April 19-22, 2018
It’s amazing how the stars align sometimes. My original, simple, straightforward plan was to spend the weekend attending the NYDM Spring Bash in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I went last year and enjoyed everything about both the festival and Milwaukee itself (particularly the beer, the baseball and the cheese curds). So I had every intention of staging a return engagement. Then I learned about the inaugural Hell’s Heroes Festival in Houston, Texas, scheduled for that same weekend, and was afforded the rare and exciting opportunity to accompany my friends in Night Demon to both events. I could not turn it down. To compound matters, I later became apprised that Bay Area masters Hell Fire, one of my absolute favorite newer bands, would be performing a couple hours down the road from Houston the night before Hell’s Heroes, but would not actually be playing the fest. There’s no way in hell (fire) I was going to be in Texas when Hell Fire were on tour in Texas, yet not see them play. That state of affairs was simply intolerable, so I arranged to fly in one day early for the express purpose of catching Hell Fire’s gig in Austin. The icing on the cake was when I figured out that the Savage Master tour was swinging through my neck of the woods the night before the Austin gig. Add it all up, and you get four consecutive nights of unadulterated true metal glory. It all seemed rather ambitious, bordering on insanity, given the complicated travel logistics, but my credo is “full speed ahead,” so what the hell? I buckled up my seatbelt and locked myself in for a dizzying whirlwind of heavy metal at the speed of Satan. Here’s how it all went down …
Thursday, April 19, 2018
The day began like any other Thursday. I woke up in my own bed, went for my usual morning run, then logged a full day at the office. After work, however, I piled into the car for the 90-mile drive to Hattiesburg, Mississippi. (I had tickets to see Nightwish in my own town tonight, but I bailed in favor of the road trip to see Savage Master because, while I have great respect for Nightwish, traditional old-school heavy metal is what makes my heart beat, and at the end of the day we must all be what we are. Jen went to Nightwish without me, and said they put on a fantastic show, which I don’t doubt for one second.) I arrived at The Tavern on Hardy Street, just a stone’s throw from the University of Southern Mississippi campus, slightly after 9:00 p.m. Now, Hattiesburg ain’t much of a heavy music town, but my pal and local promoter John Littlejohn has been working tirelessly to try to combat that fact by bringing in a wide variety of metal, punk and rock shows. For a couple of years now, John has also been playing drums with Kentucky metal titans Savage Master, so it comes as no surprise that Savage Master plays Hattiesburg on most of its U.S. tours. The current “Creature of the Flames” tour had commenced the night before in Atlanta, Georgia, so the Masters were still relatively rested and fresh, and very enthusiastic about their forthcoming month-long trek terrorizing the United States and Canada. Typically, SM hits Hattiesburg at the tail end of the tour; therefore, it was a refreshing change of pace to see them at the beginning instead, with a spring in their step and a fully-stocked merch bin to boot.
That’s not to say that Savage Master have developed a rabid following in lower Mississippi. Attendance was sparse. What’s more, the evening unfolded at a snail’s pace, with the first of two wacky local openers (one of which was a stoner/jam band with a bare-chested frontman wearing a red cape, and the other of which was a two-piece hardcore/extreme band with no guitar player) not taking the stage until after 11:00 p.m. That’s pretty rough for a weeknight gig. While we waited, Savage Master guitarist Adam Neal kindly offered to buy me a beer, so the two of us sat at the bar for a good while and talked music, mutual friends, hilarious road stories and all things Savage Master. It was my favorite part of the evening. He told me they were digging the tour setlist because it featured some recent tunes they hadn’t played live before. At some point, Adam (who has a great sense of humor) surveyed the empty room and lack of discernable stage activity and said, “You know, we’ve never bombed here before. Tonight may be the night.” Haha.
Sometime after 1:00 a.m., it was finally “go” time for Savage Master. I appreciated the small theatrical touches the band have added to their stage presentation, including most notably large illuminated candelabras positioned on the cabinets on either side of the stage alongside tapestries of pentagrams and Ouija boards. There’s nothing quite like Savage Master’s stage entrance in a small club. The house music stops, the lights go down, and four grim, hooded, chained, leatherclad figures emerge from the backstage area and stride silently to the stage to take their places. It’s eerie and spooky as hell, and to this day causes my heart to skip an apprehensive beat even though I know damn well that underneath those creepy hoods are my longtime friends. The music begins, and a moment later frontwoman Stacey Savage joins her bandmates as they tear into “Black Hooves.” With her black-dyed hair, pentagram hoop earrings, metallic silver bra, heavy eye makeup and wildly flashing eyes, Stacey cuts an intimidating figure, belying the fact that in real life she is a total sweetheart. Over the years, Stacey has worked hard on her stagecraft and her voice, and her efforts have paid huge dividends. She pours herself into the songs with power and conviction, using every available inch of the stage and making eye contact with the front rows (or “row,” in the case of tonight’s show) as she belts out the vocal lines. Her screams at the end of “Burning Leather” as she falls to her knees are nothing short of spine-tingling. During fan favorite “Ripper in Black,” Stacey dons her traditional black and red cape as always, but with the new twist that now she drinks blood from a goblet right before the breakdown part. Gene Simmons, eat your heart out. Stacey rocks!
Over the course of 40+ minutes, Savage Master rewarded the Hattiesburg hordes (if you can call an audience in the teens “hordes”) for their patience with an exhilarating, heart-pounding 10-song set tilted in favor of the awesome With Whips and Chains album. I’ve seen the band live many times now, but every time I’m reminded that beneath the scary costumes and the evil shtick, Savage Master are a positively lethal live band. Adam Neal has written some of my favorite U.S. metal riffs ever, and when they get on a roll with songs like “Burning Leather,” “Dark Light of the Moon,” or “Ready to Sin,” Savage Master are an unstoppable force. Stacey pointed the mike at me a couple times so I could add backing shouts on “Looking for a Sacrifice” and “Burning Leather,” and the few drunks hanging out at The Tavern at 1:30 in the morning started an impromptu moshpit. They just couldn’t help themselves because Savage Master’s music feels so good. All too soon, however, Stacey announced they’d reached the final song of the set, where she said ominously that we should remember on the way home that “Death Rides the Highway.” Love the song, but I was reminded that I did have kind of a long drive and I didn’t want death to be riding with me on U.S. 98 tonight. So as soon as the song finished, I hastily said my good nights and hit the road, making it back to my front door shortly after 4:00 a.m. Day One of the adventure was a good day. Setlist: Black Hooves, Vengeance is Steel, With Whips and Chains, Satan’s Crown, Looking for a Sacrifice, Burning Leather, Dark Light of the Moon, Ready to Sin, The Ripper in Black, Death Rides the Highway.
Friday, April 20, 2018
Needless to say, I was none too enthusiastic when the alarm clock went off at 5:30 a.m. But it didn’t matter. Full speed ahead and all that. I finished packing my bags, shoveled down a quick breakfast, compared notes with Jen about our respective concert experiences the night before, then got in the car and hauled ass to the airport in Pensacola, Florida, more than an hour’s drive away. (My town doesn’t have Southwest Airlines, so I drove to P’cola to save money on flight expenses.) Next thing I knew, I was stumbling bleary-eyed out of the jetway at Houston’s Hobby International Airport at 11:30 a.m. After getting my pocket picked (metaphorically speaking) at the rental car counter where I received the upsell from hell (thanks a lot, Thrifty, you’re anything but), I found myself in a zippy gray Hyundai making my way towards Austin. The drive was 170 miles, or a bit more than three hours with the heavy interstate traffic on a Friday afternoon. Made a few pitstops along the way, including a noteworthy pilgrimage to the legendary Buc-ee’s, the greatest travel center/truckstop/convenience store in the world. (Although it’s a Texas chain, I am giddy with anticipation at two forthcoming Buc-ee’s locations near me, including – unbelievably – the possibility of one less than a mile from my house! The travel gods are benevolent, indeed.) I reached my friend Sean’s house by late afternoon, took a short nap while his 23 lb. cat Taco kept a watchful eye, then headed out for tonight’s gig.
The Lost Well is a small divebar situated in a neighborhood just east of downtown Austin. I found nearby street parking without difficulty, in front of a church, ironically enough. As I walked toward the venue, I passed by a house that had live geese, chickens, and every kind of fowl imaginable just wandering around the yard and sidewalk. What the duck is up with that, Austin? One of the geese was strutting around in a threatening manner, and I had visions of getting mauled like that poor high school golfer did the other day, as captured in a series of photos that went viral on the Internet. Fortunately, the bird did not strike, and I preserved what little remains of my dignity. Ducked (!) into a sandwich shop for an Italian sub and a beer (damn, the local (512) Pecan Porter is delicious and just $4.50 on draft, wow!). Thus fortified, I was ready to rock.
The amazing thing about tonight’s gig is that it turned out to be something of a mini-festival in its own right, the confluence of two tour packages making their way to Houston for tomorrow’s Hell’s Heroes Festival, plus two local openers. If you’re keeping score at home, that’s six bands playing an intimate venue (capacity couldn’t have been more than a buck fifty, and it wasn’t full) for the princely sum of $12. So while it’s certainly true that Hell Fire brought me to Austin this evening, this bill was coming up aces in multiple respects. It turned out to be a really cool evening of music and friends, probably more fun than the Houston festival for me because of the laidback vibe, the time to socialize between bands, the up-close-and-personal atmosphere, and just the overall underground feel. For example, the minute I walked inside, I encountered Hell Fire guitarist Tony Campos and had a great chat with him right off the bat, getting caught up on all things Hell Fire. The same held true for friends and band members the entire night. Also, The Lost Well had my new favorite beer, (512) Pecan Porter, on draft, so I sipped on a couple of those throughout the festivities. Great friends, great music, great beer … what more could you want?
Shortly after 8:00 p.m., the live music portion of the evening kicked off with local band Ladykiller, a three-piece act that was previously unknown to me. Until tonight, I had never seen a half-pink, half-black flying V, yet the Ladykiller singer/guitarist was wielding just such an axe. They were certainly entertaining enough to kick off the event, albeit perhaps leaning a bit more towards the hard rock side of things for my tastes. In fact, the one song that really caught my ear, a tune called “Diamonds,” was referenced by the singer afterwards as “that’s our heavy metal song.” Maybe not exactly my thing overall, but just fine nonetheless, and lightyears better than most local openers I encounter.
Next, the proceedings shifted into high gear courtesy of Bewitcher, self-proclaimed purveyors of Satanic speed metal from Portland, Oregon. My first encounter with Bewitcher was at last year’s Frost and Fire Festival in Ventura, California, and they blew me away with their hyperspeed riffing, catchy songwriting, cool visuals, and we’re-not-fucking-around attitude. Since then, I’ve become well acquainted with, and am quite fond of, their self-titled debut album out on Divebomb Records. Tonight’s performance reinforced those impressions. Let’s start with the look: Singer/guitarist and bassist have that early Slayer black raccoon eye makeup. (Can’t tell about the drummer because he’s rocking the mirrored shades for the entire gig.) That’s rad as hell. With his long black braided hair and his speed picking on his V, the vocalist is like a cross between James Hetfield and Medusa. I wish more people had been inside the venue when Bewitcher played tonight, because they put on a clinic of speed metal excellence, drawing liberally from influences like Venom, Motorhead, early Bathory and Kill ‘Em All-era Metallica to create a devastating sonic attack. Opening appropriately enough with “Speed ‘Til You Bleed” from the debut album, Bewitcher were off to the races. The set was littered with highlights, including my favorite “Black Speed Delirium” (key lyric: “Heavy metal at the speed of Satan”), a ripping cover of Bathory’s “Sacrifice,” a really strong new cut entitled “Under the Witching Cross,” and of course the massive closer “In the Night (The Cult Will Rise).” Look, I don’t normally go for this kind of one-dimensional blackened evil stuff, but Bewitcher have such great riffs, catchy songs, badass lyrics, and live energy for miles that I’m totally hooked. Bewitcher are awesome. Setlist: Speed ‘Til You Bleed, Rome is on Fire, Too Fast for the Flame, Wild Blasphemy, Black Speed Delirium, Under the Witching Cross, Bewitcher, Sacrifice (Bathory cover), In the Night (The Cult Will Rise).
As mentioned, my must-see band of the night was Hell Fire. Two years ago, I was absolutely captivated by their debut album, Metal Masses, a thrilling exercise in ‘80s Bay Area speed/thrash executed with melody and class. In 2017, the band elevated their game with Free Again, a more refined and versatile outing that showcased the early Maiden / NWOBHM side of the band while remaining true to their speed roots. Aside from Night Demon’s Darkness Remains, I probably listened to Free Again more than any other album that came out in 2017, and have developed a close bond with the material. Needless to say, I was really fired up to see Hell Fire tonight for only my second time. The band are on their first-ever tour now, sharing a van with fast-rising Haunt for a two-week run through California, east to Texas and north to Washington. Hell Fire ruled at The Lost Well, playing a well-chosen six-song set (four from Free Again, two from Metal Masses) with massive riffage from the Tony Campos / Jake Nunn guitar tandem, a punishing rhythm section courtesy of Herman Bandala (bass) and Mike Smith (drums), and the wailing, remarkable vocals of Nunn. “They say the war is over / They say there’s nothing left.” Those were Nunn’s first sung words of the night, from the wicked speed opener “Destroyers,” and they gave me goosebumps. The all-out attack continued with “Sirens of the Hunter” off Metal Masses: “FIGHT, for your right / We’ll KILL, for what’s right.” Just magnificent stuff. Then Hell Fire eased off the gas pedal, featuring the more melodic / NWOBHM side of the band on “The Dealer” and “Into the Light.” Full-on speed returned for the devastating “Beyond Nightmares,” and then it was time for “Free Again,” one of my absolute favorite songs of 2017. It sounded beautiful tonight. Hell Fire played great, and I was really touched that each of the guys went out of his way to approach me, hang out with me, and thank me for being there. I unexpectedly ended up in a deep personal conversation with Jake Nunn about a couple of the songs that mean a lot to me, and he was really gracious hearing all this crazy shit spouted by someone who’s basically a stranger. What you need to know is that, in addition to being good dudes, Hell Fire are an incredible band, on par with the top acts in our small, tight-knit underground metal community. Maybe you haven’t seen them live. Maybe you haven’t heard them at all. But that’s going to change. Hell Fire are ramping up their touring activity and going all-in. They are recording their third album this summer for their new label home, Ridingeasy Records, which despite not being a familiar name in true metal circles has significant contacts and resources. And hearing is believing. Several friends of mine heard Hell Fire for the first time at the Austin show, and they were raving about the band afterwards. I was so proud. The sky’s the limit for Hell Fire, so beat the rush and climb aboard the train now, won’t you? Setlist: Destroyers, Sirens of the Hunter, The Dealer, Into the Light, Beyond Nightmares, Free Again.
Over the last couple of months, Haunt has suddenly become a hot commodity in the true metal underground. Exploding on the scene with the four-song Luminous Eyes EP released by Shadow Kingdom Records, Haunt was conceived as essentially a one-man band founded by Trevor William Church. Now, Church is well known in stoner/doom circles because of his other band, Beastmaker, but Haunt is something altogether different. As Church explained from the stage tonight, he was wanting to do something with more guitars, something that would let him sweat more, and the distinctly NWOBHM-minded Haunt was the answer. Around a month ago, Church put together a full band lineup and here we are. Now, you might think that a band that’s only been playing together for one month couldn’t possibly be very tight, but you would be wrong. It helps immeasurably that Church’s guitar partner also plays with him in Beastmaker, so the two of them have developed a chemistry that is essential to pull off the many cool harmonies and twin-guitar interplay on these songs. Haunt were fantastic tonight. Not only did they nail all four songs from the Luminous Eyes EP (including my favorite “As Fire Burns,” which sounded exquisite in Austin), but Haunt also previewed three killer tunes from their forthcoming full-length debut album, Burst into Flame. The tattooed, bearded, headbanded, Ultimate Sin-shirt-wearing frontman’s stage raps were focused on marijuana, which I suppose was topical and timely given the 4/20 date. A funny moment was when he asked if anyone owned the EP, and my friend Sean piped up that he owned “all the colors” of it. In response, Church vowed to give Sean a big sweaty hug later, haha. Honestly, I am convinced that Haunt are fully deserving of the buzz, and I expect the Burst into Flame album to make a big splash upon its release this summer. Keep your luminous eyes peeled for it. Setlist: Luminous Eyes, As Fire Burns, Burst into Flame, No Master, Fallen Star, (unknown new song), Crystal Ball.
Local stoner/hard rockers Duel were up next. Judging by the size and enthusiasm of the crowd, Duel enjoy a strong following in Austin. I wasn’t familiar with the band at all, but they were a lot of fun live. Kind of in that Pepper Keenan-fronted Corrosion of Conformity vein, Duel have big stomping grooves, fat riffs and tons of energy. For a band that I’d planned as my “beer break” for the evening, Duel were a pleasant surprise across the board.
If I thought my travel day was difficult, Savage Master’s was several orders of magnitude tougher. Recall that we last saw our masked heroes shortly after 2:00 a.m. the night before on a stage in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Unless Google Maps deceives me, Hattiesburg and Austin are not exactly neighboring towns. Poor Savage Master logged 13 hours in the van today just to make this show, encountering traffic snarls and other inconveniences to delay their travels. They arrived late at The Lost Well, and seemed more than a little frazzled and road-burnt, so I took it upon myself to help them load in from their van parking space across the road. Damn, they’re traveling with a lot of heavy gear, so I got my exercise for the day. To make matters worse, their stage time began after 1:00 a.m. again tonight. Any thoughts that the arduous journey and back-to-back late nights might take a toll on the Masters’ live performance would be mistaken, however. Even though Adam Neil told me later that he was literally falling asleep from exhaustion under his hood during the set, the band kicked ass, sounded fantastic, and even played an extra three songs tonight (“Creature of the Flame,” “Child of the Witch,” “Path of the Necromancer”) that they did not air in Hattiesburg, for a total of 13 tunes and roughly an hour onstage. An annoying guy kept yelling in between songs all night long, “Play ‘Necromancer.’” After Savage Master finally played it, late in the set, that same guy hollered, “Play it again.” Dude, don’t be that guy. Stacey did a cool thing tonight where she grabbed one of the candelabras and hoisted it skyward while she sang during one song. Also, I noticed at the end of the night that the beige Hell Fire shirt I was wearing is now decorated with some of Stacey’s stage blood. Oops, that’s the price you pay for rocking out upfront. Honestly, tonight was one of the best sets I’ve ever seen Savage Master play. I love this band. Setlist: Black Hooves, Vengeance is Steel, With Whips and Chains, Satan’s Crown, Looking for a Sacrifice, Burning Leather, Dark Light of the Moon, Creature of the Flame, Ready to Sin, Child of the Witch, Path of the Necromancer, Ripper in Black, Death Rides the Highway.
After the gig, went back to Sean’s place, hung out for awhile, and finally called it a night at sometime after 4:00 a.m. I had this ambitious plan that I was going to have a nice tall-boy, 24-ounce can of Shiner Bock before bedtime, and I’d stashed it in Sean’s refrigerator all day for that very purpose. Tragically, I only made it through about half the can before I zonked out from exhaustion, the ever-trusty Taco by my side.
Saturday, April 21, 2018
I awakened with a jolt before 8:00 a.m. No, I didn’t need to be awake this early, and I’d planned to sleep in at least another couple of hours, but my body clock said no, so I was awake. Didn’t know what to do, so I started my day by polishing off the remainder of my Shiner Bock from last night. Breakfast of champions and all that. After a low-key morning, I hopped back in the rental car before 11 and commenced the return drive to Houston. It was a grey, rainy, crappy day in eastern Texas, but the drive was mostly uneventful (stopped at Buc-ee’s again for lunch along the way), at least until I encountered heavy traffic on I-10 on the outskirts of Houston. I’m not very good at multitasking, and I was trying to use my phone to find Night Demon’s hotel (where I was supposed to pick up the band’s merch and some gear) and navigate the traffic simultaneously. When the GPS (Anvil’s bitch in the box, haha), told me I had 0.2 miles to cross over four lanes of traffic and take an exit ramp, I freaked out a bit and cut somebody off. He wasn’t happy with me, and I’m fortunate that it didn’t turn into a wreck or a road rage incident. Sorry for cutting you off, angry Texas driver dude. Ultimately, I reached the hotel at around 2:00 p.m. and packed the car full of Cirith Ungol and Night Demon stuff, along with Jarvis Leatherby and Tim Baker, for the ride over to the venue. Kinda cool to play shuttle driver, even if the rental car was way too small to perform that function effectively.
The White Oaks Music Hall is a much nicer, more upscale venue than I’m accustomed to experiencing for underground metal festivals. The downside is that it definitely had a corporate vibe (beer prices were nearly double what they were at The Lost Well, which didn’t really affect me because I was designated driver tonight). There were two concert halls inside. The downstairs room has a huge, high stage, expansive lighting rig, and must have a capacity of around 1,000. (There’s also an upstairs balcony to this stage that would add a couple hundred more to the capacity; however, that balcony was closed off for tonight’s festival.) From what I understand, mainstream metal and hard rock tours (stuff like Overkill, Blind Guardian, Yngwie, and so on) routinely are booked in the big downstairs venue. By contrast, the upstairs room is smaller (I’m guessing 200-250 capacity) but still well appointed, albeit with far too much natural light streaming in for a metal show. Smaller metal tours get booked at the upstairs room, like the Anvil/Night Demon/Graveshadow package last year. The venue was definitely not packed for Hell’s Heroes, but a fan-friendly $20 ticket price ensured a significant crowd all night for every single band.
The Hell’s Heroes organizers had ambitiously planned for 13 bands to perform today between 4:30 p.m. and 1:00 a.m. That’s kind of like trying to put 10 lbs. of shit into a 5 lb. bag, right? The math just doesn’t work. The official schedule showed alternating bands upstairs and downstairs, with most start times being staggered in 30-minute increments. I assumed that meant there would be many occasions with two overlapping bands on two stages at once, with the attendant frustrations and disappointments of having to choose between them. As it turns out, that didn’t happen because the vast majority of the bands played abbreviated 30-minute sets (only ones that I saw play longer were Savage Master (40 min.), Helstar (60 min.), Cirith Ungol (75 min.), and Midnight (50 min.)). So Hell’s Heroes was kind of like a sampler platter of underground true metal gems, without really giving most of the bands an opportunity to spread their wings and play full sets. For the quantity-over-quality crowd, I suppose that’s a good thing, but I was bummed. Only 30 minutes of Eternal Champion? Of Night Demon? You see my point. It’s just not enough. Are short sets better or worse than clashing stage times? I don’t know, but for better or worse that’s the balance the Hell’s Heroes folks chose to strike. Another bone of contention for many attendees was the lack of food over the course of a nine-hour festival. White Oaks does not serve food, and there did not seem to be any restaurants within walking distance. So the only dining option was a single, solitary food truck parked out front. You can imagine how that went down. I went outside four times over the course of the evening to try to order food. Each time, the food truck personnel said they weren’t accepting new orders because they were backed up trying to fill the orders they already had. Friends told me they waited 45 minutes to receive their orders, only to have their meals be incomplete or incorrect. I lived off emergency Pop-Tart rations that I’d stashed away in the car. Rock’n’roll …
The first band I saw today was Bewitcher, who kicked off the upstairs stage festivities at 5:00 p.m. On the one hand, it seemed disconcerting or just plain wrong to see them playing in daylight. (I guess the drummer’s mirrored sunglasses were more than just aesthetic today, at least.) On the other, I was stoked that Bewitcher had a solid crowd that seemed really into what they were doing. Their set was very similar to last night in Austin, albeit slightly shortened (they deleted the new song “Under the Witching Cross”). The Bewitchers looked to be enjoying themselves thoroughly, although they commented about five songs in how they were happy their work was almost done so they could hang out and start drinking. This gig was every bit as good as Bewitcher’s performance in Austin, and cemented their status in my mind as a freaking killer live act. There are many bands inhabiting the Motorhead/Venom/Bathory end of the sonic spectrum these days, but few (if any) execute it as well as Bewitcher. Rock’n’roll on the wings of the devil, indeed. Setlist: Speed Til You Bleed, Rome is on Fire, Too Fast for the Flames, Wild Blasphemy, Black Speed Delirium, Sacrifice (Bathory cover), Bewitcher, In the Night (The Cult Will Rise).
On the big stage, it was time for Militia, a product of Texas’s famed technical speed/thrash scene from the mid-1980s. Incredibly, vocalist Mike Soliz appears to have lost none of his range or his lung capacity over the intervening decades, as he consistently nails those death-defying screams in a way that seems effortless. Meanwhile, his bandmates churn out the lightning-quick tempos and furious leads with a level of intensity eclipsing many bands half their age. Given just 30 minutes to work with, Militia focused mostly on the early material, including the entire Regiments of Death demo from 1985, with set closer “Metal Axe” laying waste to the place. I didn’t get to see all of Militia’s set, but what I did see was extremely impressive. It’s little wonder the band’s manager was beaming with pride afterwards. All of Texas should have been beaming, because Militia did ‘em proud today.
Haunt played next on the upstairs stage, but I didn’t catch any of their performance. Believe me, it wasn’t from lack of interest on my part. I was attending this fest in a semi-official capacity to help my friends Night Demon, who were to play downstairs immediately after Haunt finished, so I couldn’t get away. My spies informed me that Haunt played the same set at Hell’s Heroes that they did in Austin last night, with an enthusiastic and appreciative crowd response. Video footage I’ve seen on YouTube confirms those facts. Mark my words, Haunt are going to go far.
It’s an unusual phenomenon for Night Demon to be feeling a little rusty. After all, the band tours relentlessly and have rightfully earned the title of tireless road dogs. But their last show had been two months ago in Greece, at the end of a 30-gig European run, most of which had been in direct support of Accept at large halls throughout the Olde World. Was the rust visible? Not a chance. Night Demon did like they always do, storming the stage as if shot from a cannon as soon as the intro tape to “Welcome to the Night” ended. I was struck by how much vocalist/bassist Jarvis Leatherby and guitarist Armand John Anthony seemed to relish having a wide-open, unencumbered, large stage at their disposal. Unlike the Accept tour, where they were having to bob and weave to avoid the headliner’s on-stage obstacles, Jarvis and Armand were able to sprint around today with reckless abandon, with no impediments. And that’s precisely what they did. Stage sound was rough on Jarvis’s side of the stage, where I was standing, and not everything was dialed in perfectly, but that’s to be expected in a festival environment with a shared backline. The first four songs passed in a sweaty blur, with the large audience going nuts all around me. Then it was time for me to hustle backstage to don the Rocky costume. To be honest, Rocky smelled a bit gamey after two months in storage, so I tried to air him out on the backstage couch this afternoon. Rocky had an eventful appearance today. When it came time for my cue in “The Chalice,” I shuffled out from behind the curtain on stage left. Almost immediately, I kicked over a water bottle that had somehow been left in the middle of the stage. Two steps later, my feet became entangled in something that later turned out to be a towel left in the middle of the stage. Did I mention that visibility is almost zero in this getup? Having narrowly averted disaster twice, my next challenge was to work the entire large stage in the limited time available. As I did so, I somehow spied someone a couple rows deep in the crowd on stage right holding a beer can aloft. I shuffled over, reached out, and clinked the chalice against the beer can. I was feeling pretty good about myself for this maneuver until I realized that Armand had sneaked up behind me and caught me offguard. We did this improvised hunter-stalking-prey-stalking-hunter thing for a few seconds, resulting in me distracting Armand and him making a mistake. Ooops. I’ve done enough damage here. Time for Rocky to exit. I shed the costume and returned to the wings in time to witness the band tear through “Night Demon,” closing out their high-velocity, take-no-prisoners 8-song set in a flourish. Rust, what rust? Night Demon always rule. I think lots of people at Hell’s Heroes agreed. Setlist: Welcome to the Night, Full Speed Ahead, Hallowed Ground, Ritual, Stranger in the Room, Screams in the Night, The Chalice, Night Demon.
As soon as I could, I motored upstairs to catch Savage Master’s performance in progress. They were midway through “Vengeance is Steel” when I arrived, so all I missed was opener “Black Hooves.” The upstairs room was filled to overflowing, so I had to kind of snake my way into the room and finally reached a good spot about halfway back. I remember feeling gladness in my heart that Savage Master had such a large audience, after seeing them in much more intimate surroundings the previous two nights. If anything, Stacey shined even brighter with the anonymity of a big audience. Some of her stage raps were definitely more effective in this setting, like when she asked if there were any virgins in the audience before “Looking for a Sacrifice.” “Come on, admit it,” she cajoled the crowd before a few sheepish hands were raised. I love that Savage Master refused to toe the party line and cut their set to 30 minutes like everyone else was doing. Screw that. They stretched things out to a bit over 40 minutes, playing the exact same 10-song setlist I saw them do in Hattiesburg on Thursday night. My favorite band on the upstairs stage for sure, and it was a total honor to see Savage Master play three shows in a row on this tour. You know you love a band when you’re just as stoked to see them on Day 3 as you were on Day 1. Like the song says, they’ll fight for metal ‘til they die. And god bless ‘em for it.
I only caught snippets of Venomous Maximus and Sumerlands; however, I made a point of getting right upfront for Helstar on the downstairs stage at 8:30 p.m. Helstar were doing what I like to call a “Reverse Ekman” this weekend. I was hitting Hell’s Heroes, then flying to Milwaukee for Spring Bash; meanwhile, Helstar had played Spring Bash on Friday night, then flew to Houston today for Hell’s Heroes. It was a hometown show for Helstar, and the crowd size was indicative of that fact. Without a doubt, Helstar enjoyed the largest audience of the entire day. Given the affordable ticket price, their local fans, friends and family were able to turn out in full force just to see Helstar’s show. And a special show it was. The gig was advertised as a “Best of Metal Blade Years” performance, and that’s what Helstar gave us, working backwards chronologically with four songs each from Nosferatu and Distant Thunder, then one track apiece from Remnants of War and Burning Star to close out the evening. Frontman James Rivera can be a real character when he’s in a good mood, and he must have been in a really good mood tonight because he was loquacious and entertaining as hell. The first time he addressed the crowd, James announced, “I think Dorothy said it best,” then looked down at his feet, counted to three, and said, “There’s no place like home.” At various other junctures throughout the night, he heaped effusive praise on his partner in crime, Larry Barragan (he of the orange Houston Astros themed V guitar); defended the song “Genius of Insanity” as being in no way sympathetic of Nazism; and joked about how the next 35 years of Helstar were going to be (“okay, who’s going to change James’s diaper this time?”). More importantly, Rivera’s voice sounded excellent and the band was on-point with those tricky Nosferatu and Distant Thunder arrangements. Highlights? For my money, you can’t beat the epic “Winds of War,” which was just scary good tonight, but it’s really hard to argue with the likes of “Baptized in Blood” or “The King is Dead.” A galloping, speeded-up rendition of “Run with the Pack” ended Helstar’s set in fine form. It’s always a pleasure to see James, Larry and the boys, and regardless of their Milwaukee travel exhaustion, they played a superb gig tonight. Setlist: Baptized in Blood, To Sleep Perchance to Scream, Harker’s Tale, The Curse Has Passed Away, The King is Dead, Bitter End, Genius of Insanity, Winds of War, Evil Reign, Run with the Pack.
If it was difficult to get into the upstairs room to see Savage Master, it was damn near impossible to do so for Eternal Champion. With a little persistence and ingenuity (it helped to be skinny and sober), I threaded my way through the room until I maneuvered to a decent spot. The Armor of Ire was one of my top albums of 2016, yet somehow I had never seen the band before. As it turned out, Eternal Champion were full of surprises tonight. The first surprise was that I had no idea EC shares three of its members with Sumerlands, but I immediately recognized one guitarist and bassist as having been onstage earlier with Sumerlands. Upon closer inspection, I realized that Eternal Champion’s drummer had been the other Sumerlands guitar player tonight. Holy cross-pollination, Batman! The second surprise was that Jason Tarpey is one of the best, most intense heavy metal frontmen I’ve ever seen. Sporting a vintage Manowar tee that was so faded its print was almost indiscernable (looked like Fighting the World tour maybe), the muscular, short-haired Tarpey didn’t so much sing the songs as he did enact them or live them. The guy’s just a captivating presence onstage, kinda like a Hulked-up Jake Rogers or something. We’ve all seen singers air-guitar, air-drum, or shadowbox onstage. Well, I had never witnessed a heavy metal vocalist engage in air-archery, but that was one of Tarpey’s signature moves. He’d reach back into an invisible quiver, draw an invisible arrow, notch it in his invisible bow string, take aim and fire, a la Legolas or Robin Hood. It might sound goofy, but the effect was cool as hell. Surprise #3 was the setlist, as Eternal Champion took the unconventional step of opening with their cover version of Mystic Force’s “Awakened by the Dawn.” It’s a fine cover, don’t misunderstand me, but a surprising decision given the abundance of amazing EC originals and the incredibly brief 30-minute set time. All in all, I came away from Eternal Champion’s set highly impressed. This is top-notch epic metal with an engaging frontman who really sells the material. Hopefully I’ll have another chance to see them soon. Setlist: Awakened by the Dawn (Mystic Force cover), I Am the Hammer, Sing a Last Song of Valdese, Retaliator, The Last King of Pictdom, The Armor of Ire.
Ventura, California’s Cirith Ungol have been riding the wave of their unlikely reunion for a year and a half now, playing major festivals around the world and even a couple special shows in Greece this past February. In contrast to many of these one-and-done 80s reunions, however, Cirith Ungol shows no signs of slowing down. If anything, they’re gaining momentum, with a live album in the works and recent social media posts hinting at new studio recordings as well. I certainly haven’t grown weary of seeing Ungol. Their stacked catalog of classic songs speaks for itself, and the band does a terrific job of mixing up its setlists rather than playing the same ol’ predictable batch of tunes. It also helps that Tim Baker has retained full command of his unearthly tortured howl, which juxtaposes starkly with the humility and gratitude that infuse his stage raps. And the other band members are working hard and clearly enjoying Ungol’s resurgence in popularity and the concomitant opportunity to headline so many cool festivals around the world, mostly in places they never were able to play in the ‘80s. All of that said, tonight may be as strong a performance as I’ve ever seen from Cirith Ungol. The generous 13-song setlist was just about perfect for my tastes. From “Blood and Iron” and “Black Machine” to “Death of the Sun” and “Finger of Scorn,” there was a lot to love in there, aside from the “hits.” Moreover, the band played really well. I thought – and some friends of mine agreed – that lead guitarist Jimmy Barraza was magnificent tonight, better than I’ve ever seen him. Drummer Robert Garven was also locked in as well as I’ve ever seen. The result was a powerful, outstanding Cirith Ungol performance. The only real damper was that when the band left the stage after their namesake song “Cirith Ungol” concluded their regular set, venue staff brought up the house lights and started playing house music for a few seconds. They soon realized their mistake and stopped, but in the meantime a significant portion of the audience had drifted off, meaning that lots of unlucky people missed the killer triple encore of “Finger of Scorn” into “Master of the Pit” into “King of the Dead.” Still, it was a stellar night for Cirith Ungol in the Lone Star State. Setlist: I’m Alive, Join the Legion, Blood and Iron, Atom Smasher, Fire, Black Machine, Frost and Fire, Death of the Sun, Fallen Idols, Cirith Ungol. Encore: Finger of Scorn, Master of the Pit, King of the Dead.
By now, it was 11:15 p.m. and I was really beginning to feel the combined effects of exhaustion and starvation. I didn’t even try to go upstairs for Toxic Holocaust, but instead spent their set socializing and wandering around downstairs.
Hell’s Heroes was closing out the night with a performance by Ohio’s Midnight, commencing appropriately enough at the witching hour of 12:00 a.m. On album, the band doesn’t do terribly much for me, but I enjoy the hell out of seeing them play live. There’s such a wild, reckless energy the hooded three-piece brings to the stage, and the audience always responds in kind. You get the feeling you’re watching a runaway freight train loaded down with dynamite, careening down the tracks at breakneck speed with no brakes, and some crazy bastard just lit the fuse, laughing maniacally all the way. That’s a Midnight live show. Pure, unadulterated, molten chaos and mayhem. They didn’t disappoint tonight, either. From my strategic vantage point immediately adjacent to the soundboard, I watched as the entire floor turned into a swirling, undulating pit of flailing bodies and limbs. (At $20 a ticket, there were no barriers to entry to discourage that certain element who might be attracted to an event like this for the sole purpose of climbing into the pit to perpetuate violence. I witnessed more than a few pit participants who appeared to fit that mold.) From the stage, Midnight were the ringleaders of it all. I saw the venue’s garbage cans get thrown into the pit and tossed around like corks in a violent raging sea. I saw Athenar drinking out of a 5-gallon water cooler jug instead of a small plastic bottle like everyone else, then hurl the still-full jug into the pit, spilling its contents everywhere. I saw Athenar swinging like a crazed satanic monkey from the P.A. system (which was flown from the venue ceiling) at stage right at the end of the set. But in Midnight’s world, this was just another ho-hum day at the office. Yeah, this band’s live gigs are legendary for a reason.
Hanging out at White Oaks for a while after the show ended, I was overjoyed when Jarvis appeared with an armload of pizza boxes. Now, this wasn’t good pizza. It was cold and had the consistency and taste of greasy cardboard, but I was famished so it didn’t matter. By around 2:00 a.m., I left the venue and drove the Night Demon guys back to the hotel. This was a fancy schmancy downtown hotel, with a 25th floor room and a panoramic view of the city. We spent about two hours chilling at the room, and then it was time to get to the airport. We all had a plane to catch, and I had a rental car to return.
Sunday, April 22, 2018
None of us had slept, but we left the hotel at 5:00 a.m., bound for Hobby International Airport. Somehow, I navigated the confusing downtown Houston streets, managed to get to the Airport to drop off the band and the gear, returned the rental car at the offsite location, took the shuttle bus back to the Airport, cleared security and made it to the gate by 6:00 a.m. Wow. I’m kind of amazed I could pull that off, after three consecutive nights of minimal sleep. I was on the same flights with the Night Demon and Cirith Ungol guys to Milwaukee. For the first leg, from Houston to St. Louis, I sat next to Jimmy Barraza and had a fascinating conversation. Once we arrived in St. Louis, we had a little time to kill, so Armand, Tim Baker and I downed some Stellas at the airport bar. Yeah, it was 9:00 a.m. on Sunday, but who cares? We were thirsty. The second leg, from St. Louis to Milwaukee, was painless and I even managed to nap a bit thanks to the aforementioned Stellas. By noon, we were all at the Milwaukee Airport, on a bright, sunny, chilly (but not cold) day, with the remnants of last week’s blizzard still visible on the ground. Funny, at the Airport we walked past the Nasty Savage guys, who had played Spring Bash last night and were flying home this morning. Changing of the guard, I guess.
Spring Bash organizers had a courtesy van waiting for us, and transported us all to the Fest hotel. Most of the guys headed directly to the rooms to get some sleep, but I went with Armand to the venue to unload all the gear, merch, etc., just so we wouldn’t have to do it later. Returned to the hotel, ordered some gyros to be delivered to the room, ate some lunch, and conked out about by 2:30 p.m. or so. My original plan had been to hang out at the venue all afternoon; after all, I had many friends at Spring Bash from around the country, and even my buddy Stephan from Switzerland was here. Also, I really wanted to see Vanlade play. They were early on the bill today. Great guys, great live band, and their song “Hail the Protector” is one of my favorite tunes of the last 10 years, so I was really hoping they might play it today. Unfortunately, I finally succumbed to the reality that if I wanted to be even remotely functional tonight, it was imperative I get some sleep, even if that meant missing out on hang time with my friends and not seeing Vanlade’s set. It was a hard decision, but definitely the right one. My mantra, after all, had been “No Sleep ‘til Milwaukee,” not “No Sleep in Milwaukee.”
The van returned to the hotel to pick up Cirith Ungol, Night Demon and me at 6:00 p.m., to transport us to Club Garibaldi for the gig. The first hour or so after we arrived at the venue was completely surreal. I had agreed to perform merch duty tonight for both bands, so my primary objective was to get the merch sorted, organized and displayed, and to get a system in place. As I worked methodically to do that, setting up the merch on a pool table and surrounding chairs in the music room, I was repeatedly interrupted (in a good way) by so many friends who were on hand, including True Metal Lives head honcho Mark Vander Zanden, Destructor singer/guitarist Dave Overkill, the Vanlade guys (who told me that they’d played “Hail the Protector” for me even though I wasn’t there to hear it), and a host of others. My Swiss buddy Stephan could tell I needed a drink, so he started bringing me delicious Lakefront porters. Thanks Stephan! As all of this was going on, Damien Thorne was onstage. I like the band, but was in no way able to focus on or pay attention to their performance. There was simply too much else going on. Eventually, I got the merch situation in order, and opened for business. Wow! Spring Bash came through strong for Cirith Ungol and Night Demon today. Merch sales were steady and brisk all night long. I didn’t have the best possible system in place, and I was totally out of practice at selling merch (not to mention more than a bit lost with Jen’s leadership and steadying presence), but I did the very best I could. Thanks for being patient with me, y’all. I was really surprised by how many people tipped the merch guy, even though I didn’t have a tip jar and wasn’t doing anything to solicit compensation from anyone. While the tips were kindly given, I added every penny to the bands’ payout because it didn’t feel right to me to accept money when I was just here to help my friends.
In terms of vibe and attitude, the scene at Spring Bash couldn’t have been more different than at Hell’s Heroes yesterday. Unlike White Oaks Music Hall, Garibaldi’s isn’t a posh, pro, commercial music venue; to the contrary, it feels like a cozy neighborhood bar because that’s exactly what it is. Stage was tiny and the dim, single-color light show was nonexistent, unlike the sprawling high-end stage setup at White Oaks. And there were probably four or five times as many people at White Oaks yesterday as there were at Garibaldi’s today (I’d estimate 100-150 in the room for most of the evening). But none of that mattered. I felt like I was with *my* people in Milwaukee. No hipsters, no scenesters, just lifelong dyed-in-the-wool true metal underground folks. It felt like coming home. And I say all of this without meaning to be critical of Houston or Hell’s Heroes at all. Hell’s Heroes was a great festival, and I’m immensely thankful for it. It was just striking to compare Hell’s Heroes and Spring Bash side-by-side on consecutive days like this and to realize how dramatically different they were on so many metrics. Maybe I’m just a Midwesterner at heart, but I’ll take Randy Kastner’s Spring Bash over loads of other festivals any day of the week.
Night Demon hit the stage at 7:45 p.m. I know I had merch responsibilities and all, but there’s no way in hell I was going to be selling t-shirts while my favorite band was playing. So I abandoned my post and found my way to the front of the stage, just in time for the show-opening “Welcome to the Night.” I can’t really describe how heartwarming it was to look around me in the audience and see good friends in all directions. As I turned in a 360-degree circle, I could see in close proximity to me so many friends and fellow Night Demon lunatics, and we were all gathered here to celebrate this band we love so much. Night Demon played an absolute blinder of a gig. It was loud, it was sweaty, there was barely any room on the stage for Jarvis and Armand to move around. It reminded me of the type of gigs I used to see Night Demon play all the time a couple of years ago, before their stock really began to rise and the stages and audiences began to get so much larger. It was like a throwback Night Demon show. And it was glorious. The 12-song setlist closely tracked what Night Demon played for the 6 German shows I saw them play with Accept in January, except that tonight they aired “Stranger in the Room” instead of “Heavy Metal Heat” and “Flight of the Manticore” in place of “Black Widow” (a little surprised they didn’t play “Black Widow” this weekend, since that was a single and a song that always goes down a storm live, but maybe they just decided to give the tune a rest). Of course, I had Rocky duties again tonight, and I’d limited my beer consumption to just one pint for that very reason. It’s a sacred trust, so I didn’t want to RUI (Rocky Under the Influence). I hadn’t seen a setlist so before the gig I found Jarvis and asked him what my cue was to change into Rocky. He said “Manticore,” so that’s what I went with. Then, during the solo of “Screams in the Night” (before “Manticore” had been played), Armand came over to where I was blissfully headbanging with a serious look on his face. Then he mouthed the words, “Chalice is next.” Oh shit. That’s not what good. So I scrambled over to the sidestage (there was no backstage area here for changing) and hurriedly donned the costume. It takes a few minutes, so I knew there was no way I’d be ready in time for my “The Chalice” entrance. Fortunately, the band decided to play “Manticore” after “Screams” after all, so I had a bit of a reprieve; otherwise, Rocky never would have made it in time. It was a blast to do the Rocky thing on this small sweaty stage surrounded by so many friends, and the high fives and cold beers flowed freely as soon as I returned to the crowd for the “Night Demon” finale. I’ve seen Night Demon dozens of times, but this night felt special, maybe because of how much toil it took for all of us to get through this weekend, maybe because of how bone-tired and punchdrunk I was, maybe because of all my friends in the house, but maybe because of the joy of seeing Night Demon dominate in a small room one more time, far from the glitz and the glamor of the big stage. After all, this is what it’s all about. This is the heart of it all. Setlist: Welcome to the Night, Full Speed Ahead, Maiden Hell, Curse of the Damned, Hallowed Ground, Ritual, Dawnrider, Stranger in the Room, Screams in the Night, Flight of the Manticore, The Chalice, Night Demon.
After Night Demon, the only band left was Cirith Ungol, who went on stage at around 9:00 p.m. As I’ve already said, it’s been an incredible run for the band in the last 18 months, but they’ve mostly been playing big festivals with big crowds. The chance to see them on such a small stage before a cozy audience was really special, really unique. The band talked about it that afternoon while riding in the van, and they seemed excited or perhaps intrigued about the prospect of doing what was basically a club show for a change. It went fine. The Milwaukee crowd received Cirith Ungol with open arms. If you think about it, most attendees were Midwesterners, and CU had never played a concert in this region of the country before. So there were lifelong Ungol fans getting to see the band for the very first time, and in an up-close and personal setting. What’s not to love? (It also didn’t hurt that guitarist Greg Lindstrom adhered to his tradition of wearing a shirt onstage that paid homage to the locale. Last night in Houston he wore a NASA shirt. Tonight it was a Milwaukee Bucks shirt. Cool gesture.) It’s probably fair to say that the band didn’t play quite as well tonight as they did last night. Most notably, there was a significant flub in the beginning of “Death of the Sun” that ultimately caused them to abandon the whole enterprise and start over again, somewhat sheepishly at that. But the crowd didn’t mind. Everyone was just really happy to experience Cirith Ungol live, and enjoyed this gift for what it was. Setlist was the same as last night in Houston, with the addition of “Chaos Descends.” Also, the band never left the stage before the encores because, as Jarvis explained from the stage, there was nowhere to go in this venue anyway, haha. After the gig, they stuck around and signed autographs and posed for photographs for anyone and everyone who asked.
In typical me fashion, I wasn’t ready to leave. Even though I had an early morning flight out of Milwaukee tomorrow, there was nothing for me at the Red Roof Inn, so I resolved to stay out as late as possible. And I did. There were beers, and a Denny’s visit, and singing Dokken songs badly, and all kinds of other mischief until 4 a.m. Then I went back to the hotel to nap, forgot to set an alarm, and yet somehow managed to wake up in time to call an Uber and get to the airport for the long journey home. But that’s another story for another day …
~ Review by Kit Ekman ~