a great social event for underground metalheads and I look forward every year to hanging out with my metal brothers in Milwaukee. This year, I met Joe Who face to face for the first time, got to rap with DBN Hellspawn writer Don (thanks for the beer,man!), and talked to many cool people.
I bought some great, hard to find CD's for reasonable prices at the merch booths and got a vintage Hellhammer shirt for only $20.
You can bitch and moan about the decline in Metalfest all you want, but while you're there, you might as well try to enjoy yourself. And you know, I really did. Not all "pay to play" bands suck, despite what some of the major metal mags may say. Some of them kicked my ass with a vengeance. For example, Funeral Rites from Texas should be signed to Earache Records. Deicide would have been proud of their ferocious, bloodthirsty death metal assault. You can say the same thing about Try Redemption. They played their hearts out up on that stage and the crowd gave them a roaring response. For power metal fans, Beyond Glory was a good bet. This is very strong Omen/Helstar type power metal with tremendous female vocals. Skeleton Witch was another great unsigned band whom you will be hearing more about...an amazing combination of old-school thrash with a black metal feel. Also very worthy of mention are Deviant, Emaciation and Deflagration.
Two sets deserve special mention. I had no idea what California's Striknine was all about but after their thermonuclear blast of a set finished, I knew I had seen some bad motherfuckers, that's for sure. These guys REALLY laid down some blistering thrash/death metal,coming across like an incredibly pissed off and evil Testament. This was a hungry young band going for the throat and succeeding in ripping it right out. Massive hails to Striknine and I hope this band gets signed soon!
That brings me to Stone Vengeance. If you would have told me that three black guys in their forties were going to be the
After their wonderful set, though, it was back to bar bands full of bald-headed tough guys yelling inspirational stuff like "Come on, motherfuckers!", "Let's go, motherfuckers!" or the daringly different "Make some noise, motherfuckers!". Lots of bands weren't really bad, and they played their hearts out, but it was all so typical. And it definitely was NOT the best the metal scene had to offer. As high as Stone Vengeance and Striknine made me feel, Stabcorp brought me to new depths. How the fuck did it come to this? Two barechested teenage boys, pants worn wigger style, screaming incoherently at each other while a half-assed keyboardist and guitar player struggled to make any kind of coherent pattern at all. I felt ashamed to be a part of it.
How did the "big boys"...those who bothered to show up...do? I thought Watch Them Die put on a hell of an entertaining show...their maniacally grinning front man looks like the Devil himself. Cattle Decapitation was fairly good grind, but Mortal Decay was better, with another extremely disturbed lead vocalist. However, as he prepared to launch into another barrage of grunts, the police suddenly walked on stage and told us we had to evacuate in an orderly manner. It seems there might be a fire in the building.
Visions of Rhode Island and Great White flew through my head as I left the Modjeska. But it was only a temporary delay and soon I was back sweating in front of Deeds of Flesh. These guys are really something else with their immensely technical form of death metal but once again, sound problems plagued them. The singer/guitarist lost his cool with the ignorant buffoons working the stage, but could hardly be blamed. After this, I was so tired that I didn't even bother to stay and watch Black Dahlia Murder and Death Angel.
I returned the next day like a dutiful soldier and slogged through more PTP bands. I was very curious to see old time thrashers Nasty Savage in the beer tent and their set wound up providing me with the most memorable experience of the weekend. When for some reason the plug was pulled on their set, I grabbed one of the prop TV's that singer Nasty Ronnie destroys on stage and threw it in a rage to the pavement, where angry bangers helped smash it to bits. I turned to Ronnie and asked "What the hell is this about? You guys are the last band to play in the tent tonight, you've got nobody behind you!" Ronnie replied, "I don't know what the fuck is going on!" Neither does Jack Koshick, that's for sure.
I ran back inside to catch Beyond Therapy from nearby Wausau. A very entertaining bunch, they delivered the goods with some excellent stomping metal. Then it was time for Macabre, who play Metalfest every year. But I suspect this year will be the last. These guys are always hugely popular and the crowd went apeshit for them as usual. But their set seems predictable and mechanical to me, with Corporate Death doing the usual spiel about "Albert Fish frying Billy's butt with bacon strips" and "Jeffrey Dahmer liked to play with roadkill as a boy". Once again, sound problems hit and Mr. Death was visibly unhappy with the poor monitor sound.
Attacker hit the stage next and looked like they were going to raise a hell of a ruckus with their old school power metal, complete with Bob Mitchell's ear-piercing screams. But enough was enough for this old boy.
And so there you have it. How the mighty have fallen. It will take a miracle worker to bring respectability back to this event and I hope Mr. Koschick and the harebrained imbeciles who worked the soundboards here retire and never come near it again. But was it all bad? No, not as long as there are true metalheads who enjoy the company of those like themselves, and as long as there are a few talented bands willing to step above mediocrity.
Metal fans are the most loyal and dedicated in the world. They deserve the very best. Not to get ripped off and jerked around to pay for some greedy SOB's luxurious lifestyle. I will let my compatriots relate their own thoughts on the show...
"How did it come to this?"
As I reached exit 312 on Interstate 43, I was lost in the excitement and anticipation of yet another year of metal festivities. Milwaukee Metalfest has been something that I have seriously, or probably more accurately; severely looked forward to since 1999. I have several fond memories of the fest; from sleeping on the front steps of the Milwaukee Auditorium in ’99 to in ’03 being drug along to some nameless/faceless band’s hotel room only to have the vocalist from Enslaved walk through the door. Also, don’t forget the fantastic sets played by metal’s elite, the merchandise booths that seemed to cause the $20 bills to fly out of my wallet, and the North American debuts by bands such as In Flames, Children of Bodom, Opeth, Soilwork, and Primal Fear.
Let it be noted though, that the Jack Koshick-promoted Milwaukee Metalfests always had a serious share of difficulties. Yes, there were instances that couldn’t have been avoided, like in 2002 when rather than board the plane to bring them to the U.S., Angel Dust decided to just break up instead. However, those instances pale in comparison both in terms of overall effect as well as in sheer unbelievable numbers to those instances where, let’s face it, somebody just plain dropped the ball. The sound quality on the main stages has always been notoriously bad for the reverb as well as the lack of any substantial quality mixer-sound production, period. The schedules always seem to have a tendency to go completely nuts (although, I believe it was either 2000 or 2001 where the only deviation was that one stage was a set ahead of schedule on Saturday… bravo for nearly making it).
And let us not forget the numerous complaints from the scene about the pay-to-play ringer that Koshick runs the unsigned and lesser-known bands through, presumably to help fund the passage and payment of the big European names as well as to cover the expenses, of which undoubtedly there are numerous. Still though, $1000-1500 for a 20 minute set is unfair any way you cut it. Oh, and that’s another thing, the ever-shortening set lengths for ALL bands, not just the lesser-knowns. I still don’t think that Macabre has ever played a Metalfest set for longer than a half-hour, and if a band with their track record doesn’t at least deserve 45 minutes, then what hope do we have?
Regardless of these facts, I still manage to hold out in anticipation for the big weekend. The weekend that I have requested off of work months in advance. The weekend that I have been saving my hard-earned and spare change for just so that I can have serious buying power when the big days arrive. The weekend that everyone I know wishes I would shut up about because they are sick and tired of hearing about it.
So I take my exit, and according to my directions I take a left on 11th St. and then a right on Mitchell. And what do my eyes behold? The tiniest, little, pissant, piece-of-shit theater I have ever laid eyes upon, with a battered marquee heading of “Meta lf es t.” This damn theater is where they expect to hold oh so many bands and oh so many vendors? I wouldn’t have believed it until I stepped inside, and you know something? I still don’t believe that anyone could have possibly thought it was a good idea. Where the hell was the side stage? To this, my out-loud-thinking was answered by a yellow-clad security guard pointing towards an exit door and a tent awaiting outside. Unbelievable that in a neighborhood that makes the ghettos of Rockford, IL seem like Beverly Hills, someone decided to stick an outdoor stage here.
Now the band listing isn’t exempt from my bitch-and-moan session either.
Question #1…where the hell are the foreign bands? I don’t even think there was a single band from Canada, much less Sweden, Finland, or Brazil. (Canada's Core Device was supposed to be there but I don't know if they were...Doc) I mean, if this is the reason why unsigned and lesser known artists need to pay $1000+ just to play for 20 minutes, then where was all that money going this year? I mean, I could have probably counted the number of signed artists on my fingers and toes, and these were just signed American artists mind you. Therefore, if almost none of the bands are getting paid, and the venue is making enough money off their food and drinks to keep them happy ($3.50 for a can of Red Bull, are you shitting me?!?), then who is getting this money? Makes you wonder, doesn’t it?
Question #2…ok, in years gone by the sets have gotten shorter and shorter, but why 20 minutes for bands like Seven Witches, Cephalic Carnage (3 flippin’ songs), Macabre, Black Dahlia Murder, and many others that the crowd loved and who seriously deserved more? And what was with the bullshit of everyone getting cut off?
Ask any Death Angel fan what song Death Angel is probably saving to play as the last song, and they’ll probably say
As far as the bands themselves go, are there really this many naïve and sadly over-confident and horrible bands out there that are WILLING to pay to play this thing? (More than ever,obviously... Cynical Mality) I mean, in past fests there was a lot of good bands that were unsigned, but the awesome sleeper bands are getting fewer and farther between. My favorite demo bands this year were Necromis (awesome moshing death!), Skeleton Witch (a name befitting a doom band, but here you had a sort of raw hyperthrash band, like a slightly under-developed Black Dahlia Murder), Funeral Rites (awesome Texas death metal recommended to me by Doctor Mality), Stone Vengeance (3 black dudes who had more fun onstage than any other band I’ve ever seen), and Beyond the Flesh (awesome euro-style hyperthrash/death that didn’t let up). As far as notable (whether good or bad) sets from the signed bands, allow me to list them for you:
Summon: my boys from Michigan are one of the few bands that I look forward to every year. This year they played their hearts out and I fear it was for nothing. Simply put, the sound engineer should have been castrated for this atrocity. One listen to the most recent Summon disc and you know that they are an aural experience unlike any other, but the sound quality almost took all the fun out, and if you were looking at the look on Necromodeus’ face, it took all the fun out for him.
Misfits: Jerry, get Doyle on the phone and then find a better singer or something…Jesus!
Deeds of Flesh: Further proof that if you are from a state famous for it’s oranges, then you very well might have a bitchin’ death metal band!
Watch Them Die: I was very pleasantly surprised by these Oakland hardcore thrashers. Very impressive display of attitude and heaviness.
Cattle Decapitation: Holy Shit!!! I am now converted. These guys were amazing and their frontman was one of the few in death metal that actually tries to be a “frontman,” and not just some dude who stands in one spot and grunts in between headbangs.
Origin: I was very much anticipating their set to see how the new drummer and guitarist panned out. I mean, how do you replace Jeremy Turner and John Longstreth? I dunno, but they obviously found the right dudes to do it. Unbelievable set and I loved the new songs that will be on the next CD. I can’t wait!
Oh, and the award for most out-of-place-looking-band-member goes to the drummer for Mortal Decay. He was an amazing drummer, but with his buff bod and the visor he was sporting, he reminded me of the football jocks from a private high school more than he did of a death metal drummer.
Now, as if the scheduling wasn’t bad enough…here is Thrash-head’s most major complaint. See, my ever-expanding waistline can be attributed to boredom. When I get bored, I eat or drink something. Simple as that!
The same can be said for my Metalfest purchases. When I get bored of the bands on stage and the food that is making my wallet gasp for breath is no longer interesting, I go and buy something from one of the vendors. If I go to the vendors and nothing interests me right away, I will politely ask for a recommendation (Chas from the band Summon runs Blackened Moon Productions, and when I asked him for a recommendation last year he gave me Hegemon… Who kicks ass? Chas kicks ass!!!). Now this year, I kid you not, that was next to impossible. Most of the kick-ass booths from last year, including mainstays like Relapse Records and Dark Symphonies as well as internet distro gods The End Records, were nowhere in sight. Don’t you worry, though, as the vastly over-priced Rare T-shirts booth still had them piled high and the Nightfall Records booth was still taking up space.
I literally bought EVERYTHING that interested me that I didn’t already own from the Century Media booth. I’m not
Don’t get me wrong, they are some of the coolest people I ever had the pleasure of handing my money to and getting a good solid-quality product from and they do deserve my money, if not for the product than definitely the service, but there should have been more booths there that were competing for my dollar with awesome stuff.
All in all, I have this to say. If anything positive resulted from this fest, let it be that maybe, just maybe Jack Koshick finally got the necessary kick in the ass to maybe change his business practices, (fat chance) or to just stop doing these fests altogether. I believe the Midwest needs a metal festival, but let’s give a promoter in the Chicagoland area a go at something that is along the lines of the metalfests from a few short years ago, where you have about 100 bands, among them many of the top names and a lot of foreign bands, a few stages, and fantastic support and sponsoring from the top names in metal record sales and distribution. If there must be a pay-to-play type of deal, let’s drastically reduce the price and put some serious cash into advertising and see if we can’t get by on ticket sales alone. It might work if we get a promoter with a day job, but if we get one who only does promoting, like Koshick and co., then I have a feeling we’ll get shafted again.
A big thanks to Debbie Sellnow for hooking us up again, and a big thanks to Don Decker for not kicking my ass from the incident with Crystal (I like the magazine you gave me, bro…thanks!). Oh, and thanks to Dr. Mality and Joe Who (cool meeting you, man!).
It all started eighteen years ago. Promoter Jack Koshick had an idea, to assemble a show that catered to the die hard metal fan.
If you've never been to a Milwaukee Metalfest, it's always a colossal event. Usually consisting of multiple stages, 100+ bands from around the world, a large vendor area, (mostly record labels - for your shopping needs!)and other stuff like autograph signings - which have included porno stars and wrestlers. Held the last weekend of July every year, it's always a blast to hang out with friends, and see some awesome bands.
Metalfest has played "Musical Chairs" within the last few years. The majority of them were held at the Rave / Eagle's Ballroom, but eventually it out grew this venue. It served its purpose for a while, but Metalfest was growing and needed a new home.
From there it moved to the Milwaukee Auditorium a larger venue, that lasted for about two years. The building was eventually closed down to be remodeled, causing Metalfest to move once again. Next up was The U.S. Cellular Arena. A giant sized building that would last for another two years. (Where many great bands wound up playing in the garage.--Dr. Mality)
The main factor to blame is the concept of "Pay To Play". A lot of these younger bands have to pay to be on the fest. Every year with so many bands playing, the schedule can never run on time. So you're going to have some bands play longer, and some get their time cut short. I'd be willing to bet a lot of these bands don't even break even what they had to pay to be on the fest. (Guaranteed! The only winner is Koshick!--Dr. M)
So let's try to analyze this, pretend your a band playing the fest. You have to pay to be on it, the schedule is messed up - your band is only allowed to play two songs, and to top it all off the sound is really bad. Would you want to play Metalfest again?
Attending this year's fest, I noticed some things Missing In Action:
1. No European Bands - At past fests they were the first to bring in bands like; In Flames, Cradle Of Filth, Anathema, Katatonia etc... Not even one this year.
2. Lack Of Vendors - Compared to the past, their were hardly any vendors this year. The major one was Century Media, everyone else was small mail order distro's - very disappointing.
3. Band Cancelations - A lot of bands "No Showed" this year. Friday wasn't bad, but Saturday was terrible. (examples; No - Fleshgrind, Dying Fetus, Prong, Diabolic, M.O.D., Meat Shits, Nuclear Winter)
If you can look past all of this, and try to make the best of it, eventually you'll find some good bands to check out. Highlights for me included:
Without End - Decent thrash band from New Jersey.
Skeleton Witch - Good thrash band, with an In Flames type sound.
Stone Vengeance - Great "Old School" Rockin' Band. (The band usedto be Rick James back up band!)
Black Dahlia Murder - Great performance, crowd was really into it.
Cattle Decapitation - Good stuff, they definitely threw down for sure.
Deeds Of Flesh - Always crushing.
Death Angel - Great live band, I really enjoyed the old stuff.
Beyond Glory - Good Power Metal band with female vocals from North Carolina.
Kaos - Great thrash band from Califorina.
Vesperian Sorrow - Death / Black Metal from Texas. Enjoyable, but no keyboard player? (sampled keyboards)
Origin - Brutal! I was really surprised by Origin, they definitely delivered - even with a revolving door of new band members.
Nasty Savage - Kicked Ass! Total "Old School".
Macabre - Always fun, crowd favorite for sure.
Attacker - Decent "Old School" Power Metal.
Cephalic Carnage - See Macabre.
Overall I'd say Metalfest this year was very disappointing, it was for the most part a "Spot Fest", where you really had to explore.
Could this be the final Milwaukee Metalfest? Let me ask my Magic 8 - Ball, and see what it predicts - "Sure Looks That Way".
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