Bombay / Majestic Ventura Theatre
October 7 – 9, 2016
Despite being conceived, organized, and implemented on fairly short notice, the inaugural Frost and Fire Festival held in October 2015 was one of the finest underground metal festivals I’ve ever attended in the USA. So when organizer Jarvis Leatherby (whose day job is singing and playing bass guitar in Night Demon) announced an ambitious, expanded plan for Frost and Fire II, Jen and I immediately bought tickets and booked our cross-country travel arrangements. In contrast to last year’s single-day event, Jarvis reimagined Frost and Fire this year into a three-day, 25-band extravaganza spanning three different music venues in picturesque downtown Ventura, California. Despite its larger footprint and marked bigger numbers this year, the mission of Frost and Fire remained steadfast and undiluted, namely, to showcase the very best in underground traditional heavy metal from the USA (with a few bands from other countries, as well). First and foremost, the festival is about the music and the fans, a fact borne out by everything from the fan-friendly ticket prices ($20 for Day 1, $35 for Day 2, and $15 for Day 3) to the absence of BS corporate sponsorships and industry crap to the killer merch designs to the cool venues to the awesome beachside surroundings. This was truly an event created by the fans, with the fans, for the fans, where everyone just hung out and celebrated this amazing music we all love.
So it came to pass that Jen and I disembarked from an Amtrak train at the Ventura Fairgrounds in the late afternoon hours of Thursday, October 6. (For reference sake, it was a roughly two-hour train ride from Union Station in Los Angeles to Ventura. Several of our friends rented cars and drove from LAX, but the train was actually faster because of the miserable traffic conditions outbound from Los Angeles on a weekday afternoon.) We spent a delightful Thursday evening and Friday morning/early afternoon exploring Ventura. The downtown is immaculate, quaint, comfortable, and eminently walkable, with an upscale small-town feel and cool restaurants, bars, shops and coffee joints lining the quiet, aesthetically pleasing streets. Less than ten minutes’ walk from downtown, one finds the Pacific Ocean, palm trees, beautiful beaches (though it must be said they’re rockier and muddier than the sugar-sand beaches of my Gulf Coast homeland), and a nearly 2,000-foot wooden pier. We ended up having dinner at an Irish pub, drinks at a sports bar (which closed way too early because the East Coast games end super-early on the West Coast, haha), late-night snacks at a pizza joint, and lunch at a burger chain, all with different constellations of metal friends in town for the fest and all within walking distance of our hotel. Honestly, one couldn’t venture two blocks down any downtown Ventura street all weekend long without bumping into metalhead friends and acquaintances from around the country and around the world in town for the event. This phenomenon was amplified at the Clock Tower Inn, the local hotel where we and dozens of other fest attendees (bands and fans alike) shacked up during Frost and Fire. All of these environmental factors combined to produce a gloriously relaxed, peaceful, happy, family-reunion party vibe that remained intact from the moment we set foot in town until the moment we left.
Friday, October 7, 2016
The venue for Day 1 of this year’s Frost and Fire was Bombay, a classy bar/restaurant that was familiar to me because it had been the situs of Frost and Fire I last year. With a capacity of approximately 400, Bombay features two stages, a small front-room stage just to the left of the front entrance and a larger stage in a separate back room of the venue. The front room is long and narrow, with a full bar lining one side of the room and cushioned seating against the wall on the other side. The back room, by contrast, is more like a cinderblock square, with the stage at one end and a small bar at the other. Bombay also includes a wonderful outdoor patio area, equipped with folding tables that the bands (and, on Sunday, vendors) used to hawk their wares. Drink prices were reasonable, as long as one was willing to stick with fairly low-end beers. I happily drank cans of Tecate at Bombay all weekend for $4 a pop.
The concept for Day 1 was to have live music going constantly from 5:30 p.m. until 1:30 a.m., with a band firing up on one stage as soon as the previous band’s set finished on the other stage, thus maximizing the rock’n’roll even as it made it hellishly difficult to find time to socialize, grab a bite to eat, get another beer, use the restroom, or even catch one’s breath for a minute. Most sets were short too, with each band allotted just 35 minutes until the last three performances of the night. Another wrinkle: Day 1 was a sell-out, prompting concerns from certain quarters that the venue would be so congested with people that the flow of traffic between rooms would grind to a halt, things would bottleneck, and not everyone would be able to get in the room to see any given band that was performing. Fortunately, this suboptimal scenario never came to fruition. Don’t get me wrong: Bombay was quite full indeed, especially from around 8 p.m. until around midnight, but it was always possible to navigate through the venue and I was able to watch every single one of today’s 11 bands, most of them from a vantage point quite close to the stage.
At 5:30 p.m., Frost and Fire officially got underway when Livin Alive started playing on the back stage. The band was one of just a couple of acts with which I was unfamiliar going into the weekend. The four-piece specializes in old-school thrash, with razor-sharp headbangable riffs, rabid tempos, and raw vocals tending toward the extreme side. Livin Alive were a suitable opener, as they worked up quite a lather with their high-energy thrash attack, which unfortunately was not witnessed by many given the early hour and the band’s relatively unknown status.
All the way from Framingham, Massachusetts, Seax were the first band to grace the front stage. Of course, I was well acquainted with the band from their memorable Warriors of Metal Festival performances in Ohio circa 2012 and 2013. Newly reunited with vocalist Carmine Blades and promoting a brand-new album entitled ‘Speed Metal Mania,’ Seax shook off the cramped confines of the front stage (rendering it challenging for a five-piece to move around) and the fixed, monochromatic red lighting and blazed through eight ripping tunes that took no prisoners and pulled no punches. The guitar tandem of Hel and Eli Firicano excels at fast, catchy riffs, and Carmine (decked out in a black vest with Razor backpatch) has grown in confidence and control over his voice with the passage of time. It was a bit of a surprise that three-quarters of the eight selections were culled from ‘Speed Metal Mania,’ with but a single track (“Need for Speed”) from the debut and nothing from the second album; however, judging by the strength of the new material (which I – and I suspect most other fans – was hearing for the first time at this gig), I can’t second-guess the decision. Seax wisely rounded out their set with a crowd-pleasing cover of Razor’s “Evil Invaders” that got the heads a-bangin’ in earnest up front. Setlist: Speed Metal Mania, Leather and Spikes, Forged by Metal, Need for Speed, Nuclear Overdose, Fall to the Hammer, Evil Invaders, Speed Forever.
After Seax, I sprinted to the back room just in time to catch the opening salvo of Vanlade’s performance. Like Seax, the Kansas City trad metal marauders are Warriors of Metal fest veterans, with successful appearances at the 2010 and 2011 iterations; however, I had not seen them since then. Vanlade have clearly grown in leaps and bounds, both as musicians and as live performers, in the interim. When I bumped into the guys that afternoon while I was setting up Widow’s merch table, they graciously handed me a copy of their new six-song covers EP, featuring one song the band had been playing for a while and an additional cover selected by each of the five members. I wondered if we’d be getting a covers-heavy set tonight, given that Vanlade is currently promoting this new EP, but I crossed my fingers and hoped and prayed to the metal gods that Vanlade would play “Hail the Protector,” my favorite song from them and (to my mind) one of the best songs by any band in the last decade. Vanlade came roaring onto the stage in sunglasses, vocalist Brett Scott clad in a white fringed leather jacket, tearing into a ridiculously crushing rendition of “Jaws of Fire,” complete with Scott’s glass-shattering screams. Everything was going great when, without warning, disaster struck. Guitarist Zach Vanlade broke a string. He didn’t have a back-up guitar, so he was left with the unenviable task of changing a string onstage, eating into precious time for the inflexible 35-minute allotment. Thinking fast under pressure, the rest of the band diverged from the printed setlist and launched into a cover of Priest’s “Riding on the Wind” as a four-piece, so as to minimize the dreaded dead-air time. Moments after that song ended, Zach was back in business, so bam!, Vanlade ripped into their brilliant 8-minute epic, “Hail the Protector.” YES! Dreams do come true. That song was just as amazing live as I hoped it’d be, and I screamed out the titular phrase and “Bring down the hammer!” refrain at the top of my lungs every single time. Next, Scott gave the audience a choice between a cover of Heart’s “Barracuda” and a brand-new Vanlade track, as there was insufficient time remaining for the band to perform them both. We chose the latter option, and got to hear a cool new tune called “Ghost Dance” that bodes well for the next full-length Vanlade album. They closed their set with the crowd-pleasing “Iron Age” off their debut album. Despite the adversity, Vanlade kept their cool, played a fantastic gig, and undoubtedly earned many new fans and friends amongst the Frost and Fire faithful. Setlist: Jaws of Life, Riding on the Wind, Hail the Protector, Ghost Dance, Iron Age.
Next up on the front stage was North Carolina’s Salvacion, who were undergoing significant hardship to be here. Their regular bass player was missing in action because of the imminent birth of his child back home. And of course, Hurricane Matthew was barreling up the Carolina coast, threatening to require at least one band member to stay behind for work. Ultimately, the band appeared on stage at Bombay with a constellation of four regular members, plus fill-in bassist Anthony Micale (who plays with guitarist Reid Rogers in Knightmare and learned the tunes at the last minute). From the audience, one would have never guessed that such tumult had occurred behind the scenes. Much like their set at Ragnarokkr in Chicago this year, Salvacion played a high-energy, fun, twin-guitar oriented set that ran through all seven originals from their recently released ‘Way More Unstoppable! Redux’ album, plus a rousing cover of UFO’s “Doctor Doctor” that got toes tapping and voices singing throughout the hall. I’ve gotta say that Salvacion made great use of the minimal space on the tiny front room stage, with vocalist Elliot Madre shuffling along in his pink Saint Vitus ‘Born Too Late’ tee and the guitar-wielding members coming together at center stage on multiple occasions for the Maiden/Thin Lizzy-inspired instrumental bits. My only disappointment was that the band did not play anything from their excellent ‘Keep Up the Fire’ EP that was released digitally in July. Next time, hopefully, as the ‘Keep Up the Fire’ tunes are among the finest in Salvacion’s arsenal. Setlist: Thou Shalt Rock, Let Us Prey, Faster than Hell, Epic Beer Run, Doctor Doctor, Dog in Heat, Skullsplitter, Wretch Like Me.
The ping-pong match continued, as I pinwheeled back to the back room in time for the start of Resistance’s performance. The Southern California quintet have been a going concern for many years, but seem to have hit their stride with the excellent ‘Volume I Battle Scars’ EP they released last year. Resistance’s brand of catchy but ultra-heavy US power metal reminds me in places of the likes of Cage, an association only strengthened by singer Robbie Hett’s high-pitched yet perfectly controlled wails, as well as his appearance (bald head and black leather from head to toe). The band worked through four of the strongest cuts from the ‘Battle Scars’ EP (highlighted by the title track and “Onward to Valhalla”), plus a pair of previously unreleased tunes (“Metal Machine” and “Hail to the Horns”) which will presumably appear on a future Resistance recording. The new tracks were particularly impressive, with “Metal Machine” being instantly memorable and “Hail to the Horns” coming across as a Dio tribute, and rightfully so. It all ended with a blistering cover of Riot’s “Swords and Tequila,” Hett coming to the front of the stage and holding out the microphone for crowd participation. Not many folks near the front of the stage, so True Metal Lives editor Mark Vander Zanden, Midnight Chaser guitarist Stephen Lauck and I all joined arms and belted out the chorus together. A shame there weren’t more folks on hand in the back room to witness it, as Resistance played a hell of a fine set. Setlist: Vlad, Hold the Line, Metal Machine, Battle Scars, Onward to Valhalla, Hail to the Horns, Swords and Tequila.
The happy vibes from Resistance’s set expired quickly, as I could hear music playing on the front stage the moment they finished. A glance at my watch showed the time was 8:30 p.m. Crap, Resistance had somehow run five minutes over their allotted timeslot and my buds in Widow had (for once) started their set right on time. I’ve attended literally dozens of Widow gigs all over the world in the last six years, and have never once missed a single minute of any of their performances. Until tonight. Much to my chagrin, I was MIA for the entire first song, “American Werewolf in Raleigh,” although bassist/vocalist John E. Wooten later consoled me by saying, “It’s not like you haven’t heard the song before.” Anyway, the front room was substantially more packed than it had been at any time so far tonight, and I had a bit of a time navigating my way through the crowd to the front of the stage. Widow always bring the energy and the fun with their brand of hard rockin’ melodic heavy metal, but tonight the lads seemed like they had a bit more of a chip on their shoulders. They came to Ventura with something to prove, and it showed in their fiery, go-for-broke performance. The crowd was going nuts, singing along to the songs, and guitarist Chris Bennett recovered from an unfortunate rendezvous between his noggin and Wooten’s bass guitar (i.e., he got clocked on the head by John E.’s bass as the two rocked out on the small stage) to deliver one of the more creative and improvisational batches of solos I’ve heard him play. For their short 35-minute set time, Widow went for the more energetic cuts in their repertoire, jettisoning the more midtempo material in favor of a full-on blinder of a set that allowed neither band nor audience a chance to breathe. By happenstance, I found myself standing alongside ex-Widow drummer Peter Lemieux for a couple songs. It must have been strange for him to see Widow from this side of the stage, but he had a big smile and was singing along the whole time. I also spied Visigoth guitarist Jamison Parker pressed against the front of the stage in front of John E., rocking out and fully enjoying the Widow gig as he witnessed their fury for the first time. Widow played great, and I was ever so proud of my pals for putting their best foot forward for the Frost and Fire crowd, despite some unfortunate behind-the-scenes private drama that occurred just moments before they went onstage. The show must always go on, and so it did. Setlist: American Werewolf in Raleigh, Nightlife, Of the Blood We Bind, Lady Twilight, Wisdom, Pleasure of Exorcism, Take Hold of the Night.
Midnight Chaser, the pride (of lions) from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania were one of the true highlights of this year’s Ragnarokkr festival. Just a great live band and great guys, whose blue-collar approach is embodied by their decision to sell t-shirts at $10 apiece (in other words, basically at cost). As soon as Widow were finished, I hauled ass back to the back room in time to catch “Swords for Hire,” one of Midnight Chaser’s best songs and the opening song of their set tonight. There’s a lot to love about this band’s approach to old-school, early 80s, NWOBHM-flavored metal. Midnight Chaser have a no-frills, no-BS attitude. They just plug in and play, and allow the monster riffs and the charismatic voice of singer Josh Rodstein to carry the tunes. Guitarist Stephen had expressed apprehension to me beforehand that it was tough playing relatively late in the day on a festival with so many talented bands, but Midnight Chaser more than held up their end of the bargain. Songs like “Swords for Hire,” “Awesome Party,” and closer “Lion’s Choice” are as good as anything any band played the whole day long, and the honest, from-the-heart delivery made it all the better. Stephen seems to have remembered fistbumping me from the stage during the Ragnarokkr show, because he repeated the gesture during their set tonight. I love everything about Midnight Chaser, and based on the strong audience reaction to their performance, I’m far from alone in that sentiment. Incidentally, while they were playing, I felt a tap on my shoulder and looked over to see the smiling face of Steve Kachinsky (Steel Prophet). He and I were supposed to have a talk about his celebrity status (inside joke) and Night Demon’s ideal set list, but it didn’t happen. Sadly, after that moment, I don’t think I saw him again all weekend long. Such is the whirlwind, chaotic pace of events at the Frost and Fire festival. There’s never enough time to see all your friends from around the world plus all the amazing bands onstage. Still, it’s a nice problem to have. Anyway, Midnight Chaser ruled, and that’s really all you need to know. Setlist: Swords for Hire, Rollin, White Denim, Awesome Party, Down for Whatever, Steel City, Lion’s Choice.
I was detained for a few minutes after Midnight Chaser’s set, so I missed the first couple of tunes of Blade Killer’s performance at the front stage. The Los Angeles-based quintet had played very early in the day at last year’s Frost and Fire, and were rewarded for their buzz-generating performance with a much more favorable 9:35 p.m. timeslot this year, just as the crowds were swelling to their largest and the energy levels in Bombay were peaking. Blade Killer had overcome a personnel issue of their own to play this show, as their drummer had recently departed and they were deploying Warbringer’s Carlos Cruz as a fill-in. Cruz is a monster drummer and has proven adept at learning other bands’ material quickly and comprehensively, as evidenced by the fact that he filled in for Enforcer on almost no notice on a few shows of the Enforcer / Warbringer US tour earlier this year. So Blade Killer had no worries in the drum department on this night. Blade Killer have the songs and the talent to be rising stars in the underground US metal scene. Their brand of traditional heavy metal may not be innovative, but it is incredibly entertaining. They write excellent songs (most notably “On the Attack” from their four-song EP that came out on Stormspell Records in 2014), they play from the heart, and even on the small front-room stage they project confidence and strength. I’d love to see how their live attack opens up on a slightly larger platform, but Blade Killer were great tonight, reeling off three of the EP tracks as well as a few cuts from their forthcoming album, of which a track called “In the Arms of the Devil” emerged as a clear highlight and a ready-made smasher. The cherry on top was that they saved room in their set for an Armored Saint “Can U Deliver” cover at the end, which went over like gangbusters with the Frost and Fire crowd even more than their originals did. Blade Killer definitely were in the running for biggest winner of Day 1 this year. Setlist: Raise Your Fist, Let Go, Lost Angels, Made of Steel, Midnight Sinner, In the Arms of the Devil, On the Attack, Can U Deliver.
I was never the biggest Thrust fan back in the day. When I was a kid, my best friend picked up a copy of ‘Fist Held High,’ and we definitely cranked it a lot, but I never bought the LP for myself for some reason. Now, three decades later, here’s a chance to see Thrust in the back room at Bombay. I missed the first three songs of their set (including the mighty “Fist Held High” track, much to my chagrin), but got into the room just as Thrust were blasting into “Hypocrite” off the ‘Reincarnation’ album. I knew that guitarist Ron Cooke was the only original member from the ‘Fist Held High’ days so I wasn’t sure what to expect; however, I was pleasantly surprised to find that he’s pieced together a fine band around him these days. (They’re not all newbies, either. At least bassist Ray Gervais and drummer Joe Rezendes – and I think guitarist Angel Rodriguez was there too – played with Cooke on the ‘Reincarnation’ album that was recorded back in 1988 but never released until last year as part of the Thrust 35th anniversary collection on Metal Blade.) The band sounded great and seemed really into the tunes, and they were playing before a large and enthusiastic crowd that went particularly berserk during the ‘Fist Held High’ songs such as “Metallic Attack” and the devastating “Posers Will Die.” I got right up to the front row in front of Cooke, so I got to watch the man play up-close. The black nailpolished axeslinger was clearly loving every minute of it, notwithstanding the asshole next to me who kept shoving a vinyl copy of ‘Fist Held High’ in his face while he was playing, I guess because he wanted it autographed or something. Cooke was in constant motion throughout the set, and even ventured out into the crowd to play for a bit during “Fit of Rage” (I think). Unfortunately for me, I wasn’t watching as he came back through the crowd to climb back on stage. As Cooke got on stage, he inadvertently whacked me in the head pretty good with his guitar, enough to make my head spin for a minute. (It was a total accident, and more my fault than his, but when I laughingly told him about it later at the hotel, Ron apologized profusely and insisted on buying me a beer at the gig on Sunday. What a class act.) By the time Thrust blasted through the set-closing duo of “Posers will Die” and “Overdrive,” they had the entire room in their corner singing along and banging furiously. Thrust were an unexpected treat and an unsung highlight of Frost and Fire day 1, for sure. Setlist: Fist Held High, War, Scream Girl Scream, Hypocrite, Feel the Pain (brand-new song), Thrasher, Wasted, Metallic Attack, Fit of Rage, Posers will Die, Overdrive.
To me, Slough Feg have always been something of an enigma. I own all their albums, and have listened to them enough to recognize and appreciate the nuggets of musical genius they contain. Yet live the band have never really clicked with me, probably because of their off-kilter approach and the loose, jammy feel to the presentation. Still, many at Frost and Fire were chomping at the bit to witness Slough Feg on the front stage. I happened to be in the men’s room earlier when vocalist/guitarist Mike Scalzi was using the facilities, joking with the people around him about his male pattern baldness and how much it sucks. As he left, two Australian dudes near me were intensely debating whether it was really Scalzi or not. I assured them that it was. Anyway, the front room of Bombay was way more packed for Slough Feg than it had been for any other band all day long. Try as I might, there was no getting any closer than 10 or 15 feet from the stage. (In truth, that was close enough, as I had just seen Slough Feg five nights earlier perform a headlining gig with High Spirits and Christian Mistress at the Elbo Room in San Francisco, so I had a good idea what to expect.) Slough Feg sounded really, really good tonight. Scalzi’s quirky vocals were in fine form and the guitar duo of Scalzi and Angelo Tringali played magnificently, with bassist Adrian Maestas using every square inch of the cramped stage to his advantage. I recognized most of the material, though I must confess I’m not good with Slough Feg song titles so I couldn’t tell what they played aside from obvious ones like “The Wickerman” and “Digital Resistance.” Definitely, the entire catalog was covered well, and I was surprised to note significant differences between the set they played tonight versus the one aired in San Francisco. (For example, in SF they played “Warriors Dawn” and a brand-new tune, neither of which were aired here. I’m also certain they played some stuff in Ventura that they didn’t play in San Francisco.) The audience seemed a bit polarized by Slough Feg, which is understandable. Some people were losing their minds, completely mesmerized by the band, while others stood with blank looks on their faces, trying but failing (it would seem) to appreciate what was going on. As for me, I like the band live just fine, although they did lose me on some of the jam parts plus the part at the end when Scalzi changed into a button down shirt and waistcoat and started doing something that sounded like show tunes. Hey, they didn’t use to be called The Lord Weird Slough Feg for nothing, folks.
The task of closing out Day 1 of Frost and Fire fell to the Texans from Omen. I’m conflicted about this band. On the one hand, I dearly love the first three albums and hail the J.D. Kimball (R.I.P.) stuff as some of the finest US power metal ever recorded. Those songs are immortal and divine, and fully deserving of every shred of devotion and respect they receive in the underground today. On the other hand, guitarist Kenny Powell has earned the reputation of being a loose cannon and the band is known for erratic and sometimes sloppy live performances (including a few that I have witnessed firsthand). I gotta say, tonight the positive greatly outweighed the negative in Omen’s performance. The 11 classics they played sounded splendid, whipping up the entire packed room into a headbanging, singing euphoria. Dude next to me at the front of the stage had come all the way from Greece and was wearing a badly faded vintage white Omen shirt printed up to coincide with one of the band’s long-past pilgrimages to Hellas. The band’s visuals weren’t particularly good, as bassist Andy Haas wore heavy eye makeup and was completely stationary, vocalist Kevin Goocher was sporting a questionable armor get-up and consulting a book of lyrics at his feet on a regular basis, and mohawked shirtless guitarist Kenny Powell was, well, shirtless and nobody wants to see that when a man reaches a certain age. Still, what matters is the sound, not the visuals, and Omen (also featuring original drummer Steve Wittig behind the kit) sounded pretty damned great tonight. When a setlist includes all-time spine-tingling songs like “Death Rider,” “Warning of Danger,” “Last Rites,” “Teeth of the Hydra,” “Battle Cry” and “Die by the Blade” you really can’t go wrong. And they didn’t. Thought things might go off the rails a couple of times, though, once when stage divers stomped on Goocher’s lyrics book, ripping pages out and throwing it into disarray, and another time when somebody pegged Powell in the chest with a (thankfully empty) beer can. Still, the band played on. Their only misstep was insisting on playing a new tune, “Hammer Damage,” off the poorly received album of the same name. It was underwhelming to say the least, and the otherwise-rapturous audience seemed to tolerate it rather than appreciate it. Still, I’ll take this Omen gig over several others that I’ve seen and will always be thankful to the guys for keeping those magical J.D. Kimball-era tunes alive in a respectful manner. Setlist: Death Rider, Dragon’s Breath, Ruby Eyes of the Serpent, The Axeman, Warning of Danger, Last Rites, Into the Arena, Termination, Battle Cry, Teeth of the Hydra. Encore: Hammer Damage, Die by the Blade.
Saturday, October 8, 2016
I’ll be honest: I was feeling a little rough by the time Saturday afternoon rolled around. No, I was neither hung over nor wasted. But Jen and I had stayed up super-late on Friday night hanging out with friends and had awakened super-early on Saturday to hang with other friends. That’s the whole “family reunion” side to Frost and Fire. With so many great people from around the world, you want to see and catch up with everybody. But the breakneck, no-time-to-breathe pace of Day 1 was not conducive to any real socializing, at least not if you wanted to see all the bands. So Jen and I compensated for it by basically staying up all night to see our friends. Seemed like a good idea at the time, but not on Saturday afternoon, as exhaustion set in, staved off somewhat by copious quantities of delicious gourmet coffee from the Palermo coffee shop in downtown Ventura.
Today marked a change of scenery for Frost and Fire. No Bombay. Instead, today’s festivities were taking place at the venerable Majestic Ventura Theater, a much larger and beautiful venue with a published capacity of 1,200. (No, today’s show was not sold out, but the room looked substantially over two-thirds full at times, an impressive feat in and of itself for an underground heavy metal festival in the USA in 2016.) There were good points and bad points to having the show at the Majestic Theater. On the positive side, the aesthetics of the place were lovely, with 1920s Mission-style architecture, impressive balconies and well-conceived decorative touches throughout the building. Stage was enormous (which was actually something of a double-edged sword because some of the bands on today’s schedule were swallowed up by all that real estate, seemingly much more comfortable on the small platforms they’re accustomed to playing). And there’s no way today’s lineup could have been held at Bombay without turning hundreds of people away. Today, especially with the return of Cirith Ungol, called for a grandiose atmosphere. On that front, the Majestic Theater delivered, bigtime.
There was, however, a down side. The no-reentry policy meant that we were stuck in a building for more than 9 hours that had shitty, overpriced food (my friend ordered a slice of pizza and it was served to him still partially frozen) and was charging $8 for a Coors Light ($10 if you wanted a half-decent beer). Fuck that. As soon as we saw the bar prices, Jen and I declared that we were going straight-edge tonight, so not a sip of alcohol passed our lips from the beginning of the show until the end. Worse than the confiscatory drink prices and bad food were the acoustics. It pains me to say it, but the sound in the Majestic Theater was not good at all. Anyone who knows me knows I love to be right upfront for every band I dig. I don’t know why, it’s just that I want to be close to the action, connecting with the performers, and getting lost in the total sensory experience of the live music without worrying what some drunk idiot five rows back is doing. I stayed in the front row for exactly one band today, before reaching the conclusion that the sound was way too poor to stay up close. Now, I’m hardly a stickler for great live sound, but when I can hear no vocals and only one guitar throughout a band’s set, that impairs my enjoyment of the gig. Everyone else up front said the same thing, though some stubbornly stayed on the front rail to be close to their musical heroes. To be clear, I’m not criticizing the fest organizers, the sound guys, the bands or really even the Majestic Theater on this one. It’s nobody’s fault, it’s just the way things were. These old theaters weren’t built for loud rock’n’roll. So I watched eight of today’s nine bands from a slightly elevated railing maybe 20-25 feet from the stage. The sound was a bit better there, and it allowed me to see over the floor, to be unmolested by the pit, and to have a great clear sightline of the entire stage for every single band. So it worked out okay in the end. Even from my more distant vantage point, however, the sound in the cavernous room left a lot to be desired. That’s just part of the tradeoff for the beautiful historic ambience of the Majestic Theater.
The live music kicked off today at 3:30 p.m. with Spellcaster from Oregon. I’m a big fan of these guys, and think their latest album, ‘Night Hides the World,’ is one of the best releases of 2016. They flourished on the dark, fog-enshrouded Ragnarokkr stage a few months ago, but definitely experienced tougher sledding in Ventura. To be sure, the lads pushed on gamely through sound issues and a mostly empty concert hall (most folks were still queued up outside waiting to get in, I’m afraid, or were in the insanely long Cirith Ungol merch line), but they seemed to struggle to find their footing on the massive brightly lit Majestic Theater stage. From my perspective, it didn’t help that I was in the front row for Spellcaster, such that my aural experience was limited to Bryce VanHoosen’s guitars and nothing but. Still, it was enjoyable indeed to hear the new cuts off ‘Night Hides the World’ (which I hadn’t witnessed in a live setting before), and I’m always happy to hear the “oldies” consisting of “Chainsaw Champion” and “Ghost of My Memory.” It’s just an unenviable task to open a big festival day like this, even though Spellcaster gave it all they had. Setlist: I Live Again, Ghost of My Memory, Betrayal, Night Hides the World, Chainsaw Champion, The Accuser.
Axxion were up next, the wacky Canadians from Toronto now sporting Cauldron’s Jason Decay on bass and supporting a brand-new album called ‘Back in Time’ (of which I’d heard only snippets before today). If Axxion’s goal was to make a spectacular entrance and have everyone talking about them, they succeeded. The three dudes up front (guitarist, bassist and vocalist) all came out on stage wearing quite revealing tiger-striped wrestling tights, guitarist and bassist in red and vocalist in neon green. The result was that I got to see a lot more pale hairy Canadian male flesh than I bargained for. They stayed in those ridiculous get-ups for the entire show. Wow. Only drummer Alison Thunderland sported traditional metal attire (denim vest, etc.). I’m definitely a live-and-let-live kind of guy, and I don’t tell anyone how to dress, but man, this was distracting, and not in a good way. Axxion almost came across as a parody of a live heavy metal band, which worked great for Spinal Tap, but not so much here. When you drill down past the visuals, you realize that Axxion actually have a bunch of really good songs. The new tunes like “Back in Time” and “Ride through Hell” were catchy and fun with Dirty Dee Kerr’s over-the-top, Jackie-Slaughter style high pitched wailing and Jason Decay kicking in with killer backing vox. They finished with “Wild Racer” and “Hard Rockin,” two highlights from their ‘Wild Racer’ debut album. Final verdict: good songs, good performance, but man, those outfits … try as I might, I can’t unsee what I saw. Setlist: Back in Time, Sinner, Ride through Hell, Lost in Flames, Criminal, Wild Racer, Hard Rockin.
Make no mistake: Visigoth are titans in the making. In ‘The Revenant King,’ the Salt Lake City epic metallers released one of the finest albums of 2015. Their proficiency as a live unit has grown exponentially since they appeared at the first Frost and Fire last year. They are dyed-in-the-wool true metalheads to the core (vocalist Jake Rogers was in the middle of every pit and upfront singing along for almost every band, it seemed). As if that weren’t enough, they’re incredibly nice guys to boot. Both guitarists, Jamison Palmer and Leeland Campana, not only remembered me from their Night Demon tour five months ago, but remembered the specific shows I had attended. That’s impressive. You know what else was impressive? Visigoth’s performance at the Majestic Theater. For the duration of their short 30-minute set, they owned the hall, the first band of the day that seemed utterly up to the challenge of seizing control of the huge stage in the huge room. By now, songs like “Mammoth Rider” and “Dungeon Master” are greeted warmly by the audience as established favorites, and even the as-yet-unrecorded “Vatt’ghern (By Steel and Silver)” got a great reaction because the band has played it so often in the last year or so. Where Visigoth did manage to stump the crowd was on their choice of cover tunes. Until recently, they’d been doing “The Spell” from Demon; however, this time they switched things up with a cool obscure song that I didn’t recognize and that I honestly don’t think many in attendance knew either. It was “The Beast” by Randy. Nicely done, guys. “The Revenant King” closed things out in style, Rogers thrusting his studded leather gauntlets skyward as Palmer and Campana dished out the monster riffs and the crowd sang along word for word. “We are revenant! We have returned! So bow your heads. We are your doom … doom … doom.” Damn straight. Don’t you forget it, either. Setlist: Mammoth Rider, Vatt’ghern (By Steel and Silver), Dungeon Master, The Beast (Randy cover), Revenant King.
In many ways, High Spirits provided the soundtrack to Jen’s and my California vacation. You see, we had flown out west a few days early to catch their club shows in San Francisco and Oakland (both dates also including the mighty force of nature known as Christian Mistress). So we had seen them light up stages on the Pacific Coast with great songs, great energy, and (in the case of the San Francisco show) a faulty bass amp that smoldered and appeared about to catch fire during “Take Me Home.” The new songs off the ‘Motivator’ opus fit in brilliantly with the evergreens, and the band seems comfortable and happy as they are once again optimized in the Chris/Scott/Mike/Bob/Ian configuration after a few hiccups in 2014 and 2015. The rub for the Ventura show was that High Spirits had been allotted just 35 minutes, so painful cuts to their setlist had to be made. Ultimately, the band decided to axe two new songs, “Flying High” (which had been their opening number on the Bay Area shows) and “Take Me Home” (a true highlight from ‘Motivator’). It was a shame, but it had to be done. Still, I don’t think most in the audience minded, not when High Spirits served up nine tracks of feel-good hard rockin’ metal. The band seemed giddy with the favorable reception they were receiving, as Chris Black introduced one song by exclaiming, “It seems we’re already at ‘Full Power.’” Of course, the deep cut “Nights in Black” was another magical moment, spotlighting each band member with a thumping groove and some of Black’s deepest lyrics. The real spine-tingler, though, was set closer “High Spirits,” which Black dedicated to the memory of Jim Konya, just after the one year anniversary of his death. Some in the audience seemed moved to tears by the gesture, and rightfully so. I never met Konya, but I know he is well loved and greatly missed by so many in our tight-knit community. All in all, it may have been just another night in the city for High Spirits, but they insured it was a special one for everyone at the Majestic Theater. Special thanks to the band for remembering to set aside a pair of their bitchin’ red sweatpants for Jen to buy at the end of the night. She has a new favorite article of clothing, and now she can’t wait for it to get cold in the deep South so she can wear them every single day. She will, too. Setlist: When the Lights Go Down, This is the Night, Full Power, I Need to Know, I Need Your Love, Another Night in the City, Nights in Black, Thank You, High Spirits.
Without question, it takes an army to put on a festival of the scope and magnitude of Frost and Fire. But nobody worked harder than the Night Demon dudes all weekend long. Bassist/vocalist Jarvis Leatherby was in constant motion all three days, and more often than not I saw him literally running from one end of the venue to the other to put out some fire or deal with some issue. Drummer Dusty Squires served as the drum tech for all bands all three days, essentially reconfiguring the drum setup two dozen times to meet the specifications and preferences of all the other bands’ drummers. And guitarist Armand John Lizzy was doing a little bit of everything: hauling stuff, running sound, teching, whatever it took. Somehow, these guys took a break from all of their festival duties to strap on their gear and play a 35 minute set. To the surprise of absolutely no one, Night Demon hit it out of the park. One would be hard-pressed to identify a more lethal live act in 2016 than Night Demon. They have the whole package: ferocious energy, killer songs, stage presence for miles, and the mascot Rocky to induce everyone to drink from the chalice. What more could you want? How about a new song? Yep, three songs into the set, Jarvis went to the microphone and asked everyone to put away their cameras and audio recorders for a few minutes because the band wanted to world-premiere a new song for us, due on their forthcoming album in February 2017. The song was called “Stranger in the Room,” and it was impressive. The tune started out slow, with a strong groove and a powerful vocal from Jarvis, before kicking into higher gear with an amazing riff that led into a stunning solo to close out the track. One listen and I’m already hooked. Aside from the new track, Night Demon threw down with a breathless batch of cuts from their EP and ‘Curse of the Damned’ that everyone knows and everyone loves. No weak links, no soft underbellies to be found here, just top-shelf heavy metal delivered with conviction, class and a hell of a lot of sweat. As I watched Night Demon perform, I couldn’t shake the feeling that, while music is not a competition (it is a singular community and we all should be pulling for each other) and I know Jarvis, Dusty and Armand believe deeply in that sentiment, they were defending their home turf tonight. No one, but no one, was going to beat Night Demon on their hometown stage. So they hit the stage with a little extra tonight. More fire in their bellies, more metal and might in every note. For three guys who must have been exhausted before they ever made it to the stage, Night Demon lit up the Majestic Theater with enough energy to power a small city. All hail Night Demon! Setlist: Screams in the Night, Full Speed Ahead, Curse of the Damned, Stranger in the Room, Ritual, Mastermind, The Chalice, Night Demon.
With so many exceptional bands lined up one after the other, it was perhaps inevitable that somebody would come up a little short. Tonight, unfortunately, that distinction fell upon White Wizzard. That’s not intended as a slam, by the way. The band had a tough assignment tonight. Their gig was billed as a one-time only reunion of the lineup that recorded the revered ‘High Speed G.T.O.’ EP back in 2009. (I guess it wasn’t a complete reunion, since Tyler Meahl, who was credited with drums on the EP, is presently on tour with Huntress. Not sure who occupied the drum throne for this show.) So the principal musicians – bassist Jon Leon, guitarist James Larue, and singer James Paul Luna – don’t regularly rehearse or perform together, and are all busy with other musical endeavors. It was perhaps overly optimistic to think they could coalesce as a band for this exclusive appearance. From where I stood, it just didn’t seem like anything clicked for White Wizzard tonight. Luna is one of the most gifted singers in metal today, and he was obviously giving it everything he had in his black-and-white striped shirt, just singing his ass off. Leon and Larue were more static in presentation, but the band was weighed down with a dreadful sound. Larue is a fantastic player, but his rig just sounded weak and bad. Without the guitars to power them through, the songs sank of their own weight into a morass of muddy, echoey cavernous noise. None of the members interacted with each other in any perceptible way, and the relatively sparse audience up front seemed mostly indifferent. Energy levels unfortunately flatlined. Not even the guest appearance of one of the Spellcaster dudes decked out in white beard, white costume and second guitar during “High Speed G.T.O.” could shake the malaise. To be absolutely clear, I like the band and love the songs. Things just didn’t quite work out in their favor tonight. But I give White Wizzard credit for plowing through as well as they could and trying to make the best of a difficult situation to provide a special show for the Frost and Fire throngs. Setlist: Red Desert Skies, March of the Skeletons, Into the Night, Celestina, Octane Gypsy, Megaladon, Hollywood Tease (cover song), High Speed G.T.O.
The feel-good story of Frost and Fire this year was definitely Mindless Sinner. The Swedes recorded an album and an EP in the Scandinavian-melodic-metal-meets-NWoBHM style in the early 80s, but made virtually no impact at the time. Now, three decades later, they’re experiencing a resurgence (or maybe just a “surgence” since they never had much popularity in the first place), hitting all the major Euro festivals, recording a new album and playing their USA debut at Frost and Fire. Best of all, it’s the same five guys who did the ‘Turn on the Power’ record in 1984. They were everywhere in Ventura this weekend, hanging at the hotel, hanging at the venue, hanging at the bar, clearly relishing every second of their time in America. And I’ll be damned if they didn’t make the most of their time onstage. Kicking off their set with “We Go Together” and “I’m Gonna (Have Some Fun)” off ‘Turn on the Power,’ Mindless Sinner got the party vibe going instantly. They looked good and sounded great, with vocalist Christer Goransson in particular not having lost a step since the ‘80s. Setlist covered every song I wanted to hear other than “Standing on the Stage,” with a couple tunes off the new album added for good measure. The band were all smiles for their entire hour of stagetime. Most heartwarming were bassist Christer Carlson’s speeches, first about how it was a dream come true for them to be onstage in the USA and later how their next dream was to come back to America to play someday, “but let’s live this one first.” Bonus points are awarded for the white t-shirt they were selling that featured the old logo from ‘Turn on the Power,’ with the classic ‘80s band photo reprinted from the center of that CD booklet. Mindless Sinner added so much character and heart to this festival. I’m so glad they were here. Let’s start working on that next dream now, shall we, boys? Setlist: We Go Together, I’m Gonna (Have Some Fun), Turn on the Power, Man of Steel, Broken Freedom, Live and Die, Voice of the Doomed, When Worlds Collide, Screaming for Mercy, Here She Comes Again, Master of Evil.
I’d never had any previous encounters with Midnight. It’s not that I don’t like them, it’s just that I’d never paid them much attention. They stuck out on this bill like a sore thumb, being much darker and more aggressive than their peers. But most people I talked to were really stoked to see Midnight and they definitely added some variety to the proceedings. For starters, they had far and away the biggest and most violent pit of the day, just a roiling mass of sweaty humanity from the first note to the last. Then there was the provocative image, with the trio coming out in black masks and hoods, and doing all kinds of crazy shit like climbing on top of amps, smashing guitars, crowd-surfing and whatnot. The music sounded to me like it was heavily influenced by old Bathory and Venom, which is certainly not a bad thing in my book. Unfortunately, I think they were betrayed by poor sound, as even from my vantage point the guitars were way too loud and the vocals way too muffled. Still, I readily admit that the Midnight tunes were catchy as hell, the riffage was cool and fun, and everyone seemed to be going bonkers throughout their gig. So, bravo and well done all around.
Denim and leather may have brought us all together, but tonight Cirith Ungol played a big part in it too. This particular white whale had been pursued by metal festival organizers from around the world for many, many years, with nothing to show for it … until now. Through miraculous luck, clever handling, or simply good timing, Frost and Fire II scored the major coup of hosting Cirith Ungol’s first show in a quarter century, in the band’s hometown at the theater where they performed their heretofore-final gig in 1991. This was a bonafide reunion, too, featuring classic lineup members Tim Baker (vocals) and Robert Garven (drums), plus Jimmy Barraza (guitarist from the ‘Paradise Lost’ album) and Greg Lindstrom (guitarist with the late Jerry Fogle in the early years of the band, through the ‘Frost and Fire’ debut LP). Festival organizers had also invested in some nice production touches to enhance the look of the show and showcase the C.U. motif. Two life-size skeletons (like the kind you find in your doctor’s office or your high-school science classroom) knelt in prayer atop the PA on either side of the stage, looking down approvingly at the assembled legions below. The gigantic white ‘Frost and Fire’ banner with praying skeletons that had been displayed for all the other bands was partially covered by a black banner with another pair of praying skeletons, so that the backdrop behind the Cirith Ungol band featured four praying skeletons, two black and two white.
To describe the audience as “pumped” would be a massive understatement. But there was also more than a little pressure associated with this gig. After all, it is widely expected that their Frost and Fire appearance will serve as a springboard for Cirith Ungol to play high-profile headlining festival gigs worldwide in 2017. The eyes of the metal world were watching. These guys are no spring chickens anymore. Would Baker still be able to pull off those tortured, powerful, snarling vocal lines? How would Garven hold up behind the kit? Would Barraza be able to carry the load of so many solos? How would the two-guitar approach work when C.U. were a single-guitar band for so much of their recorded history? And what about the bass guitar position? So many questions. After a painfully long two-part intro tape that must have lasted over six minutes, Cirith Ungol took the stage to “Join the Legion” and our questions were answered over the span of a nearly 90-minute set. The band were excellent. Despite his mild-mannered, bespectacled, amiable demeanor, Tim Baker still wields the fires of Hades in his lungs. If anything, he sounds *better* than he did on the records, which seems blasphemous to say but is nonetheless true. The black beanie-wearing Barraza nailed the leads, as did Lindstrom for the ones that he covered. Garven was fun to watch on the drum riser, especially when the opportunity presented itself (as it did, multiple times) for him to strike his mighty gong, which he did with visible glee on each occasion. Love that guy. As for the bass guitar, our intrepid festival organizer / Night Demon mainman Jarvis Leatherby filled that role. It was odd to see him onstage with a Cirith Ungol shirt (as opposed to his preferred all-black garb), a bass that isn’t a V, and playing with his fingers instead of a pick. But Jarvis was no shrinking violet on the Cirith Ungol stage; to the contrary, he got up right up front in the audience’s faces, acting as a cheerleader to exhort the crowd and contributing powerful backing vocals. The man is all heart, all metal, all energy, all the time. To any naysayers, my response is that Jarvis earned the right to play with Cirith Ungol and he earned the right to be exactly who he is onstage, nothing less. Besides, given the relatively stationary presence of the other guys (save for Baker’s occasional wizard movements with his arms held out as he turned about the stage), Jarvis definitely serves as the sparkplug supplying the visual energy of the band. And that’s a good thing.
Things were a bit stiff at first, which is understandable given the nerves and anxieties that were undoubtedly involved. Over time, however, the Cirith Ungol guys loosened up, rocked hard, and seemed to be really enjoying themselves, savoring the moment into which so many years of planning, sacrifice and hard work had gone to create. The setlist read like a Cirith Ungol greatest-hits collection, spanning everything from “I’m Alive” and “Frost and Fire” to “Atom Smasher” and “Master of the Pit” to “Blood & Iron” and “Chaos Descends” to “Fallen Idols” and “Paradise Lost.” No self-respecting Ungol banger could have left unhappy tonight. From song selection to performances to stage presence, Cirith Ungol fared better at the Majestic Theater than anyone had any reasonable ground to expect. The only real blemish was that the venue’s tough acoustics rendered Ungol’s sound murkier and messier than I would have liked, but the great performances shined through the swampy sonics. Make no mistake: The kings of the dead have risen. Cirith Ungol are back. If you were ever a fan (and really, who wasn’t?), you owe it to yourself to track down this band and see them on a stage somewhere in the heavy metal universe in 2017. They’ll be out there, and judging by tonight’s triumphant gig, they’ll be kicking ass. So, yeah, come on, join the legion, won’t you? Setlist: Join the Legion, I’m Alive, Atom Smasher, Blood & Iron, Black Machine, Frost and Fire, Chaos Descends, Doomed Planet, Chaos Rising, Fallen Idols, Paradise Lost. Encore: Master of the Pit, King of the Dead, Cirith Ungol.
Sunday, October 9, 2016
For once, Jen and I tried to be responsible after the Saturday night gig, so we repaired directly to the hotel and crashed hard, in hopes of replenishing our depleted energy stores for Day 3. (There was an after-party after the Cirith Ungol set, with two bands playing at Sans Souci, a tiny little rathole of a place that locals affectionately call “The Sewer.” We really wanted to see Hessian, but we knew the place would be jam packed, and we were fried from being on our feet and having no food all day. So discretion was the better part of valor for us. People who went reported, however, that Hessian were fantastic, just as I’d expected, and that The Sewer was a drunken, sweaty, hard-rockin’ good time for all involved.) Our goal was a big finish, even given the relaxed agenda for the Sunday portion of Frost and Fire II. So it came to be that we found ourselves walking into Bombay just after 10:00 a.m. on a sunny California Sunday morning. The concept for today was “Bangover Brunch,” meaning vendors and DJ sets until 4:15 p.m., when live music would commence, running until 9:00 or so. We were delighted to look up at the bar’s television sets and see baseball playoffs (Dodgers/Nationals) already underway, so we ordered some drinks, bellied up the bar, and started watching baseball at 10 a.m. Life’s not so terribly bad on the West Coast, you know? For the next few hours, we hung out, watched some baseball, drank some beers, visited with friends old and new, and listened to the DJ sets, including one from Ryan Waste (Municipal Waste/Bat/Volture). Early in the afternoon, we took a break for an hour or two and wandered out to the end of Ventura’s 1,900+ foot wooden pier (the longest wooden pier in California, if the signs are to be believed), then got something to eat as we soaked in the palm trees, the endless skies, the Pacific Ocean, and the cool ocean breezes. As a metal festival destination, Ventura definitely does not suck.
Shortly after 4:00 p.m., people streamed into the back room at Bombay to see Ashbury, a dearly loved returning fan favorite to this year’s Frost and Fire fest. Originally, the idea had been for Ashbury to perform two sets; however, somewhere along the way, that notion was scrapped. Instead, the band played one extended set of nearly two hours in duration. Ashbury were really the perfect band for the Sunday afternoon timeslot. The windows to the back room were open, the sunlight and sea breezes were streaming in, and everybody was just kind of rockin’ peacefully to the soothing, laidback strains of the Davis brothers. Acoustic guitars and harmony vocals and contemplative lyrics were just what the doctor ordered after two full days of intense wall-to-wall metal, and Ashbury delivered to perfection. With such an expansive amount of time to work with, Randy and Rob (along with the other three members, including a drummer who kept popping Mike & Ike candy into his mouth between songs) spread their wings and treated us to not only the entire majestic ‘Endless Skies’ album, but also three cuts from the ‘Something Funny Going On’ follow-up, two new songs, and a fistful of non-metal cover tunes from classic rock bands that influenced Ashbury in their formative years (Blue Oyster Cult, The Who, Jethro Tull). Under ordinary circumstances, I might feel like two hours of Ashbury is too much of a good thing. But for the vibe and the feel of today, it was perfect. Besides, Randy and Rob Davis have spent decades honing their craft in bars throughout the Southwest, and today’s set felt like hanging out with the world’s greatest bar band. Even when Randy broke a string, it was no big deal, just cause for Rob to tell a few stories and jokes as his brother quickly changed out the offending culprit. The time felt like it passed in a flash. By the way, new songs “Out of the Blue” and an as-yet untitled number that I’ll refer to as “Good Guitar” sound quite promising indeed, so here’s hoping we get a new full-length Ashbury record in 2017. Setlist: The Warning, Take Your Love Away, Hard Fight, No Mourning, Mystery Man, Behind Blue Eyes (The Who cover), Evacuation Time, Don’t Fear the Reaper (B.O.C. cover), Madman, Something Funny Going On, Aqualung (Jethro Tull cover), Cross-Eyed Mary (Jethro Tull cover), Locomotive Breath (Jethro Tull cover), Endless Skies, Cold Light of Day, Out of the Blue, Vengeance, Good Guitar.
Next up were Black Death Resurrected on the front-room stage, coming to us all the way from Cleveland, Ohio. I saw Siki Spacek and crew at one of the Brave Words Six-Pack events in the early 2000s, but otherwise am not really familiar with the band. I know they released a well-respected album (under the banner Black Death – apparently, Spacek’s outfit now goes by the moniker ‘Black Death Resurrected’ because of some rancor and conflict over naming rights with some other splinter faction of the original band, but don’t quote me on that) on Auburn Records back in 1984, as to which there have been innumerable rumors of an official CD reissue over the last decade or so, to no avail. Siki may have gained a few pounds since I saw him last (hey, haven’t we all?), but he’s still got his trademark hat, his over-the-top getup (including fishnets on his arms), his mean guitar and his swagger and sense of humor. I caught the first four songs of Black Death Resurrected’s set: “Night of the Living Dead,” “The Hunger,” “Streetwalker,” and “Retribution,” the last of which was dedicated to all military veterans in the house. The quartet had a large crowd assembled under the red-lit front stage and seemed to be doing well. Unfortunately, I got pulled away into a socializing scenario (time was, after all, growing quite short at Frost and Fire, and there were many people to see), so I missed the rest of their set, but they acquitted themselves well, by all accounts. Bring on the Auburn Records reissue!!!
I can think of no better way to close out a three-day heavy metal party in Ventura than to have a headlining performance from Steve Grimmett’s Grim Reaper in the back room at Bombay. This was actually a tour stop for Grim Reaper, early in the routing of their second USA tour of 2016 but their first supporting their long-awaited new album, ‘Walking in the Shadows.’ Steve’s assembled a top-notch band for this American run, including his long-time friend and collaborator Ian Nash on guitar, new bassist Martin Trail (who is also a member of Fury, one of the best new British metal bands I’ve heard in ages), and powerhouse drummer Paul White. Nash missed the last U.S. tour, and Trail has only recently replaced departing bassist Chaz Grimaldi, so it was definitely a new Grim Reaper configuration. New lineup, new songs! Indeed, in addition to the classic GR tunes that everybody loves, the band offered up no fewer than six tunes from the new album. This was a rather risky proposition, because when Steve asked how many people in the packed room had a copy of ‘Walking in the Shadows,’ there was almost no response. So the new songs were catching most people cold. I know for myself, I was hearing all the new songs for the first time onstage tonight (with the exception of “From Hell,” which I’d heard the band play at a gig in London back in June 2013). Despite my unfamiliarity, the new tunes sounded excellent, with opener “Wings of Angels,” the title track, and the pounding “Temptation” getting my attention in a positive way.
Grim Reaper were brilliant tonight. Steve sounded like a million bucks, hitting most of the high notes and keeping just enough grit in his voice to give the tunes the necessary bite. Nash and Trail were both quite animated, working the room and crowd to perfection. And drummer White is an absolute beast, a monster behind the kit. I couldn’t believe how ridiculously hard he hit. (He tried to toss me one of his sticks at the end of the show, but I was looking in a different direction so it caromed off the top of my head into the waiting arms of the woman standing behind me. D’oh!) The crowd was rowdy, uproarious, and hyper, especially when the old songs were played. There was substantial stage-diving, although thankfully nobody knocked over Steve’s iPad stand that he was using to keep up with lyrics of the new songs and otherwise manage the proceedings. Several people to my left at the front of the stage got kicked out of the venue four or five songs in, I think for some combination of smuggling in their own booze and throwing stuff. A dude next to me had a studded denim jacket and kept trying to push me out of the way at the front of the stage, his studs tearing into my skin. I didn’t budge though. I worked damn hard to get that spot upfront and I wasn’t moving, so take that, ya bastage. The “Don’t Talk to Strangers” tribute to Ronnie James Dio was spot-on and compelling, and of course stuff like “Fear No Evil,” “Night of the Vampire” and “Wrath of the Ripper” had the whole crowd going berserk. Just when you thought things couldn’t get crazier, it was time for the final song of the night, “See You in Hell.” Goodness gracious, there were a lot of deliriously happy metalheads in the room during that song, and rightfully so. As I said, Grim Reaper closed out Frost and Fire II in the best possible way. What a stroke of genius (or luck!) to add them to the bill at the eleventh hour, as Jarvis did. Setlist: Wings of Angels, Rock You to Hell, Night of the Vampire, Lust for Freedom, Walking in the Shadows, Call Me in the Morning, From Hell, Fear No Evil, Liar, Wrath of the Ripper, Reach Out, Suck It and See, Temptation, Rock Until I Die, Don’t Talk to Strangers (Dio cover), Waysted Love, See You in Hell.
Steve Grimmett announced several times from the stage that the band would be returning 10 or 15 minutes after the set was over to take pictures, sign autographs and hang out. They were true to their word, although surprisingly most people had already left. (Maybe not so surprising. It had been a long three days of music and it was, after all, Sunday night, meaning many people not named Jen and me were having to return to real-life responsibilities in the morning.) When I approached Steve to say hello, he immediately commented about the Widow t-shirt I was wearing. “Widow? That’s a great band, we’ve played with them before,” he said. I told Steve that I had traveled with Widow to the Water Rats gig in London in 2013 (when the band and I had flown across the Atlantic for the weekend so they could play that one gig with Grim Reaper). I also told him that the Widow guys were in the house. He got very excited and politely excused himself after a minute or two to go find Widow. Classy guy, that Steve Grimmett. How does he even remember the name of a band that opened for his band one night in England more than three years ago? Not only that, but he went out of his way to track them down and visit with them. Like I said, very classy. I also chatted for a bit with Ian and Martin, and found them both to be extremely personable, friendly chaps as well. Nice!
By the time Jen and I left Bombay, it was a little after 10:00 p.m. We had a 7:00 a.m. train scheduled to take us back to Los Angeles’ Union Station, from which a bus would shuttle us to LAX to commence the long journey home. But the night was still young. And we lived it in full. I won’t go into details, but suffice it to say Jen and I (along with the Night Demon guys and a few of their local friends) stayed out long enough to close down two bars in downtown Ventura, met a drunk guy in a bolo tie who tried and failed to take a group photo of us with my camera, went to The Sewer where Jen had a famous local drink called the Billy Johnson, met the dude after whom the aforementioned drink was made, chugged said drink because The Sewer was closing and kicking us all out, and somehow found our way to the hotel hot tub with some friends, Ryan Waste, and a dude named Jerome or was it Corey or was it … oh, nevermind. Somewhere around 4:30 a.m., we saw the Widow guys off as their van departed the hotel parking lot, then went back to our room to pack. That was, errr, interesting. But the night, overall, was a perfect ending to a perfect festival. Already, in its second year of existence, Frost and Fire has become one of my favorite festivals in the world. Jarvis recently announced that it will return for a third installment in 2017. Won’t you join the legion in Ventura next year? You shan’t regret it.
~ Review by Kit Ekman ~