3 Nights on the Road with the Demon
It was after midnight on the morning of Friday, October 16, when the message came in from Night Demon singer/bassist Jarvis Leatherby: “These three days will be the longest three days of your life.” I laughed, but the words were prophetic. At that very moment, I was in the midst of pulling an all-nighter because I had to leave for the airport at 4:00 a.m. to catch my flight to San Francisco. The plan called for me to meet up with Night Demon that night to accompany them on an epic three-show run spanning more than 900 miles. The centerpiece of these shows was to be the inaugural Frost & Fire Festival in Ventura, California, sandwiched in between a festival warm-up gig in San Francisco and an appearance at the Southwest Terror Festival in Tucson, Arizona. “Epic” is definitely an apt descriptor for what unfolded … but I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start from the beginning.
October 16, 2015
Thanks to the wonders of modern air travel, I arrived at SFO at a hair after 11:00 a.m. Pacific Time, bleary eyed but fired up to be exploring San Francisco for the first time in my adult life. As I walked through the terminal, I happened upon a display of Kirk Hammett’s horror memorabilia. Included in the exhibit were several items from Hammett’s horror-themed guitar collection, most notably the Boris Karloff / Mummy axe and the Ouija board guitar, both of which I’ve seen him play live at any number of Metallica gigs over the years. There’s a good omen, right? I mean, how cool must San Francisco be if they have Kirk Hammett’s monster guitars on display in their airport???
After a delightful afternoon on foot playing tourist (exploring the gritty ethnic flavor of the Mission District, visiting the Mission Dolores Basilica, checking out AT&T Park / McCovey Cove, walking up Embarcadero to the northern tip of the city, hanging out on Pier 39 with the sea lions, dining downtown with the Cali nouveau riche, etc.), I reached the venue shortly after 7:00 p.m. Thee Parkside is an unassuming little red building on a quiet street across from a playground / soccer field at the intersection of 17th and Wisconsin. From what I’ve been told, this is ground zero for underground metal shows in the Bay Area. Inside, the place was freaking tiny, or at least the music room. There was a bigger, open room in the back with ample seating for diners (the place is also a restaurant) and merch stands; however, the front room was extremely cramped, with a postage-stamp sized, low stage set up in a corner adjacent to the front door (closed off tonight). And the place was sold out tonight. During the gig, the music room had wall-to-wall metalheads packed in like sardines in a sweltering environment that would send a claustrophobe into a full-blown hyperventilating panic attack. Unless you were at or near the front, you could only see the heads of band members on stage. My friend Scott who lives in the SF area and was at the show told me he’d never seen Thee Parkside anywhere near this crowded. It was nuts.
The concept of the show was that it was a kickoff / warmup gig for the Frost & Fire Festival taking place 350 miles south of here tomorrow. Three of the four bands playing tonight (the lone exception being local metal heroes Slough Feg) were also booked for Frost& Fire, and a large contingent of the attendees likewise intended to trek south on the 101 or Interstate 5 (disruptive, destructive mudslides permitting) to the Land of Frost & Fire on Saturday. Shortly after 9:30 p.m., SAVAGE MASTER took the stage and away we went. Now, this was my third time seeing the Kentucky executioners since May. The first time I saw them, I enjoyed the band but was a bit distracted by the visuals. If you don’t know, singer Stacey Savage is decked out in full bondage gear, while her four male bandmates wear executioner’s hoods and chains, sporting pale bellies to boot. It’s quite a spectacle. The second time (last month in Atlanta), I got past the visuals and liked the band a lot. Tonight, I loved Savage Master. Their setlist has changed a bit for this run of dates, as they now play three new songs: “Black Hooves” (available now on a 7” single), “Vengeance is Steel” (available on the ‘Heavy Metal Mixtape’ compilation being released by Night Demon on Halloween) and “Whips and Chains.” All three tunes are fantastic, with “Whips and Chains” positively blowing my head off when I heard it for the first time tonight. I was so excited about that song that I went up to Stacey Savage and affable, bespectacled guitarist Adam Neal after the gig and blathered on like an idiot about how awesome “Whips and Chains” is. It might even be better than “Death Rides the Highway,” which is high praise indeed. Given these three stellar new cuts, mixed in with highlights from their ‘Mask of the Devil’ debut LP, Savage Master have a formidable batch of songs indeed. Their set (30 minutes or so) was over much too quickly for my liking, and audience calls for Savage Master to encore with their “Swords and Tequila” cover went unanswered because of time constraints. Setlist: Ripper in Black, Mystifying Oracle, Blood on the Rose, Black Hooves, Mask of the Devil, Whips and Chains, Vengeance is Steel, Altar of Lust, Death Rides the Highway.
NIGHT DEMON were up next. It felt like an eternity since I’d last seen Jarvis, Brent and Dusty onstage, but in reality it had only been five months since that strange night at the English pub in Miami. (What was strange about the Miami gig? Well, we were surrounded by green mohawks and skateboarder dudes, one of whom skated across the front of the stage during the first song of ND’s set. One of the other bands had a female singer who literally chained herself to a nearby pillar and screamed with a bag over her head. Then we were accosted by a middle-aged Puerto Rican lesbian at 3:00 a.m. in CVS where we were trying to buy beer. Told you it was some weird shit. But I digress …). Unfortunately, San Francisco would not receive the full Night Demon experience tonight. For one thing, the stage was way too small for the complete production (which is lavish for an underground US metal band). For another, the band’s set was cut short for various reasons beyond their control, resulting in a mere seven-song outing spanning under a half hour. But Night Demon made the most of every second onstage, delivering their typical high-energy, full-power brand of old-school ferocity, much to the delight of the sweaty, oxygen-deprived crowd. The setlist had a couple of oddities. No cover songs tonight, for the first time of any Night Demon show I had ever seen. And the set was missing “Howling Man” for the first time in my Night Demon concert experiences, but included “Mastermind,” one of my favorites from ‘Curse of Damned’ that I hadn’t heard the band play live since October 2014 on the Raven tour (when I didn’t know the song because the album hadn’t been released). For me, headbanging against the stage, this Night Demon show was a strenuous workout given the difficult environmental conditions. I can only imagine how exhausting it must have been for the boys on stage, who looked like they’d just run a marathon by the time the gig ended. Setlist: Screams in the Night, Full Speed Ahead, Curse of the Damned, Ritual, Mastermind, The Chalice, Night Demon.
Before I continue the narrative, here’s an interesting anecdote: As mentioned, I was pressed right up against the stage throughout the Night Demon set. Next to me was a friendly short-haired dude who, despite being a huge ND fan, was seeing the band live for the first time. This dude went nuts during the gig, and it was fun to see his awestruck, overjoyed reaction as a Night Demon first-timer. Anyway, I was chatting with the guy, whose name is Dustin, and he offered to give me a copy of his band’s CD. Although a bit skeptical -- seriously, how often does a stranger hand you their CD at a gig and it turns out to be worth a damn -- I accepted. Much to my amazement, his band is Cloven Altar, the two-man project on Stormspell Records in which Swedish wunderkind Cederick Forsberg plays all the instruments and a mysterious unknown guy writes the songs and does the vocals. Well, Dustin is that mystery guy. Whoa! Holy strange coincidence, Batman. And the name of this Cloven Altar album? ‘Demon of the Night,’ of course!
As the last notes of “Night Demon” rang out, I sprang into action to help my friends get their gear offstage and make room for Slough Feg. To call it chaotic would be an understatement. Because of time constraints, the Slough Feg guys were understandably eager to get set up, so the Night Demon gear had to be removed as quickly as possible. We ended up lugging everything off the stage, out the front door of the venue, and leaving it all on the sidewalk without having broken down or packed up anything, just to clear the stage with maximum speed. Cables and drum hardware and light boxes and banners and other equipment were strewn all across the San Francisco sidewalk. Once we got everything loaded out, we could pack it up in the van at our leisure.
Well before this project was completed, SLOUGH FEG began their gig. I could have left the lads to their labors and gone inside to watch the full Slough Feg set, but it didn’t feel right to ditch them and go rock out while they worked, so I stayed outside to help until all the Night Demon gear had packed up. It wasn’t all bad. From my location, I could hear Slough Feg’s performance pretty clearly, as there was only one exterior wall separating me from the stage. So I distinctly remember hearing them belt out “Digital Resistance” while I was outside with the gear. And I did get inside to watch probably the last 15 minutes of their show, including an extended version of “Warriors Dawn.” Live, Slough Feg come across as every bit a quirky and eccentric act as you might expect. They don’t attempt to perform note-perfect reproductions of their recorded songs, but add enough improvisation and experimentation to keep the listeners (and, no doubt, the band) on their toes. Near the end, vocalist/guitarist Mike Scalzi took off his guitar, donned a black vest and black hat of the kind you might see a cabaret singer wear, and went into this kind of lounge lizard routine that I didn’t quite understand. (My SF friend Scott told me that Scalzi does this at every Slough Feg show, so it’s kind of expected at this point.) Still, for much of what I saw and heard, Slough Feg’s glorious twin-guitar melodies were fully intact, and Scalzi’s characteristic, unique voice is a joy to behold. I may have been left scratching my head just a bit by Slough Feg’s performance, but the crowd was off-the-rails delirious, with a whole line of people up front singing every word and rejoicing in every riff, melody and utterance.
What happened next was totally out of character for me. Ordinarily, when I’m at a metal show, I make it a point to watch every performance by every band that I’m interested in. I like MANILLA ROAD, but wouldn’t characterize myself as a huge fan. Under normal circumstances, I would not hesitate to find a nice spot to watch their complete headlining gig. But tonight wasn’t normal circumstances. For one thing, I was dead tired and just wanted to hang out and drink a beer. For another, I desperately wanted time to visit with friends old and new, including a fantastic couple from Belgium, my friend from San Francisco, the Night Demon guys whom I had not seen in five months, Mr. Cloven Altar, and on and on and on. Finally – and here was the clincher – I knew I could see Manilla Road play a full headlining gig tomorrow night in Ventura. So I decided to hang out in the back room, talk to my friends and drink a beer (they had a lovely domestic stout in a can for $4). I didn’t actually see any of Manilla Road’s performance tonight. Not exactly a “diligent reviewer” move on my part, I know, but it’s the truth and it was exactly what I needed at that moment, so that’s what I did. Lest you MR fanatics pillory me, stay tuned and read on for a full write-up of their Frost & Fire performance, below.
When the show ended and Thee Parkside emptied out, I saddled up in the Night Demon van. There was to be no rest for the wicked on this night. After all, Frost& Fire was tomorrow, and Night Demon were the promoters/organizers of this festival. There were a million details to be ironed out and nailed down before the next day’s party could commence. So we hauled ass all the way back to Ventura that night, more than 350 miles, pulling into town sometime around 8:30 a.m.
October 17, 2015
The morning and early afternoon were a bit of a blur. There was a little time to take a nap and a shower (at least for me, as two of the Night Demon guys went immediately into Fest prep mode with no sleep at all), then I went down to the Bombay Bar & Grill to help set up the venue for today’s FROST& FIRE FESTIVAL. At first glance, the Bombay seems like an awfully classy place to host an underground heavy metal festival. It’s located in a nice downtown area, just a few blocks from the Pacific Ocean (which I walked over to see during the afternoon before the festivities began) and within walking distance of several hotels. Fan-friendly setup, indeed. Many venue staff members (bouncers, even!!!) wear button down white shirts and black ties. It’s the kind of classy place you might go for a drink after work or on the way to the theater. But the layout was *perfect* for this kind of event. The main room / bar / restaurant area features a small “bar band”-type stage at the front, but the room goes way back so that it’s possible to see and hear the front stage from quite some distance away, albeit there are tables and chairs and bar patrons around you. Meanwhile, the back room is a good sized open space with a much larger stage at one end. For any act with any kind of stage show / mosh pit / theatrics / lighting needs, etc. the back stage is the place to be. Then there’s a large outdoor patio area where we set up tables for vendors and bands to sell merch. The patio proved to be a wonderful spot to get a breath of fresh air and rest the eardrums for a bit as the Fest wore on. A cool detail was that the venue had been decked out in Frost & Fire regalia: a banner hanging vertically from the side of the building, another strung up between two palm trees, and even an awesome light projecting the Frost & Fire logo and kneeling/praying skeletons on the side of the wall. Overall capacity at the Bombay is around 400, and this event was sold out, with fans traveling literally from around the world to be there.
For those who might be wondering about the name, yes, Frost & Fire was named after the Cirith Ungol album of the same name, but no, Cirith Ungol (the great white whale pursued, Captain Ahab style, by metal festival promoters around the globe for many years) did not perform. However, the use of the Frost & Fire moniker here was more than just a cheap marketing ploy. You see, Cirith Ungol hailed from Ventura, and the band’s key surviving members still live here. Drummer Robert Garven, singer Tim Baker, and two others appeared at the Festival for a formal autograph signing session this evening. I spoke to Garven briefly before the Fest. He pulled up to the Bombay in a red Ferrari and was wearing a “Ferrari Club of America” embroidered denim shirt, then proceeded to tell stories about the whereabouts of the furry jacket he wore in the ‘Paradise Lost’ photo shoot. He still has it, haha. Nice guy, and who knows what the future might hold for Cirith Ungol …
Doors were at 4:30 p.m., with the first of the day’s 11 bands hitting the stage at 5:00. The concept was to utilize both the front and back stages, alternating between the two, such that there was music going on at all times; however, the caveat was that no overlap was supposed to occur between the two stages, sparing fans the Hobson’s Choice of picking between two excellent bands whose stage times clash. Unfortunately, the best laid plans sometimes go awry, and things did get a bit cattywampus (as we like to say in the South) for a few bands in the middle of the roster. Overall, though, the two-stage system worked brilliantly. I must have witnessed 95% of the live music aired during Frost & Fire, usually from great vantage points close to the stage. So no complaints whatsoever in that department. The event mostly ran on time, and stage sound and lighting were satisfactory in all respects. The crowd was generally enthusiastic and energetic, without becoming ugly or unruly. Sure, as the night wore on, there were a few overexuberant drunks who caused some problems, but the percentage of knuckleheads was refreshingly low. These were true metal people here for true metal music, and the kindred spirits managed to transcend most of the stereotypical, lunkheaded metal concert idiocy.
Unfortunately, I tarried a bit longer at the breathtaking Ventura Pier than I had intended, so I only made it back to the venue in time for the last two songs or so of WOLFCROSS’s set. Young band, three piece, very much in the traditional metal vein. Didn’t hear enough to leave any firm impression, except to say that it sounded promising, indeed. Next up were HELION PRIME from Sacramento, California, playing the back stage. Another young act, Helion Prime had the distinction of being one of the only bands on the Fest roster with a female singer (who reminded me just a bit of Hermione Granger for some reason) and the only one whose sound gravitated toward European power metal. Lyrics were in the science fiction vein, as if you couldn’t guess that from the band name, although the singer said from the stage that they dabble in both science fact and science fiction. Twin guitars were peppy and enjoyable, and the singer had a fine voice, although interestingly during one song she did death growls and even came out into the audience to growl right in people’s faces. You don’t see that every day. Evidently, Helion Prime are soon to release their debut album, so they played a number of songs from that album including one track that will feature a duet with the Dream Evil singer, a fact that may not resonate with the Frost & Fire crowd. Overall, my impression was that Helion Prime are off to a strong start, but their lack of experience is apparent and they weren’t quite a perfect fit for this Fest. Nonetheless, I’m pleased I got to see them and look forward to checking out their album.
Back to the front stage I went in time to witness BLADE KILLER at 6:10 p.m. I’d been quite keen to see Blade Killer, because I greatly enjoy the 4-track EP they released on Stormspell Records in 2013. Blade Killer’s brand of old-school pure heavy metal with plenty of NWoBHM / Di’anno-era Maiden influences is right in my wheelhouse. They did not disappoint, as Blade Killer ratcheted up the energy level considerably and got Bombay rockin’ hard for the first time today. Despite their early set time and low position on the billing, Blade Killer enjoyed a sizeable, enthusiastic crowd as they ripped through 3 of the EP songs, 3 tracks from the forthcoming debut album, and 2 covers, one Priest and one Maiden. If you’re going to cover Priest and Maiden in 2015, you’d best go for the deep cuts and Blade Killer did, offering up tasty renditions of “Desert Plains” and “Twilight Zone” (probably the first time I’ve ever heard anybody cover that overlooked Di’Anno gem). But my favorite tune from Blade Killer’s performance was undoubtedly “On the Attack” from the EP, which has become something of an anthem for the band, judging by the “On the Attack” shirts they were selling at the merch stand (one of which found its way into my wardrobe, and deservedly so). Keep an eye out for Blade Killer, and here’s hoping they release more material soon! Setlist: Raise Your Fist, Let Go, Man of Steel, Lost Angels, Desert Plains, Midnight Sinner (very cool new song!), On the Attack, Twilight Zone.
Hitting the back stage at 6:45 were locals GYGAX. If the name is unfamiliar, the lineage should not be. You see, Gygax sprang from the ashes of defunct Metal Blade recording artists Gypsyhawk. Gygax covers similar Thin Lizzy, 70s hard-rock inspired ground as its predecessor, though perhaps a bit more rock and a bit less metal than Gypsyhawk. Live, the tunes sounded plenty heavy and those Thin Lizzy twin guitars cut through the air as the bassist/vocalist stood up there with his shades and rocked out. Honestly, Gygax isn’t the kind of thing I’d probably listen to all the time, but it served as a highly enjoyable and entertaining palate cleanser in the context of Frost & Fire. This highlights a great point about the Fest, which is that while all of the performing bands reside under the same broad stylistic umbrella so the Fest feels coherent and unified, there’s enough variation to prevent the proceedings from becoming monotonous. You’ve got a Euro power metal style band, an act of Thin Lizzy worshipping 70s rockers, a thrash/crossover band, and a band featuring two brothers singing harmonies while one strums an acoustic guitar. No no no, Frost & Fire was never dull, yet it also seemed cohesive and consistent with its roster. I stayed for most of Gygax’s set and absolutely enjoyed what I saw. Am looking forward to hearing Gygax’s ‘Critical Hits’ debut album when it hits the shelves in late 2015.
Back at the front stage, Jarvis Leatherby introduced a special performance by the legendary STEEL PROPHET. The “legendary” tag isn’t an exaggeration, either. The Los Angeles natives’ pedigree dates back all the way to 1983, and I’d pit their ‘Dark Hallucinations’ and ‘Messiah’ albums against nearly anything released back at the turn of the millennium. Add to that lineage some intense, memorable gigs at the old Powermad fest in Baltimore, Wacken Open Air (before anyone in the USA knew what it was), and even ProgPower, and Steel Prophet’s reputation in the scene was cemented. Tonight was kind of a different gig for them though. Longtime vocalist Rick Mythiasin left the band recently under unpleasant circumstances, so Steel Prophet brought in Neil Turbin (ex-Anthrax) as a fill-in. Hulking mainstay bassist Vince Dennis wasn’t there either. Much credit is due Steve Kachinsky & Co. for making the show happen at all. Yeah, things were a little rough around the edges, particularly in the vocal department. Turbin’s voice was fine (albeit significantly different from Mythiasin’s), but he seemed to miss a few cues and came in at the wrong time occasionally. Yes, from behind his sunglasses, he was reading the lyrics off an iPad, but he deserves some slack there because, again, this was a one-off gig for which he was merely subbing. Then there was a huge technical snafu with the backing tracks for their “Bohemian Rhapsody” cover (itself an odd choice, given the brevity of Steel Prophet’s set and the treasure trove of original songs they could have played instead) that brought the show to a standstill for several uncomfortable minutes while the glitch was sorted out. Too bad. Overall, though, I can honestly say it did my heart good to hear songs like “When Six Was Nine,” “Earth & Sky” and “Death” performed live once again. To top it all off, I wound up with a drumstick souvenir at the end of the set. The way I see it is this: I would rather have seen Steel Prophet like this than not see them at all. That said, I’m hopeful that they’ll be back firing on all cylinders soon. Setlist: When Six Was Nine, One Way Out, Trickery of the Scourge, Earth and Sky, Transfusional Vamp, Bohemian Rhapsody, Death.
An unfortunate side effect of Steel Prophet’s technical difficulties was that their set ran over the allotted time by a good 10 minutes or so, bringing a temporary end to the “no overlaps” rule. By the time I returned to the back room stage, BAT were already in full swing. The trio had an enormous circle pit going for the entire time that I was in the room, and rightfully so, given the aggressive, dirty, Venom-meets-Motorhead-meets-crossover kind of stuff they were blasting out. Here again we see the diversity of Frost & Fire bubble up to the surface. Bat’s brand of in-your-face, ugly, thrashy, but definitely old-school metal was traditional enough to fit into the festival bill, but different enough to set them apart. Judging by the insane reaction the trio received from the pit, the rabid, frenzied audience approved.
Now it was back to the front stage for SAVAGE MASTER, who went on a bit later than planned. The wait was well worth it. Just like last night in San Francisco, I found myself enjoying the hell out of their performance. A couple of glitches tonight were that guitarist Larry’s cabinet didn’t seem to be miked, so Adam’s guitar pretty much drowned out Larry’s for the entire set. And Stacey’s vocals were unexpectedly low in the mix, which had not been the case for any other band at Frost & Fire. I didn’t mind though. That just left more room in the sonic landscape for Adam Neal’s bulldozer guitar, which suited me fine. With one exception, the setlist was the same as last night. “Ripper in Black” is an awesome opener, “Black Hooves” rules, “Mask of the Devil” rips and tears, “Altar of Lust” brings out the doomy vibe and “Hail Satan” chorus, and so on. What’s not to love??? By the way, “Whips and Chains” sounded even stronger the second time I heard it, leaving me more convinced than ever that this track is Savage Master’s finest hour to date. The exception was that Savage Master added their version of “Swords and Tequila” to close out the set tonight, with Stacey putting the mike in front of my face to belt out the titular phrase the first time through the chorus. Great times, great set. Don’t look now, but Savage Master are rapidly becoming one of my favorite live bands. Setlist: Ripper in Black, Mystifying Oracle, Blood on the Rose, Black Hooves, Mask of the Devil, Whips and Chains, Vengeance is Steel, Altar of Lust, Death Rides the Highway, Swords and Tequila.
Much to my dismay, as I sprinted to the back room after Savage Master’s set, I could hear amplified music rumbling through the walls. Damn, VISIGOTH had already started playing! The Salt Lake City masters were one the main attractions of Frost & Fire for me this year. I had never seen them before, and their debut album ‘The Revenant King’ left me gobsmacked with its muscular take on Grand Magus / Manowar / Viking-era Bathory epic metal grandeur. By the time I reached the stage, Jake Rogers & Crew were well into “Mammoth Rider,” a lumbering headbanging monster of a track and one of the absolute highlights from ‘The Revenant King.’ “Good,” I thought. “Maybe this was their opener.” No such luck, as I later learned that their set had begun with “Dungeon Master,” my favorite Visigoth song, which I missed. Bummer. (So they were playing “Dungeon Master” at the same time that Savage Master were playing “Death Rides the Highway” and “Swords and Tequila.” If only I could have cloned myself for 7 minutes or so!!!) Still, the part of Visigoth’s performance that I did see was simply breathtaking in its energy, power and might. Honestly, Visigoth were (or at least they seemed to be) the loudest band of the festival, and goodness knows the intensity level of their performance off the end of the charts. The bald Rogers, with arms in black leather gauntlets and sporting a Metalucifer shirt, spent the whole gig at the front of the stage, rocking out with the lunatic punters in the front row. Guitarists on either end of the stage were a mass of flying hair and flying fingers, tearing up their fretboards as they headbanged into oblivion. The Visigoth material came to life in a live setting, as happens with the very best live bands, and the whole experience of watching them was damn near overwhelming. A couple of notes: The setlist included a Demon cover, “The Spell” (off ‘The Unexpected Guest’ – wow, haven’t heard this one in a while), with Jarvis Leatherby joining the band to help sing the chorus and plant a kiss on the surprised Rogers. Talk about an unexpected guest!!! Visigoth also performed two new tracks, the first a tribute to their hometown called “Salt City Livin’” and the second an absolute monster of an epic entitled something along the lines of “By Steel and Silver.” Rogers had been raving about that track when I spoke with him before the set, and man, he had every right to be excited, as that tune rules. The bottom line is this: Visigoth are one of the brightest hopes in the underground traditional metal scene today, not only in USA but in the entire world. Their live prowess equals, and perhaps even eclipses, their studio mastery. It’s a long way to the top if you wanna rock and roll, but Visigoth seem poised for greatness. If you haven’t already, join the iron brotherhood, won’t you? Setlist: Dungeon Master, Mammoth Rider, Salt City Livin’, The Spell, By Steel and Silver, The Revenant King, Iron Brotherhood.
From one of the most intense and powerful bands at Frost & Fire, we moved on to by far the most laidback and mellow of the bunch. In a development that can only be described as shocking, ASHBURY from Tucson, Arizona, have been taking the true metal world by storm over the last few years. Why is it shocking? Back in 1983, two brothers, Rob and Randy Davis, put out an album called ‘Endless Skies’ under the Ashbury moniker. It had metal elements, but can’t really be described as a metal album, given the prominent acoustic guitars, laidback vocals, smooth harmonies, peace-and-love vibe, and almost southern-rock type melodies. To the best of my knowledge, not many people heard ‘Endless Skies’ back in the day. I certainly didn’t. A few years ago, the Davis brothers get the call to play Keep It True in Germany. They go. Hardened metalheads shed tears of joy and melt into quivering puddles of goo at the feet of these masters of beautiful, heart-tugging melodies. The same thing happens at Ragnarokkr in Chicago two years later. Now, here’s Ashbury playing a prominent slot at Frost & Fire, with a special performance airing ‘Endless Skies’ in its entirety. It really was a beautiful, even magical, show. Rob and Randy’s voices captured the emotion and feeling of ‘Endless Skies’ perfectly. Randy’s lead guitars were spot-on and tasteful, even as the poor man sweated up a storm under the suffocating stage lights. During the songs, Rob would smile and his eyes would twinkle to hear the audience singing along with him word for word, transfixed and spellbound by what was unfolding onstage as he and his brothers played songs they wrote more than three decades ago. It’s a difficult thing to describe, really, the sight of all these hardened, fist-banging, beer-swilling metalheads from around the world singing along passionately to what basically amounts to semi-acoustic folk rock. Someone told me later that the looks on the Bombay bartenders’ faces were priceless. I do not understand for a second why the underground metal community has embraced Ashbury the way they have, but Ashbury have had precisely the same effect on me. In the days after the fest, no matter where I am or what I’m doing, songs like “Madman” or “The Warning” or “Take Your Love Away” return to my mind and carry me away. Forget about labels and genres and styles. It’s all meaningless. Ashbury simply play incredible music. That’s good enough for me. As mentioned, the band played ‘Endless Skies’ in its entirety and in order, except that “Vengeance” was held back for last, with Jarvis (man, that dude was everywhere tonight) strapping on a guitar and joining the Davis brothers onstage. They also played one more song after ‘Endless Skies’ was concluded, but I didn’t recognize it. Must have been from a later album.
So by now the gauntlet had been thrown down. The Frost & Fire roster had been littered with high-quality acts turning in great performances from top to bottom. All that remained were the headliners, and NIGHT DEMON came bursting out of the chute on the back room stage like demons from hell, belching smoke and roaring fire, with something to prove and nothing to lose. Tonight marked the ninth time I had seen Night Demon play, but they were better tonight than I’ve ever seen them before. I don’t know what the difference was. Perhaps it was the exhilaration of performing in front of a packed hall filled with family and friends. Perhaps it was the band’s competitive spirit kicking in, wanting to defend their home turf and prove their worth at the end of a long day of stellar music. (I’m not saying music is a competition. I’ve never, ever seen it that way. But it’s only natural that a band playing one of the anchor legs of a festival that they are hosting in their hometown would want to step up their game to hold up their end of the deal.) Whatever it was, it was as if Night Demon found another gear I didn’t know they had. Their set was ferocious and focused, slicing with laser-beam precision into the hearts of us all. They took no prisoners. They laid waste. Sonically, everything was perfect. Visually, the production effects coalesced into magnificence, from the black-lit, glowing-eyes axeman backdrop, to the large cross scrims, to the ever-shifting lighting patterns deftly executed by Andrew Bansal, to the traditional appearance of mascot Rocky during “The Chalice.” Everything worked. The crowd ate it up. The setlist slayed from top to bottom. And tonight, without taking anything away from any of the other terrific bands in the house, Night Demon were truly kings of frost and fire. Setlist: Screams in the Night, Full Speed Ahead, Mastermind, Curse of the Damned, Ritual, Howling Man, Road Racin’, The Chalice, Night Demon.
With that, the evening was reduced to one final band, MANILLA ROAD, performing on the front stage. At the beginning of their set, the crowd went deeper back into the hall than for any other band. As their 75-minute performance wore on, attrition reduced the congestion somewhat, but Manilla Road had a healthy, enthusiastic audience throughout. Now, we’ve already established that I’m hardly their biggest fan, but I do respect and appreciate their music. They were great tonight. The triple attack of “Flaming Metal Systems,” “Open the Gates” and “Road of Kings” to open the set was flawless. The medley combining four of their best songs, introduced as “Masque of the Red Death by Hammer of the Witches Brew,” was a feast for the senses. “Necropolis” predictably brought the entire house down in headbanging, fist-flailing delirium. And the unexpected encore airing of “Crystal Logic” simply put an exclamation point on the evening. The band sounded and played great, and the combination of Bryan “Hellroadie” Patrick and Mark “The Shark” Shelton on vocals worked out beautifully. Shelton only handled maybe 20% of the vocals himself, but Patrick sounds so good and pulls off the vocals so well that you really don’t miss Shelton when he isn’t singing. Honestly, the only time Manilla Road lost me was during “Cage of Mirrors,” which is just too proggy, too long and too weird for me to wrap my head around, especially after a long day of metal. Overall, though, Manilla Road were a more than worthy headliner for this inaugural edition of Frost & Fire, and when their set finally wound down shortly after 1:00 a.m., there were a lot of tired but happy metalheads in the Bombay. Approximate Setlist: Flaming Metal Systems, Open the Gates, Road of Kings, The Riddle Master, Masque of the Red Death / Death by Hammer / Hammer of the Witches / Witches Brew, Truth in the Ash, Luxifera’s Light, Cage of Mirrors, Queen of the Black Coast, The Ram, Necropolis. Encore: Crystal Logic.
The Festival may have ended, but there was still considerable work to do, not only loading out Night Demon’s gear from the back room stage but also helping to dismantle the Frost & Fire Fest and restore Bombay to normal. It took a couple of hours and it was hard work, but it seemed effortless because I was riding the high and basking in the afterglow of an amazing metal festival. Look, Frost & Fire was not a one-off deal. This year was only the beginning. The Night Demon lads have exciting plans for taking Frost & Fire to the next level next year. If even half of those aspirations materialize, next year’s installment of Frost & Fire promises to be a mandatory, can’t-miss proposition for any old-school metalhead worth his/her salt. Incredible bands. Beautiful scenery, with the Pacific Ocean just a few blocks from your doorstep. Camaraderie. True metal spirit. Frost & Fire has it all. Start making plans to visit the California coast next fall.
October 18, 2015
My story doesn’t end with Frost & Fire. You see, I’d signed on for one more gig with Night Demon on this run. The boys had committed to playing the final day of the Southwest Terror festival in Tucson, Arizona. Now, being a Southerner, my geography of the western USA leaves a bit to be desired, so I really had no idea how far it was from Ventura to Tucson. It’s a long friggin’ way. Nearly 600 miles to be exact. Under the circumstances, Night Demon might have been forgiven for cancelling the show because it was just too difficult to haul ass all the way out to Arizona the day after putting on a triumphant festival of their own in Ventura. Honestly, I don’t think the thought ever crossed their minds. It was really important to the Night Demon guys to play Southwest Terror. After all, they’d been booked to play it last year, but had been forced to cancel when the support slot on the Raven tour materialized during the same time period. There was simply no way they were going to bail out on Southwest Terror again. So we were on the road shortly after 8:00 a.m., braving foggy-headed exhaustion, torrential downpours, and scary fast food. We finally pulled into downtown Tucson after 6:00 p.m., with two hours to spare before Night Demon were supposed to go on. Piece of cake.
Southwest Terror is kind of a weird setup. First of all, it’s right in the heart of picturesque downtown Tucson. The venue, Club Congress, was actually a bar inside a swank hotel, the Congress Hotel. (Yesterday’s accommodations for the fest were even more upscale, at the Rialto Theater right across the street from the Congress Hotel.) It was incongruous to be loading in Night Demon’s gear, all sweaty and evil, while dodging respectable looking Tucsonians dressed in their out-on-the-town finery. Funny. Second, did I mention that Southwest Terror is a stoner/doom fest? Well, it definitely is. It seemed I couldn’t go anywhere without walking through a big cloud of marijuana smoke. And Night Demon were totally the oddball band on this bill. I’m not really a fan of stoner music, at all, and I wondered how many stoner metal dudes would be into Night Demon’s high-energy, throwback trad metal attack. Interesting.
Here’s what I’ll say about Night Demon’s performance tonight. Going into the gig, each band member was definitely well short of 100%, whether because of sleep-deprivation, the onset of illness, neck soreness, vocal issues, what have you. As we were setting up on stage, I looked around at the guys and wondered how they’d be able to pull this off. But you know what? When the lights went down and that goosebump-inducing Conan intro music came over the P.A., it was like somebody flipped a switch. The next 35 minutes were classic Night Demon in all their glory, pulling no punches and letting up on the intensity not one whit. Yeah, there were a few minor sonic issues (mistakes here and there, Jarvis dropping down his voice to avoid some of the more difficult high notes), but the performance was spot-on and ass-kicking throughout. As I watched, I couldn’t help but think I was more impressed with the guys tonight than I was at their pinnacle of excellence at the Frost & Fire gig last night. Like my old high-school wrestling coach used to say, “Anybody can go when it’s easy. You see what you’re really made of when it gets tough.” Yeah, I saw what Night Demon were really made of tonight. And it made me proud. The other factor was the crowd. There were only a few dozen folks in the room, and they just kind of stood around listlessly while Night Demon was playing. No headbanging, no audience participation really, just kind of standing there. But it makes perfect sense, right? I mean, these are stoner metal fans. I wouldn’t know what to do at a stoner gig any more than they know what to do at a trad metal gig. But that doesn’t mean they didn’t like it. Judging by robust merch sales and the many kind words the band received afterwards, Night Demon made a strong impression on Southwest Terror tonight. Hell, they probably converted a few more faithful to the cause too. That makes it all worthwhile.
The rest of that night is a memory that will stay close in my heart for a long time. It was early (9:00 p.m.) when Night Demon got off the stage, and I had nowhere to be until my flight home departed the Tucson airport at 5:00 a.m. the following morning. So we hung out downtown, got some dinner on a fancy outdoor patio of a wings / sports bar kind of place catty-corner from the venue, drank at the Club Congress bar until they kicked us out, and just talked the night away. At around 3:00 a.m., the Night Demon van deposited me at a darkened airport terminal. I was alone. I was beyond tired. My ears were ringing. My muscles were aching (a professional roadie I definitely am not). I was maybe a little buzzed. But I was happier than I can remember being in a long time.
~ Report by Kit Ekman ~