DECIBEL METAL & BEER FEST 2023 - Dark & Heavy: Onstage & On Tap!
April 18, 2023, a month ago
Apart from the (separate admission) traditional minded pre-show, the two-day, main event was focused on hammering and/or getting hammered. Unlike years past, there was no repast, a "something different" intermezzo, to cleanse the palette/ears, just a steady diet of high octane pummeling. Housed at the Fillmore complex, in Philly's Fishtown entertainment neighborhood, there's about 12 hardcore breweries, in attendance every year (many having a product tie-in with one or more of the performing bands). Another half dozen, rotating establishments, come from far and wide. This year's most traveled entity was Denver based TRVE Brewing (although Tampa's Magnanimous also came a long way), surely a leftover from last December, when Decibel moved the west coast edition from LA, to Colorado.
So 4 PM Friday... sneak out of work early and start the weekend by heading to the beer fest. That's when doors opened and the pours started (for those purchasing the "Beer" ticket, which allows unlimited 3 oz. samples, as opposed to the "Metal" ticket, which is $100 less expensive and solely provids admission to the show). First band on wasn't until 4:30, so plenty of time to wander about and check out the wares, before it gets too crowded. Unlike years past, there weren't a lot of "odd" choices in the sea of IPAs. No habanero, no smoke, no coffee, strange fruits or chocolate brownie sundae flavors. What makes one IPA different than the next? So what differentiates one, to possibly purchase it, in the future? Availability? Chances are, I'm never going to find most of these beverages again (short of an expensive mail order), so being able to pick up a six-pack, locally, is important.
Other ways to create a story, so the buyer remembers your brew, when browsing the aisles, is to have a cute/funny name and/or memorable packaging. Speaking of which, it was interesting to see how some of the participants marketed themselves, onsite. Some came with colorful, pre-printed signage, touting the aspects of their various products. Some had free swag to draw people in and others merely had a hastily, hand-written Sharpie on cardboard after thought. Guess all the details go into making beer, not advertising.
Arrived as Phobophilic were blasting away onstage. Once again, beer vendors were upstairs, accessible only to those with the magic wristband. Cramped and, at times, difficult to maneuver between those waiting in line, people talking and those staring into their phones, engrossed in filling their online beer profiles with new entries. Add alcohol and the situation could get worse. Many head straight for the high octane fuel (ABV near or over double digits), but as the night progresses, the early rush subsides, as the musical entertainment draws more attention. Shockingly, by 7 PM, one of the vendors had closed up shop, run dry of the day's entire stock!
So first up was Dust & Stone Volume 2, a dry hopped 5% Pilsner, by Empress Rising. Bright yellow in color, yet clear, it had a crisp hoppy taste. King's County Brewers Collective (KCBC) has been to the last few events, always interesting stuff. Tried their Rise From The Grave, which is a collaboration with fellow New Yorkers, Undeath (who'd be onstage in about an hour). A smooth, despite 6.2% Maibock Lager. Speaking of band projects, the Tampa brewery partnered with Worm (who were playing next), on Shadowside, a 7% Helles Bock. Frothy, even though I was served the last pour out of the can, with a hint of hops. So what about the band?
An intriguing mix of screamed vocals, then shredding guitar, then pounding slowness, from a group with dark circles under the eyes, dressed in robes. Long instrumental stretches are shattered by ravenous shouts. That alone wouldn't separate them from countless others, but Worm seek to employ a bit of showmanship in their black metal spectacle. Initially, the spike adorned vocalist knelt, reverentially displaying a sword and chalice, and then placing them upon a makeshift altar. Later, he'd drink blood from the chalice. The guitars loop and dive, like an acrobatic stunt pilot. Altar boy school run amuck, towards the end, a virgin in white satin is laid upon the altar and defiled by the frontman. Definitely not run of the mill antics! Appreciate the extra effort.
Another pleasant surprise was finding Illinois based Wake Brewing's Strange Creature, a 5.2% Hefeweizen, an atypical style for these events. Drank plenty of it in Germany and glad to see Wake didn't gum it up with grapefruit, honey or anything else Americans are want to do. Just played it straight, like in Deutschland. Next up, a so-called Premium American Lager from Cosmic Eye (NE). At 4.8% Dead Man's Run had about as much legs as the name implies. Basically tasteless (especially in comparison to what was offered at the surrounding stalls), see little reason to drink it, much like most mass produced American products. Better results with Indiana based 3 Floyds' Phantom Blade, which is the official beer of the festival, a 5.5% Pilsner.
The intermission music piped in between the first two bands had been hip hop. Someone got the message, as it switched to classic Manowar ("Hail & Kill") the next break. Broken Goblet (PA) called their Eisen Brew a "juicy Kolsch" (5.2%). Nothing fruity, but it was refreshing, a nice alternative to the hopped up attractions. Visually, Undeath would appear to be a hardcore outfit, but no, they dispense death metal. The lead singer demanded that he see "bodies on bodies. I want this to be the death metal Peewee's Playhouse." Fans oblige with a ferocious pit. Later, they'd unveil a new song, "Brandish The Blade".
If you can have table wine, why not a table beer? Bone Up (MA) answers the question with 4.8% Extra Naked, one of the lowest alcohol concentrations of the fest. Not as bland as the name implies. Local kingpins Yards, debuted a new Hazy Citrus IPA, called Bit Viper (6.5%). It has a tie-in to an online, old-school style, video game (accessible via QR code). It was one of the day's highlights. Sort of tart, has a candy flavor, like jellybeans. Need to be a little weary of the higher content, if indulging all day, but certainly a pleasing palette washer, especially at events like this. Found myself returning to Bit Viper throughout the festival.
Having been part of the BraveWords team for nearly 30 years, need to honor Triumph by sampling something called Blinding Light Show, courtesy of War Pigs Brewing (IN): 7% IPA, using orange and lemon peels, but retaining none of the citrus taste. Couple of hours into Friday and the upstairs area has thinned. Are people slowing down (their intake) or is the flight of stairs too big an obstacle to navigated before receiving your "rewards"? On the main floor, there's an increased presence of collectibles vendors: t-shirts (not just from the performers), jewelry, vinyl, spilling into each room.
Certainly won't end up in oblivion, sticking by Widowmaker's 5% Vienna Lager, Return To Oblivion. Brownish in color, more akin to whiskey, it's a safe, all-day choice. Much like similar beers, what distinguishes one death metal band from another and how does the rather generic Dallas, Texas based Frozen Soul get selected to play this event? Guess someone on the selection committee is enamored with the album and the call goes out. Different strokes, for different folks. Rather demanding frontman, announcing, "I need to see you... I want..." Apparently he forgot, YOU are the (supposed) entertainer.
Regardless of name, Trve Brewing's Kellerpils Lager did not leave me Cold. 4.9%, it's clear and colorless, looking more like gin or vodka. Victory (PA) had Brotherly Love, a robust tasting Hazy IPA (6%). Porter and stouts are not my usual poison (much more of a hefe, lager, pilsner guy), but this opportunity affords some taste-testing outside one's boundaries. Dark Messenger, is a Vanilla Porter, from Magnanimous. It was the idea of vanilla, cutting the taste that tempted me. Unfortunately (for me), could still taste the roasted/coffee flavor (another "brew" I don't ever indulge in), albeit with less porter bite, despite 6% price tag. Would have better luck, in terms of vanilla, with Pennsy based Animated Brewing's rather mundanely entitled Supertouch. Excellent 7.2% Vanilla IPA, was another of the weekend's standouts.
"Child Of Night" is from Trve and is not only a collaboration with The Black Dahlia Murder, but the lightly colored 8.5% Pale Ale donates a portion of sales to suicide prevention (Dahlia singer Trevor Strnad succumbed to his demons last year). At 7.2%, Frozen Fresh Hop IPA is sneaky: smooth taste (not too hoppy) and produced in small batches, available at the Philly headquarters. 7:30 PM and lots of folks leaning on the handrails, going up & down the stairs.
Widowmaker (MA) also had a Czech Dark Lager (5.1%). Obscura, as the name implies, is in conjunction with Gorguts. Consistency akin to a porter, but without the (bitter) taste. Downstairs, there's a mass exodus after each act. Just 15 minutes to changeover for the next band (until the final two sets), so fans need to get a drink, order food or visit the restroom/vendors.
Mizmor is spelled out in an assortment of indecipherable runes. The performance (calling it "music" defies traditional concepts of the word. These are not "songs" in any conventional sense) was just as mysterious. "We are here to make you sad," announced the vocalist/guitarist prior to any noises emanating from the stage. Loads of reverb and feedback as a dissonant wall of sound sporadically surges forth. Punishing slow, intermittent chords meet off kilter screams, caterwauls and strangled vocals. Someone describes them as "not music for a sunny summer day (as it was), but rather a dismal, snowed in, winter blizzard.” True, definitely not a "festival" band, more like a theater of the mind/ears, for investigation, alone in the dark (probably under headphones). With Decibel, we've gone down the wormhole at the extreme end of the metallic spectrum. Have the feeling that most of the photos accompanying this story will not see the light of day, elsewhere.
After that, Venomous Villains, from KCBC seemed appropriate. That name should strike a chord with metalhead drinkers. Some vendors rotate their stock Friday vs. Saturday. Others just serve the same things, all weekend long. In the case of this 6.9% West Coast IPA, it was only available the first night. Four hours in, still standing (literally, no places to really sit down. Not that I need it.) And still haven't broken the WC seal either. War Pig's Foggy Geezer is an 8.5% Hazy IPA, having exhausted most of the lower fueled options. Then came Widowmaker's Blue Comet, an opaque, frothy 7.1% New England IPA. Be lying if I said I could distinguish between them.
Time for Gorguts. Actually, people been waiting 6 years (since their last show). Even better, this was billed as a set featuring elusively Obscura and Considered Dead material. Guess that's why people came down from Quebec (but also ran into people from all around the USA). Grabbed one of Broken Goblet's leftover Doom Lager (the 5% Schwarzbier collaboration with Candlemass, from last year) and head to the photo pit. Lots of people vacated the upstairs, a few vendors even shutting down for the night. Given what's come before, this straight ahead death metal is literally, music to the ears. Opening with "Rottenatomy", there's lots of gray hair onstage (that's OK with me), but guitarist/singer/mainstay Luc Lemay was also sporting eyeglasses. Amazing how their brand of technical death, so groundbreaking in the Nineties, is now, more or less, commonplace. "Inoculated Life" gets a call-out from Lemay, as did "Nostalgia", which he sent out to the headliners. He repeatedly thanks the crowd and is genuinely touched by the outpouring of support (don't think it will be six more years for the next show), ultimately ending with a storming rendition of "Obscura".
For some, the night was over. For others, just more beers to sample, before the rejuvenated Black Dahlia Murder (by far the most prevalent t-shirts of the day, some in memoriam of late singer Strnad). Having played just a handful of shows since the tragedy, for many, it would be their initial chance to see the band, now fronted by former guitarist Brian Eschbach. Tart cherry ZOMBIES (5.5%), by KCBC feels like a smoothie, but did nothing to change my opinion of sours/Gose. Only offered Friday, hope they bring something better on Saturday. Bone Up, in tandem with Fuming Mouth (who played the next day) concocted Master Of Extremity. Nothing out of the ordinary with this brownish, 5.5% West Coast Pale Ale.
Clawing At The Casket Lid (great metallic beer moniker) is a Broken Goblet attempt at an Irish Dry Stout (4.8%), complete with roasted taste. Animated's only other selection, their partnership with Drowningman (also on Saturday's bill), is a 5% IPA, a play on one of their songs, called It Will End In Hops. Hazy complexion, it's true to its word, with a kicking mouthful of hops. More IPA action, thanks to Tunnel Of Trees (7%) from Trve Brewing (available solely on Friday) and Magnanimous' opaque, pale yellow Juice Lord (7.5% Hazy). The latter looks more like breakfast juice, with a citrus aftertaste popping up a split second after the India Pale Ale. Surprise! Then there was 3 Floyds Zombie Ice (can't get Ghost out of my mind, despite no actual connection between the two), an 8.5% Double Pale Ale. Massive head on a 3 oz. pour!
Not sure which side of the barricade saw more movement, the pin-wheeling hair Black Dahlia guys, or their waves of crowd surfing, circle pitting fans. Green lit "Verminous" opens, fan voices greet Eschbach, who raises his arms in appreciation of the support. Either side of the stage, guitarist stands, one foot atop the monitors. Surprising that something this heavy is so widely accepted. "Sunless Empire" has less frenetic, albeit heavier pounding, with tasty, traditional minded guitar solo. When he wants the crowd to shout along, Brian says, "Philadelphia, let's hear some brotherly love." Lots of greens and blues, but also sweeps of piercing, high intensity white lights. Pre-recorded intro leads to the initial black metal spiraling of "Carbonized In Cruciform" Asking the crowd to show their muscles, prior to "Statutory Ape", a frenzied, headband wearing, primate mascot bounds onstage. Maybe it was knowing the evening was coming to an end, but even the "Deathmask Divine" finale saw a constant flow of bodies over the barricade. And not one-by-one, as security would like, but multiples, from various points in the crowd, keeping the guards on their toes.
And we get to do this all over again, tomorrow!
Overnight, each of the brewer's garrisons have their arsenal re-stocked. So let the battle commence. Actually, it's more like a siege, slowly draining them of their supplies, or a quest, seeking out an enjoyable quaff that will still be tasty some six or seven hours later. Whatever's selected, it shouldn't hinder the ability to stand (not sit) for that time period, as I engage in conversations, repeatedly trek up and down flights of stairs and not impede the photography (insufficient lighting already compromises that, in some instances).
Speaking of which, moving forward, perhaps Decibel should contemplate forgoing the rental of the full lighting rig. Seems most bands only want to use reds (which washes out photo details) and/or deep blues. However, the LD for Esculea Grind, first band of the day, threatened to break the control panel, repeatedly flicking ALL the buttons/switches so fast, it looked like a full blown Iron Maiden display. Katerina Economou was enamored with the size of the stage and made numerous thank-yous, so they're definitely used to "roughing it." Onstage, she jumped around like some gruff throated aerobics instructor, the Texas twang addressing early arrivals at the barrier as "Y'all." She asked the fans to headbang for "All Is Forgiven" (what no circle pit? Wall of death? Actually that would come later). "Cliff Hanger" preceded a change of lanes, to death metal, for "Ball & Chain". They definitely enjoyed their time onstage, even if they had to drop the last song.
Not really a fan of sours, saisons or Imperial stouts, many of the second day replacement options. So only a handful of new tastes and then stick with the winners from yesterday. Amazing how different some beers taste on an empty stomach, as opposed to after having already partaken in a smorgasbord. Three beers stood head & shoulders above the rest, so spent the remainder of my time, alternating between the trios. No Gold, silver and bronze. More like 1A, 1B and 1C.
Practically raised on German metal festivals, it should come as no surprise that Hefeweizen is my draft of choice, overseas. Outdoors, in the summer sun, can't be a tankard of heavy beer. Short of imports from the homeland, rare to find a good domestic hefe. That's why Wake's Strange Creatures (in collaboration with Esculea Grind) was my favorite (until they ran out. Or maybe they just told me the well ran dry, because they were tired of seeing me?). Regardless of shortages, still made frequent stops at the corner co-occupied by Yards and Animated Brewing.
Completely different marketing strategies, but both proved effective in luring me in. Animated had just a couple of logo t-shirts laying on an otherwise barren table. One can of their two options stood in the center of the table. Meanwhile, Yards had the most signage and, at times, four guys working the booth (OK, they're literally located up the street). Each outfit had an easy drinking, all-day option that will make frequent visits to my home refrigerator, assuming I can locate it. There's a bit of a creamsicle taste in Animated's Supertouch Vanilla IPA, which keeps it from being harsh, despite weighing in at 7.2%. Likewise, there's a hint of lemon in Yard's Bit Viper, a 6.5% Hazy IPA, another refreshing option in the hot summer months.
Fuming Mouth started 15 minutes late, due to visible technical issues onstage. With young bands (nervous?) who only occasionally play live and might not have the best equipment (chords, connectors, pedals, etc.), there should be plenty of stage hands onstage, to alleviate the problems as quickly as possible and preserve as much of the time slot as they can. The two guitar foursome dished out some gruff, barked early Swedish style death (under solely red light. Does you no favors, guys.), but only got to play about four songs. Trve Brewing had the most shake-ups in their line-up, completely reinventing the day-to-day offerings, including Bloodaxe, a supposed Nordic Farmhouse Ale (7%). Slightly cloudy and light in color, it had a sour touch. Conversely, their IPA, called Eclipse Of The Dual Moon possessed a bold dose of hops and floated a significant head. Time to try Empress Rising's other entry, before the next band. Dust & Stone Volume 1 is very cloudy, light yellow English Pale Ale coming in at 5%.
Have been attending Decibel events since '18. Some parts of the roster seem predictable, like certain type of bands MUST appear annually. In the Dillinger (Escape Plan) inspired, jerk around spasmodic stage movements, dissonant chords and a screaming, pacing side-to-side frontman stakes, this year it was Drowningman. Constantly crisscrossing the stage, occasionally dropping to his knees, Simon Brody often sings sideways to the crowd. Amusing anecdote (don't know if it's true); thanked one of the brewers for getting him booze. Apparently he's NOT supposed to drink. Claims that's why he wanted to call the band's beer Cryin' Prison Tears, 'cause that's where it ends. An elaborate intro to "It Will End In Cops". Someone seriously overestimated their draw though, as the floor was 2/3 empty. At one point Brody made mention of starting a circle pit, but saw the audience and revised the idea. At the end, he compared their performance to a geek show, at the circus.
KCBC brought out Gulp Fiction, an 8% double IPA. Opaque, with a frothy head, the hops essence was strong, but not overpowering. Bone Up's collaboration with All Out War (who were up next) is named Caustic Abomination (after a song they'd air tonight). It's a 7.8% Ale with honey and ginger. Big head and opaque, but felt there was a slightly medicinal taste. A similarly sour experience with Trve's Ostara 2023. Against my better judgement, but because "the price is right", and it was only available on Saturday, tried the 7% Mixed Culture Sour. "Sour" is an accurate description. That's not a taste I'm willing to cultivate. Not with all the OTHER beers available.
All Out War are a link between metal (dress the part, including singer Mike Score, in Bathory tee) and hardcore sounds. "After Autumn" and "Condemned To Suffer" stood out, before ending with "Redemption For The Innocent". Strange dynamic upstairs, as the night progresses, people begin to clue in that their opportunities for "free" beer are inversely proportional to the amount of time left. Thus some cling and hammer renewed.
Incantation were one of the early signees to Relapse (Philly label) and mainstay John McEntee lived in the city for a period. Can remember them being part of several Koshik east coast bills, in the Nineties. So this is a bit of a homecoming and about time we got reacquainted. In the absence of people like Chuck Schuldiner, McEntee is truly a grandfather of the American death metal scene, certainly in the Northeast. Decades of playing one bulb clubs, he understands how to properly "light" death metal (and get usable photo ops). Shrouded in a deep blues, purple and occasional flashes of white light, the two guitar quartet churned through the entire '98 release, Diabolical Conquest. Old school death metal: brutal gurgling vocals, a bit raw, but within conventional songs structures.
Was never a fan of EyeHateGod's sludgy look at the downside of life. At Decibel, they performed the entirety of Take As Needed For Pain, under a backdrop of the controversial album art (it's not the original Scorpions Virgin Killer, but in today's society, still touchy).
Last call upstairs! Even though there's one band left, several vendors have already vacated the premises. Suicidal Tendencies were rescheduled to perform their 28 minute eponymous debut, which is more the punk era, than the more metallic later offerings. Sure "Institutionalized" has everyone screaming along (for a Pepsi?) to the rapid fire lyrics and bass thumping "I Saw Your Mommy" is another fun rant, but the rest of the album is not in my ST "greatest hits". So surprise, after a bluesy, band played intro interlude, Mike Muir uncorks "You Can't Bring Me Down" to open the set! The whole band seems to be on skates (boards) as they glide across the stage (and don't run into one another. A major feat). Muir is no Spring Chicken (60 years old), skipping/skanking/jetting around the stage, practically in perpetual motion, stopping only to sing a few lines, then move on. Keeps him young, I guess. The floor was a swirling mass of humanity from the first notes.
Part storyteller, part comedian, total prankster, changes the lyrics to "I Shot The Devil" to the former California governor who then became US President in the ‘80s. "Subliminal" gets everyone to repeatedly shout the F-bomb. In between all the entertainment, Muir dispenses his helpful philosophy to a new/younger generation. Title track off the '88 album How Will I Laugh Tomorrow When I Can't Even Smile Today? and "Pledge Your Allegiance", off the same record, help flesh out the 75 minutes allotted. Both showed up right before "Institutionalized". As he continues to deliver his monologue, he starts to ask fans to come onstage, much to the chagrin of security. Eventually, a couple dozen (of all ages/sizes) get onstage: wander about, slam into one another, take selfies with Muir & the band as he continues the "ST" chant. Muir retreats to the drum riser, leaving the stage to the invaders. He even lets them shout along to the famous titular chorus. With security attempting to clear the crowd, they launch into the short, closing blast of "Memories Of Tomorrow', with extras still aboard.
Rousing send-off for another year. Let's all meet up, in 2024!
Check out coverage from the Decibel Pre-Party here.