Images and words by Mark Gromen
A band of demons joined in and it sounded something like this. The initial Pathfinder Metalfest - held October 23rd-25th at the Sidelines Sports Grille and Concert Venue in Marietta, GA - provided an opportunity to check out some of the regional acts, capped off by headlining shows from ASKA and TWISTED TOWER DIRE. On the surface, America’s deep South doesn’t seem like fertile ground for heavy metal. Asked what’s going on, an Alabama native/fellow veteran of global metalfests offers “Honestly, not much.” Apart from Texas and New Orleans, southern culture hasn’t produced much internationally recognizable metal and don’t mention Florida. With all the Northern transplants/retirees, even southerners don’t consider it part of the South.
With America’s premier festival (ProgPower USA) housed for almost a decade in nearby Atlanta, Marietta based Pathfinder Productions is striving to breath life into a fledgling scene, providing a decent platform from which to perform, something more populous media centers have been unable or unwilling to consider: don’t charge the bands to play, give them good light/sound systems, promote the show and nurture all the way. Maybe it has something to do with the vaunted Southern hospitality. Helping baby bands as well as more established out-of-state artists, Hoyt Parris has partnered with other small events (Ohio’s Warriors Of Metal and Kansas City Powerfest chief among them) to rotate line-ups and present cross-promotional opportunities (often at personal financial loss, but with heartfelt support of the music). To give you an idea of what Hoyt is up against, some pseudo rockers playing billiards were listening to Evanescence, while original metal was pumping out of the room next door. When was the last time Evanescence had any relevance? Did I mention HALLOWS EVE cancelled early on and RAVAGE (Friday’s scheduled headliner) pulled out on less than 24 hours notice. Lame! Regardless, he hopes to spin Metalfest into a semi-annual date (May 1st, Cage headline the next show).
Friday began with ALAS, TYRANNY a band comprised of kids too young to legally be in a bar. It was also their first gig, ever! That said, they attempted adventurous music: a dual vocalist, symphonic-power-death hybrid complete with pre-recorded tapes. Shoot big, not some simplistic glam/pop/metalcore. Think EPICA or SKYFIRE. Gruff male voice with the occasional female accompaniment, it’s good to see/hear youngsters covering the likes of BLIND GUARDIAN (‘Valhalla’, even if Hansi still sings higher) rather than the usual old-school choices. Singer/guitarist was chuffed, no, nearly orgasmic over the lyrics (thought of his band actually playing BG). In addition to originals like ‘Servants Of Liberty’, ‘Prometheus’ and an Iced Earth inspired instrumental. Since people don’t really know your music anyway, it’s a good strategy to showcase your chops, while the lead singer takes a piss, gets a drink or tries to pick up a date.
Making the trip from Nashville, OBLIVION MYTH were a seasoned bunch, with higher levels of professional and intensity (lots of movement onstage), made all the greater by comparison to the youthful exuberance of their predecessors. Currently minus a second guitarist, each member of the foursome vied for the spotlight/solo space at the front of the stage, usurped by bald, black singer Sterling Whitmill, who often sang atop a riser. Guitarist Keith Smith could moonlight in a METALLICA tribute band, the spitting image of a vintage, stringy haired James Hetfield. The band offered a sound rooted in traditional metal, yet straddling the line with thrash. During the –song set they aired ‘Into The Shadows’, ‘Mystique’ and the concluding ‘War Child’. Renditions of some of those tracks can be viewed on YouTube (same with most of these acts).
ETERNAL HOUR sport a short-haired singer (Kevin Gibson) who looks like he should be in pads, on the offensive line of some high school Friday Night Lights game, rather than hitting stratospheric highs fronting a metal band. Another young band (teens, really) eager to cover Iced Earth (‘I Died For You’, probably the only song not suited for his range) and Iron Maiden (the closing ‘Aces High’) amongst a like-minded set of originals. Good stuff.
With RAVAGE bagging out, headlining duties fell to the crazy antics and mantic guitar wizardry of ZEPHANIAH. This Fort Wayne, IN outfit really need to be experienced live to appreciate (and this is the second time I’ve seen them). Sort of DRAGONFORCE-ish (I’m sure they’re tired of that comparison), but given their ages, the speed at which they play and the frenetic stage movements (overhand guitar tapping, windmilling hair, interlocking bodies as they play each others fretboard, sometimes in a simultaneous three-handed guitar circle jerk!) it’s the only relevant comparison, although acts like DILLINGER ESCAPE PLAN and CEPHALIC CARNAGE do a similar, albeit more spasmodic show. Add to this a wicked comedic streak and fun is sure to ensue. Sadly, the musicianship inherent in the likes of ‘Antietam’ might be lost amongst the shenanigans, kids not realizing the talent, just relishing the speed. ‘Blackbeard’s Revenge’, ‘Flame Of The Dragon’ get an airing before ‘Barbarian’s Tale’, where they call everyone up from the crowd, to join them onstage (“Even if you have H1N1.”) Their brand of fun-loving insanity is nearly as contagious.
Missed part of VOR’s (VOID OF REASON) Saturday opening set, but got there in time to see a prog quartet, the central figure being the vocalist tethered to his keyboards, center stage. They debuted a new track (‘Rescue Me’), after which he ventured beyond the Roland fortress to sing, occasionally returning to the safety of his electronic sanctuary. At times there were three part harmonies, the drummer being the lone non-participant.
A LOWER DEEP features four shaved heads, the burly 7-string bassist standing apart from his mates with a bushy beard and cowboy hat. Even before ‘Facing The Demon’, I got the distinct impression they might be a religious affiliated outfit, if for no other reason that the singer’s similar appearance to David Draiman, of DISTURBED. Maybe all bald white guys in black “wife beaters” look the same to me, who knows. A small dose of slide guitar was unexpected (even in the South), but as the set wore on, I felt as if trapped in some bizarre sci-fi nightmare where everyone turned into a Piet Sielck (IRON SAVIOR/SAVAGE CIRCUS) look-alike.
Second time for HALCYON WAY (the former trench coat Mafia, complete with motorcycle/aviator goggles at the Nightmare Record event in San Antonio), who are something of a local institution. Having recently changed singers, Steve Braun (of Italy’s ASHENT) hails from Nashville (driving four hours to practice with the band). The blond singer adds more of a whiny, pseudo glam sound (maybe it was all the bandanas, sun glasses and a cover of Steel Dragon’s ‘Stand Up And Shout’), but certainly a more visual presence, between two of the tallest musicians you’re likely to see within one band. All adorned in matching black button downs, with HW logo. Opening with ‘World Domination’, they also added ‘I Fought The World’ and ‘The Lonely Road’ during a set witnessed by the largest number of attendees. When the intro to ‘Powder Burn’ was botched and had to be restarted, it was handled with humor (should have blamed it on the new guy!), much to the crowds approval. The kinetic start to ‘Inversion’ was atypical of most of their material, the drummer making repeated tours around the kit.
Long a fan of Tony Taylor’s voice on the TWISTED TOWER DIRE discs, the third time was really the charm in witnessing Jonny Aune, a vicious frontman (Taylor’s statuesque stance pales in comparison), thanks at least in part to his pre-game ritual, involving demon alcohol. Onstage he’s thrashing, banging, making faces, as the team around him, especially guitarist Scott Waldrop spew out fiery licks and truly powerful metal. Killer stuff and a fun time. In addition to ‘Battle Cry’/‘Guardian Bloodline’ kicking off the set, enjoyed ‘By My Hand’, ‘Snow Leopard’ (even though it’ not that “new” anymore, who about a real “new one” next time?), ‘Final Stand’ and the closing MERCYFUL FATE cover, ‘A Dangerous Meeting’. Over way too quickly, damn! The boys are more active now than they’ve ever been, so if they get close to your town, check ‘em out.
Last to take the stage, but the ones who got me interested in attending in the first place, my Texas buddies, ASKA. Currently prepping for their sixth album (thanks for the pre-listen!), the traditional metallers opened with ‘Angels Of War’ and played almost 90 minutes, pulling out songs like ‘Killashandra’, ‘Leprosy’ (“or as they say in Marietta, muchos gracias”) and ‘Blood Of The Wolf’. Throughout the weekend, most bands had one member of the band step on the riser, towering over the crowd, with Aska, it was singer/guitarist George Call, bassist (and lead throat on ‘Vigilante’) Keith Knight and guitarist Daryl Norton simultaneously! The red lights and smoke machine (omnipresent throughout the weekend) made the stage look like a recreation of Judas Priest’s Unleashed In The East album artwork. Speaking of other bands, don’t really see the need for a Metallica cover, ‘Valkyries’ and the material off Absolute Power stings harder, including ‘Freedom’, Invasion’, ‘Legion’ and ‘Longships’. By night’s end, Call has stripped to the waist, apparently working up a sweat, or was it to tease the ladies?
All in all, a fun weekend, most of the previously unknown bands are worthy of a second listen and look forward to an opportunity to see Zephaniah, Halcyon Way, Twisted Tower Dire and Aska again, as soon as possible.
A photo gallery from both nights can be viewed here