October 5-8, 2017
In just two years of existence, the Frost and Fire festival developed a reputation as a can’t-miss event. And rightfully so. The festival is situated in picturesque downtown Ventura, California, an hour outside of Los Angeles. This is a “destination festival,” inasmuch as Ventura is a mere stone’s throw from the Pacific Ocean, with sunshine, palm trees and beaches galore alongside the very best in underground traditional heavy metal from the U.S. and abroad. Organizer Jarvis Leatherby utilizes different venues on different days of the fest as a way of mixing things up and allowing attendees to experience different environments and vibes. The primary venue is The Bombay Bar and Grill, a 350-person capacity upscale club/restaurant (bouncers wear white button-down shirts and black ties) boasting a tiny front-room stage and a larger back-room stage to allow for nonstop rock in an intimate setting. (Bands play on both stages with *no* overlap, thankfully, so you’re not forced to choose between acts with conflicting time slots.) But Leatherby has also employed The Majestic Ventura Theater, a grandiose 1,200-capacity theater dating back to the 1920s. Frost and Fire attracts a small, ravenous hardcore following from around the United States and around the globe. These are serious heavy metal fans willing to travel great distances in the name of music and fellowship. A grade-A festival needs both a grade-A locale and a grade-A audience, but Frost and Fire readily checks all these boxes. It is the gold standard for U.S. metal festivals, akin to long-running European institutions like Keep It True, Headbangers Open Air, or Up the Hammers, but in a smaller, cozier, more personal beachside setting. Simply put, Frost and Fire is paradise, a veritable promised land for the die-hard, old-school metalhead.
For the third installment of Frost and Fire, the plan was to go all-in on venerable British metal acts, with the top of the bill being populated by the likes of Raven (playing a special Live at the Inferno set), as well as U.S. debuts from Mythra, Jaguar and Fist. It was to be an absolute dream for the NWOBHM fanatic. Unfortunately, Fist dropped off a month or two ahead of time; however, the confirmed replacement act was none other than Ventura’s Cirith Ungol, one of the hottest “reunion” acts on the underground metal circuit today. Add in Manilla Road, Ashbury and Night Demon as other top-of-the-bill acts, plus a slew of the sharpest U.S. and Canadian steel (all hand-selected by Leatherby, who has a keen ear for talent) on the undercard, and you have a sure-fire recipe for heavy metal heaven. It is no wonder that the Friday, Saturday and Sunday events (all of which were held at the smaller Bombay venue) were sold out in advance, although tickets remained available for the Thursday pre-party, the only night in the cavernous Ventura Theater.
Make no mistake: Frost and Fire may have a friends’n’family feel to it, but it is an exceedingly well-run festival. The Night Demon guys (along with ND roadie Waldo and local genius/sound guy/barfly Billy Johnson, who is so renowned that he even has a very potent drink named after him at a nearby watering hole) handle a million details to keep things not only running like clockwork, but also sounding and looking good as well. That’s no small feat when there are this many bands playing in such cramped quarters over a multiple-day span. The organization and execution of this festival can hold its own against any other festival I have ever attended. In fact, as I think back over the weekend and look for areas of improvement, my list is quite short indeed. One thing that sticks out in a negative way (although it’s the venues’ fault, not the organizers’) is drink prices. You couldn’t buy a beer at the Bombay for less than $8. PBR tallboys were $10, and that watered-down shite qualifies as beer only under the loosest definition of the term. The $4 Tecate option from last year was nowhere to be found this time around, with the Bombay being decidedly non-fan friendly in the pricing department. The Ventura Theater was equally bad or worse. Come on, y’all. Metalheads like to drink a beer while we bang our heads, ideally without having our pockets picked in the process. Is that too much to ask? Another potential area for improvement is the stifling heat in the backroom of the Bombay. Oh, I get not having air conditioning along the California coast. That part’s fine. But within five minutes of walking back there in daylight hours to see a band, one would be reduced to a drippy, sweaty mess. (I thought poor Bob Byrne was gonna melt, he looked so uncomfortable back there.) Might the issue be mitigated using large portable fans or something? I don’t know, but wow it got pretty unpleasant back there, although conditions did improve as the sun went down and the cool evening breezes wafted in through the open windows and back door. My third “complaint” is that there seemed to be a greater knucklehead quotient this year than in years past, you know, the kind of wasted festgoer that just wants to break shit, smash into you with their spiked vests, spill beer on your wife, launch beer can missiles into the air and so on. They were a bit of a drag, but I guess that’s part of the deal. Don’t misunderstand me. I’m all about rocking the f**k out and letting the music move you; after all, that’s why we’re here. But these drunken meatheads seemed to be going out of their way to be a pain in the ass. Security tried to control the problem, and it seemed there were way more people ejected from the venue this year than in years past. Bummer. Aside from these very minor issues, I had no gripes, no bitching, and would give Frost and Fire top marks across the board in terms of organization and execution. With no further ado, let’s get to the day-by-day rundown …
Thursday, October 5, 2017
As indicated, tonight’s pre-party was held at The Majestic Ventura Theater, the site of last year’s main event for Frost & Fire. Things were different this time around. Most notably, a large portion of the venue was curtained off, to make the room feel more intimate (and also abate the boomy, echo-ey sound issues that plagued the bands last year). Although admission for the pre-party was a measly $10 (best deal in show business, if you ask me), it was a Thursday evening and many out-of-towners had not yet arrived. I would guess attendance maxed out in the 250-300 range tonight, although it was much lower in the early and late portions of the show. Notwithstanding these differences from last year, it was cool to see the massive white Frost and Fire banner adorning the entire back wall of the stage, as well as the praying skeletons illuminated and perched on high atop the P.A. on either side of the stage. There’s that Frost and Fire ambience!
Live music got underway promptly at 6:30 p.m. with the arrival of Canada’s GLARE to the stage. The band was unknown to me, and seemingly to most others in the sparse audience. At first listen, Glare maybe didn’t seem like a stylistic fit for the F&F program, given the band’s rough vocals and general sound that came across as a blend of speed metal and crossover/hardcore punk (the singer was wearing an English Dogs shirt, which seemed appropriate). On closer inspection, however, it made perfect sense for Glare to kick off the festival. The band is, after all, comprised of two members of Riot City (the guitarist and the drummer, who actually plays bass in Riot City) and two members of Gatekrashor (the singer and the bassist), both of which were playing the main festival. So why not let their side project come out and warm up the crowd? My impressions during the Glare set were that the singer is a maniac, constantly pacing in circles as he barked out the lyrics; the drummer has interesting taste in hats; speed/punk without melody isn’t so interesting to me; and cover versions of Holocaust’s “Heavy Metal Mania” are always welcome and guaranteed to put a smile on my face.
Next up was POUNDER, a California-based band playing just their second gig. Going into the show, I was familiar with the band’s name, and I knew they had a 4-song cassette out, and that my friend Carlos Denogean (Salvacion, among others) was playing drums for them. I also knew they had connections to both Angel Witch and death metal bands. But that was all. Well, it turns out that Pounder play a splendid variant of NWOBHM-influenced classic heavy metal with awesome twin guitars and strong vocals. Their originals sounded excellent, Tom Draper’s lead guitarwork was superb, and they tossed in a killer cover of Angel Witch’s “Sweet Danger” that fit perfectly. They only had a short 30-minute set, but Pounder saved the best for last in the form of a scorcher entitled “Faster than Fire,” which they introduced as their fastest song and one set to appear on their debut album for Hells Headbangers Records. If “Faster than Fire” is any indication of what’s to come, then the Pounder album will merit buy-or-die status. That song rules. Incidentally, Pounder’s performance was so strong that I was astonished when vocalist Matt Harvey announced this was only their second live gig. Keep an eye out for Pounder. They definitely raised eyebrows in a positive way tonight. Setlist: Give ‘Em the Hammer, Hot N Running, Lonesome Gambler, Sweet Danger (Angel Witch cover), Web of Fear, Faster than Fire.
I was looking forward to seeing RUTHLESS. The Los Angeles-based U.S. power metal band released a couple of gems in the 1980s in the form of the Metal without Mercy EP and the Discipline of Steel album. From those glory days, it seems that only vocalist Sammy DeJohn remains; however, he has assembled a fine batch of musicians around him and is carrying on the Ruthless legacy with live performances and new recordings. It was good to hear that DeJohn’s voice has held up well despite the passage of time, and he still sings with a great deal of power and melody. Ruthless’s performance tonight was a very enjoyable exercise in classic USPM done right. One particularly powerful moment was when DeJohn dedicated the classic “Gates of Hell” to former bassist Jack Black, who recently passed away, and encouraged the crowd to raise a glass in Black’s honor while they played one of his favorite songs in tribute to him. Classy. It was also quite cool when DeJohn hopped off the stage, crossed the photo pit and climbed onto the barrier to get close to the fans near the end of the show. Overall, Ruthless played a strong, convincing set, capped off by the minor classics “Discipline of Steel” and “Metal without Mercy.” Setlist: Thirteen Skulls, Hang Man, Defender, Gates of Hell, Evil Within (new song played live for the first time), Laceration, Discipline of Steel, Metal without Mercy.
It’s been a few years since I last saw them, but I’ve always dug CAGE. Their over-the-top faster/higher/bigger/louder aesthetic rubs some folks the wrong way, but it works because the band have the chops and the skill to walk the walk, not just talk the talk. And they did both tonight. Cage took the stage to the ludicrous speed of “Planet Crusher,” hellbent on obliterating everything in their path. Bald, goateed vocalist Sean Peck was decked out in shades and a full-length leather duster, but what really set him apart was those pipes. Hot damn, he hasn’t lost a step over the years, effortlessly nailing every one of those piercing screams and insane high notes. Guitarist Dave “Conan” Garcia is also quite the spectacle, with those musclebound arms making Ralf Scheepers look like the proverbial 98-lb. weakling. Guitars always seem freakishly small in Conan’s grasp, but the man can flat-out play, whether it’s over-caffeinated riffs or ripping leadwork. The other, younger guys in the band all acquit themselves well too, both playing-wise and stage presence-wise. By this point, Cage have amassed a significant discography, but it was cool they opted for a greatest-hits type set tonight. Rather than leaning heavily on recent material (surprisingly they didn’t air a single track from their latest record, Ancient Evil), Cage hit the high points of their history. It’s hard to argue with the quality of tunes like “I am the King” or “Kill the Devil,” or especially my favorite Cage song, “Final Solution.” The band even managed to squeeze one song (“War of the Undead”) into their 40-minute time allotment that was not on their printed setlist. Cage played a smasher of a gig that was very well-received by the Frost & Fire crowd, which had now really filled in to maximum turnout for the night. Setlist: Planet Crusher, I am the King, Hell Destroyer, Kill the Devil, War of the Undead, Final Solution, Flying Fortress, Wings of Destruction.
As most people know by now, NIGHT DEMON never play anything less than a great show. There are certain quality standards that the band always meets in any setting, at any venue, before any crowd. But not all Night Demon gigs are created equal. If you think for one minute that the band didn’t have an extra spring in their step, an extra glint in their eye, or an extra swagger in their step to be playing their annual hometown show in front of family and friends from around the world at their own festival, then you’ve got another thing coming. Night Demon were amped to come out and lay waste, all the more so because tonight marked their first gig since August and their first show on U.S. soil since June. The beast was hungry and ready to kill. Over the course of their 60-minute performance tonight, Night Demon proved for the hometown folks exactly why they deserved the “Best Up’n’Coming Band” award they received at Germany’s Metal Hammer Awards. They showed exactly why they’ve grown into underground favorites, poised to break through that ceiling and smash headlong into the mainstream with Ozzfest appearances, a direct-support slot on the forthcoming Accept tour of Europe this winter, and so on. There’s an excitement, an energy, an intangible feeling you get when Night Demon are onstage that no other band can match. The audience taps into that energy, even as the band feeds off it as well. The end result was a 13-song set strewn with one massive cut after another, band and audience both going ballistic and roaring through the set. Yeah, there were a few glitches along the way, a couple of spots where the rust peeked through, but it didn’t matter. The energy, the feeling was right. For me, I was especially curious to see how the semi-ballad “Darkness Remains” would fare in this setting. I had seen them do it outdoors in daylight at a German festival this summer, but “Darkness Remains” becomes a totally different creature in darkness. The dramatic lighting effects put the song over the top. It’s a real goosebump moment. For their last song of the night, Night Demon pulled a head-fake by dropping their signature self-titled anthem (have they ever *not* played “Night Demon” at a gig before?) in favor of their crowd-pleasing “Wasted Years” cover, complete with Jarvis playing bass with his fingers a la Steve Harris and the traditional Jarvis / Armand leap off the drum riser in time with Dusty’s final cymbal crash. Look, Night Demon are firing on all cylinders right now. Their hometown show proved how far they’ve come and just how formidable they are today. Don’t bet against Night Demon, not now, not ever. They’re gonna get ya, no matter how far. Setlist: Welcome to the Night, Ritual, Full Speed Ahead, Curse of the Damned, Hallowed Ground, Heavy Metal Heat, Dawnrider, Mastermind, Black Widow, Screams in the Night, The Chalice, Darkness Remains, Wasted Years.
Closing out tonight’s proceedings was LA’s own TYRANT, a band for whom many expressed excitement not only because of their catalog of strong ‘80s material but also because of their newly announced alliance with legendary Solitude Aeturnus/Candlemass frontman Robert Lowe. Unfortunately, by this point in the evening, the social aspects really took over for me. I was so happy to see so many dear friends from around the world wandering around inside the Ventura Theater that my focus was distracted from the band. Thus, I really can’t comment on their performance except to say that Lowe now has no hair, the set tilted heavily in favor of unfamiliar new material, the only song I recognized was “Battle of Armageddon” right at the end, and Tyrant’s guitarist was really nice to my wife Jen afterwards as she hung around the stage area while I was helping with loadout. Once loadout was completed, we went over to Sans Souci (a local dive bar affectionately – and accurately – referred to as “The Sewer” by those in the know) across the street, where we hung out drinking and socializing until the bar closed down and kicked us all out. What a great pre-party night!
Friday, October 6, 2017
Frost & Fire is kind of like Disneyland for metalheads. Even though I’d been out late the night before, I was up at the crack of dawn to go to the hotel’s breakfast room. It wasn’t that I was hungry, it’s that I just knew there would be friends there, and it’d be a great chance to hang out. Imagine how thrilled I was to walk into the breakfast room and see the Mythra guys and the Jaguar guys (most of whom I’d met at the Xmas Rocka in Sheffield last December), and no one else. So I grabbed a bagel and some bad hotel coffee, pulled up a chair and started talking with my British friends. A few minutes later, other friends from around the country sat down and joined the breakfast metal summit. To top it all off, at some point the Gallagher brothers ambled in, with John handing me his earbuds in the breakfast buffet line to give me a sneak peak of some of the basic tracks recorded for the new Raven album. Wow! This beats the hell out of Disneyland! Mickey Mouse, eat your heart out. Somewhere along the line, a plan was hatched for Jen and me to explore downtown Ventura with our friends in Mythra. So we did. In fact, we ended up spending several hours with our mates from South Shields, England, wandering the coastline, the Ventura pier, and a coffee house, before ending up at the Topa Topa Brewery for some early afternoon liquid refreshment. It was a fine way to spend the morning / early afternoon. Jen and I made it over to the venue by 2:30 or so to help Jarvis set up merch tables and generally make sure everything was good to go at Bombay. It was. Doors officially opened at 3 p.m., with the first of 11 bands firing up at 4:15.
The day’s musical entertainment began with GATEKRASHOR from Canada in the back room. There were a couple of familiar faces onstage, as the singer and bassist had both played with Glare the night before at the preparty. Stylistically, Gatekrashor were more of a pure, undiluted speed metal band (a la Razor, I suppose) than Glare, albeit with similar rough vocals. The band played a short, pedal-to-the-metal set that went over well with the punters who showed up early on a Friday afternoon.
Next up was my favorite discovery of the weekend, BEWITCHER from Portland, Oregon. Oh, I was dimly aware of Bewitcher before, and I knew they were signed to Divebomb Records (which is a pretty good indication of quality right there). But I’d never really paid attention. Well, shame on me. The band first caught my ear this afternoon when they soundchecked by tearing through a spot-on rendition of Motorhead’s “We are the Road Crew.” It sounded really good, so I was intrigued. Well, when the show started, I was blown away. Bewitcher is the complete package. The three-piece conjures up riffs for miles, bucketloads of speed, and intense stage presence with copious stage fog and the singer/guitarist’s dreadlocks writhing about on his head like serpents as he spits out the lyrics. At one point, the singer announced, “We are Bewitcher from Portland, Oregon, and we play satanic speed metal.” Yes, that accurately sums it up, but they are so much more than that. Bewitcher sounded like classic Venom, Motorhead and early Metallica all rolled into one, but with actual catchy songs that grab you by the throat and twist you about. They didn’t use their full 40 minutes, but it’s probably better that they didn’t because they had kicked so much ass in the first 30 minutes that there was really nothing left to say. The energy radiating from the tiny front-room stage at Bombay was palpable and the audience responded in kind. This was one of the sets that people were raving about all weekend long, and I suspect will be continuing to do so for much longer. By all means, check out Bewitcher and if you ever get the opportunity to see them live, do it!!! Setlist: Black Speed Delirium, Speed ’Til You Bleed, Midnight Hunters, Rome is on Fire, Sin is in her Blood, Bewitcher, In the Night.
RIOT CITY were a surprise hit at the final installment of the Ragnarokkr festival in Chicago in 2016, so I was definitely anticipating seeing them again. As expected, the Calgary natives put on a high-energy set of true heavy metal at Frost and Fire. The one-two punch of “Warrior of Time” and “Burn the Night” kicked things off in grand fashion, and things kept rolling from there. I noticed, however, that the band didn’t sound quite right, but I couldn’t put my finger on what it was until the singer apologized and said he’d blown his voice out at a previous show. Yep, that’s it. The (normally quite good) vocals were off, depriving Riot City of some of their effectiveness. They still played with tons of energy in their short 6-song set, so no worries there. The best part came at the end, when they did their Grim Reaper “See You in Hell” cover and invited everyone to come up onstage with them. To their credit, the Bombay security staff stood by and allowed what must have been 15 or 20 people to climb up on the backroom stage with Riot City to go bonkers during “See You in Hell.” Steve Grimmett, what hath thou wrought? There was one guy being held aloft horizontally by four or five other dudes, perilously close to the stage lights and the low ceiling. Over on stage left, Jean-Pierre Abboud (here as a fan, but a fine singer in his own right in bands like Borrowed Time and, more recently, Gatekeeper) took over the lead vocals, which was a good thing not only because he has a killer voice but also because (unlike most of the knuckleheads who jumped on stage) he actually knew the words. It was a rousing, iconic moment of heavy metal brotherhood and solidarity, across the generations of time, and a frickin’ awesome way to close out Riot City’s set. Setlist: Warrior of Time, Burn the Night, Livin’ Fast, In the Dark, Steel Rider, See You in Hell.
The day’s festivities kicked into another gear with the arrival of SUBSTRATUM from Seattle, Washington to the front-room stage. Their performance at Legions of Metal in Chicago this year was fantastic, and I expected (and received) more of the same today. It’s tough for a five-piece band on that little stage in the front room, and there’s really nowhere to move, but that didn’t stop them from rocking out. Imposing vocalist Amy Lee Carlson (she of the totally metal coordinated red and white outfit, including red Night Demon logo tee) even brought a prop, wielding a mighty sword for one song. Guitarists Max Nazaryan (he of the old-school early Destruction tee) and Jonny Haynes (he of the live snake-handling skills, shorts and knee-high athletic socks) played marvelously despite the cramped conditions. Their set kicked off with the fantastic “Rough Rider” off their demo cassette released this spring, and also included a couple of favorites from their debut full-length album from last year, most notably “Last Voyage,” which belongs on any compilation of the best songs by anybody in the last half decade. A large and rowdy crowd assembled at the front stage, with at one point a woman emerging from the crowd to kneel and bow down at Carlson’s feet onstage. A bit weird, but okay. An unexpected surprise came when the band unleashed a rockin’ cover of Maiden’s “Wrathchild,” complete with an extended instrumental section working in some melodies from unusual places. No doubt about it, Substratum are an outstanding band, and a shining hope for traditional metal in the USA. Approximate Setlist: Rough Rider, Who Am I, To Nothing To None, Last Voyage, Babehammer, Wrathchild, (plus one more).
It seemed like wherever I went this weekend, there were lots of conversations about WALPYRGUS. The band (which includes 3/5 of Twisted Tower Dire) released a fairly controversial debut album on Cruz Del Sur a couple months ago, with some metalheads summarily dismissing it as “poser crap” and others praising it as one of the finest albums of the year. I fall into the latter category, and have no problem with the punk and pop influences as long as the songs rock and the guitar melodies rule (which they do). A special treat tonight was seeing the band joined by my pal Peter Lemieux (ex-Widow drummer), who recorded the album with the band but rarely gets to play with Walpyrgus because he now lives across the country from his bandmates. I’ve seen Peter play guitar with Walpyrgus before (at Ragnarokkr 2015), but this was my first time seeing him seated at the drum throne with them. The voices of Peter and singer Jonny Aune blend perfectly, just like the guitars of Scott Waldrop and Charley Shackelford. As usual, the band hit the stage wearing their trademark black t-shirts and W emblem necklaces. Early on, the set featured tracks from the band’s older 3-song EP, before shifting into new album territory. The Mercyful Fate cover, “Doomed by the Living Dead,” another staple in the Walpyrgus live arsenal, was terrific and the band played and sounded great. I will say their songs take on a heavier, more rough’n’ready character live, stripped of the slick production and backing keys/organ featured on their studio versions. Walpyrgus are a breath of fresh air in our sometimes-stale, narrowly circumscribed underground metal world. Long may they rock, along with those dead girls from the other side. Setlist: We Are the Wolves, Cold Cold Ground, Palmystry, The Sisters, Dead of the Night, Doomed by the Living Dead, Dead Girls, Walpyrgus Nights.
By now it was 7:40 p.m., and my ears had been pounded by three and a half hours of nonstop live heavy metal. It was time for a bit of a break to enjoy some overpriced beer and camaraderie on the Bombay patio, especially now that the sun had set and the cool evening breezes had arrived. I did make it inside to the front stage to check out a couple of songs from SPELL, who were yet another entrant in this year’s Canadian invasion at Frost and Fire. In contrast to many of the countrymen, Spell have got a proto-metal, occult, rock’n’roll, 70s kind of energy going on, all the way down to the brightly colored vintage shirt the guitar player was wearing. I’m not sure I entirely appreciated it, but Spell had a cool vibe and were a nice change of pace from the straight-ahead sonic assault of many of their peers. No idea what they played, but the song “Electric Witchery” at the end of their set definitely caught my ear and caused me to make a mental note to explore further.
As I made my way toward the back-room stage through the dense crowds of people shoehorned into the packed Bombay, I heard the band VOLTURE begin to play. There was something different about the vocals, though. They didn’t sound like Volture’s singer from either of their albums, but they still sounded oddly familiar. When I finally elbowed my way into the room and looked at the stage, I was aghast to find that the man making that infernal racket on the microphone was none other than Raven’s John Gallagher. Well, bless my old boots, as Steve Harris might say. Jen (who had been in the room all along) explained to me later that before they started playing, Volture announced that their vocalist hadn’t made the trip but they didn’t want to cancel the show, so John Gallagher had come to the rescue with a heroic effort to learn the set at the hotel today. (Guitarist Dave Boyd confirmed to me the next day that most of this was true, but that Volture really doesn’t have a singer anymore. John had rehearsed with them once in Richmond a few days ago, and they’d done an unplugged run-through the set at the hotel earlier today.) It looked a bit unorthodox, to be sure, Gallagher up there with a music stand and lyric sheets, sometimes struggling with the dim and variable lighting and heavy stage fog to make out the lyrics and (very rarely) missing cues or coming it at the wrong time. But no one cared. People took this event as the rare gift it was. I mean, the mere thought of hearing John Gallagher front a full set of Volture tunes is enough to boggle the mind. The honest truth is that, with due consideration of the circumstances, Volture sounded pretty damn impressive tonight. The players did an outstanding job, with guitarists Boyd and Nick Poulos (wearing a killer Ostrogoth shirt) totally locked in and bassist Ryan Waste sounding like his usual bulldozer self. The setlist covered the entire Shocking Its Prey EP from 2010 in order, with a couple of humorous introductory remarks from John Gallagher (stressing the “d” sound in “The Horde” and explaining he’d reworked the lyrics of “Cheap Thrillz” to make it not about raunchy groupie experiences – John is, after all, a happily married man of many years). The cherry on top was the closing “Rulebreaker,” in which Elliot Madre of Salvacion and Charm City Meadworks fame joined Volture onstage to assist with some of the high notes in the chorus. What a cool, fun, memorable set! Setlist: Volture, Heavy Metal Machine, The Horde, Night Walker, Cheap Thrillz, Heathen’s Revenge, Rulebreaker.
It felt strange – but really good – to be seeing CAULDRON again. Back in February 2016, Jen and I arranged to see Cauldron and Enforcer on tour together for two consecutive nights in Dallas and New Orleans. The Dallas show happened as planned, and was glorious. I didn’t get to talk to the Cauldron guys that night, but thought no big deal, I’ll see them tomorrow in New Orleans. I was wrong. En route to NOLA, Cauldron had a horrible van accident that wrecked their transportation and their gear, and left guitarist Ian Chains with severe physical injuries. Thankfully, there’s a happy end to the story. Over time, Chains healed and Cauldron picked up right where they left off with tour activities in support of their In Ruin album. Tonight was my first time seeing the band since then. I missed the first few minutes of their set because I was immersed in a deep conversation with a friend that needed to get to a stopping point; however, I made it inside in time to catch most of Cauldron’s performance. Ian Chains honestly looked and played as well as ever, and he and Jason Decay even brought back the synchronized stage moves during a couple of songs. The stage configuration was a bit strange, with Decay’s microphone being way over next to the wall in the shadows on stage left. But the band were loud as hell and played a strong 50-minute set of both the expected cuts (stuff like “No Return/In Ruin” and “All or Nothing” went over great) and less obvious fare like “Tears Have Come” or “Conjure the Mass.” What really put Cauldron’s set over the top was their closing cover of Razor’s “Take This Torch,” a stellar rendition of an all-time classic song. It made me happy to see Cauldron back in fighting form, and seemingly no worse for wear after all they’ve been through. Partial/Approximate Setlist: Frozen in Fire, Empress, End of Time, Summoned to Succumb, Conjure the Mass, Hold Your Fire, No Return/In Ruin, Tears Will Come, Nitebreaker, All or Nothing, Take this Torch.
One of the biggest draws for Frost and Fire III was the debut U.S. performance of revered NWOBHM act JAGUAR, whose Power Games LP from 1983 is quite rightfully regarded as a landmark of the genre and among the greatest metal albums ever. Guitarist Garry Pepperd reformed the band in 1998 and has soldiered on with a stable rhythm section (Simon Patel on bass and Nathan Cox on drums) for the last several years. The missing piece to the puzzle was Night Demon mainman Jarvis Leatherby, who has covered “Axe Crazy” in his day job and whose vocal style bears no small similarity to that of Jaguar’s glory-days singer, Paul Merrell. Tonight was Jaguar’s third show with Jarvis on vocals (the first two being the Xmas Rocka in England last December and a September 2017 festival in France). The back room at the Bombay was absolutely packed when Jaguar hit the stage with “Back Street Woman” at 9:55 p.m. It was a gig for the ages. The setlist went from one classic Jaguar track to another, with nary a single misstep. The wiry, diminutive Pepperd, dressed in a black t-shirt with his borrowed Gibson Les Paul slung low, played a brilliant show, with rock-solid support from left-handed bassist Patel (decked out in black and red striped trousers) and drummer Cox. Some of my favorite moments in the set were the lengthy instrumental sections of songs like “Master Game” or “War Machine,” when Jarvis left the stage and Pepperd and his cohorts led us through the dynamic parts going from the charge-of-the-light-brigade intensity to total serenity and then back again. But let’s not sell Jarvis short. From his spot-on vocals to his manic energy, Jarvis is an ideal frontman for Jaguar and a perfect fit for what his bandmates are trying to accomplish. (I discussed the issue with Patel and Cox at breakfast two mornings later, and they agreed that there are numerous variables to finding the right vocalist, but that Jarvis Leatherby is exactly what Jaguar needs on many different levels.) Then there’s the audience, which was loaded with die-hard Jaguar fans who likely never imagined they’d have a chance to hear these songs played live at all, much less so perfectly, by Jaguar. They responded accordingly by going nuts all around me: headbanging, singing, shoving the monitors around, and generally losing their minds. I know rock’n’roll ain’t no fantasy, but the Jaguar gig tonight is one that none of us in that room will forget for many years to come. Seeing Jaguar was worth the long journey to California all by itself. And somehow I even wound up with one of Cox’s drumsticks as a memento of the occasion. Setlist: Back Street Woman, Battlecry, Out of Luck, The Fox, Master Game, Run for Your Life, Prisoner, Ain’t No Fantasy, Rawdeal, War Machine, Dutch Connection, Axe Crazy, Stormchild.
The final front-stage band of the night was Kentucky’s SAVAGE MASTER. Over the last couple of years, Savage Master have developed from a sort of novelty act into one of the best damn bands around. Tonight marked my first time seeing them with my friend John Littlejohn on drums, and I came away highly impressed. I’ve never heard Savage Master play better and tighter than they did tonight. It helps not only that Littlejohn is such a solid drummer who’s on the same page as his bandmates, but also that they’ve done significant gigging in recent months, including a stream of tourdates that brought them from Kentucky to the West Coast for Frost and Fire. By now, Stacey Savage looks and sounds 100% comfortable in her role as frontwoman, whether she’s invoking audience participation during the choruses or grabbing her guitarists by the chains around their necks during the solos. And the setlist? Wow. It’s easy to forget how many killer songs Adam Neal & Co. have written until you hear them all lined up in a row. The opening quartet – “Black Hooves,” “With Whips and Chains,” “Satan’s Crown,” and “Ready to Sin” – was like the four horsemen of the apocalypse, each song more lethal than its predecessors. Savage Master even offered a sneak peek at their forthcoming (and excellent) Creature of the Flames EP by airing the awesome “Burning Leather” from that release. And wrapping up the set with “Ripper in Black” into “Death on the Highway” was sheer genius because both of those songs rule. Look, don’t take my word for it. Savage Master had the largest, most rabid audience of any front-stage band on Friday, and people were talking about their performance all weekend long. Go see Savage Master if you get the chance, and you very well might because they’re still on tour as of this writing. Yeah, the visuals are kind of kitschy and gimmicky, but so what? The band sounds great, plays great, and has a cache of amazing songs that most bands would kill for. All hail Savage Master! Setlist: Black Hooves, With Whips and Chains, Satan’s Crown, Ready to Sin, Dark Light of the Moon, Burning Leather, Looking for a Sacrifice, Path of the Necromancer, Ripper in Black, Death Rides the Highway.
The task of closing out a long day of metal mayhem at the Bombay fell to the mighty RAVEN, who richly deserve their reputation as one of the best damn live acts on the planet. Tonight marked my fourth time seeing the Gallagher brothers onstage in 2017, but I was extra pumped because tonight was billed as a special Live at the Inferno show. And a special show it was. The back room at the venue was jammed with more sweat-soaked Raven lunatics than I have ever seen in one place before, and they *went off* when the band started playing. It was sheer bedlam, with crowd surfers, stage divers, people knocking over microphone stands and slamming into stage gear, and folks generally going crazy. The Bombay had a strict no-moshing / no-stagediving policy, so the fans who came up onstage knew they were going to get kicked out, but they did it anyway because Raven’s music had taken hold of their very souls. I must have seen security eject 8 or 10 people during the Raven show. A sure sign of how out-of-control things had become was when John Gallagher (who seemed no worse for wear after his earlier stint fronting Volture that evening) noticed his bass pedals were askew and implored the crowd please not to mess with his pedals. Not that it really did much good, haha. After having seen Raven play many gigs in small rooms before even smaller audiences in recent years, it was positively heartwarming to see them in a good-sized room on a good-sized stage with hundreds of people going absolutely bonkers while they played. I’m sure it made them feel good too, because you could see it on their faces that they were having fun. The 85-minute set they played was fantastic. I mean, how can you be remotely dissatisfied with a set including such glorious songs as “Mind over Metal,” “Hell Patrol,” “Hung Drawn and Quartered,” “Faster than the Speed of Light” (showcasing the considerable talents of new drummer Mike Heller, who makes that song sound better than I’ve ever heard it sound live before), “I Don’t Need Your Money,” and “Crash Bang Wallop”? Holy moly, that’s a lot of awesomeness in one place. We are not worthy!!! Without bitching in the slightest (because I swear I’m not), I will say though that this didn’t quite seem like the full-blown Live at the Inferno show some were expecting. Many had speculated that Raven would run through the entire Live at the Inferno album tracklist including such rare gems as “Wiped Out,” “Let It Rip,” “Crazy World,” “Star War,” “Run Silent Run Deep” and so on. Instead, what Raven played was something akin to their recent tour set with a couple of extra tracks (“Take Control,” “Mind Over Metal,” “Hard Ride” and a snippet of “Live at the Inferno” added for good measure). That is by no means a bad thing. Even a standard Raven set is cause for absolute celebration and glory in my book. And we got a good deal more than a standard Raven set tonight. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Raven are a damned national treasure and I’m so thankful they’re still here, kicking ass and playing their hearts out just like they always did. Setlist: Destroy All Monsters, Live at the Inferno (snippet), Take Control, Mind Over Metal, Hell Patrol, All for One, Hung Drawn and Quartered, Rock Until You Drop, Firepower, Faster than the Speed of Light, Hard Ride, I Don’t Need Your Money Honey, Break the Chains (including parts of Iron Man, Rock Bottom and Born to be Wild), Crash Bang Wallop.
Saturday, October 7, 2017
Honestly, the biggest problem I have during Frost and Fire is that there simply aren’t enough hours in the day to do everything you want to do, see everyone you want to see, and have all the experiences you want to have. I compensated by not sleeping. So it came to be that I was in my running gear at the Ventura Pier at 7:15 a.m., operating on less than three hours sleep, watching the sun rise and waiting for Scott Waldrop (of Twisted Tower Dire / Walpyrgus) to meet me for a run. I’ve been a distance runner for more than three decades, and Scott’s recently transformed his life and become an ultramarathoner, so it seemed an obvious thing for us to get together for a run. We did, and it was glorious, totally worth the sleep deprivation it entailed. We ran about an hour north up the Ventura coastline, with the beach, ocean and surfers to our left, and strawberry fields and hills to our right. Then we turned around and ran back. It was a perfect morning for a run, and my only miscalculation was failing to hydrate properly. There was no humidity out there, so I wasn’t sweating like crazy like I do in the swampy coastal Alabama running conditions I face on a daily basis, and I didn’t think to drink water. I paid for that oversight later. But it was an awesome run with incredible scenery and fascinating conversation that somehow addressed everything under the sun except for music. Many thanks to Scott (who is a running machine, by the way) for allowing me to tag along and not leaving me in the dust, haha.
After drinking about three liters of water and resting for an hour or two, I met up with friends for lunch and then wandered over to the Leashless Brewery. Little-known (but important) fact: There are something like six breweries within walking distance of the Bombay in downtown Ventura. I visited three over the course of the weekend, and all were excellent. Topa Topa was probably my favorite, but Leashless – a brand-new establishment specializing in Belgian ales – was no slouch either. They know how to make good beer in southern California.
Even as I enjoyed my Belgian coconut stout (I’m an easy mark for dark beers) and sparkling conversation with friends, I kept a close eye on my watch. A must-see band was coming up first on today’s billing, and I was damned if I was going to miss a second of their set. Sure enough, I chugged my beer and reached the back room at the Bombay minutes before HELL FIRE went onstage at 4:15 p.m. This Bay Area band is one of my favorite new acts of the last few years, with killer songs, top-notch vocals, and a style that combines the fury of early Metallica with the class of the NWOBHM. These guys have self-released two superb albums, but they rarely play outside of their native Bay Area; consequently, many are unaware of them, and I’d never seen them live before today. Hell Fire absolutely lived up to my high expectations. Seemingly oblivious to the earliness of the hour, the stifling heat in the back room, and the less-than-optimal turnout (it’s tough to get people to show up early on the second major day of a festivsl), Hell Fire performed an outstanding, inspired gig. The guitar tandem of Jake Nunn and Tony Campos was a sight to behold, Nunn’s voice was magnificent, and the setlist consisted of three-quarters of the new album (entitled Free Again, and you really should check it out) plus two of the strongest tracks from their Metal Masses debut (“Into the Light” and “Sirens of the Hunter”). One question I had going in was how Nunn would juggle both vocal and guitar duty. Until recently, Hell Fire were a five-piece band, with Nunn just singing. When the second guitarist left, in lieu of bringing in a new member, Nunn simply strapped on his six-string and went to work. Under the circumstances, Nunn would be forgiven for being tentative or distracted by having to wear two hats, particularly given the rather demanding role the vocals play in Hell Fire. Not so. He looked completely comfortable up there, and neither his voice nor his guitarwork suffered. When I bumped into organizer Jarvis Leatherby that afternoon, he admitted that Hell Fire belonged much higher on the bill. And they did. They’re a killer band, and they started off Saturday at Frost and Fire perfectly for those lucky souls who cared enough to show up early. Remember the name Hell Fire, folks. I expect great things. Setlist: Beyond Nightmares, Into the Light, Destroyers, The Dealer, City Ablaze, Live Forever, Sirens of the Hunter, Free Again.
The first band on the front-room stage was Oakland’s OVVL, a heretofore unknown entity to me. They were a curveball from most of the other bands on the bill, with more of a jam-based ’70s rock/proto-metal/everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach to their craft and multiple vocalists. I liked what I heard, but the siren call of the Bombay patio was just too loud to ignore so I spent much of their set outside socializing.
Next up was a full-on, unapologetic dose of true metal from the Pacific Northwest. I’ve been following SKELATOR’s career for quite some time now, and have been impressed that they have consistently improved from one album to the next and one live performance to the next. Thus, I was not surprised when Jason Conde-Houston and his henchmen hit a home run at Frost and Fire. Their anthemic Manowar-meets-Sacred-Steel style goes over well in a festival setting, with chest-thumping anthems that are tailor-made for raising your fist in the air, pounding overpriced beer, and singing along at the top of your lungs. By now, the audience had grown considerably, and people were ready to rock. Skelator was the ideal soundtrack to kick this heavy metal party into high gear. After the predicted (and excellent) “Necromancer” opener, I was surprised to hear the band move into a block of new songs (including the title track of their new cassette single “Cast Iron”), but the crowd didn’t mind. The new cuts all sounded great and were entirely faithful to Skelator’s signature sound and style. Conde-Houston even brought out a samurai sword that he wielded above his head while singing a new tune about, you guessed it, samurai. A fine cover of Judas Priest’s “Jawbreaker” segued into the band’s three best-known “hit” songs (that is, if underground true heavy metal bands had hit songs), and everyone in the room left happy. Well done, Skelator. Sure, Manowar is about to retire, but as long as Skelator are standing guard, the future of uncompromising, pure, true heavy metal in the United States remains bright, indeed. Approximate Setlist: Necromancer, Cast Iron, Samurai, Raise Your Hammers High, (didn’t catch the title), Jawbreaker, You Traveled Many Miles (for a Heavy Metal Show), Death to the False, Rhythm of the Chain.
This afternoon marked my first encounter with VENOMOUS MAXIMUS on the front-room stage. They definitely locked into a pounding groove with stoner tendencies, not to mention they had the best/most elaborate tattoos I saw all weekend long. They shook off some technical/tuning difficulties, and kept on rocking before an appreciative audience. Maybe not exactly my thing, but I enjoyed their set and am glad I got the opportunity to see them.
The concept behind IRON THOR is that they are a German tribute to the over-the-top Canadian 70s/80s hard rock icon Thor, the guy who was best known for stage antics like blowing up hot water bottles with his lungs and bending metal with his teeth. Look, that’s an inherently ludicrous proposition. You’re not supposed to take it seriously. The name of the game for Iron Thor was big, dumb fun, and that’s exactly what they delivered. Although no hot water bottles were injured during Iron Thor’s performance, their set was 45 minutes of silly, catchy, singalong songs with all kinds of kitsch and bombast. Early on, the blond, musclebound vocalist in his noticeable German accent announced that he was going to bend a steel bar not with his neck, not with his knees, but with his teeth. He then produced a steel bar, passed it around to audience members in the front row (to verify its structural integrity, haha) and proceeded to bend it with his teeth during the song “Anger (Is My Middle Name).” I’ll be damned if he didn’t bend the hell out of it into a U-shaped bar, although it looked like he might have hurt himself in the process because he kept checking his teeth with his fingers afterward. Ouch! (I imagine that might have led to an awkward conversation with his dentist when he got home to Germany.) Further enhancing the celebratory atmosphere was the arrival of two scantily clad Valkyries on stage to shimmy and shake their way through two songs with the band (including the 70s rocker “Keep the Dogs Away”). The piece de resistance was the arrival of a cowl-wearing villain on stage during “Ride of the Chariots,” and the ensuing hand-to-hand combat between said villain and our intrepid frontman while the band hammered away. Microphone stands went flying, slamming into the ground along with the bodies of the combatants, much to the consternation of soundman Billy Johnson, who was keeping a watchful eye over the proceedings and attempting to minimize equipment damage. Yeah, it was goofy as all hell, but I thought Iron Thor’s set was great fun, and those around me who weren’t humorless sticks in the mud tended to agree. Approximate/Partial Setlist: Only the Strong, Thunder on the Tundra, Anger, Now Comes the Storm, Keep the Dogs Away, Ride of the Chariots, Knock ‘Em Down, Let the Blood Run Red.
In my humble opinion, TWISTED TOWER DIRE are one of the great unsung bands in heavy metal history. They came out of nowhere to light a torch for epic, true heavy metal in the 1990s at a time when nobody in America cared and most other like-minded acts had thrown in the towel. They released one excellent album after another. They soldiered on regardless of what was happening in the musical climate or their own ranks, even after the tragic passing of vocalist Tony Taylor. I’ve seen Twisted Tower Dire on many stages in the USA over the last two decades and they always put on a great show, but I’ve never seen them get the kind of audience reception they deserved. Until tonight. I don’t know what made the difference, but the front room of the Bombay was primed and ready to explode when TTD took the postage-stamp sized stage and launched into their traditional intro instrumental, “Battle Cry.” As the band segued into “Isle of Hydra,” the crowd went nuts. Everyone around me was singing along, pumping their fists in the air and exulting in the glory of Twisted Tower Dire. I swear, they were welcomed like long-lost, conquering heroes. That overwhelming audience response carried over throughout the gig (especially on the older tracks, and less so during the killer – but somewhat stylistically different – Make It Dark material), and the band responded by upping the intensity, upping the power, and taking their game to the next level. I’ve never heard Jonny Aune sing better. I’ve never heard those Waldrop/Boyd guitar harmonies sound better. It was just a brilliant gig throughout, and the audience went even crazier (if that’s possible) when TTD pulled out their Mercyful Fate cover of “A Dangerous Meeting” late in the set. Now, TTD have been including that song in their setlist for many years indeed, but I’m guessing most of the attendees hadn’t seen them before, because from the giddy, overjoyed looks on their faces they never knew it was coming. Cool. Someone whose musical judgment I greatly respect told me afterwards that he thought Twisted Tower Dire played one of the top four sets of the entire weekend. I couldn’t agree more. It was heartwarming and awesome to see the band get the credit they deserved and to be able to bask in the limelight for 45 minutes after the long, rocky road they’ve traveled to get here. Long may Twisted Tower Dire rock, and long may that snow leopard (Jen’s favorite song) run. Setlist: Battle Cry, Isle of Hydra, Snow Leopard, Guardian Bloodline, Mystera, Last Stand, Axes & Honor, A Dangerous Meeting, The Witch’s Eyes.
Frost and Fire was reaching a fever pitch now, because it was MYTHRA time. I sprinted from the front room to the back and managed to wedge myself against the stage on the stage-left side with a couple minutes to spare. This Mythra gig was really special to me for several reasons. First, the guys are my friends, some of the kindest, most genuine people I’ve encountered not only in our heavy metal community but anywhere in my life, and I wanted to see them triumph. Second, when I saw them for the first time last December at the Xmas Rocka in Sheffield, England, they were a man short because guitarist Alex Perry was ill and unable to participate, so they played as a quartet, with John Roach doing his best to cover both guitar parts. Tonight I was finally able to see them at full strength. Third, it was their first gig ever in the U.S. Thirty-eight years after the fabled Death and Destiny EP sent shockwaves from Newcastle to Los Angeles, the mighty Mythra were making their debut on an American stage. The band members had been mingling around the festival all weekend long, making it a point to spend time with their fans and watch virtually every other band’s set, which is awesome and refreshing in an age where so many bands show up to festivals at the last minute, do their gig, and then jet out. Mythra were here – I mean really *here* – all weekend long. The back room was both packed and sweltering when they took the stage to the prophetic “The Best is Yet to Come.” Dressed entirely in black and using borrowed gear (including guitars belonging to Thrust and Night Demon), Mythra proceeded to capture the hearts and minds of us all. For 65 minutes, the band performed a magnificent set of timeless, classic British heavy metal for a delirious headbanging crowd. Longtime favorites “U.F.O.” and “Vicious Bastards” were early highlights, with vocalist Vince High coaxing maximum audience participation during the former’s soaring chorus. As the set wore on, newer material like “Still Burning,” “Sands of Time,” and “A Call to All” nestled comfortably alongside evergreens such as “Killer” and “Machine.” On stage left, guitarist John Roach was a picture of concentration, a stage fan blowing his hair back as he dished out searing leads. By contrast, his six-string partner in crime Alex Perry over on stage right appeared relaxed and amiable, hamming it up at every opportunity. Together they formed an unbeatable team. I was amazed at how transformational it was for Mythra, both sonically and visually, to have two guitars instead of one. It was like seeing a completely different band than the one I’d seen at the Xmas Rocka last year. At center stage, High commanded equal parts awe and respect with his powerful, intense, and emotional delivery. I was especially struck and honored that he would look and gesture towards me during key moments of a couple of songs that he and I had talked about in a private conversation on the Ventura Pier the previous morning. And the rhythm section of Maurice Bates and Phil Davies kept things tight and at full power all night long. Alas, the closing pair of “Overlord” and “Death and Destiny” came far too soon, signaling the end of the night. But the roar of the crowd and the satisfied smiles on the band members’ faces confirmed that Mythra could not have had a more successful American debut. I was so proud and happy for them. I am a firm believer that if you project enough positive energy out in the universe, eventually you will get some of it back. And tonight, Mythra did. Setlist: The Best is Yet to Come, U.F.O., Vicious Bastards, New Life, Still Burning, Ride the Storm, Silence in Siren, Killer, Machine, Sands of Time, You, A Call to All, Survival, Overlord, Death and Destiny.
As a young band from London, England, AMULET were placed in a difficult spot. Here it was, 10:00 p.m. on Saturday night. The crowd was raging, the front room was packed, the festival party atmosphere was in full swing, and everybody was ready to let loose completely, especially with Cirith Ungol and Manilla Road still to come. What’s not to like about that opportunity? Well, only that Amulet came in to these circumstances as an essentially unknown band. There’s a time during festivals where audiences are receptive to good music they haven’t heard before, but there’s also time during festivals where audiences just want to hear stuff they already know and rock the hell out. Ten p.m. on Saturday night would fall into the latter category. Soooo, much as I think the Frost and Fire organizers were trying to do Amulet a solid since they’d traveled from so far to play here by putting them in a prime timeslot, I fear it actually worked to the band’s disadvantage. Of course, none of that is Amulet’s fault. They went out there for 45 minutes and played with a lot of heart and a lot of energy, with a sound that hearkened back to the classic NWOBHM sound even though the band members likely hadn’t been born during that movement’s heyday. “Evil Cathedral” was a particular highlight, and there was absolutely nothing wrong with the barnburning closing pair of “Bloody Night” (which the singer introduced by saying this what happens if you’re out at the pub in London and someone spills your beer, or something) and “The Hangman.” Keep your eyes peeled for Amulet, they’re definitely onto something.
As I mentioned earlier, the cancellation of FIST was a case of bad news/good news. The good news side of the coin was, without question, the prospect of seeing CIRITH UNGOL again. The Ventura natives performed their first show in a quarter century at last year’s Frost and Fire, but it was at the much larger Ventura Theater. They’ve played a few select festivals domestically and abroad since then, but all on large stages. Tonight marked a rare opportunity to see Ungol up close’n’personal, on a small stage with no barricades and a couple hundred burning heavy metal maniacs at my side. I’m not going to lie. It was pretty damned cool. In an intimate setting like this, the thunderous power and might of Cirith Ungol was all the more compelling, all the more awe-inspiring. Hell, just to stand up against the stage and watch Tim Baker a few feet away from me delivering every haunting, soul-wrenching vocal line to perfection was enough to give me goosebumps. Baker is a truly commanding frontman, and there was something about being right in his face, the stage fog, sweat and eerie lighting enveloping us all, that was nothing short of magic. The band were working hard up there, no one more so than the sunglasses-wearing Rob Garven behind the drums, but they all seemed to appreciate the energy exchange from being this close to such a small but rabid audience. It was also rather awesome that they changed up the setlist from last year’s Frost and Fire gig. The “War Eternal” opener off One Foot in Hell surprised the hell out of me, and hearing their “Fire” cover from Paradise Lost was cool, but holy hell, they added “Finger of Scorn,” one of my favorite Ungol tunes ever and a notable omission at F&F II! The end result was that, both in terms of atmosphere and song selection, tonight in no way felt like a retread or a letdown from last year’s Cirith Ungol show at Frost & Fire. In fact, if I had to choose between them, I think I’d take tonight’s gig because of the awesome vibe and energy, and the fact that the guys seemed more comfortable and confident onstage than they did last time. After “King of the Dead,” the regular set was over, but the band announced they wouldn’t be leaving the stage because they wanted to maximize the time that Manilla Road had to play on the front stage, so they just played straight through their encore. As an extra special treat, CU’s bassist Jarvis Leatherby (yep, the same guy who ran the whole festival, played with Night Demon on Thursday night and sang for Jaguar on Friday night - unbelievable) handed off his bass to Tim Baker’s son Matt to play the last song of the night, “Cirith Ungol.” Matt fills in for Jarvis at Ungol rehearsals when Night Demon is on tour, so it was entirely fitting for him to be up there to close out the gig, not to mention it must have been an incredible moment for father and son alike. Not only have the kings of the dead risen, but they are still here a year later to haunt your souls!!! Setlist: War Eternal, I’m Alive, Join the Legion, Black Machine, Frost and Fire, Fire, Nadsokor, Fallen Idols, Finger of Scorn, Atom Smasher, Master of the Pit, King of the Dead, Cirith Ungol.
All that remained of the Saturday roster was MANILLA ROAD on the front stage. Wait. Pause. Let that sink in for a moment. You read that correctly. Cirith Ungol and Manilla Road – two of the most cult, epic, storied underground heavy metal bands ever – played back-to-back tonight. No, none of us were worthy, but we sure took advantage of it nonetheless. The Wichita wizards are in the midst of their 40th anniversary U.S. tour, so they were in excellent fighting shape on this night. Their 18-song set was chock full of Manilla Road classics, including both obvious “hits” and unexpected obscurities. The run of “Masque of the Red Death” to “Death by the Hammer” to “Hammer of the Witches” to “Witches Brew” was damn near flawless, “Flaming Metal Systems” sent everyone into a frenzy, and the regular set-closing “Necropolis” into “Crystal Logic” was sheer bliss. They played “Divine Victim” on the spur of the moment as a request from the audience. The large crowd’s energy levels only flagged during a two-song showcase of the band’s most recent albums, including “In the Wake” and “Kings of Invention,” with singer Bryan “Hellroadie” Patrick surreptitiously checking the lyrics on his phone as he went along. Otherwise, Manilla Road held the crowd in the palm of their hand and carried us home through the night. During encore “Heavy Metal to the World,” which they intended to be their final song of the night, Jarvis Leatherby went onstage and told them to keep playing, so they obliged by tacking on “Road of Kings” and “The Riddle Master” for good measure, even as they jokingly castigated Jarvis for making them keep going. Wow, lucky us! All in all, Manilla Road were a fitting end to a pretty much perfect Saturday of music at Frost and Fire III. Setlist: Open the Gates, Astronomica, Masque of the Red Death, Death by the Hammer, Hammer of the Witches, Witches Brew, Mystification, Divine Victim, In the Wake, Kings of Invention, Flaming Metal Systems, The Ram, Defender, Necropolis, Crystal Logic. Encores: Metal to the World, Road of Kings, The Riddle Master.
Sunday, October 8, 2017
Jen and I always try to work in some sightseeing when we travel for a music festival. This time around, my nonmetal friend Mark drove up from Los Angeles, picked us up at 9:00 a.m. (you guessed it, another night with almost no sleep, burning that candle at both ends), and drove us to Simi Valley to visit the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. It felt strange spending a few hours in what is essentially a presidential museum, still fuzzy-headed and hearing-impaired from three days of full metal intensity. But it’s an impressive facility, well worth the visit, especially because of the opportunity to walk through Air Force One, the massive presidential airplane housed in a giant glass atrium inside the Library. Cool. Then Mark drove us back to Ventura and the three of us settled in at Topa Topa Brewery for some beers and pizza from Tony’s down the street. Delicious!
A really cool Frost and Fire tradition is the Sunday Bangover Brunch at the Bombay. No, you don’t actually all sit around and break bread together, but the idea is that it’s a laidback time to hang out in the sunshine on the patio with friends, do some day drinking, visit the metal market stalls, and yes, catch a couple of bands as well. It’s more like an afterparty than a regular festival day, but the chill vibe and relaxed atmosphere enable the Bangover Brunch to be the perfect postscript to the Frost and Fire weekend. Although most festgoers bought Sunday tickets as part of a three-day pass (Friday/Saturday/ Sunday) for the bargain price of $75 or so, and the event was technically sold out (or close to it) today, Sunday wasn’t nearly as crowded as the other days, which makes sense because many attendees had to travel home that day. Nonetheless, there were still a couple hundred of us on hand to enjoy the festivities.
The “house band” for the Bangover Brunch is ASHBURY. They played a memorable two-hour set at last year’s Sunday event, and followed in the same footsteps this year. At 3:45 p.m., the Davis brothers and their bandmates hit the stage in the back room, with the sunlight streaming in along with the breeze through the open windows and back door. Over the next two hours, they treated us to everyone’s favorite songs from their seminal Endless Skies album in 1983, as well as newer material and a bunch of cover songs. With their soothing vocals and acoustic guitars, Ashbury aren’t exactly metal but the true metal community loves them dearly, and with good reason. There’s a feeling you get from hearing songs like “Madman” or “Take Your Love Away” or “The Cold Light of Day” or basically any of their originals that connects at a very deep, emotional level. The crowd doesn’t bang their heads and sling their fists in the air when Ashbury’s onstage. No, instead they listen. They let the beautiful music wash over them. They sing along. See how this is the *perfect* music for the Bangover Brunch? I’m less enamored of Ashbury’s cover songs than some, only because I’m not really a fan of stuff like Jethro Tull or The Who, but Ashbury are such great musicians and execute these covers in such an earnest and heartfelt manner that I don’t mind them either. The two hours passed in a flash, and all of us were under Ashbury’s spell. My only hope is that every single year that there’s a Frost and Fire event, there’s an afternoon Ashbury set. The two were made for each other. Setlist: The Warning, Take Your Love Away, Hard Fight, No Mourning, Mystery Man, Behind Blue Eyes (The Who), Cross-Eyed Mary (Jethro Tull), Locomotive Breath (Jethro Tull), Aqualung (Jethro Tull), Madman, (Don’t Fear) the Reaper (Blue Oyster Cult), Endless Skies, Cold Light of Day, Out of the Blue, Paranoid (Black Sabbath), Good Guitar, Vengeance, Faceless Waters, Ridin’ the Storm Out (REO Speedwagon), Gimme a Bullet (AC/DC).
There was a great deal of confusion amongst festgoers as to who or what the RIVERA-SUNNARBORG DUO might be. I heard speculation that it must James Rivera or something related to the Christian rock act Rivera Bomma, haha. The truth is that this was two local musicians, one playing the guitar, the other playing the violin, essentially providing instrumental background music (both covers and originals) for the Bangover Brunch. Volume was kept moderate enough to carry on conversations. In my little group, everyone reacted favorably to the Duo, and whenever they played something we recognized (“Rock You Like a Hurricane” or “Last in Line” or “Sweet Child ‘o Mine”) we’d all high-five each other. Metal? No. Suitable background music for a Sunday afternoon hang at Bombay? Absolutely.
The responsibility for closing out Frost and Fire III fell on the shoulders of one Betsy Weiss. You might know her as Betsy Bitch. She and her band BITCH were one of the first Metal Blade signees back in the day. While Betsy is the only original member, she has kept Bitch going and assembled a rockin’ band of musicians to get out and play the old Bitch classics. An obvious question going in was whether or not she would be able to pull it off. Let’s be honest: Bitch always had great songs, but they also played up Betsy’s sex kitten image bigtime (it was, after all, the 80s on the Sunset Strip), what with all the S&M lyrics and the dominatrix schtick and everything. The Internet says Betsy just turned 60 this year. Could she still do it? You bet your ass she could, and she did. She came out onstage in a skin-hugging black spandex body suit, and a belt that spelled out giant letters B-I-T-C-H. She looked and sounded fantastic. And her band played great too. This wasn’t a sad attempt to recapture past glories; to the contrary, Bitch rocked from start to finish. I loved the band’s self-deprecating sense of humor onstage too, with Betsy saying at one point she was standing in front of the fan to get some air, not because she was posing for “AARP Cosmopolitan.” At another time she joked about what people would say about her wearing this spandex outfit from 1982. She thanked her drummer for changing her flat tire on the way to the gig, saying “don’t tread on me,” haha. The one-liners were coming fast and furious. But so was the music. “Riding in Thunder,” “Devil Made You Do It,” “Saturdays,” and of course my favorite “Damnation Alley” – it’s easy to forget how many cool songs Bitch (and its more commercial but still good successor entity, Betsy) actually had. The crowd looked to be having a ball, and I got a kick out of watching my friends looking so overjoyed to see Bitch onstage. Even Stacey Savage from Savage Master found a spot right up close to the stage. One great female metal singer studying and paying homage to another. Past, present and future, all in one room. What a fun set and a great way to put the finishing touches on a killer festival! Afterwards, Betsy changed out of her stage clothes and hung out for quite some time taking photos, signing autographs and meeting the fans. Classy and gracious until the very end. Setlist: The Bitch is Back, Me and the Boys, Riding in Thunder, What Am I Gonna Do with You, Devil Made You Do It, Black Candle, Flesh and Blood, Fist to Face, Saturdays, Rock’N’Roll Musician, You Want It You Got It, Leatherbound, Live for the Whip, Be My Slave, Damnation Alley.
With the conclusion of Bitch’s set, F&F III officially entered the history books. At that moment, however, all I could think about was, like Jeff Scott Soto sang on the Yngwie Malmsteen song, don’t let it end! So Jen and I stuck around the venue, helped with securing merch and gear for the night, then stood out on the sidewalk talking to friends waiting for someone to come up with a plan. Armand said, “The Sewer,” and we had our answer. So a group of us migrated to Sans Souci and hung out drinking beers, laughing and telling stories until they kicked us out at 2:00 a.m. We took our time, said our goodbyes, went back to the hotel, packed up our stuff and somehow were standing at the train platform in downtown Ventura a few minutes past 7:00 a.m., reluctantly returning to the real world.
Postscript: As of this writing, Frost and Fire III ended a week ago. After a few days of reflection and denial and wishing I was still in Ventura, I can honestly say that this was one of the best metal festivals I’ve ever attended in my life. F&F III was off the charts on so many metrics: bands, performances, organization, friends, size, location. If you were there, I bet you feel the same way. I offer my sincere and humble thanks to Jarvis Leatherby and all who worked so hard made the event happen, and to all the friends and musicians who made it so enjoyable for Jen and me. You know who you are. I do not know what the future holds. But I do know we are living in a time of unfathomable riches. There are so many classic older bands that are still on top of their game, and so many newer bands that are playing the music we love the right way. There are cool festivals dedicated to showcasing this music and bringing us all together like denim and leather. It’d be a shame to waste it. I know life is expensive and complicated and messy, but get out there and support these festivals while you can. Do it for the music. More importantly, do it for yourself. What is now is not necessarily what will always be. Nothing is promised. As someone much wiser than I once wrote, face up, make your stand, and realize you’re living in the golden years.
~ Review by Kit Ekman ~