The Metal Grill, Cudahy, WI
April 20 – 22, 2017
Over the last seven years, the NYDM Milwaukee Spring Bash has developed a reputation as an outstanding event that deserves the support of the underground metal community. Initially conceived as a straight-up death/extreme metal fest, the Spring Bash has evolved to the point where it now features a cross-section of bands from across the metal spectrum. To be sure, death metal acts are still prevalent on the roster, but there is also a healthy dose of more traditional-minded artists as well. For the last couple of years, Jen and I have been biding our time and watching for the right opportunity to attend Spring Bash because (i) we’ve heard it’s a cool festival; (ii) we want to support the organizer, Randy Kastner, who is a good guy working hard to build this event; and (iii) it’s in Milwaukee, a city we’ve always wanted to visit. This year, the stars aligned, the opportunity presented itself, and so we bought our tickets, booked our flights, and landed at General Mitchell International Airport in Milwaukee on a gray, windy, chilly Thursday afternoon.
A few words about the format and overall set-up of the fest. It spans three days, running from mid- to late-afternoon until well past midnight each day, with a total of 8-10 bands each day. The bulk of the undercard bands are lesser known extreme metal acts, with each day’s lineup shifting more towards my personal musical tastes later in the day. I didn’t see every band. I didn’t try to see every band, so this review will not be comprehensive. I missed most of the early bands and some of the later bands because either they weren’t my cup of tea, or Jen and I were off exploring the city (it was, after all, our first visit to the Badger State), or we were socializing with good friends from around the U.S. whom we see all too infrequently at events like this. There’s a balance to be drawn, a tightrope to be walked. We did the best we could. I mean no disrespect to the bands not mentioned herein. We’re all part of the same community. We all hung out, rubbed shoulders, drank beer, laughed and rocked out all weekend long. We’re all in this together.
The locale for the fest was the Metal Grill, a heavy metal haven situated approximately 10 miles south of downtown Milwaukee, close to the airport in the town/suburb known as Cudahy. It’s a decidedly blue-collar area, with warehouses and bars and low-end real estate all around. But there’s abundant free street parking, the neighborhood seems relatively safe and clean, it’s easy to get to from the airport, and it’s within a few miles of several budget hotel options (including the Red Roof Inn, where we secured a rate of $47/night for the duration of the fest). More importantly, the Metal Grill is a very cool venue. It’s run by people who understand metal, and staffed by metal fans (some of the bartenders were wearing metal tees and visibly enjoying the performances) who are for the most part friendly and outgoing. Drink prices are reasonable, with draft beers from fine Wisconsin breweries like Lakefront and New Glarus running $5/pint, and there’s a kitchen with reasonably priced food, although it got backed up later in the weekend, with some folks complaining that they waited two hours for hamburgers that they never received. It’s a pretty cozy place, with a capacity that I would guess is in the neighborhood of 200-250. The front entrance places you immediately in the bar area, the left side of which opens into a long room looking onto the stage. Sightlines are good from anywhere in that room, acoustics are not bad, and the stage is small but high enough that bands can be viewed clearly even from the back of the room. There’s also a fenced-in backyard that served as the festival’s vendor area, including a tent jam-packed with beautiful (but mostly bootleg, I’m guessing) t-shirts and patches. There was ample room at the Metal Grill, and the place never felt too crowded or claustrophobic in any way. It’s the kind of heavy metal live music venue that every metalhead wishes was located in his or her town. It’s a fine place to see a show.
Perhaps you’re wondering about the “NYDM” abbreviation in the name of the fest. I’m certainly no expert in this topic, but I’ll try to explain, with apologies if I don’t get it quite right. The acronym stands for “New York Death Militia.” It’s not a gang, I guess, but it seems to operate kind of like one. They call themselves a brotherhood of likeminded individuals into brutal underground music. They wear vests festooned with NYDM patches, often customized to reflect the particular chapter they represent (Ohio, Missouri, Wisconsin, and so on). From what I could tell, most of the members are men in their 40s and 50s. They seem to have known each other forever, and they get along famously. I suppose it was a little strange, a little awkward to be an “outsider” at Spring Bash because Jen and I are not part of the NYDM. But everyone was welcoming and as friendly as they could be. So from my perspective, the NYDM affiliation of Spring Bash was a curiosity, definitely a feature that helped define the event, but in no way a deterrent to my enjoyment of the festivities. But it also meant that attendance at Spring Bash skewed older than at many festivals I attend these days. There weren’t many people at the Metal Grill in their 20s, for example. A side effect of the demographics of the audience was that there really weren’t mosh pits or crowd surfers. People were mostly just hanging out and digging the tunes. With a few noteworthy exceptions (i.e., the fight during Omen’s set that saw two dudes sprawled on the floor punching each other, no names mentioned here to protect the guilty!), everybody seemed like they were holding their booze and having fun. Overall, it was a cool vibe, with the focus squarely on the music, as is right and proper. For us, it also helped that we had so many friends from around the country in attendance. I won’t name names because I don’t want to forget anybody, but you know who you are, particularly our pals from the Warriors of Metal Fest gatherings in years gone by. It was great to hang out with all you nutty bastards again. We’re family.
Thursday, April 20, 2017
From the outset, there was a pall cast over the first day of Spring Bash, thanks to a pair of notable, last-minute cancellations. Death metallers Solstice were a late scratch because of a serious health issue involving one of the band members. More consequential for my musical tastes involved Japanese heavy metal institution Loudness, tonight’s scheduled headliners and the sole reason Jen and I had flown to Milwaukee on Thursday morning rather than Friday morning. Unfortunately, Loudness were denied entry into the USA on Tuesday because they had not obtained the proper visas. Losing Loudness was a huge blow. It felt like a punch to the gut. Jen and I debated changing our flights, or skipping the Thursday night portion of the fest altogether to go to a baseball game or drink beer or something. In the end, however, we decided to adhere to the original plan: fly up Thursday morning, check into the hotel, and head over to the venue after dinner to catch the last few bands of the night.
When we arrived at the Metal Grill, the crowd was still buzzing from the recently-concluded performance by Calamity. The Puerto Rican thrashers were extremely well-received, and hailed by many as either the best band of the day or the surprise hit of the weekend. I’m disappointed that I missed them, but hey, you can’t win ‘em all. As Jen and I got our beers (New Glarus and Lakefront on tap? I must have died and gone to (beer) heaven!), oriented ourselves in the room and said hello to our many friends, Lurking Corpses took the stage. One of the masked marauders had actually greeted Jen as we walked toward the venue, causing her to laugh hysterically. I only saw a little of their set, but they were wearing masks, their songs were fast, and they played a cover of Grim Reaper’s “See You in Hell” that I didn’t recognize until the chorus kicked in.
Somehow, despite the last-minute cancellations of Loudness and Solstice, organizer Randy Kastner managed to secure a replacement act to shore up the roster tonight. And what a replacement it was. Chicago’s Wrath, the long-running power/thrash act perhaps best known for releasing the classic Nothing to Fear album in 1987, packed up their gear and drove over from the Windy City on basically zero notice to step into the breach and save the day. And that’s exactly what they did. Wrath played a tight 40-minute set touching on most eras of the band (though sadly nothing from the Fit of Anger debut). The highlight for me (and probably most others) was the block of three songs from Nothing to Fear, namely “R.I.P. (Ripped into Pieces),” “When Worlds Collide,” and “Painless.” The years have been kind to these tracks, and Wrath played excellent versions of each tonight. That awesome twin guitar part in “Painless” was just flawless, and “R.I.P.” absolutely rips to this day. Wrath wrapped up their set with a headbanging run through Motorhead’s “Ace of Spades,” then were quite generous in handing out picks and sticks for the punters up front. Wrath also had a super cool selection of merch, with metal badges, pins, bottle openers, dog tags, pint glasses, and so on amidst the usual assortment of t-shirts (although, like an idiot, I somehow neglected to snag a shirt before they packed up their stuff). I had a chance to visit with guitarists Scott Nyquist and Robert Noon that night, and again on Saturday when they drove back up from Chicago to attend the Spring Bash as fans. Good people, good band, and a much-needed lift to bolster the Thursday night and atone for the loss of Loudness. Thanks, guys! Setlist: Licking Wounds, Test of Faith, R.I.P. (Ripped Into Pieces), When Worlds Collide, Painless, Mothers Hell, Draw Blood, Insane Society, Ace of Spades.
Minnesota shock rockers Impaler were up next. I’d seen them in Chicago at last year’s Ragnarokkr Fest so I knew what to expect. On that basis, I secreted Jen safely out of the line of sight of the stage before the show started - I knew she would not be amused by all the blood and guts. To me, Impaler are just a fun live band. I owned a dubbed cassette copy of the Rise of the Mutants EP as a teenager, and I still own If We Had Brains … We’d Be Dangerous on CD, but otherwise I haven’t really followed the band’s career trajectory or kept up with their music. They’ve now got an extensive discography, specializing in fast, punky, simple, catchy, rock’n’roll. And apparently most of the Impaler classic lineup remains intact, with Bill Lindsey on vocals, Michael James Torok on guitars, and Commander Court Hawley on bass, just like in the old days. Cool. Most of the songs seem to have a horror theme to the lyrics (see cuts like “Meat Wagon” or “666 Dreary Lane”). They even did a cover of MC5’s “Kick Out the Jams,” surprisingly enough. I recognized and was happy to hear three tunes from the Rise of the Mutants EP, including “Shock Rock,” “Heaven’s Force,” and “Impaler.” Sadly, I don’t think Impaler played anything off If We Had Brains. At the end of the day, though, a big part of Impaler’s draw is the visuals, and those were certainly as advertised. Impaler brought the ghoulish makeup, the garish outfits, the blood-spattered lab coat of backing vocalist Dr. Corpse, the schtick where Lindsey chews on the head on a spike and blood gushes everywhere, and even the bit where Lindsey essentially disembowels has back-up singer. Is it campy? Sure. Is it juvenile? Of course. Is it fun? That depends on your perspective, I suppose, but I got a laugh out of seeing audience members (and, in some cases, friends of mine such as True Metal Lives head honcho Mark Vander Zanden) proudly displaying their blood-smeared visages after the gig. Impaler are what they are. They’re not for everyone. But they’re a pretty entertaining way to spend 50 minutes in a pinch.
The heavy lifting for tonight fell on Satan’s Host. Originally slated for a 45-50 minute support slot, suddenly they were asked to double that output and step in as headliner given the Loudness debacle. To my knowledge, the Colorado natives aren’t a particularly active band, and they’d been rehearsing for a much shorter set, so I was dubious that they could pull it off. I was also dead wrong. The quartet got up onstage and played their 7-song, 45-minute planned set in exact sequence from their printed setlist. Then things got interesting. They announced that it was time for part two of the set, then simply turned the setlist over. On the back were eight more handwritten song titles. They played every single one of them, even though they jumbled the order a bit. Not only that, but they played ‘em great. I can’t say I’m intimately familiar with Satan’s Host’s catalog, but there was no hesitation, no tentativeness, no obvious mistakes in these performances. It was as if they’d been planning on a 100-minute set all along, which of course they weren’t. Satan’s Host played all the evil heavy metal a guy could possibly want, and they were in fine form. Legendary vocalist Harry “The Tyrant” Conklin (Jag Panzer / Titan Force) sounded fantastic and made those piercing high notes seem effortless, even 90+ minutes into the gig. And of course guitarist Patrick Evil was a solid, unyielding force all night long. The guys were gracious too, with Conklin saying how great Loudness are and how much he had been looking forward to seeing them tonight, but at the same time commenting that their absence created an opportunity for which Satan’s Host were thankful, in terms of being able to play a longer set. At one point, the usually jovial Conklin grew serious and started talking about how important this music is, how it brings us all together, how it’s a force of such positivity even though those on the outside perceive it as negative. It was quite articulate, and the sentiment was dead-on. In terms of material, I was thrilled to hear the speed metal glory of “Metal from Hell” and of course the Grim Reaper “See You in Hell” cover (with Harry putting the mike in front of me so I could belt out one of the choruses, haha) was magnificent. Two versions of “See You in Hell” in one night? Steve Grimmett, see what thou hast wrought? Other highlights were “Fanning the Flames of Hell” and the surprisingly pensive “After the End,” but nearly everything worked well. Sure, the crowd thinned out, but that’s to be expected. It was the first night of a three-day festival, and a small dose of this stuff goes a long way for most people. But Satan’s Host were determined to salvage the day, flip the script and change the narrative. And that’s exactly what they did. The lingering theme of Day 1 was not that Loudness were forced to cancel, but that Satan’s Host and Wrath stepped up with heroic efforts to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. Well done. Setlist: Cor Maleficus – Heart of Evil, Demontia, See You in Hell, Inferior Worlds, Island of the Giant Ants, Soul Wrent, By the Hands of the Devil, Satanic Grimoire, After the End, Valley of Blood, Fanning the Flames of Hell, Descending in the Shadow of Osiris, Convictions, Metal from Hell, Pre-Dating God.
Friday, April 21, 2017
We woke up on Friday morning and drove into downtown Milwaukee, where we had a wonderful day of walking around and playing tourists. We were impressed by the waterfront, the museum, the architecture, the layout of the city and the friendliness of the people. Stopped for an amazing cup of Colectivo coffee, which is local to Wisconsin. Walked around the perimeter of the Bradley Center, where folks were gearing up for tomorrow’s Game 4 of the NBA first-round playoffs between the Milwaukee Bucks and Vancouver. The phrases “Go Bucks” and “Fear the Deer” were plastered everywhere, it seemed. (Alas, it was not meant to be, as the Bucks ultimately fell to the Raptors in six games, despite showing a lot of heart and a never-say-die spirit.) For a real treat, we found our way to the beer hall at Lakefront Brewery, where we sampled liberally of the in-house brews (the Nathan, a smoked dark lager, was my favorite) and ate cheese curds (which completely kick ass over mozzarella sticks) for the first time in our lives. Cheese curds rule! Only bummer was when they played “Sweet Home Alabama” in the beer hall when we there. Dammit, I flew 1,000 miles to get away from that song, but alas, it seems to have followed me here. We all have our crosses to bear.
We made it back to the Metal Grill just in time to see California’s Kantation, who went on at 6:05 p.m. Their blend of chunky riffs and soaring vocals left me favorably impressed at Ragnarokkr a couple of years ago, so I was looking forward to seeing them tonight. Martin DeBourge (didn’t he used to be blond? he’s got black hair now) and the boys only had 35 minutes to work with, but they made the most of their time, turning in a powerful 7-song set that hit the high points of their first two albums and offered a glimpse of what’s to come. Early on, DeBourge announced they were going to play the live premiere of a song from the new album (to be entitled Convergence), but that it was a cover some of us might recognize. Much to my surprise, it ended up being a revved-up, metalized version of the 1970s pop hit “Sister Golden Hair” by America. I love it when bands do unconventional cover tunes, and this one worked well, after I got over the initial shock. At the end, as per tradition (or at least, I recall they did it at Ragnarokkr too), Kantation played another cover, this one of Saxon’s “Power and the Glory,” a classic tune and a killer way to close out their set. Martin said that the Saxon cover will be on the new album as an unlisted bonus track after 12 minutes of silence or something. Oh, and the band offered probably the best merch deal of the whole weekend, selling both CDs and a t-shirt as a bundle for the dirt-cheap price of $20. Can’t beat it. Setlist: Forget Me, Sister Golden Hair, The Maze, Make Your Mark, Walk Through Desire, Distant Eyes, Power and the Glory.
The next band we saw was Voltax, the pride of Mexico City. Given the prevalence of visa issue these days and the band’s country of origin, there had been considerable jitters that Voltax might not make it. Thankfully, in this instance, the immigration gods were benevolent, and the lads made it here without incident. Voltax were playing this show as the first of a small run of U.S. dates (also including appearances in Baltimore, New York City, and Philadelphia, from what I understand). The back of their tour shirt bore the slogan, “Crushing the Walls of Ignorance USA 2017.” Oval Office politics cast a long shadow, indeed. Once they hit the stage, it was as if Voltax had been shot from a cannon in Mexico City over Trump’s wall, landing directly in the Metal Grill, where they proceeded to absolutely lay waste to the joint. The amount of energy and fire in their performance was simply off the charts. Both guitarists were a blur of energy bounding across the stage, the bassist was a pure headbanging maniac, and how Jerry managed to rock so hard while still singing without running out of breath I’ll never know. Voltax capture the essence of ‘80s metal: the exuberance, the youthful energy, the fast tempos and screaming guitars, and even the spandex trousers. One guitarist had the Motorhead song title “The Chase is Better than the Catch” tattooed on his belly. These cats live and breathe heavy metal, and their brand of old-fashioned melodic speed/power metal is completely addictive in a live setting. The only other time I had ever seen Voltax was at Warriors of Metal in Ohio in 2013, when they played with only one guitarist. The twin-guitar attack beefed up their live sound, and the small confines of the Metal Grill stage had them bouncing off the walls like superballs or popcorn kernels in the microwave. Incidentally, there were a large number of Latino metalheads right up near the front for Voltax’s set, singing along and addressing the band in Spanish between songs. My guess is they came to Spring Bash just to see Voltax. And Voltax’s performance was so good that they absolutely deserved that kind of loyalty. Don’t ask me about the setlist. I’ve no clue what they played, although I distinctly remember hearing their anthem “Acero Inmortal” and new stuff like “Go with Me.” Live, Voltax are all about the energy, and they brought that in spades tonight. Wow!
In all honesty, Thrust were a big part of the reason why Jen and I were in Milwaukee this weekend. I bought Fist Held High as a wee, impressionable lad, so I’ve known those songs forever, but never got to see the band until last year’s Frost & Fire Festival in California. That night, there was an awkward incident in which guitarist Ron Cooke inadvertently clocked me in the head with his black ESP guitar, rattling a few fillings loose and maybe even knocking some sense into me. He bought me a beer the next day to atone for it, we had some laughs, and we became fast friends. No way I was going to miss Thrust in a rare appearance outside the West Coast. Voltax are not an easy live act to follow, but Thrust proved up to the challenge, and then some. It helps, of course, to have those evergreen Fist Held High tunes up their sleeves. Any set that opens with “Fist Held High” and ends with “Posers Will Die” is guaranteed to be killer. It also helps that Eric Claro is a fine singer, a powerful frontman, and funny as hell to boot (the part where he was trying to kill time during a technical issue with the drum microphones by asking the audience if they knew any jokes was hilarious). But what really makes Thrust excel as a live band is the obvious passion and love they exude for their craft, even after all these years. The smiles on their faces and the intensity with which they rock tell the tale, with Cooke, guitarist Angel Rodriguez, and bassist Ray Gervais in constant motion. Add drummer Joe Rezendes pounding the hell out of his kit, and you’ve got a sure-fire recipe for victory. I loved every minute of Thrust’s set tonight, and was particularly intrigued by the two new tunes (“Sorceress” and “Feel the Pain”), both of which sounded very encouraging. The band assured me afterwards that the new album is well on its way, with optimism for a release date later this year. Let’s hope so. Thrust have a whole lot left to offer the metal world. All you posers better watch out: Thrust are coming for you!!! Setlist: Fist Held High, Overdrive, Scream Girl Scream, Sorceress, Feel the Pain, Thrasher, Wasted, Metallic Attack, Posers Will Die.
I’m not the biggest Midnight fan in the world, but they’re quite good at what they do. Combining the raw greasy swagger of Motorhead with the evil campiness of Venom, and ratcheting up the intensity a few notches, all while wearing black hoods, the Cleveland trio have established a rabid following. Midnight easily boasted the most raucous and rowdiest crowd response of the weekend. (I thought my poor friend Taylor was going to get crushed up front, but she stood her ground, held her own, and mostly avoided getting pummeled.) Fresh off the road from a lengthy tour opening for Kreator, Midnight have certainly honed and focused their live attack since I saw them last. The crowd ate it up. And they get extra credit for talking up Militia’s performance tomorrow as well as Omen’s performance up next, because it demonstrated what huge, genuine fans of this music Midnight are. Of course, it wouldn’t be a Midnight gig without a set-concluding smashed guitar. I don’t care how many times I’ve seen it done, or how crappy the guitar is, I never get tired of seeing a musician smash a guitar onstage. So, yeah, Midnight were outstanding.
For a variety of reasons, Omen is a complicated subject for me. But I’m not going to rehash a bunch of garbage here. After much thought and deliberation, I’m going to keep it simple. Here’s what it’s all about: Even more than three decades later, I still get goosebumps every single time I listen to Battle Cry, Warning of Danger and The Curse. There’s an undeniable, timeless magic in those albums. So if I get to hear good live versions of songs from those brilliant recordings, I’m happy. Very happy. And Omen played well tonight, in what was essentially a warm-up for their European tour. If you wanna bitch about Kenny Powell not being a precise, disciplined live player, or Kevin Goocher reading the lyrics sometimes, or the presence of a completely different rhythm section, go ahead. But I’m not gonna go down that road. For what it’s worth, the new guys did a fine job. Bassist was pretty static in terms of stage presence, but he apparently worked with Kenny pre-Omen, and according to Goocher, helped develop some of the Battle Cry material. Drummer (from Phantom-X) brought the energy and contributed welcome backing vocals that helped flesh out some of the songs. And Omen treated us to the live debut of a brand-new song, “Up from the Deep,” a song about a sea monster complete with war chants and some inspired riffing. It’s a surprisingly strong tune, worthy of the Omen name, and I hope it garners release somewhere other than the limited 7” Omen/Battleroar split that Cruz del Sur is putting out for Keep It True. Best moment of the set? “Hell’s Gates.” I’ve seen Omen many times, but I don’t recall ever hearing them play that one. Fantastic song, and excellent to see them varying up the set to unearth more of those early Omen gems. Setlist: Death Rider, Last Rites, The Axeman, Up from the Deep, Ruby Eyes of the Serpent, Hammer Damage, Dragon’s Breath, Warning of Danger, Hell’s Gates, Termination, Teeth of the Hydra. Encore: Battle Cry, Die by the Blade.
Saturday, April 22, 2017
We awakened this morning to the ultra-crappy news that Belgium’s Evil Invaders were not going to be making their U.S. debut at Spring Bash tonight, after all. Details are sparse, but apparently two members were allowed into the country, while the other two were not. The word “bummer” doesn’t do justice to the level of disappointment we felt. But god bless him, Randy Kastner (who was absolutely not at fault for any of this) rallied quickly, and posted a new schedule for the day that would start a bit later and give some of the bands an extra five minutes for their set. This turned out to be a huge positive for me later in the day, as I will explain shortly.
For our last full day in Milwaukee, the meteorological fates ordered up some perfect spring weather, with bright sunshine and cool breezes. Jen and I continued exploring Milwaukee, getting caught up in the Bucks pep rally outside the Bradley Center, meandering through the Marquette University campus, and eventually making our way over to Walker’s Point to check out two more excellent breweries, Milwaukee Brewing Co. and MobCraft Beer. The latter was my favorite, and we liberally sampled their marshmallow porter, their coffee brown (called Batshit Crazy, haha), and their cayenne stout, among others. Delicious. Gorged ourselves on Gyros, then met up with some friends at Hardee’s (that famous Milwaukee landmark – hey, it wasn’t our idea), before working our way back to the Metal Grill to catch the Spring Bash proceedings in full swing.
As we strolled in a few minutes before 6:30 p.m., Vatican were just finishing their first song. My initial surprise was that there were only three guys on stage. Wait, didn’t they used to be a four-piece? Anyway, Vatican’s Metalmorphosis release on Cult Metal Classics has received considerable airplay at Ekman HQ. It boasts high-grade U.S. metal, so I was really looking forward to seeing Vatican again. Tonight, they tilted the setlist in favor of their newly-released March of the Kings album on Pure Steel Records, and rightfully so, but I wasn’t familiar with the new stuff. That said, I got a big kick out of hearing “5th of Meal,” “The Ripper” and “Mistreater” off Metalmorphosis, and the new songs all sounded strong and very much in line with the earlier material. Vince Vatican’s a fine guitarist, and Brain McNasty still looks like the lovechild of Eric Wagner and Jon Oliva, with a good bit of early Oliva character to his voice, plus he hits those high notes to perfection. Nicely done all the way around, and I look forward to getting to know March of the Kings in the weeks and months ahead. Setlist: Alive to the Grave, Deadly Winds, Falling from Grace, 5th of Metal, Mean Streak, The Ripper, Running, Mistreater.
Up next was Stone Magnum from Indiana, who were playing their first show in more than a year, from what I understand. Stone Magnum are the embodiment of everything I love about classic doom metal. They’ve mastered the Franklin/Wartell guitar magic, from the monster Sabbathy riffage to the achingly mournful harmonies to the balls-out chugging parts. They’ve got a singer who is both tuneful and intense, pouring anguished emotion into the songs without sounding like a Messiah Marcolin / Robert Lowe clone. And they’ve got epic compositions with an unerring knack for dynamics that brilliantly capture the light and shade, the tragedy and the urgency, the aggression and the sorrow that doom metal is supposed to be, at least for me. All those elements translated perfectly to the stage in Milwaukee. I loved watching Dean Tavernier and Jim Brucks conjure up such majesty and might from their guitars, and Nick Hernandez is a truly compelling frontman. It also helped that Stone Magnum were the only doom band of the weekend, so the stylistic change of pace was well-received by the Spring Bash faithful. For my money, Stone Magnum are one of the best doom bands in the world today, and it was a (holy) blessing (to none) to witness them up-close and personal at the Metal Grill. Setlist (crap, I think I’m missing one): As I Burn Your World to Ash, Savior in Black, In Tongues they Whisper, Grave of Cryptic Sorrows, The Illusion of Faith.
It was a fine catch for Randy to reel in Militia, a cult ‘80s power/speed band from Texas who is best known in underground metal circles for releasing one of the rarest collector’s items ever, in the form of The Sybling EP released in 1986, of which only 100 vinyl copies were ever pressed. Militia are something of a white whale because unlike a lot of these classic metal acts, they don’t ride the festival circuit, either domestically or abroad. In fact, aside from an appearance at Keep It True in Germany some eight years ago, Militia had never played a gig outside of Texas before. I was really curious as to how they would be onstage, whether Mike Soliz could still nail those insane high notes, and how new guitarist Art Villareal (known from S.A. Slayer and Karion) would fit. I hoped and expected that Militia would put on a good show. I was wrong. They put on an *amazing* show. The songs were superb, with the old 80s tunes sounding wayyyy more powerful than they did on those lo-fi early recordings. The guitar team of Villareal and Tony Smith was a joy to behold, just locked in and complementing each other well in terms of both playing style and stage presence. Everything fell into place on songs like the instrumental “The Sybling,” a highlight of the set and proof positive that a great song can be killer live even without vocals. As for Soliz, you’d never guess it from looking at him, but he’s still got the voice, the range and the power. The large crowd went nuts, I went nuts. This was a lesson in Texas power/speed metal at its absolute finest. By the time they ended their set triumphantly with “Metal Axe,” complete with spirited audience participation singing the titular phrase in the chorus, Militia had pretty much blown everyone away in the entire room. Wow! Hopefully Militia can be coaxed into doing some more festival appearances soon. They’re too good for this to be Milwaukee’s and Texas’s secret. Listen up, festival promoters! Setlist: Objective: Termination, The Judas Dream, Doomed, Regiments of Death, The Sybling, Furious, Salem Square, Panzer, Metal Axe.
If I had to summarize in one word why we were in Milwaukee this weekend, that word would be Attacker. The New Jersey metal kings are one of my all-time favorite bands, with six uniformly excellent albums to their credit, yet inexplicably I had only seen them twice before, once at Keep It True in 2008 when they played Battle at Helm’s Deep from beginning to end and the other time at Ragnarokkr in Chicago in 2015. I didn’t want to miss another opportunity to see Attacker, especially since they’re supporting an absolutely incredible new album, Sins of the World. Tonight marked my first time seeing Attacker with their new lineup, as Jon Hasselbrink has assumed guitar duties from founding member Pat Marinelli, who parted amicably with the band last year. When I spoke to drummer Mike Sabatini before the set, he told me that, while they certainly miss Pat, the change has been positive because Jon’s a great player who’s mastered 20 Attacker songs, so the band have got a full arsenal ready and can switch songs in and out of the set from one show to the next. Sabatini also told me that they had drawn up a punchy festival set with shorter songs tonight since they only had 45 minutes to work with, but that given the extra 5 minutes they’d been granted because of Evil Invaders’ woes, they were going to play “Glen of the Ghost” (my favorite Attacker tonight) after all. I was so happy. And my happiness extended through their entire set. The band sounded amazing (despite some monitor issues that made the boys’ work more difficult). Hasselbrink and fellow guitarist Mike Benetatos seemed as if they’d been playing together their entire lives. The transition was seamless. I could just sit and watch Benetatos play guitar all night: the guy’s got chops and flair for miles, and yet he’s a super-aggressive player too, headbanging himself into oblivion. Vocalist Bobby “Leather Lungs” Lucas had been fighting a sinus infection all week long, but you’d never have guessed it with his dominant performance behind the microphone. For high-end, screaming metal singers, it doesn’t get any better than Lucas. And the man was on fire tonight. As for bassist Brian Smith, he seemed way more comfortable onstage with Attacker then when I’d seen him in Chicago in 2015 (which I think was one of his first gigs with the band), taking over center stage during the instrumental breaks and leaning out into the crowd with a big smile on his face. Was happy to see Sabatini back there bashing his kit in a Night Demon “Hallowed Ground” shirt too. What I loved most about the 11-song setlist was that all six albums were represented, so it was very balanced. (Sabatini told me later that they’ll never “give up on” any of their albums, even the lesser known ones in the middle, because someone might have discovered Attacker on those discs and they might be their favorite albums. That’s awesome, and rare in today’s world where everybody wants to go for the path of least resistance by sticking to the “hits.”) I had expected “World Destroyer” off Sins of the World to be the opener, and what an opener it was, just an incendiary track with savage riffing. Other highlights were “Archangel” (probably my favorite song on the new album), “Zero Hour” (a stone-cold classic from The Second Coming), “The Unknown” (off the unheralded The Unknown record), “The Hermit” (one of the greatest U.S. Metal songs of the 1980s) and of course “Glen of the Ghost.” I couldn’t stop grinning from ear to ear for the whole set. I dearly love Attacker. And they were dearly awesome tonight. I need way more Attacker shows in my life, that’s for damned sure. Setlist: World Destroyer, Lords of Thunder, The Hammer, The End, Zero Hour, Archangel, Slayer’s Blade, The Unknown, Carcosa, The Hermit, Glen of the Ghost.
If I were a serious journalist, I would have remained upfront and studiously observed Tyrant’s headlining set for review purposes. But I’m not, and I didn’t. It’s not that I don’t like the band. I do. And the parts I heard (including a scintillating version of “Battle of Armageddon” off Metal Massacre III) sounded really good, with the guys onstage obviously giving it their all. But I’d gotten into the “shenanigans and tomfoolery” part of the evening. I was hanging with the Thrust guys and the Attacker guys, still buzzing from the Attacker show (not to mention three days of drinking beer), and I got distracted. I lost my focus. It happens. Apologies to Tyrant, but man I had a great night. Somehow I ended up backstage drinking godawful Milwaukee’s Best Light (hey, it was free) talking to Attacker and Thrust. I think somebody backstage thought I was in Attacker because they congratulated me for playing a great show, hahaha. I said, “Thank you” and went on my way. Joe and Angel from Thrust ended up staying at the Metal Grill with us until closing time, and we all relied on Jen (the only sober one in the bunch, thank God) to get us back to our respective hotels. It was a fine conclusion to a fine festival. I know Randy Kastner is working on another installment of the Spring Bash for 2018, and has already announced Nasty Savage, Trauma, Anger as Art, and Damien Thorne. If you’ve ever wanted to visit Milwaukee, or you’ve ever been curious about Spring Bash, just go. Don’t wait. This festival is fan-friendly, wallet-friendly and very well organized. As for Milwaukee, it’s a fun city, an easy city to navigate, and it’s beer heaven if that’s your thing. And there’s no guarantee that any more Spring Bashes will happen after next year. Seize the day. The time is now.
~ Review by Kit Ekman ~