DECIBEL METAL & BEER FEST - Parched With Thirst Am I...

September 28, 2021, 4 weeks ago

By Mark Gromen

gallery heavy metal decibel metal & beer fest

And dying, to see/hear live music again! Delayed two years by the pandemic, the Philly/hometown version of the magazine's annual suds and sounds confab FINALLY took place, September 25-26. Historically, it's usually during Easter weekend, giving the drinkers an extra day to recover. Much like the publication's content, the beer vendors cater to a wide variety of tastes, albeit skewed towards the heavier stuff. Lots of high octane choices (north of 7%, with several ABV in the double digits): meads, stouts, ciders and, in the case of the event's official libation, a 10.3% barley wine. Not the kind of beverages conducive to all day sampling (over 60 beers, to try). Under city rules, was necessary to prove attendees were all vaccinated (or tested negative for Covid within the previous 24 hours) and wear a mask indoors. Minor encumbrance for a drink-athon. Some publications need a team of writers, photographers and product samplers to create a fest report. BraveWords just has to send Gromen (LOL)!

Upon entry, those with the Beer/Metal combo ticket (most are just there to see the bands) received a 3 ounce plastic sipping glass. Practically every band on the bill had some affiliation with one of the drinks on tap (OK, some were dispensed from cans). In years past, the beer vendors lined the perimeter of the first floor, with some overflow (pun intended) to the balcony. In 2021, the beer fest was restricted solely to those with said ticket (no curious onlookers, window shopping for new flavors to try, back home), shoehorned into the upper deck. Guess they figured we could burn some extra calories, up and down two flights of stairs. As such, the event took on the vibe of a metal concert with some people partaking in craft brews, rather than a beer fest with live entertainment. Don't know who's more obnoxious, the bearded and/or 1930s fascist comb-over coiffed, self-appointed beer snob, or the twenty-something kvlt metal elitist. Both preach their "gospel" with the fervor of an ‘80s televangelist, and just as believable! "B(r)and XYZ is the greatest, because..." It's still an opinion, no matter the zeal in one's delivery. Thankfully, both tribes were few in numbers, throughout the weekend.  

DAY 1

First band up, local blackened hardcore trio Die Choking. The drummer would be booked on a felony charge if it wasn't a 3 tom drum kit sustaining that beating! Found songs like "Non-Yielder" to be short, shouted and speedy. Didn't intend, but found myself matching their performance with their affiliated beverage, courtesy of Germantown's Attic Brewing Co. A bit disconcerting, ingesting something called Choking Hazard, from a band with that name, but found the yellow, 5.2% hazy IPA a bit sour, rough to stomach, so early in the tippling journey. Pleased to run into Dave Overkill (Destructor guitarist/frontman), whom I've known since the ‘80s, helping out behind the Cleveland based Goldhorn booth. In honor of Midnight's appearance at the fest, the North Coast brewery brought along the Athenar endorsed Drag Me Through Fire (6.5% smoked red IPA), as well as Destructor's Hopping Evil: hazy yellow IPA, with frothy head, even from a can, also at 6.5%) Found myself returning to the latter, multiple times, a smooth drinking oasis in this sea of experimental (often harsh) tastes. Goldhorn has a Night Demon collaboration is in the cards (actually been previewed a couple of times already, albeit not for mass consumption, yet). It's set to debut at the next edition of Decibel's shebang, when the band performs, in Los Angeles this December.

There are 15 minute change-over between the early band (only a half hour for each night's headliner), during which time, nearly the entire floor population vacates. Upstairs, time to try another round. Even though only a couple hundred people are allowed upstairs, the back-to-back serving lines co-mingle in the tight, crowded corridors. Everyone behaves themselves. Covid uncertainties, financial issues/tight budgets, travel restrictions, or whatever, the vendor line-up this year (while containing several returning/perennials) is dominated by regional players (including breweries from within the city limits), just a few having traveled to get here. 

Been to Love City (practically down the street from the Fillmore), but partook in their Deep Cut Pilsner anyway: cloudy, slightly sweet, at 5%. The traditional metal of Eternal Champion was an early must-see, kicking off with the slower stomp of "Skullseeker". Onstage, singer Jason Tarpey (he of the Tad Morose long sleeve) wanders from one side of the stage, to the other. He's bookended by twin axemen, black hair draped across their face, each sporting a white guitar. With "The Armor Of Ire" the set alternates between mid-paced and shredding, both guitarists given ample opportunity to shine. Having already acknowledged Philly as his second home, by the third song, he was in the pit, singing from the barricade rail. Ravening Iron, the latest effort, is wrapped in artistic ode to Frank Frazetta: dragon, pile of skulls, buxom, half-naked Amazons, some of which adorn tonight's backdrop. Concluding "I Am The Hammer" (about being hard to kill, according to Tarpey) offers a high pitched vocal.

Blood Incantation is a two guitar foursome, offering a spacey/psychedelic take on death metal. After opening with "Hidden Species (Vitrification of Blood Part 2)", singer/guitarist Paul Riedl asked the lighting director to turn on the red lights and the stage remained bathed in crimson for the rest of the set. During their time onstage, lots of widdly guitar, heavy on the whammy bar, with lengthy instrumental passages between the gurgling vocals. "Inner Paths (To Outer Space)" saw me making a path to the Adroit Theory table. Several 12% stouts offered, but opted for A Waxen Sea, a 5% Czech style pilsner. The Czechs drink more beer, per capita, annually, than anyone else in the world (143.3 liters/nearly 40 gallons, per person!), so they know something about beer and drinking lots of it. Pretty sure it's not some flowery, pansy-infused (pun intended) solution. Clean, with no after taste, this is an all-day drinker. Returned to see the closing "Awakening From the Dream of Existence to the Multidimensional Nature of Our Reality (Mirror of the Soul)", Riedl seemingly tethered to center stage, singing into the overhead (Lemmy-style) mic. The edge of his red asymmetric guitar is labeled with the phrase, "Lower Your Head". Biggest fan reaction of the day, thus far. 

Midnight, the hooded Cleveland trio, were one of just a handful of the weekend's bands who attempted to put on a show, covering more square footage than the previous three bands, combined. Owing something to punk, as well as black metal, they still possess all the rock star moves, especially guitarist Commandor Vanik, who jumps off the backline amps, drops to his knees, antagonizes the crowd (across the barricade void) from atop the wedge monitors and never misses a note. Truthfully, the sense of menace/danger is somewhat diminished on such a cavernous stage. The crowd surfers and circle pit surely warmed the over-the-shoulder bandolero attired Athenar's blackened heart. Giving a shout out to Goldhorn brewery (and the band's signature beer), the bassist said, "Don't be afraid of Cleveland water. It's no worse than Philly's." Hell of an intro for the dirty, but infectious groove of "Satanic Royalty". Later, it was simplistic "Who Gives A Fuck" keeping the rot and roll going. It's not necessarily about lyrics or perfect execution, but feel and aggression. Midnight deliver in spades...the ace of spades (death card!).

Soundgrowler are from the South side of Chicago (or so the rep) informed, taking a sample of their Würzburg, a 5.8% German Festbier. Well, I've never drank anything like this at the more than 50 Deutche metal festivals attended. Guess it's just a name, and aimed at Oktoberfest. Sort of a dirty water look/flavor. Noch ein bier? I'll pass, but would eventually return, to try their other two options. Speaking of a no-go, resurrected Jersey metalcore band Deadguy was a non-starter. Didn't know anything about them in their ‘90s heyday and after a cursor listen, there was no impetus to re-write history. Some extra time for sampling...

Not typically a fan of odd flavor mixes, but what the heck, the price was right (free). So tried Broken Goblet's 6.4% Wasteland Wanderer Banana Split Pastry Stout. Can actually taste the chocolate/banana in the opaque, black liquid. Better than their 6.5% Makeshift Atomsmasher, a German Marzen, which is dark, frothy and a hint of caramel. Zero Days had a Mango & Habanero pale ale (6.66%). Smooth, non-biting, but after consuming, can feel a spicy bit of heat. Couple of hours, driving the taste buds crazy, with insane combinations, rediscovered Goldhorn's Hopping Evil, robust, but not overpowering. 

Speaking of happy returns, a while back, Municipal Waste was seemingly on every/all US tours. They remain a fan favorite in Philly. The pandemic delayed the Waste's 20th anniversary celebration, so they're now making up for lost time. "Beer Pressure" is dedicated to Napalm Death frontman, Barney Greenway. Part of the delay, beyond Covid, is explained in passing, as (singer) Tony Foresta "broke his knee and he's up here, against doctor's orders." Cue "Terror Shark". A giant pair of eyeballs looks down from above, as green lights sweep the stage. Supposedly in the midst of recording a new album, in Philly, they debut a new song, "Grave Dive", followed by "Parole Violators". It was the band's first time playing together in over two years, but hadn't forgot the art of partying. In fact, they played the song of that same name (complete with pin-wheeling hair), after "Slime & Punishment". "Substitute Creature" appeared late in the set, ultimately ending with "Born To Party" and it's ultimate message: "Municipal Waste is gonna fuck you up."

Napalm Death were billed as performing a Utopia Banished/Harmony Corruption set (which I fear some mistakenly assumed meant both, in their entirety). Did get a half dozen from each, bookending a running order that exclusively featured songs from '90-'92. Sort of odd, being in the photo pit for the standard: first three songs," which in the case of Napalm, meant 10 minutes, total. "I Abstain", "Dementia Access" and "Christening of the Blind" start the show, in the same order as they originally appeared on Utopia banished. Barney Greenway spasmodically contorts his body around the stage, a half jog-half convulsion. If you outlined his path, would resemble the circuitous trek oft depicted in the Family Circus comic strip: logging more miles than an Olympic marathoner, in training. By contrast, bassist Shae Embury holds down the fort, stage left. While it might not be the full album, was reportedly the debut airing of "Judicial Slime", first time ever! From the same era, got the full Mass Appeal Madness four-tracker, followed by the B-side duo off their Suffer The Children EP, in order, before ending with the Harmony Corruption material. 

DAY 2

Nothing subtle about today's line-up. Get ready for an unmerciful bludgeoning. Only a sycophant can love everything, be it the myriad of beverage flavors or the widening umbrella of "metal." For both, being different, just to stand out, rings hollow, in terms of integrity. Been known to switch things up, temporarily stepping away from beer: Mike's Hard, Woodchuck and ask Metal Tim about the Smirnoff Ice debacle at Wacken years ago. Especially in England and Finland, cider has been a respite, so over the course of two days, when in need of a palate cleanser, tried Blake's trio of hard ciders. All clocked in at 6.5%: El Chavo is a clear, mango & habanero drink. No disguising its alcohol and there's a spicy bite, to boot. Apple Lantern, despite the name, is pumpkin based, hence the jack o' lantern packaging. Colorless, there's a distinctive (but not overbearing) pumpkin flavor, although evident only after the strong initial medicinal alcohol taste. The pick of the litter is the classic apple Flannel Mouth: clear, slight yellow hue and a sour/green apple flavor similar to the best known, mass-produced stuff. Recommend the last one.

While most adhered to the request, whether drunk, lazy or just a different clientele, there was a greater, flagrant disregard for masks, on Sunday. Teeth are a twin guitar foursome, who virtually played in darkness, illuminated solely by (the bane of photographers) red lights and their nearly indecipherable logo, shining from the backdrop. They utilize two vocalist and most tracks began with sinister, pre-recorded mood music. Otherwise, the sounds are growled, gurgled and bass rumbled.

Crypt Sermon are the most exciting metal prospect from Philadelphia in at least the last decade, even if Brooks Wilson (minus ecclesiastic garb) looks more like an IT guy from Best Buy, than your typical rock ‘n’ roller. Situated behind his pulpit, a centrally located effects deck/synth, emblazoned with a scrim, bearing the band's seal, they opened with "The Ninth Templar". Wilson quickly dispenses with the priestly stole/vestment, but kept the cowboy boots, which came in handy for "Heavy Riders", using the mic cord as a whip, while he jumped about. A brief issue with faulty mic, but a replacement in hand, they soldier on, slowing further for "Byzantium", with its Candlemass ("Crystal Ball") feel. The religious iconography doesn't get any more in-depth than "Christ Is Dead", which becomes the impromptu finale. Perhaps Decibel didn't want to be seen as playing favorites, within the hometown scene, but was a miscalculation, having this band on so early, comparing the reception for Crypt Sermon, as opposed to the ensuing acts. A higher billing was warranted. Maybe then they would have had time to play "Beneath The Torchfire Glare", which, according to the setlist, was supposed to finish the show, but sadly remained unaired. Both of their full-lengths have made my annual Best Of list, so definitely worth checking out.

Some beverages worth investigating include Three Floyds' Junkyard God. A 5%, so-called Mexican style lager, connected to Pig Destroyer. It is easy on the taste buds. As is Floyd's Zombie Dust. At 6.5%, the hazy Pale Ale is frothy and refreshingly tasteful. While Lincoln, Nebraska based Cosmic Eye's 6.1%  Festbier entry was not as harsh as yesterday's sample, in that category, it's still not smooth sailing. Better news for their American Black Lager (5%), called You're Cut Off Vol. 2, brewed in conjunction with Municipal Waste. Also of note: Soundgrowler's 6.6% cold IPA: Frost Augur and a hazy Love City Lager.

Warhorse are yet another trio. Someone at Decibel REALLY likes the format! Talk about timing...some might even make a joke about being slow, as sludge/stoner three-piece Warhorse reunited (after almost 15 years apart), just before the pandemic hit. The three graybeards (literally!) dished out a heavy dose of slowed reverb and feedback, courtesy of left-handed guitarist Terry Savastano, hair constantly flailing and mainstay bassist/singer Jerry Orne (he of a hoarse, stoner croak). While decent enough stuff, their last release was 20 years ago, so not sure how familiar people were with the material. Live shows are about pacing too, and the middle act in a stretch of three more pedestrian sounds, the enthusiasm level dipped perceptively, through no fault of the band.

There comes a time, at every multi-day event, where you've had enough. It's an accumulative effect: too much rain/mud, too cold, too much of the same beer, not enough sleep, too many hours on your feet, traipsing form stage to stage, too little food, etc. Usually that's not until the end of the fest, but sometimes, it's premature. In those cases, hopefully there remains a must-see act, to pump you up, create that surge of adrenaline that will pull you through. Going into the Metal Beer weekend, owned music by just five of the bands on the roster, none of which would be considered regular listens. Still, generally love to check out new names. In terms of Sunday's card, had always anticipated heading out after Immolation, however, that was not to be, "thanks" to Imperial Triumphant, sending me to an early exit. Sorry Immo.

In '75, Lou Reed recorded Metal Machine Music and a lifetime later, collaborated with Metallica on Lulu, but that doesn't make him "heavy metal." Accentuating the visual over aural, Imperial Triumphant are interpretative dance meets NYU art school project's re-enactment of metal. Not loud, but grating dissonant guitar chords, they toy with dynamics. Like an incoherent jazz lounge trio, on acid, there's no traditional sense of melody, rather sporadic piano notes abruptly interrupted by an atonal wall of sound. Avantgarde, strictly for the sake of, populated by cowl wearing, golden masked figures (Louis IV Sun King on guitar, Biblical golden idol/bull, on bass and crown adorned drummer) performing in near darkness. Really felt like an Emperor's New Clothes moment. 

Everyone has suggestions, but without re-inventing the wheel, see that the LA fest will reprise appearances by Coverge, Deadguy and Crypt Sermon, as well as Repulsion (who were on the Philly bill, back in '18). They're offering more traditional/thrash metal (at the expense of niche sounds), including Sacred Reich, Night Demon and Saber. Would like to have the trend reciprocated on the East coast. Hate Eternal is headed west, how about importing a couple of Left Coast talents? Any of the aforementioned would suffice! Pandemic restrictions/inconveniences over, hopefully next year (or will it return to April dates?) the number of brewers will increase and can play up the Beer fest angle once again, as it was what made the weekend truly unique. 

Time will tell. See you then.

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