DECIBEL METAL & BEER FEST 2019 - Come Taste The B(r)ands

April 16, 2019, 2 years ago

Mark Gromen

gallery heavy metal decibel metal & beer fest

Apologies to Deep Purple, for the bastardized album title, but truly, a single sentence can't encapsulates this two-day event more succinctly (now in its third year in the mag's hometown of Philadelphia, plus an exported edition, on the west coast). Although there's the option to attend solely for the music, have to believe that most of drinking age chose the "Metal & Beer" ticket, allowing for free/unlimited pours from the copious varieties on tap. $35 a day for the music and add $50 for the beer (unless you bought the early bird discount), which are limited to just 500 tickets, total. Under those constraints, this is never going to be a huge event, despite the Fillmore's 2500 capacity. That said, it was better attended than last year, including four brewers on the heretofore off-limits balcony. They did release an extra 50 "beer" tickets, the Friday before the event, and there were people trying to "upgrade" (to no avail) at the Will Call window, day of show. Still others attempted to buy samples from the on-site reps, also forbidden.

As in the past, the top of the bill was filled with internationally recognized entities (this year offering exclusive/one-off performances) and an undercard of up & coming acts, frequently tied to one of the microbreweries and/or their product: Triptykon, Obituary performing the entire Cause Of Death album, ditto Enslaved, with their Frost disc (supposedly for the last time, ever). With both beer & metal, we know the basic formula, but as time passes, things are added, creating new flavors. Like the suds, some of the bands on tap were powerful (ABV ranged from a 3.7% British bitters to a whopping 15% Russian Imperial Stout). The other acts were more of an acquired taste: nice to sample once, but certainly not something to go back to, again and again. Baroness and Deafhaven appealed to the black shirted hordes, as well as bearded, beer snobs/hipsters, with 1938 European, slicked back, partially shaved, fascist comb-overs. Like the contents of Decibel, the sounds veered towards the extreme end of the metallic spectrum (i.e. death/black/sludge). The closest it came to traditional metal fare would be old school favorites Deceased and Exhorder.

In advance, the 19 national brewers (14 states and DC represented!) announced 45 different tastes, to sample. Of note, Philly based Yards (a participant last year) was absent. Are they too big for such a niche event, or were they deemed too corporate in the eyes of the underground/indie metal brigade? If you really wanted, could purchase a Bud or Corona from the Fillmore, at regular prices, but why? Each booth was stocked with reps (to discuss the ins & out of the particular beverage) as well as promo items, but sadly (given PA's bizarre alcohol laws: state store for wine/hard liquor purchases, while beer must be bought from a distributor, i.e. no private enterprise), there was no opportunity to buy any takeout. Thirsty patrons could enter at 4 PM, with music beginning a half hour later, seven bands each day. 15 to 20 minutes between sets, there's plenty of time to re-fill the 3 oz. cup provided. First three bands had 30 minutes onstage, the rest getting progressively lengthier, until the headliner received 75 minutes. The whole event wrapping up before midnight. Over last year, there were a couple of amenity upgrades, namely a video board behind the bands, which displayed their logos and the upstairs was open, offering more seats/tables, as well as the aforementioned space for vendors.

Wake up first, grinding Can-Con, from Calgary. Not sure if the name refers to the pre-funeral celebration or a perpetual state of alertness, unable to fall asleep due to the ungodly din created: a feedback induced hornet buzz, with guttural vocals. Once they appeared, didn't take long to search out the first beer of the day, looking for Paradigm Lost, a 6% double IPA from Rock Island, IL based Wake Brewing. Supposedly the band has some collaboration with this beer, not wholly unbelievable given the shared moniker between band and brewery. However, that didn't materialize. Perhaps the band/beer sales were interconnected (as many merch booths and beer stalls closed down, for certain performances, throughout the day). Regardless, was later able to track one of those beers down, proving to be a cloudy, yellow and slightly sour concoction. Truth be told, not all the samples were worth drinking, even for free! There's a difference between being a beer drinker and a beer aficionado. Personally, I want to be able to sip something all day long, start-to-finish, even at an all-day event. Most of these high alcohol offerings do not fit that bill. Don't see spending good money, all day long, for trumped up products. Maybe as a diversion, or special occasion, but to watch metal all day (especially multiple days), nope!

Full disclosure, been drinking beer for nearly 40 years. Never been a slave to the big American corporate breweries, generally preferring imports, usually lagers, ales and German hefeweizen. Current go-to standards are Yuengling, Fat Tire and Bass. So stout has never been my thing. Still, attempted a few that purportedly offered something different. Case in point, Romeoville, IL based Metal Monkey Brewing's 9.5% chocolate peanut butter creation called Fonkey Mucker. While smoother than most stouts, still dominated by that overbearing burnt coffee taste, rather than either of the supposed ingredients. By the way, don't do coffee, in any form, so anything labelled as such is immediately off my radar. The folks from Burnt Hickory came up from Kennesaw, GA, with some offbeat ideas. First up Big Shanty, a 9% graham cracker stout. Sadly, like most infused with such interesting items, said flavor is lost in the black mired liquid's burnt taste. Withered was not an advertised choice, but the blueberry cobbler sour, a deep red/purplish in color, lived up to the billing. Know there are so-called dessert wines, so if that's a burgeoning field for beer, would definitely recommend this tart. Speaking of wine, sorry Stoudts (from Adamstown, PA), but don't need my beer aged in Chardonnay barrels (ala both Believer brands, 6% double bock and 9% tripel). However, their 6.8% Gearshifter IPA was one of those making a repeat visit from 2018.

Double dose of tombs...first a second helping of Canuckle-heads, Tomb Mold, a two-guitar foursome, drummer handling the vo-kills. Even knowing who was onstage, still could only barely decipher the moniker on the jumbo screen behind them. A bunch of young kids still trying to learn how to handle a stage (probably not used to that much room), but given that none of them are tethered to a mic, expected more than statuesque presence. Only left-handed guitarist Derrick Vella, constantly spasmodically headbanging, showed any signs of life. As a signed band, with multiple releases, probably time to ditch the "favorite band t-shirt" clothing too. Tombs followed. Began the set facing the drums, backs to the audience, as an ominous intro tape rolled. Initially a repetitive slew of open chords, but eventually hammering home some groove within their blackened death, complete with discernible lyrics. It's after 6 PM and the food/bar area is full, people seated and/or eating, the rocket fuel having kicked in, for some.

My two favorite discoveries of the day were Munster, IN based 3 Floyds' Gumball Head and Blood Soaked, from Cigar City (out of Tampa, FL). The first is an easy drinking, 5.6% wheat beer. Almost clear, it produced a frothy head, even when dispensed from an already opened can. At the fest, some of the breweries have a dual tap system, others just pour from normal canned stock. Cigar doesn't sound even mildly intriguing, when talking about beer. However, the fact they're in the same hometown as long running death metal pioneers Obituary, makes sense they'd cooperate on something called Blood Soaked. In fact, the Obits have coined the current tour with the same handle and are even selling cross-branded t-shirts (band/.brew). A refreshing burst of citrus. Nearly orange in color, the 4.9% golden (?) ale tastes like the Sunshine State's leading fruit export.

Mentors, what hath thee wrought? Three decades on, more and more hooded bands, like Midnight, Savage Master, now Uada, are performing with faces/heads bound in a black mask. The four (horsemen of the apocalypse?) were similarly adorned, down to the laced-up jack boots. Brightly backlit, but otherwise playing in darkness, any distinctive features are washed out, compounded by the perennial sea of fog, covering the stage. As opposed to seemingly (visually) anonymous mentors Midnight, the music is mid-tempo and traditionally structured, apart from the sporadic death metal run. Given the image, "Snakes & Vultures" and "Cult Of A Dying Sun" are surprisingly tuneful. 

Despite my affinity for beer, had never heard of the gose variety. So today, had to try two of them! Adroit Theory (home in Purcellville, VA) returned to the fest, with about a half dozen (most not pre-announced) brews to sample. One was Illusion Of Safety (gose). Probably named for its bright (traffic safety) orange color, it looks like your breakfast orange juice, opaque and seemingly the same consistency. Those old enough to remember the taste of Tang, the powdered OJ replacement (supposedly sent on NASA moon missions), well here it is again, with a hint of something more. Back to Metal Monkey, for Bikini Bottom, a 4.5% pineapple gose. Wow! After a dozen or more samples that made little impact (or worse, negative reaction), this popped the taste buds. The color of dirty water, there's an overpowering citrus taste that's not easily placed. Too sweet to drink all day, but definitely a cleanser, when jumbling styles.

Exhorder bounded onstage, with frontman Kyle Thomas (also of Trouble) thrashing around like a man half his age. Truth be told, all the band to this point had all but avoided interacting with the fans, or even one another. Performing songs from both The Law and Slaughter In The Vatican (including both title tracks), Thomas announced a new album would be out (via Nuclear Blast) this year, but the biggest surprise was the inclusion of "Unforgiven" off the '86 Get Rude demo! After the opening "Death In Vain", the singer addressed the crowd, "Thank you Philly. Good night," as he mocked leaving the stage, eliciting a big grin from gray bearded, original guitarist Vinnie La Bella. Continuing his patter to the fans, he asked "You guys ready for Obituary? Baroness? Well give us a few more minutes. We just got here." The stage was bathed in purple and pink as he introduced the demo cut, "We wrote this when we were angry young men. Now we're angry old men". Exhorder took full advantage of the light show, with strobes and multiple yellow streaks sweeping the stage. Thomas dedicated "Legions Of Death" to Ralph Santolla (guitar, Death/Obituary/Deicide) and Bret Hoffman (singer, Malevolent Creation), contemporaries who passed away last year. Cue first circle pit of the day. In fact, the only moment of activity, on/off stage, to this point. Back in the day, Exhorder's brand of music was "extreme.” 35 years later, not so much, actually tuneful. A guitar squelching "Desecrator" ended the evening, following the best known, Vatican title track. Once offstage, the intermission music, from Gimme Radio, turned old school, pumping in the likes of Thin Lizzy and UFO (to join the Scorpions, earlier in the day). Odd choice, given the clientele. 

Between all the taste testing and experimentation, good to reset the palette, every once in a while, with a pilsner or two. Tough to ruin one of those, so periodically, throughout the evening (and in no specific order) sampled the following: 

Retitled Pils - a 5% German style by Louisville KY housed Against The Grain Brewery & Smokehouse restaurant - a clear, clean and easy drinking  beer (especially considering these surroundings) 

Obulus - 5% from Adroit Theory, in collaboration with the band Horrendous, who played the fest last year. 2SPils, from 2SP Brewing, out of Aston, PA, is an opaque, slightly sour 5%er

Ardent Pilsner - a non-conformist, both in terms of not trying to re-invent the wheel, nor naming itself anything outlandish, a 5% German style, light in color, from Richmond, Virginia's Ardent Craft Ales

Obituary opted to play Cause For Death, sequentially, taking the stage to an intro tape of Pat Travers' "Snortin Whiskey (Drinkin Cocaine)" under flashing green lights. As such, the fans knew what to expect and sang along to the album, especially on the storm of strobes accompanied chugger "Chopped In Half" and their rendition of Celtic Frost's "Circle Of Tyrants". Sort of ironic, since the man who wrote that song would be in the house tomorrow, with Triptykon. The audience participation was all the more amazing since initially most of the Obituary lyrics (by John Tardy's own admission) weren't really words, as much as vocalizations, surrounded by the occasional word. Stage right, mainstay guitarist Trevor Peres flailed his hair around, sometimes crouched, so much so that his waist length mane swept his shoe tops. The camo shorts wearing frontman also obscured his visage with cascading hair, apart from when he roared into the mic. Behind, his brother Donald, on drums, looked like a good old boy enjoying a fishing trip. The artwork from the second disc was onscreen throughout. A swirl of blue lights greets "Body Bag". John jokes with an abbreviated intro of "Chopped", stopping after just a few notes, almost like SOD's "Ballad of (whichever dead guy you want to mention)". Pulsating blue lights for "Tyrants", complete with death grunts. The pre-recorded crash of lightning introduces "Find The Arise", as the stage turns crimson. Band is backlit to begin the title track. Tardy hocks up phlegm-coated lyrics as the band creaks ever so slowly forward, eventually igniting the powder keg, boom! Album completed (it's a hair under 42 minutes, not much of a co-headlining set), the Floridians opt for to plug the newest album, with "Straight To Hell", before ending with double shot of old school, "I'm In Pain" and the requisite titular selection from the Slowly We Rot debut, now 30 years old. What a long strange trips it's been!

Rounding out the day’s events:

Batch 666 - a 5.5% dark Czech lager from Washington DC based Atlas Brew Works. Black, but not nearly as dark as the pits of hell stouts. 

Noodles - a 4% rice lager from Birds Fly South Ale Project (out of Greenville, SC): practically clear. In this high octane atmosphere, almost serves as water.

Rumblefish - a 6.5% Saison form the same brewery (not previously announced), a cloudy yellow tart(!) concoction with a bizarre/ indescribable taste.

Billows - 4.9% Kolsch, by Ashville, NC's Burial Beer Co. a sweet, faded yellow option with no aftertaste 

Everybody Wants Some - an 8% double IPA from Marengo, Ohio's Hoof Hearted Brewing has a hint of fruit (grapefruit?)

Superhero Sidekicks - a 6.9% IPA from Brooklyn based Kings County Brewers Collective, which is cloudy/opaque, possessing a sour mash type taste

Worst positions were those bands who played early on Sunday, as those with a two-day ticket (most?) had already sampled all the wares and had no reason to get in early (or so they think, as a few breweries changed things up with their scheduled offerings). Thus, those bands played to far fewer people than those in the same time slots, 24 hours earlier. Case in point, Outer Heaven, who were up first. A five piece death troop, with gurgling, barked vocals, pin wheeling hair and acoustics that rival a WWII re-enactment. At least the frontman was active, in a George Corpsegrinder fashion, stalking the stage, side-to-side. Even got a mini-pit to spawn, during the tank rumbling "Echoes From Beyond". For the last song, the singer jumped into the photo pit and wolfed out the vocals from the barricade. 

Burial Brewing was one of those who completely overhauled their stand from the day before. Shadow Clock and Talon Sword being the replacements, the former is a smooth, 5.5% golden pilsner while the latter, an 8.5% double IPA with fruity aroma and slightly tart taste: cloudy, almost milky consistency, albeit yellow colored. Hadn't tried any of the four Broken Goblet (a major festival sponsor, based in Bristol, PA) varieties, but no longer. First up, The Fall Of Ryesengard, a 6.6% rye, black, with a stout/coffee scent. Next was No One Likes Us, We Don't Care, a 6.2% IPA that has nothing to do with music/metal, but rather a collaboration with Philadelphia Eagles footballer Jason Kelce. Like the center's play last year, serviceable, but nothing outstanding. Last up and the one put off all weekend was Life Beyond Is A Field, a 6.1% Tea Ale, produced in cahoots with Deafhaven. Turns out the unique taste was extremely enjoyable, looking and sort of tasting like iced tea.

Heavy Temple is a trio, with female bassist/vocalist going by High Priestess Nighthawk. The curly haired and mustachio guitarist recalled a young Santana, visually. Together, they churned out a mix of stoner meets early Sabbath, with ear splitting feedback. Short of lyrics, long on jams, the two faced each other as they unleashed a torrent of fuzzy riffs. On the screen behind, an accompanying video presentation (the only band all weekend to use such), a LSD flashback kaleidoscope of colors and motion. Rosetta appeared to be at the wrong venue. While the short haired, grad student looking outfit were probably the most talented musicians, they were way out of their league. There was nothing "metal" about them. Didn't help by opening with jangly Pink Floyd-ish rhythms. The floor was virtually empty, the gruff/shouted prog fell on deaf ears, giving folks a chance to eat, explore the merch or wander through the beer stalls, again. Wisely, the Fillmore began selling cans of some of the microbrewers stuff.

Speaking of beers, a few stones remained unturned. 2SP had the Up And Out, a so called hazy IPA, at 6%. Foamy, the light yellow brew had a slight sourness to the hoppy taste. Not sure what makes it brut (same as champagne?), but Stoudt's sour Queen Of Hops IPA (7.9%) was labeled as such. Seemed to be nothing to Against The Grain's Pile Of Face offering. Perhaps it was just flat, as some makers decanted their beers into pitchers/carafes or whatever other vessel is at hand, to speed up pouring demands and minimize the wait for the frothy head to subside. Denver based TRVE came a long way. Cursed, a mixed culture pale ale (4.7%) was foamy, with a tart citrus taste, while their Cosmic Crypt (5.6%) was billed as a farmhouse pale ale in the pre-fest literature, but day-of-show, their handwritten placard announced it as a hoppy sais on. Regardless, the faded yellow sample was only a little tart.

Used to run into King Fowley, leader & singer (formerly drummer) of Deceased (as well as October 31), at shows up and down the East Coast, but as we've gotten older (and following his stroke '04 stroke), we've crossed paths less frequently. He's one of underground metal's biggest supporters. Check out all the cover tunes his band has recorded! Always a ham, he enjoys being onstage, pointing to fans, air guitaring, pretending to hang himself with the mic cord, stalking the stage and even covering his bandmates' eyes, as they play. Today, Deceased benefit from the perpetual slow-motion time machine playing before them. Juxtaposed to the clock stopping predecessors, the Chesapeake deathsters came screaming out of the gate, feeling all the more hypersonic. Jump to light speed, "Warp factor 2, Mr. Sulu!" "Fading Survival" saw the band taking full advantage of the lighting rig, yellow and pink lights. "Morbid Shape In Black" proves a droning beehive, as a floor scattering pit ensues. "The Shivers" was aired along with a thrashy, set ending "Fearless Undead Machines", which sees Fowley don a skull mask and "strangle" each band member.

Enslaved's sound has moved on, significantly, in the 25 years since the release of Frost, but guess there's some luster on the old, black metal days (as opposed to the more progressive bent they've been on, beginning with Ruun). Under icy blue lights and plenty of fog, both all but obscure the band members, Grutle Kjellson led the Norwegians through the dynamic/cathartic album. At times, the eight beams (not white, just slightly less blue) were simultaneously trained on the drum kit. White lights do appear, briefly, during the jangly acoustic "Yggdrasil", with slow tribal drums. Afterwards, the stage goes black. When they return, Enslaved explode with ultra-aggressive (nearly punk intensity) "Jotunblod". Kjellson called "Wotan" the fastest Enslaved song. He announced concluding "Isöders Dronning" with its English translation Queen Of The Ice Age. Sounds of a windstorm blows as the band leaves the stage and their gear is cleared. 

By night's end, the casualties mount. The venue's not as full as during the day and some of those remaining are reduced to a slow-footed, zombie shuffle, prowling the dark in search of the next libation, although most of the vendors have either run dry, or are already packing up. South of the Mason Dixon line, yet Ardent Craft Ales dispense a 7.1% New England style IPA, called IPA X. The slightly sour edge (is that lemon?) is not overbearing. Similarly geographically confused, Atlas Brew Works offers a west coast IPA: Ponzi, with 7.3% ABV. Continuing the theme, Cigar City's strongly hopped citra pale ale is called Guayabere. Switching gears, took a sip of Morbid Hour, by Kings County Brewers. Billed as a black pilsner (4.666%, so metal!), it has that burnt stout aftertaste, albeit sweeter. Another quality, all-day drinking beer proved to be Oliver Brewing's (out of Baltimore) long-winded In The Court Of The Bastard King, brewed in conjunction with Philly based band Heavy Temple. Rust colored,this 6.2% American red ale goes down easy, with a tinge of sweetness. 

Triptykon played Roadburn (with a classical orchestra) in the Netherlands, on Friday and spent all day Saturday getting to Philly, so they could headline the final night of the beer fest. The eight song set was evenly split between two of Tom G. Warrior/Gabriel's entities: the current Triptykon and legendary Celtic Frost (the man recently formed a cover band for his own Hellhammer catalog. That band will play some major gigs overseas, this summer). Given they performed an all-Celtic set at Decibel's west coast fest, last December, as well as the orchestral event, just two days earlier, the 50-50 split is not a surprise. Wearing black skullcap and wielding an HR Giger artwork emblazon guitar, Gabriel launched into "Synagoga Satanae". Can tell Tom's getting into it as he gently lifts his axe, vertically, during the first two tunes, and gets a little more animated throughout the set. "Circle Of Tyrants" is performed for the second time in as many nights (see Obituary review). Prior to "Tree Of Suffocating Souls", as the crowd repeatedly chants "Warrior", Tom tries to deflect the praise, saying, "We're a band. My entire career and all you remember is the grunts?" Begun on black stage, with irregular intervals of white light dotting in & out, "Procreation Of The Wicked" slowly grinds, under green hues. "Dethroned Emperor" is bathed in red, with white streaks intersecting (but not necessarily with Warrior as the focus), To his right, bassist Vanja Slajh rhythmically lurches her body forward, with each note. Ended with "The Prolonging", although most wanted more.

Another weekend of sonic and alcoholic overload has come and gone, a rousing success, judging by reaction of fans and bands alike. Will you join the fun next year?

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