Festival Review: Tattoo the Earth Festival — A Heavy Metal Underground Reunion, and the Old Guys Delivered

By Scott McLennan

For all of the music’s fury, protest, anguish, and raw brutality, Tattoo the Earth was a lovefest.

Singer Joey Belladonna and guitarist Scott Ian of Anthrax at Tattoo the Earth. Photo: Sam McLennan.

For those on the outside of the chain link fences encircling a field of asphalt between The Palladium and DCU Center in Worcester, Mass, the scene unfolding there last Saturday — in what is usually a parking lot  — probably appeared intimidating.

For many outside of the fence, the gathering must have looked like a bizarre, even alarming, gathering: people dressed head-to-toe in black violently slamming into each other as bands played music so aggressively it no doubt came off as the audio equivalent of a blur.

Inside the fence, it was a whole other story.

The Tattoo the Earth Festival brought together a titanic bill of bands from the heavy metal underground. And for all of the music’s fury, protest, anguish and raw brutality, the event was a lovefest. Bands that have been out of the loop for years hopped back into action. Musicians frequently took time during their sets to praise other bands performing that day. The fans showed up in droves, delivering wildly enthusiastic responses to artists who barely, if at all, popped up on popular music radars. And the metal underground bands responded in kind, expressing their gratitude for the loyal devotion of their supporters.

Tattoo the Earth in many ways felt like a big celebratory reunion. The Red Chord’s Guy Kozowyk declared, “There are a lot of new bands keeping the scene alive. But today is about the old bands.” The crowd roared, and kept roaring when Kozowyck namechecked Overcast, Crowbar, and At the Gates. These bands were on the undercard of the 9-hour fest — but no less influential or revered than the acts headlining later in the night.

It was a moment that perfectly captured underground metal’s lack of pretension (not to be confused with any lack of attitude). Well-curated metalfests typically feel like bacchanals that revel in the return of triumphant heroes.

The Red Chord in action at the Tattoo the Earth Festival. Photo: Sam McLennan.

As a genre, underground metal is pretty spacious: you get the melodic twin-guitar driven sound of thrash; the lean and monolithically crushing sound of hardcore; the mash-up variations of metal and hardcore into metal-core, which itself has several sub-variants; stoner-rock sludginess; and complex technical metal.

Tattoo the Earth had it all,and, as a musical community, fans are pretty open to supporting the stylistic variety. But the bands that survive in this scene are the ones that develop a cult-like following. I can guarantee that every band playing Tattoo the Earth was somebody’s favorite band, ever.

The one-day festival came together 20 years after Tattoo the Earth founder Scott Alderman first staged an event under the Tattoo banner.

Alderman, who lives in Massachusetts, produced the groundbreaking Tattoo the Earth concert tour in 2000, which brought together underground metal bands and tattoo artists for a run of shows that encountered legal hassles, business problems and just about any other kind of problem you could imagine. The producer chronicled the whole affair in the book Caravan of Pain, which came out earlier this year.

Independent concert promoter John Peters, whose MassConcerts has steadfastly supported heavy metal, saw the book and reached out to Alderman. Peters said that he had metal legends Anthrax booked to play Aug. 27 outdoors at The Palladium in Worcester. Would Alderman have any interest in building out the day into a full-blown festival?

A member of the Tattoo the Earth Festival crowd. Photo: Sam McLennan.

Alderman, who hadn’t produced a show in two decades, took on the challenge and worked with the behind-the-scenes people who have kept underground metal alive (such as Massachusetts native son Scott Lee, who is to metal what Bill Graham was to the psychedelic rock scene of ’60s San Francisco).

Alderman and crew pulled together a near flawless lineup of bands that not only represented the genre’s variety but also toasted the important role that the Bay State and its metalheads have played in sustaining the music.

To begin with, the site itself is somewhat sacred ground among heavy metal fans. The Palladium was home to the New England Metal and Hardcore Festival, which for nearly 20 years fostered a sense of community as well as provided a platform for new artists and veterans alike.

Then there was the Mass-centric lineup of performers. Within the Ruins, Overcast, The Red Chord, and Hatebreed are all influential heavy bands that were born in Massachusetts and nurtured by the local music scene. Additionally, the lead guitar player in Anthrax for the last 10 years has been Jonathan Donais, who emerged from the Mass metal scene as a member of Shadows Fall (to detail the family tree, Shadows Fall and current metalcore heavyweights Killswitch Engage both grew out of Overcast).

All of these historical details gave Tattoo the Earth 2022 a distinctive narrative, so to speak. This was a fest in the truest sense of the word — it was a specially designed event, not a package crafted to be replicated and delivered in several markets.

And, of course, the event welcome tattoo artists. Their operations set up inside the Palladium. The tattooing and tattoo art in general may have been separated from the outdoor action, but attendees were getting inked nonetheless.

Overcast and singer Brian Fair wowing the crowd. Photo: Sam McLennan.

Getting back to the music, and to pick up on Kozowyck’s sentiment stated above, the old guys delivered. Headliners Anthrax, whose first album came out in 1984, sounded as good as ever, playing an energetic set of career-defining material, such as thrash anthems “Caught in a Mosh,” “Among the Living,” and “Bring the Noise,” a Public Enemy song it famously covered in collaboration with that group’s outspoken front man Chuck D.

The Red Chord last released a record in 2009 and hadn’t performed since 2015. But its manic and progressive approach to metal still sounded cutting edge, with grooves, dissonance and technical precision working in wildly orchestrated ways.

Overcast came together in 1991, a member of the local circuit that supported independent and experimental punk and metal bands. The group pioneered a fusion of the melodicism of heavy metal and the blunt force of hardcore punk, but Overcast broke up in 1998. It never got the acclaim and commercial success achieved by other bands (including the ones with Overcast members) that followed that path. As you often see in other musical genres, the artists who light the proverbial fuse are rarely the ones that blow up before the public eye. But every few years an occasion, like this one, lures the Overcast members back together again. At Tattoo the Earth, true to form, the group relentlessly tore through an half-hour set full of daredevil musical dynamics, performing a cache of songs that blended aggression and contemplation. The lanky, dreadlocked front man Brian Fair put the contradition across with pure conviction.

One of underground metal’s defining traits is the singer who can connect with the listener through any kind of storm — happening on the stage or in front of it. Hatebreed’s Jamey Jasta has become among those worshiped for this skill, a reputation earned by his ability to pull everyone into his group’s clobbering assault.

Terror and Bleeding Through, two Los Angeles area bands that have been around since the early 2000s, could not sound more different from each other. The former is a lean, straight-punching hardcore band, the latter a purveyor of intricate musical structures. But in their own ways they forged a similar connection with the audience with messages about embracing the identity of an outsider.

A listener at the Tattoo the Earth festival getting a tattoo. Photo: Sam McLennan.

Not long after Bleeding Through’s Brandan Schieppati howled, “You’re the ugliest crowd I have ever played to; don’t worry, we’re ugly too,” Terror’s Scott Vogel was telling the crowd amassed in front of him at the fest’s smaller side stage, “I’m not cool. I’m just a fucked-up kid, like everyone here.”

These bands may paint a grim picture of the world, but they also offer release valves for the pressure they ratchet up. In the case of Municipal Waste, twisted humor runs through the lyrics. Swedish death-metal band At the Gates (performing its genre defining album Slaughter of the Soul in its entirety) and Spirit Adrift, the brainchild of multi-instrumentalist and thrash-metal enthusiast Nate Garrett, both infuse epic storytelling into their music.

Black Label Society, the band led by guitarist Zakk Wylde, was the one soft spot in the festival lineup. Wylde’s band, which has been on tour with Anthrax, played the festival’s most conventional set, offering up legitimately heavy sounding material. But Wylde’s songs were more serviceable than memorable. They don’t approach the catchiness of heavy metal classics from Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, or Black Sabbath. That was music that built a bridge between metal and more mainstream rock in the ’70s and ’80s. Still, Wylde is a well-established guitarist, long associated with Black Sabbath singer Ozzy Osbourne and his solo career. And there was no doubt that Black Label Society brought in a massive fan base, judging by the number people wearing the group’s regalia. If was as if they all belonged to an outlaw biker gang.

Truth be told, Black Label Society would have stood out more in another context. Physically, Wylde resembles a cast member in any Viking movie you have ever seen. He wears a kilt on stage and plays guitar at lightning speeds (sometimes with the axe held behind his head). But on this day and night of masterful displays of rebellion, anti-social commentary, and blaring rejections of the hypocrisies that polite society likes to paper over, Wylde and his band came off as rather conventional.

Scott McLennan covered music for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette from 1993 to 2008. He then contributed music reviews and features to the Boston Globe, Providence Journal, Portland Press Herald, and WGBH, as well as to the Arts Fuse. He also operated the NE Metal blog to provide in-depth coverage of the region’s heavy metal scene.

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