O B’s, DeLand, Florida
November 9, 2014
Seven Kingdoms guitarist Camden Cruz started the DeLand Rock & Metal Festival a few years ago as a platform to give his band an opportunity to play a hometown show from time to time. The fest draws from a wide spectrum of metal sub-genres, and predominantly features unknown Florida bands, with a few national acts sprinkled into the mix. Jen and I had never been before, but we decided to give it a whirl this year (stopping off in Panama City on the way down to pick up my brother Kevin). Because of family and other commitments, we were unable to attend the Friday (pre-party featuring Judicator, Project Roenwolfe and Shadowstrike) and Saturday (wall-to-wall death/extreme metal) events; therefore, this report is confined to the Sunday portion of the festivities.
Before delving into the music, a word about the festival layout and ambience. The DRMF venue is a biker bar called OB’s, located on Woodward Blvd., the main drag of DeLand, a couple of miles north of the pristine Stetson University campus and the charming downtown area (both of which we explored on Sunday morning, with stops at Persimmon Hollow Brewery for liquid sustenance and El Taco Amigo for mindblowing Mexican food). OB’s ain’t much to look at inside; however, thankfully the festival actually happens outside, in a large fenced-in grassy area. It’s a huge space that could easily accommodate festival attendance in the four digits should DRMF expand to that level. For now, the green space is largely vacant, with two stages (a permanent wooden MainStage attached to OB’s and a temporary professional looking Festival Stage erected near the MainStage and at a 90 degree angle to it, so technically when one band finished playing you merely had to tilt your head 90 degrees to watch the next band on the other stage). There was a small camping area populated by a few intrepid campers, an area with picnic tables and a couple of fire pits, plus a vendor area with band merch, a Nightmare Records table, beef jerky vendor, and so on. Also on the grounds were two outside OB’s bars, at one of which VIP badge holders like me could fill up their 22-oz DRMF plastic mug with tasty kegged Yuengling for just $4 (reduced to $2 on the final night of the event). I have a good metalhead friend up north who would have been in heaven with this arrangement, as Yuengling is his preferred concert beverage. Me, I enjoyed having a nice steady flow of cheap decent beer all day long. There were also specialty drink and food menus, with items linked to particular bands (i.e., the Thunder Island being a mixed drink inspired by A Sound of Thunder, the Brave Burger being inspired by Seven Kingdoms and so on).
All in all, it was a quite nice setup on the festival grounds. The outdoor format could have been disastrous (and apparently was pretty unfavorable on Saturday’s death metal day, with steady rainfall and chilly temperatures), but Sunday was overcast but mild, so a beautiful day to be outdoors. My only regrets were twofold. First, I wish there had been more people in attendance at any given time. I think the overall foot traffic numbers were pretty good, but the problem was that people would show up to watch their friend or relative’s band, then bail. At any given time, there couldn’t have been even 100 people watching the band onstage, and sometimes it seemed significantly lower than that. It is really difficult to pull in crowds for underground metal fests, unfortunately, so DRMF is fighting an uphill battle here. Second, thanks to it being Stetson University’s homecoming weekend, all the nearby hotels were booked solid. The fest hotel (to the extent there was one) was the Budget Inn of DeLand, nearly 8 miles from the venue and a decidedly unimpressive facility. Our room featured a non-flushing toilet, a near-complete absence of hot water, and a bed so badly warped that it should have come with coupons for discounted chiropractor visits. Certainly, it was no one’s fault that we were stuck at a crappy hotel, but we’ll hope for a more pleasant set of accommodations at next year’s event. With nearly 20 bands gracing two stages (most having 30-minute sets), no more than two or three minutes in between bands, and all of the attendant socializing and hanging out that goes on at an event like this, it is impossible to detail all the acts. Suffice it to say there were a variety of styles represented, from pop/punk a la Green Day with The Adolescent Theory to full-on thrash courtesy of Frostfang to the modern-rock radio-ready female-fronted strains of Oblivious Signal to punishing blue face-painted Viking metal of Sons of Ragnar to the dual-female voiced Christian themed Armor of God to thrashy traditional metal with harsh vocals from Maverick Hunter to the lighter, proggier stylings of Everthrone. I’ll focus on a few bands that particularly caught my ear; however, I can say with all honesty that none of the bands sucked. Sure, some weren’t “my thing,” but each one seemed skilled, enthusiastic, and putting their all into their performance. Nonetheless, we’ll forego the typical encyclopedic band-by-band account this time, in favor of a more tightly focused approach.
The first particularly noteworthy band of the day was Judicator, who went on at 2:30 p.m. I hadn’t expected to see Judicator at all. You see, the Tucson, Arizona natives had been booked to play the preparty on Friday night, not the main event on Sunday. Because of another band’s cancelation and because of the overwhelmingly positive response to Judicator’s Friday night set, DRMF promoter Camden Cruz invited them to play a second set on Sunday. I am so glad he did. This band ripped. I can’t say that I’m familiar with their recorded material, but Judicator played a kind of high energy, catchy melodic power metal with killer guitars courtesy of backwards ballcap-wearing Tony C. and powerful, high pitched vocals by John Yelland. The band was extremely intense and energetic, and they were so tight and cohesive that I never would’ve believed this was only their second live performance ever, their first having taken place on Friday night. (Can that possibly be true?) Highlights included “When Crowns are Shattered,” “Coping Mechanism,” and the stellar singalong finale of “King of Rome.” Judicator are a band to watch out for, and honestly elicited one of the most rabid audience responses of the entire day. Also, I got a kick out of their t-shirts, bearing the slogan “Keep Calm and Shatter Crowns” on the front, with the description “Judicator: Prussian Power Metal” on the back. Now, how can I get a CD copy of ‘King of Rome’? Anyone? Bueller? At 4:30, Jacksonville’s Skyliner took their turn on the MainStage. Led by caped singer/guitarist Jake Becker, Skyliner have made some waves this year in the international power metal scene with the release of their debut album, ‘Outsiders,’ on the well-known (some might say notorious) Limb Music label. Somewhat surprisingly, two of the four members who appeared on that CD are no longer in the band. Only Becker and drummer Ben Brenner from that recording remain. Opening with the catchy fast-paced “Forever Young” was a good call, as that’s my favorite song from the ‘Outsiders’ album (along with “Symphony in Black,” which was not aired) and a surefire way to get the audience on board. Next up was “Undying Wings,” which was most notable for Becker hopping off the stage, getting in the middle of the pit, and tearing through his guitar solo while hair whipped, fists flew and heads banged all around him. The funny part was that he had to run all the way around the back to get up to the stage, and realized so late that he had to doubletime it (playing guitar the whole way) to reach his microphone in time for his vocal cue. The third song was the lengthy ponderous ballad “Aria of the Waters,” which I frankly skip when I listen to the CD because it’s just too low-energy for me. It improved in the live setting but still wasn’t a favorite. Unfortunately, that was also Skyliner’s last song. There was a schedule to keep, and things were running late, so Skyliner’s last song (“The Alchemist”) had to be cut. I was bummed at that development, particularly with things ending on a somewhat limp note via “Aria of the Waters.” Still, I was very pleased to have had the opportunity to see Skyliner and will hope to catch them performing a longer set (including “Symphony in Black”) sometime soon. In the vein of constructive criticism, the female keyboard player sat on a stool cross-legged for most of the gig, and had very little to do with her instrument for significant portions of the performance. It was a bit distracting to have someone sitting there looking disengaged for so much of the time, so maybe the band could rethink about how to integrate her better into their live show in the future.
Setlist: Forever Young, Undying Wings, Aria of the Waters.
Perhaps my most anticipated band of the Festival was Pennsylvania’s MindMaze. Despite being a fan of both their studio albums, I had never had an opportunity to see them perform. I was most curious to see how their brand of female-fronted power/prog/traditional metal would fare in a live context. As it turns out, the band’s 35-minute set vastly exceeded my expectations. Guitarist Jeff Teets is a big guy, but he’s quite nimble onstage and certainly is not one of these prima donna, stand-in-one-place-and-study-the-fretboard kind of shredders. He worked the stage like a pro, sweat pouring off his head despite the cool night air, even getting down on his knees at the front of the stage for some of his solos. Jeff’s sister, vocalist Sarah Teets, is blessed with a clear, confident, powerful hard-rock voice that commands attention. The sound mix did not favor Sarah tonight unfortunately (at least from my vantage point pressed against the stage in the front row), and she seemed to be having difficulty hearing herself as well, because she kept checking her mike to see if it was on (and it was). From what I could hear, though, Sarah’s voice sounded even more remarkable live than on MindMaze’s recordings. Bassist Rich Pasqualone is essentially a fill-in (i.e., he’s not a full member), but one never would have guessed that from watching him play and seeing how smoothly he meshed with his bandmates. And drummer Kalin Schweizerhof performed admirably behind the kit. In terms of setlist, this was pretty much a perfect 7-song representation of what MindMaze are all about, balanced almost equally between the two albums and focusing on the catchier, more straightahead, guitar-oriented material. Speaking of guitars, for the last two songs, MindMaze brought out a guest guitarist, Jeff Pouring of Maverick Hunter. This guest spot rounded out the band’s already excellent performance nicely, adding additional crunch to the sound and visual dynamics onstage. (Maybe think about adding a second guitarist full-time, guys, because the difference was quite noticeable.) I really didn’t want MindMaze’s set to end, I was having so much fun banging my head and singing along. At the end of glorious closer “Never Look Back,” Jeff handed one of his custom guitar picks to me and another to my brother Kevin, for a cool souvenir of the night. I hope to see MindMaze again, and soon! This is a band on the rise, folks. Setlist: Back from the Edge, Destiny Calls, This Holy War, Dreamwalker, Mask of Lies, End of Eternity, Never Look Back.
The next band on the OB’s MainStage was DC’s A Sound of Thunder. Tonight was my fourth occasion witnessing ASoT’s thunder and fury in person, and they’ve been on a steady upward trajectory each time. Their live shows just get better and better, thanks to the combination of the band’s ever-growing experience and their expanding catalog of cool songs from which to draw. I had seen A Sound of Thunder a little over four months ago at the Warriors of Metal Festival in Ohio, but in the interim they’ve released a new album, ‘The Lesser Key of Solomon,’ so I was eager to hear how those songs would translate live. They answered that question right away by kicking into a punishing rendition of newbie “Udoroth” to kick off the show. With nary a moment for audience and band to catch their breaths, ASoT continued with a glorious trifecta from the ‘Time’s Arrow’ album, moving from “Queen of Hell” to “Time’s Arrow” (hideously bad guest vocals on one line of the chorus courtesy of me when singer Nina Osegueda offered me the mike) to “Power Play.” Wow, that’s how you start a gig! Find me a four-pack of tunes from anyone that can pack such a wallop. Red-haired, bearded guitarist Josh Schwartz was a whirling blur of energy, never standing still for even a moment and his head constantly bobbing up and down. (Josh’s father was in attendance tonight, his first time seeing his son’s band, so I know it was a particularly special night for Josh.) Lanky, hulking bassist Jesse Keen has developed his own signature moves and vibe onstage, and it’s both unique and effective. Drummer Chris Herren is a model of consistent strength behind the kit. And then there’s Nina. Missing her trademark goggles, she nonetheless wailed like a banshee in her studded gauntlets and King Diamond t-shirt. For sheer lungpower, not many metal singers can keep pace with Nina Osegueda. I’ll confess that, for me, the set lulled a bit with the back-to-back inclusion of two longer, meandering tunes from the new album, “Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb” and “House of Bones.” I’m not so familiar with these songs, not having spent as much time with the new album as I should have (music listening time has been quite sparse for me lately for various reasons), so it’s probably my fault for not doing my homework. It’s clear that many of the songs on this new disc require repeated listens to reveal their strengths, and I’m just not there yet with a few of them. In any case, the energy level and excitement picked up with the closing pair of tunes, “Out of the Darkness” and the band’s eponymous tune. Both songs are ridiculously good and ridiculously powerful live, and oh so much fun to sing along with. I always imagine John Gallagher’s voice on his lines in “Out of the Darkness,” since the song was originally recorded as a duet, and tonight was no exception. And for pure anthemic majesty, “A Sound of Thunder” (the song) simply rules. All in all, it was a splendid 45 minutes of A Sound of Thunder. I know they’re somewhat polarizing in underground metal circles for some inexplicable reason, but for me, I have no qualms whatsoever about throwing my full weight of support behind this worthy band. You should too. Setlist: Udoroth, Queen of Hell, Time’s Arrow, Power Play, Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb, House of Bones, Out of the Darkness, A Sound of Thunder.
I’ll confess that I did not watch Draekon’s set on the Festival Stage with rapt attention. I was watching, don’t get me wrong, but doing so from a distance and in between conversations. It’s not that I dislike Draekon; to the contrary, I admire their old Kamelot-styled approach to elegant, sophisticated, melodic metal. But I needed some time to recover after the severe ass-kicking administered by A Sound of Thunder. Plus, the day was slipping away, and I was trying to cram in all the socializing I wanted before DRMF came to an end. And, if truth be told, I had been sipping on a few of those draft Yuenglings as the night wore on, so perhaps I was feeling those a bit. Anyway, Draekon (who had traveled all the way from Indiana for this gig) by all appearances performed magnificently. They played nearly all the songs off their ‘Prelude to Tragedy’ EP from a couple years ago, plus a few other songs (which I would assume are new) that sounded great, especially set closer “Only Ashes Remain.” Singer Chad Barnes is one of the finest new vocalists in metal, and his golden pipes shone through the band’s entire performance. Without question, Draekon did themselves proud in DeLand tonight.
By now, it was 10:30 p.m. and time for the main event, DeLand’s own Seven Kingdoms closing out the festivities with a one-hour headlining set. For speedy guitar-driven Euro-styled fantasy power metal with female vocals, it doesn’t get any better than Seven Kingdoms. And they were simply awesome tonight. Maybe there were only 50-60 people there to watch them. Maybe their singer’s stage wear now includes slippers made to look like hamburgers. Maybe one of their guitarists (Camden Cruz) was exhausted to the bone from his promoter duties over the last three days of this festival. But for the 65 minutes that Seven Kingdoms were onstage, none of that mattered. They played a monstrous set, racing through most of their 2012 superb ‘The Fire is Mine’ album, and supplementing it with a trio of older cuts, two from their self-titled disc and one from the ‘Brothers of the Night’ debut. Songs like “The King in the North,” “After the Fall,” and “Flame of Olympus” really epitomize everything that is good and holy about the melodic power metal genre, and they sounded fantastic tonight. Diminutive vocalist Sabrina Cruz (she of the hamburger slippers) has come a long way in her stage demeanor and persona over the last few years. Where she once was visibly uncomfortable and tentative, now she has become a top-notch frontwoman who seems to know just what to do to entertain and keep the audience engaged at all times. And her voice was in fine form on this night, albeit once again too low in the mix (just as MindMaze’s Sarah Teets was). Following a brief drum solo from Keith Byrd, Seven Kingdoms brought out their original vocalist Bryan Edwards for a death metal detour through “Dragonflight” off the ‘Brothers of the Night’ album. I’m glad they don’t play that style anymore, but hearing this song tonight was a whole lot of fun. Also, while I might have picked something other than “Wolf in Sheep’s Clothes” from the self-titled album (say, “Vengeance by the Sons of a King” or “Somewhere Far Away”), it was still good to hear that song live for the first time in a couple of years, as well as the always excellent “Into the Darkness.” Seven Kingdoms were definitely firing on all cylinders tonight. My only niggling criticism was that the band’s reliance on backing tracks was sometimes distracting, particularly when there were audible layers of backing vocals or choirs, but no one on stage was singing. (Interesting that the band did no live backing vocals at all tonight. Usually Camden Cruz and bassist Aaron Sluss are right there singing along to provide backing vocals, but not tonight, for some reason.) Anyway, I look forward to Seven Kingdoms’ next step towards world domination, which will hopefully include a new album in 2015. For now, though, they proved most worthy of headlining status at this festival, and I was so happy to see them again.
Setlist: Fragile Minds Collapse, Flame of Olympus, Forever Brave, Into the Darkness, Wolf in Sheep’s Clothes, drum solo, Dragonflight, The Fire is Mine, Into the Twisted Twilight, The King in the North, After the Fall.
By now, it is pellucidly clear that organizing an underground heavy metal festival in the USA is a fool’s errand for anyone other than ProgPower USA’s Glenn Harveston. These kinds of events just aren’t supported by the masses. That said, Camden Cruz has a formula here that could work. He has a suitable outdoor venue with room to expand. He seems to be taking appropriate steps to keep costs down. And he’s succeeded in creating an atmosphere that is relaxed, friendly and welcoming to all. I can’t imagine anyone coming to DeLand Rock & Metal Festival and not having a great time. My party of three had immense fun from the moment we set foot on the grounds until the moment we departed. And it is our ardent hope to return to DeLand for another round next fall, assuming lineup and timing and everything else work out. Perhaps you should consider the same.
~ Review by Kit Ekman~