(The Red Zone/The Annex, Madison, Wisconsin. Saturday, September 2nd, 2017)
Underground metal is alive and very well here in the Midwest. In fact, it is thriving with festivals such as the NYDM Spring Bash in Milwaukee, Legions of Metal in Chicago, and the Pure Steel Hollowfest in Ohio. Now Mad With Power in Madison, Wisconsin can be added to this impressive list. Founded by my friend Ty Christian (aka Lord Fang von Wrathenstein) of Lords of the Trident, the inaugural Mad With Power Festival promised a full evening of local and regional metal, beer, and video games for an affordable price. It delivered all these things -- in spades.
Those who know Christian and Lords of the Trident understand that they are among the hardest, and smartest-working metal bands in the U.S. today. Their Patreon page is overflowing with support, their sundry array of promotions are successful, and they are always prolific on the recording and touring fronts. True to form, Mad With Power offered attendees a plethora of perks, including: loaded V.I.P. packages for $50 and $100, 10 free-play arcade games along with a display of vintage gaming systems, the Lords’ own mead via Bos Meadery, custom beer from Droids Attack, and six quality metal bands. Combine all that with the affordable $15 price point for regular tickets, and you get one no-brainer, high-octane blast of a fest.
My MWP weekend began early with a few extra days of vacationing with old friends from metal festivals past. First, I connected with fellow Warriors of Metal Fest (Ohio) alum Scott from Canada at my home in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and we took the ferry over the big lake from Ludington to Manitowoc, Wisconsin. From there we met up with Michelle, our old metal-headed friend with a heart of gold, and later her awesome husband Sean, Eric from Madison, and Sean O. from Iowa. I'll try to keep this description short, but let's just say we indulged in lots of browsing, sightseeing, a delicious supper-club dinner, swimming, and plenty of fruitful visits to local bars, breweries, and wineries. Our Friday-evening dinner with Ty and Heidi Christian in New Glarus was extra special, as was our lunch with the Lords and friends in Madison on Saturday. It just reinforces how we're all one happy, heavy metal family, regardless of one’s hometown or personal background.
Come 2 p.m. Saturday, and it was time for us friends and crew to help load in the Lords’ gear and 10 arcade machines into The Red Zone/Annex. The Red Zone is a spacious, clean, and well-lit sports bar with a (reportedly) delicious pub menu and a nice craft-beer selection from New Glarus brewery. Attached via a narrow hallway is The Annex, which features its own bar, a long corridor for band merch and the vintage video game systems, and a fairly large, square concert hall. The stage itself is low-to-the-ground but also spacious; the hall includes a small, elevated rear section with a few tables for V.I.P. patrons. After watching the bands set up/soundcheck, and meeting up with more old friends, including TML's own Mark VanderZanden and Lords fanatics Doug and Monique from Kalamazoo, Michigan, 6:00 was finally go time.
--Steel Iron: The fest kicked off in promising fashion with Milwaukee power metal act Steel Iron. This quintet has an interesting concept and delivery, boasting quasi-theatrical costumes and an ironic band name. Musically, though Steel Iron's self descriptor is power metal, their music sounds more like a straightforward style of traditional metal; bands such as Judas Priest, Mercyful Fate, and Liege Lord are stewed together nicely. Singer Kristoffer Thunderdorfer has a clear and versatile voice, and he utilized some raspy shouts to strong effect. An appropriately-crunchy cover of Accept's “Balls to the Wall” was a highlight of their set, as was the dynamic, humorously-titled “Ironing the Steel.” Steel Iron are a young band, and they could still hone some of their playing and cohesion as a live unit. Their band philosophy seems quixotic as well. For instance, two band members were dressed in bright leather or spandex pants with fuzzy animal-print shirts, while the other three band members were just wearing regular jeans and black t-shirts. It's also unclear whether or not the band is approaching their music seriously or with their tongues firmly in cheek. A name like Steel Iron invokes a fun and humorous approach, which is commendable. But their straightforward music and casual stage demeanor contradicts this. That said, Steel Iron was a solid opener for MWP, and I wish them continued success on their journey.
--InnerSiege: InnerSiege from Illinois was one of the most anticipated bands of the evening for many. They did not disappoint. In fact, they decimated the MVP crowd with an exhilarating 45-minute set of outstanding traditional/power metal. Although they cite several famous European power metal acts as influences, InnerSiege (thankfully) eschews the cheesy bombast of that genre for bonafide classic metal power and crunch. From the galloping opener “Dragon Rider” straight through the closing rager “Fight On,” InnerSiege enthralled the MWP audience. Part of their immense appeal stems from the high-ranging vocals of Jeremy Ray, who also worked the stage like a snake-charming master. The guitar duo of Kevin Grose and J.L. Prater delivered the thunderous riffs and harmonies with finesse; they also took turns shredding with surgical feeling on new instrumental “Iron Lotus.” Pouring the concrete foundation was the seal-tight rhythm section of drummer Wade Helm and bassist Ravn; Ravn also wins the unofficial awards for Best Headbanging and Most Hilarious Facial Expressions of the fest. Perhaps most importantly, InnerSiege’s music succeeds because of the compelling and catchy vocal melodies. Songs such as “Excuses,” “Control,” and “Fight On” stand out in the live arena just as they did on the excellent Kingdom of Shadows album. Please do yourself a favor and go see InnerSiege live ASAP, if not yesterday.
--Conniption: Mad With Power took a decidedly progressive turn with this next band. I had “studied” a bit for Conniption’s performance via YouTube videos and was thoroughly impressed. Nothing, however, could have prepared us for the aural obliteration unleashed by this Milwaukee quartet. These guys play technical, progressive thrash metal that is soaked in originality and excitement. If one needs similar reference bands, think of Testament, Death Angel, Intruder, and Helstar; they also throw in some mellow atmospheres, ala Pink Floyd or Opeth. Indeed, the clean guitar harmonics and arpeggios in opening instrumental, “Sonata No. 1 in B Minor,” promptly gave way to 45 minutes of fantastic melodic thrash.
Conniption –comprised of singer/guitarist Michael Brigham, lead guitarist Bill House, bassist Cody Dziuk, and drummer Andy Martin – expertly delivered intricate riffs, neo-classical harmonies, and miles of energy to the MWP stage. House and Brigham locked into their ultra-technical riffery with ease, but Brigham’s crystal clear and melodic voice helps Conniption stand out from their thrashing contemporaries. House's lead playing is beyond dazzling; his speed, melodicism, and flawless technique (his “Dimebar” squeals were quite fun) is mind blowing. Bassist Dziuk is a veritable shredder in his own right, invoking players such as John Myung or Billy Sheehan. Drummer Andy Martin held the band together with finesse and thunder despite some sound mix issues that muddied some of the riffs. Technical issues aside, Conniption stood out because of the great songs: “Let the Wolf Out” and “State of Sin” were particularly memorable. Needless to say, I visited their merch booth and picked up all three of their CDs. To quote a good friend on Conniption's set, “Awesome, simply awesome!”
--Automaton: Cincinnati's Automaton had been on my radar for awhile, but our paths had always misaligned. Therefore, I didn't quite know what to expect when they hit the Annex stage Saturday night. I certainly didn't expect them to be the second-most theatrical band on the bill. Automaton is a steampunk-themed power metal quintet, and elaborate brown-leather costumes and dramatic gestures are their calling card. Musically, Automaton combine the galloping riffs of Iron Maiden and Omen with the folky melodies of the more modern European power metal acts. Singer Duncan Batchworth III (aka The Ship Benefactor) clearly stole the show with his catchy and emotive vocal lines, and original look – shaggy mid-length hair, bushy mustache, and black eye makeup. Automaton’s musicianship was solid all around, but their somewhat middling brand of metal seemed underwhelming after InnerSiege and Conniption. Another poorly-defined audio mix didn't help matters, either. Automaton received a warm response from the MWP audience, though, and that's what matters most. They do present a fun, high-energy show, and kudos to them for their efforts.
--Droids Attack: When Ty Christian went onstage to introduce Droids Attack, he made it clear that they are his favorite Madison band. The audience surge to the front of the stage proved that many share his opinion. Droids Attack are a 1970s-style stoner heavy rock band, a style that is popular if also ubiquitous in 2017. But the power trio of guitarist/singer Brad Van, bassist Darwin Sampson, and drummer Tony Brungraber deliver a monumental wall of sound that rattles the eardrums and the feet moving. As Van calmly played Droids' crunchy, monolithic Sabbathy riffs on his sunburst Les Paul, the rhythm team of Sampson and Brungraber maintained the bluesy funk grooves. Their sound is as dynamic as it is heavy, utilizing open chords and slow arpeggios to allow the music breathing room. At one point, Van announced they would be redoing the video for “The Arcade Bully” right then and there, which amplified the energy factor in the room several notches. While no film cameras were in sight, Droids’ boxy robot mascot was right up front, dancing and waving to the song in an amusing manner. It was the one lightly theatrical moment of a mostly no-frills set. While Droids Attack’s overall sound and vibe stood out more than their individual songs in the live context, their appeal is obvious. Their set was highly entertaining and a welcome divergence stylistically for MWP.
--Lords of the Trident: The setup time for fest headliners and hosts Lords of the Trident was understandably longer than for the other acts. Not only did they have to set up their gear and stage props and soundcheck, but they seemed to be dealing with various technical issues. But feedback and a defective microphone cord couldn’t thwart the mighty Lords on this night. A few minutes after kicking their suspicious-looking roadies off the stage, the ominous spoken-word intro announced the arrival of The Most Metal Band On Earth. The costume-bedecked Lords – singer Fang VonWrathenstein, guitarists Baron Taurean Helleshaar and Asian Metal, bassist Pontifex Mortis, and new drummer Master “Herc” Hercule Schlagzeuger – erupted into a suitably explosive set of unadulterated, melodic, METAL. Now, anyone who's seen the Lords perform knows that it's more than a typical metal show -- it's a full-on theatrical experience. The Lords sport hooded robes, black ninja masks, and the armor of a medieval knight. At the center of this spectacle is VonWrathenstein, who reportedly is somehow related to that bizarre Droids Attack robot. No matter, per usual Fang hammered the beat with a battleaxe, soloed on a sparkly, glow-in-the-dark toy guitar, and generally played with fire.
The Lords debuted no fewer than five new tunes, which subtly expand their traditional/power metal sound into a more experimental and technical direction. These new songs went over well with the hometown crowd, but old favorites like “Knights of Dragon's Deep,” “Complete Control,” and closer “The Metal Sea” went down like a typhoon. The band performed with intensity despite the sound issues; Fang's gorgeous vocal melodies and paint-peeling shrieks on prime display. For the penultimate song, the Lords brought the vocalists for the five other bands back onstage for a rousing version of Dio's “Holy Diver.” The Lords’ planned encore of “Skyforce” and Chains On Fire” didn't happen due to a mixup with the sound guy. But the metal decimation was still utter and complete.
--Afterward: Mad With Power 2017 was, by all accounts, a success. Not only were the bands great and the show extremely entertaining, but the show was profitable from a business perspective as well. Christian made a smart choice by keeping this inaugural local and regional; now he has the capital to invest in a larger headliner for MWP 2, which is already in the works. The free-play arcade games and antique gaming systems were a unique touch that offered some welcome diversity in entertainment choices. Lords’ own mead was already tapped out by the Droids’ set; the Droids Attack beer seemed less popular but still was a cool promotion. The irritating sound issues throughout much of the night offer the biggest room for improvement for next year's fest. Most importantly, though, all the bands and fellow fans were extremely friendly and welcoming. Great underground fests like MWP serve as timely reminders of how we are all really one happy family of hard rock and heavy metal. Thanks also to Ty, Brian, and the Lords of the Trident for their generous hospitality all weekend. Now onward to MWP 2018.
--Review by Jonathan Kollnot