BLADES OF STEEL: “The Fest That Wouldn’t Die!”
Club Garibaldi, Milwaukee, WI
April 7-9, 2022
By Dr. Abner Mality
On April 7, 2022, the Blades of Steel Metalfest FINALLY got underway! What a tortured path this festival took to existence! Originally scheduled for April 2020, the festival was conceived as the successor to the long-running NYDM Spring Bash, which was promoter Randy Kastner’s baby for 10 long years. The fest was named after a track by English metal legends SATAN, who were originally signed as headliners for the first edition.
Then the world as we knew it stopped dead in its track. Some very small organisms caused very large disruption. The original dates vanished into the ozone and SATAN departed with them. Was this the end of Randy’s run? Tentative plans were made for Blades of Steel to return on April 2021. Then the Delta variant decided to rear its ugly head. The reaction of a good deal of the general public ensured that Covid was not going anywhere. Because it’s such a royal pain to get a free shot with 90% effectiveness when you’re mired in a death-dealing pandemic. So April 2021 became October 2021. And then it was goodbye Delta, hello Omicron. And Blades of Steel bit the dust again.
It’s well known that Randy has no fun. But one thing he’s got plenty of is perseverance. I think almost every promoter in the US would have thrown in the towel after the 3rd cancellation. But Randy hung tough. The lineup underwent constant mutation, much like the virus itself, but kept a high degree of quality. VICIOUS RUMORS dropped off...a big disappointment to me...but was replaced by thrash legends WHIPLASH. And one more date was penciled in for the fest...April, 2022!
Thank the Metal Gods this time was the charm. Blades of Steel was finally a reality! The amount of perseverance needed to accomplish this was prodigious. Unfortunately due to a work commitment, I had to miss Day 3 of the Fest on Sat. April 9. That was the day that TOXIK and NUNSLAUGHTER headlined. I cried tears of blood at missing that date, but I did get to check out the Thursday and Friday lineups, which were plenty robust if you’re a fan of quality metal.
In a final spiteful act of God, we had miserable freezing sleet and even snow the first two days. But once inside the cozy confines of Club Garibaldi, you put the outside world behind. It had been 3 long years since I had seen the final edition of the NYDM Spring Bash in 2019. These spring metalfests are the premier social event of the year for me. There are lots of friends and acquaintances you look forward to seeing at these things. It was a long, long time that felt even longer since I’d seen these folks. It was great to mingle with brothers of the underground once more!
THURSDAY, APRIL 7
The festival kicked off with the oddly named SQUIDHAMMER. This was a local Southern Wisconsin band whose name I’ve seen around the last few years. Their name doesn’t reveal much about their sound. They were heavier than hell and a pleasant surprise to open the weekend. They had a super thick and sludgy guitar sound that was as low tuned as anybody who played the fest. The vocalist was a blond gal with a raw, animalistic vocal style that raised the hair on the back of your neck. The musical style was kind of hard to pin down, with traces of MESHUGGAH and PANTERA at their heaviest, but also straight up sludge and hardcore. The drummer was excellent and I can say that SQUIDHAMMER exceeded my expectations in just about every way. Not much of a crowd to start, but them’s the breaks.
WOLFTOOTH from Richmond, IN was next and they were a much different proposition than SQUIDHAMMER. They tended to be more melodic and composed, with some of their songs resembling stoner rock and others featuring more of a thrash-like chug. They’ve got a new album “Blood and Iron” out on Napalm Records which is worth checking out. They have a strong sword and sorcery fixation, which is always a plus with me and reminded me of bands ranging from HIGH ON FIRE and THE SWORD to BARONESS and even some ALLMAN BROTHERS like harmonized guitars. With three guitarists, they had plenty of firepower. Me and my compadre Johnny Vomit got to speak to vocalist Chris Sullivan after the gig, which was a cool experience.
Swinging in another direction yet again was Chicago’s BLOODLETTER. This variety of styles is a trademark of Randy’s fests and to me is one of the most attractive aspects of them. It’s better to mix things up a little bit than just book bands that sound like clones of each other. BLOODLETTER verged on almost being too fast and got a little sloppy at times. They play a style similar to GOATWHORE or SKELETONWITCH where some black metal influences mix with raging high speed thrash. They had good energy on stage but there were some sound problems and their style was almost out of control.
MOLDER was definitely one of the highlights of the first night...and the whole fest, as far as I was concerned. I love that groovy, sick, sludgy death metal that oozes along with a catchy vibe. They remind me a lot of fellow Chicago legends CIANIDE as well as AUTOPSY and even OBITUARY. They played some of the fattest and sickest riffs of the whole weekend and capped things off with a distorted cover of EXODUS’ “Piranhas”, which ignited the first real moshpit of the weekend. It sure wasn’t the last. Another thing I like about MOLDER is that their bass player is a dead ringer for Yours Truly about 25 years ago even down to the Fu Manchu moustache and beer gut. I can’t wait for these guys to vomit forth another album.
By now, things were starting to cook at Club Garibaldi as the room was starting to fill with headbangers. Next up was one of the bands that I was really looking forward to, the California death machine known as SKELETAL REMAINS! Their last record “The Entombment of Chaos” was one of the best American death metal records of the last ten years...a thoroughly crushing release full of precision brutality. How would they be on stage? Well, they absolutely delivered the goods as far as recreating their songs went. I do feel they could show more personality on stage, as the banter was very boilerplate. But no major complaints here. Honestly, this is one of the bands that is going to pick up the torch of CANNIBAL CORPSE when the time comes for the CANNIBALS to ride off into the bloody sunset.
TONY PORTARO, WHIPLASH
That left the mighty WHIPLASH to close out night one. Any true fan of thrash metal holds this band in high esteem, as their first two records were absolutely iconic during the first wave of thrash. I saw them play one of the Spring Bashes a few years back, so this was not my first go-round with Tony Portaro and his band. I actually enjoyed this set more than their Bash gig. Their energy seemed higher and the set list suited me more. The guitar sound was a bit thin, but Christ on a hotplate, can these guys play FAST!
They started off with “Last Man Alive” and then juiced it up even more with a blistering version of “The Burning of Atlanta”, one of WHIPLASH’s all-time fastest. Tony’s picking ability is amazing considering the guy has to be in his 60’s. The drummer Charlie Z was also on fire...a crucial element when playing thrash. They hit a lot of fave songs like “Insult to Injury”, “Walk the Plank”, “Warmonger” and “This” before ending with a furious “Nailed To The Cross” in front of a pretty good crowd that showed sincere appreciation. Tony told us there are plans for a new WHIPLASH album and after this set, I am looking forward to it.
FRIDAY, APRIL 8
Friday picked up pretty much where WHIPLASH left off the night before...with some blistering thrash! The openers today were local guys FULL SPEED AHEAD (usually shortened to FSA) and these guys were a pleasant surprise in much the same manner as SQUIDHAMMER was the day before. They played crossover thrash not a million miles away in sound from Friday’s headliners, D.R.I. They also had an excellent drummer and there was a real punk energy to their sound, as well as a kind of souped up hard rock feel. FSA kind of ambushed me...next time, I will know what to expect. If you’re in Southern Wisconsin and see their name at a gig, check them out for sure!
There was barely time to breathe before another Wisconsin act, TANTIVY, took the stage. There is a thin line between thrash metal and speed metal and I would say TANTIVY is on the speed metal side of that fence. Very fast and professional bunch, with a sound like a NWOBHM band at twice the normal speed. I kept racking my brain to think of who they reminded me of and finally it came to me...these guys sound like the grossly underrated HOLY TERROR! They played melodic metal with roots in PRIEST and MAIDEN, but at an extremely high rate of speed. The singer’s voice also reminded me of the late Keith Deen. I thought HOLY TERROR was an awesome band, so that gives you a clue of what I thought of TANTIVY. I honestly think the band name kind of sucks, but getting over that hump, I wouldn’t be surprised to see this band getting signed to a solid metal label.
If you were hoping for a doom or stoner band to slow things down, you were out of luck, because next band was fast rising thrashers INTENT from Arizona. These guys have been opening for D.R.I. on their current tour, including tonight’s stop. They could have stepped onto the stage direct from 1988, complete with EXODUS shirts and high top sneakers. They looked the part and sounded the part as well, striking with neck-wrecking thrash like a combo of SLAYER and NUCLEAR ASSAULT. The intensity was there for sure, but it bordered on being almost too derivative. Their interaction with the crowd could use some work, but when it comes to laying into classic American thrash metal, there is little to complain about with INTENT.
SAVAGE MASTER are sure no strangers to these events...seen them at many a Midwest metal event. For my money, their recorded output has never captured the energy they have live. This gig was more evidence of that. Starting off with an excruciatingly long intro and enough dry ice fog to cover nearby Lake Michigan, these hooded fiends and their mistress Stacy Savage hit the stage with forceful intent. It’s kind of hard to describe their musical style...not quite thrash metal but more vicious than power metal. There’s a good dose of HOOKERS/NASHVILLE PUSSY vibes in there, too. Stacy proves that small packages deliver a lot of heat...her voice rang out like the Devil’s Bell. By now, the crowd was really packed and the fest was kicking into a higher gear. SAVAGE MASTER is supposed to have a new full length out later this year. If it has the force and energy of this set, it will be well worth checking out.
For me, MORDRED was always kind of the odd man out at the fest. But you know, I’m guessing they are used to it. Arising from the Bay Area thrash scene, these guys ventured into left field by adding funk and even rap influences into their music. In the interests of honesty, I’ve never been a fan, so I looked forward to their set with a certain degree of trepidation, but also curiosity. Damn, I’m glad I stuck around, because they exceeded my expectations and delivered a high energy and entertaining show. Their lead singer Scott Holderby is the furthest looking thing from a thrash metal headman you could imagine, but wow, he was all over the place. With a maniacal grin, he interacted constantly with the crowd while exhibiting a singing style that was quite different than anything else we heard this weekend.
Never thought I would see a brother scratching vinyl at a Kastner-promoted metalfest, but MORDRED’s DJ Pause did just that. The band did lean into their thrashier material, including songs from their iconic “Fool’s Game” album, but they certainly did not ignore the funk and scratching/sampling was a big part of the show. Did I like all of MORDRED’s tunes? Not really, but I know entertainers when I see them and it was kind of cool to see something a bit different than typical death/thrash/power metal.
One of MORDRED’s fellow Bay Area warriors was DEFIANCE, who had some mild success during the heyday of the thrash scene. This was another long dormant band that Randy has helped to put back together and re-energize. By the time DEFIANCE hit the stage, the Club was a madhouse and you couldn’t have gotten another person in the club. Lead singer Steev Esquivel is just as scary looking now as he was more than 25 years ago when I met him at one of the old Milwaukee Metalfests. Yes, he still has those dreads and he thrashed them around like crazy during DEFIANCE’s set. I recall these guys as somewhat of a second-tier band back in the day, but wow, there was no sign of that live. They dived into a set full of classic Bay Area thrash from their albums “Product of Society” and “Void Terra Firma” and the pit was wild. “Don’t ask us to play new shit because we ain’t got none,” laughed Steev. But he told us all that this gig, which was conceived as a one time reunion, went so well and the guys felt so good to be back together, that they are planning on sticking around and doing a new album. I will be most interested to hear it!
One of Milwaukee’s great hometown heroes is REALM. This band made a splash in the late 80’s, but really, they should have been up there with ANNIHILATOR and even TESTAMENT. If they were from California or New York, I’ll bet they would have been. They played a very technical and melodic type of speed metal at an extremely high level. Promoter Randy was especially fond of the band and worked hard to land them on Blades of Steel. They were on the original bill planned for Spring 2020 and they survived the constant changes and mutations in the lineup to make the show here in April 2022. It was hinted that this may be the very last time they would play live.
If that’s the case...and I hope it’s not...they sure went out on the highest of notes. Their set was 100% jaw dropping and I don’t think they could have done better if it was 1988. The packed club was primed by DEFIANCE’s performance and ready to blow when REALM hit the stage. Singer Mark Antoni looks as metal as an insurance salesman these days, but sweet Jesus, what a voice! He handled the verbose and complex lyrics with ease and hit notes so high that I’m surprised the windows didn’t crack. A vocalist to rank with the Tates and Halfords of the world. The band more than matched him as they launched into tech-thrash classics like “Theseus and the Minotaur”, “Brainchild”, “Endless War” and “Fate’s Wind”. The sound was great as well. They wrapped things up with a hyperspeed cover of “Eleanor Rigby” by THE BEATLES and left a happy and drained crowd. Was this the end of REALM? I really hope they take a page out of DEFIANCE’s book and decide otherwise.
By now, I felt like a steam roller had flattened me out, but the whirlwind was yet to come. It was 40 years ago that DIRTY ROTTEN IMBECILES crawled out of the basement to inflict punk-thrash crossover on the world. Tonight they were the headliners and somehow the crowd summoned up enough energy to go nuts when they hit the stage. Spike and Kurt look like old dudes you’d see going up the aisle at a Home Depot these days, yet they still deliver the thrash. The pit was fucking dangerous and I wasn’t even able to grab a good picture of them. Getting too old for this kind of mayhem, but I could still hang back and bang to “Thrashard”, “Nursing Home Blues”, “Violent Pacification” and too many more to count. They keep it simple and stick to the classics, which is as it should be on a tour celebrating 40 years of crossover. I’d have to say the Friday edition of Blades was tremendously successful.
I had a long drive back to Rockford after the D.R.I. blitzkrieg. Saturday the 10th brought the final day of the fest, which spilled over to the next door Cactus Club as well. Unfortunately, I had a work commitment I couldn’t break and had to pass on the third day of the fest. In the interest of completeness, I now present the lineup for that last day:
That’s a cool and diverse lineup. I hated to miss the madness of NUNSLAUGHTER and also Indiana thrashers WRAITH who have released some killer albums. I heard through the grapevine that everything went well on Saturday and that IRON FLAME in particular kind of stole the show. Ah, it hurt me to miss out. But I can take consolation that after almost 3 years of constant setbacks and what seemed like the world coming to an end, the first edition of BLADES OF STEEL was a success. Hopefully there will be many more to come...