I was curious to see how the Boston Marathon bombing and subsequent events would filter into the Metalfest.
By Scott McLennan.
The 15th annual New England Metal and Hardcore Festival ended not long after midnight Monday as the band Suicidal Tendencies, the last of more than 80 groups to storm the Palladium in Worcester since the previous Friday afternoon, took its bows.
Let’s just look at those numbers again. Fifteen years: that’s a good run for any arts event, more so for a showcase for music that purposefully stays on the fringe. Eighty-plus bands: this is pure bulk packaging, good for sampling many types of extreme heavy rock, though tough to possibly digest it all. Three days: these were full days, upwards of 12 hours of music for the taking off of two stages each time the doors opened. Add it all up and you get the dark, brooding offspring of the Newport jazz and folk festivals.
The Newport analogy came to mind years ago as Metalfest hit its stride in the early ’00s. By dint of covering music for the daily newspaper in Worcester, I was seeing a lot of heavy metal and hardcore, styles of music that for years got brushed off by Boston venues and were welcomed to the Heart of the Commonwealth. The music fan in me was drawn to the persistent pushing of boundaries in this music underground. These were young musicians who absorbed the sounds and messages of previous generations’ Black Sabbath and Black Flag then figured out how to make that defiance bolder and brasher. Every now and then you’d hear something slicing through the raw volume as distinctly different. That sense of discovery is music-fan manna no matter how it is packaged.
The Newport fests celebrate the roots of jazz and folk while exposing important new work to audiences that are supportive and curious. Likewise, the New England Metal and Hardcore Festival bundles old and new bands relegated to making records for independent imprints and playing clubs and small theaters. The festival linked the metal and hardcore cultures—akin to bringing bop and fusion together or the audacity of Dylan going electric—and put together bills that were unique to the event itself.
And like Newport has George Wein, Worcester has Scott Lee, a diehard fan first, smart promoter second. Rarely do you hear bands openly thank promoters, but Lee (like Wein) is praised from the stage throughout the festival. This year a bunch of musicians and staffers even presented him with a trophy, and the band Sick of it All went so far as to make a T shirt with Lee’s face emblazoned on the front especially for its Metalfest appearance.
That admiration trickles down, as musicians stick around watching other bands play, often standing in the crowd alongside the paying customers. All this helps dissolve the traditional distance between artist and audience, yet another hallmark of those pioneering folk and jazz festivals.
The similarities between Newport and Worcester end once you dig into the substance of Metalfest (though this year I saw what I believe was the first use of an acoustic guitar at the fest). Metal and hardcore are aggressive and confrontational. The songs generally reject normalcy, question authority, and invite darkness. It’s music for misfits, or more accurately people who self-identify as misfits. Metalfest brings together all sorts of outliers. Kids who dig the grit and loyalty of hardcore share space with the fans of escapist metal. The drug-and-alcohol-free, straightedge crowd meshes with those lustily supporting festival sponsor Narragansett beer.
The first sense of Metalfest being a community hit Friday. I was curious to see how the Boston Marathon bombing and subsequent events would filter into the fest. It began with my Facebook newsfeed displaying “Going to Worcester to blow off steam”-type messages. And blowing off steam meant anything from simply facing a high-decibel barrage to hopping into a mosh pit where combat is turned into dance.
The performers made passing glances at the headlines, and I wasn’t surprised. A lot of metal is built on the premise that the world is an ugly place and bad things happen. The band Exodus, which got its start in 1982 in San Francisco, prefaced its song “War is My Shepherd” with the sentiment that the people responsible for the bombing should be shot in the head, seemingly unaware that one of the suspects was already dead. That sort of bluster is something to weigh in the cost of pursuing cathartic guitar work of the sort Exodus’ Gary Holt and Lee Altus execute.
Later in the night, when news broke that the police had indeed captured the remaining suspect, the band Anthrax, another veteran from the 1980s, dedicated “I am the Law” to the Boston PD, and the crowd broke out “U-S-A” chants. That was actually more surprising than the call for blood, given metal’s historic disdain for authority.
Here’s a good time to distinguish between metal and hardcore. Metal has its roots in heavy rock such as Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple, bands that made gods out of guitar players. The metal underground held on to the primacy of guitar, but crumpled up hard rock’s sense of melody and tossed it behind the importance of the rhythmic riff. Singers switched over to barking, and song tempos accelerated. A wave of younger bands hitting the festival in recent years is adding a progressive twist to the aggression with intricate arrangements and dynamic shifts while still maintaining a prickly edge to the sound.
Hardcore is an outgrowth of punk rock. The songs are usually more compact compared to metal tunes, and the emotion of the delivery typically outweighs the precision of the execution. It’s amazing that hardcore bands can play at all as fans storm the stage and musicians hop into the crowd to achieve desired chaotic results.
But some bands have managed to successfully experiment with hardcore’s rawness, opening up the style’s sound without losing its tight connection to the listener. That was most evident in the set performed Saturday by Dillinger Escape Plan, a band that fuses the frantic to the cathartic. Singer Greg Puciato and guitarist Ben Weinman hurled themselves into the crowd, never missing a beat, well, until Puciato crashed into the drums, tossed a cymbal to the ground, and sat in the lap of drummer Bill Rymer.
Dillinger Escape Plan fit the hardcore mold while stretching it to the breaking point. And in the context of the festival, the band’s performance set up the weekend’s most dramatic contrast as Opeth followed Dillinger Escape Plan.
Opeth is a Swedish band that has swung its metal back toward melody, peppering in the more aggressive accents of the underground. Its newest work is far less punishing and given to long arrangements that make room for as much psychedelic noodling as for brutal riffs. The metal crowd has embraced Opeth’s musicianship and long-form songs, even indulging the band’s version of “Demon of the Fall” played on acoustic guitars (Opeth front man Mikael Arkerfeldt assured it would still “sound evil”).
A good festival takes stylistic risks, and the extreme swing of the Dillinger Escape Plan/Opeth pairing paid off in the end, holding the crowd even as Opeth played for nearly two hours.
With the raw power of Trapped Under Ice’s set on the smaller second stage housed in the theater’s mezzanine, and performances by Suicidal Tendencies, Sick of It All, and D.R.I. (Dirty Rotten Imbeciles), hardcore ruled the final night of the festival. That again was a bit of a risk as metal usually outweighs the hardcore in this equation. And again, risk worked, and did so because no matter what your particular taste in extreme music may be, the simple purity of what was being offered was appealing. The above-mentioned bands strip their music of the varnish and hype of the sort that it takes to get on the cover of glossy magazines, and on TV, and on the radio. Instead, they offer manic, passionate sets that proved to be more galvanizing than any light show or stage props ever could.
It is fine when Metallica or Rob Zombie shoots up in popularity and draws attention to a style of music too easily written off as inconsequential when in fact it outlasts trends and caters to a fan base much broader than simply pissed-off teenagers. But when that fan base gathers in Worcester each spring, it has little use for heavy music that’s been lightened up for commercial appeal. Metalfest is one of the few places where being blunt is far more attractive than being pretty.