LA GATES OF METAL III - Showcase For West Coast Finery

October 20, 2023, 9 months ago

By Mark Gromen

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The line-up for LA Gates Of Metal Fest III was almost exclusively culled from the Left Coast. While there are thrilling new sounds emanating from seemingly everywhere these days, the Pacific coast (even up into Western Canada) sports a plethora of fresh faces, offering up heavy metal. So it was off to a giant, October metalfest in So Cal...No, not Power Trip. Instead, took in this 25 band bill (an underground/undercard to the tres expensive old-timers extravaganza, the week before). 

A two-day pass for Gates Of Metal worked out to less than four dollars per act! Headlining club sets by Riot V or Vicious Rumors cost several times that, and while some may bristle at even a few quid for unknown talent, $4 is a worthy investment in the "I saw them when..." stories, a decade or so from now. Amongst the current headliners (who are enjoying renewed interest, from a second generation) and a couple others, revamped, after nearly a decade of inactivity, this festival showcases up and coming bands, those on the rise, whose best days are ahead. And rest assured, there's definitely some who will make an international impact (if they haven't already). To me, and the others at the Garden Amphitheater, that's more exciting than rehashing the hit songs of my youth, at any cost, let alone a couple thousand dollar price tag. 

Saturday's line-up featured a stretch of great bands that I would put up against any metal fest worldwide. Surrounded by athletic fields, in a neighborhood park, the Garden Amp (as it's abbreviated) is a cement, outdoor venue, with tiered seating and a second, small, indoor club stage. The place can accommodate over 500, not including the floor/standing room only. Unfortunately, the place was nowhere near capacity at any point. Guess they can't get the kids off the couch and away from the Xbox, for some tunes in the sunshine. 

Apart from some family outings, on Sunday (pre-teens joining their parents) didn't really see anyone who looked younger than 30, all weekend. Of the two days, the heavier dose was better attended. OK, traditional/power metal can have a corny streak (corpsepaint isn't humorous? Abbath memes anyone?), but in an area that embraces the plasticity of the entertainment industry, can't believe there wasn't more support for Day 1. Apparently Power Trip decimated the bank accounts of many local metalheads, which is a shame, because the bands at Gates Of Metal have more to do with the future of heavy metal than a mere cash grab that lines corporate pockets. Not saying these bands are bigger/better than the classics (that would be stupid), but while some of those headliners are limping towards the finish line, mere shells of their younger selves, where are the "replacements" coming from, once the old-timers are gone? From a pool of like-minded upstarts, who need our attention, now!

Right on time, 1:45, the trio called Ninth Circle kicked off. Unfamiliar with their music, found it a competent, if unremarkable, sound. "Grinding The Bastards Down” is a strong number and really should start the set, especially as part of a multi-band event, where the majority of the crowd is not specifically there to see you. Impress 'em early, make them converts before they walk away disinterested. The guitar dropped out, temporarily, on two occasions and a pre-recorded intro ended abruptly, but these were the only noticeable technical glitches throughout the weekend. "Forever More" sees the bassist and guitarist (who doubles, on vocals) together, center stage. During "Riding The Storm", the drummer played a few measures, standing up.

There are no scheduled respites between acts, seamless, non-stop music alternating from outdoors to the small, air conditioned space. There were vendor stalls and band merch lining the walkways and numerous bars. First up, in the club, was Angel Fury, sporting females on the mic and behind the kit. Apparently just their second gig, although you wouldn't know it, from the singer's stage presence. A real spark plug, her frenetic energy recalls Tina Turner's fiery rendition of "Proud Mary". Speedy opener "Road To Hell" sees the twin guitar quintet firing on all cylinders. "Racing In Your Heart" and "Six Of Swords" also impress. The concluding cover of W.A.S.P.'s "Hellion" slots nicely aside their originals. Good to see youngsters making classic metal noises.

This was my third encounter with Boston area metalheads Adamantis, in less than six months. The drummer is the brains behind the Stormbringer Festival. More of a European sounding power metal than what had come before, they do the style proud. Helps to have a good set of pipes, like Jeff Stark. They opened with "Fallen Kingdom", a tune destined for the next record. It's three bodies across the front of the stage, for "Storm The Walls", persuading the fans to sing the titular chorus. Like the majority of the bands, only allotted a half hour, yet still opted for a cover of Iron Maiden's "Flight Of Icarus". By the final number, the bassist was shirtless and Adamantis end with the entire group (drummer Evgeny included) singing a cappella, from the lip of the stage, and slapping hands with those down front. Interested to hear what they come up with next.

Only caught a glimpse of the next couple of bands, getting reacquainted with others. Kantation offer a gritty, gruff mix of doom and modern, down-tuned heaviness. On the main stage, Anger As Art added a slower, sludgy "Absent Sin", off their latest (seventh overall), Virtual Sympathy, to the otherwise aggro/punky take on thrash. Frontman/guitarist/pitchman Steve Gaines (ex-Abattoir) claimed you can find it, "Where new albums are sold." Not as easy to locate, as back in the day.

Saber have become buddies, after selecting their Without Warning debut as my #1 album of 2021. They're overdue for a follow-up, but it's coming in the first half of next year. Today, they offered a preview, with two of the fastest bits, including the screaming, set opener, "Steel Breaker". Afterwards, guitarist Joel Dominguez confided that the entire disc will not be that intense, and the first Saber power ballad made it into the final running order. No such niceties live, as the five some tore through "Strike Of The Witch", vocalist Steven Villa in a studded leather jacket that would soon prove too hot, under the stage lights, ditching it by "Without Warning". Onstage, great to see Joel and bassist David Sanchez (reunited with the axe that was stolen out of his car, earlier this year) smiling and having fun. The two add some backing vocals. The other newbie, "Phoenix Rising" is practically full bore speed metal. Wow! "Midnight Rider" sees the somewhat reserved guitarist move to a center stage spotlight. "Speed Racer" is the last one, begun with Villa's sustained, high pitch wail. Dominguez ventures forward, with a display of twin leads and sweeps. Great stuff. Now let's get that new music into everyone's hands/ears.

While Ironflame were onstage, more of us were behind the stage. Did catch their closing rendition of Twisted Sister's "Stay Hungry" though. When Intranced took to the smaller venue, many of us were already in place. Fronted by James-Paul Luna (who cut his teeth on White Wizzard and Holy Grail), an amazing singer in the Dio musical tree. Tonight, with black make-up encircling his eyes, he’s wearing a medieval draw string top (like Ronnie James Do used donned in the ‘80s). Gone is the Sonny Bono inspired, leather biker vest with puffy cotton padded shoulders. 

With just an EP and single to their credit, a full length debut, on High Roller, is slotted for '24. The short "Ángeles Nocturnos" intro leads into the smooth throated "Upside Down": an early winner. Luna towers over everyone, perched atop the wedge monitors and in the face of those pressed against the stage. Listen to Ben Richardson's ride cymbal accents. As on the eponymous EP, the song gives way to a fist pumping "Dream Lover", as Fili Bibiano goes sick, on guitar. "Rogue Warrior" (a standalone single) initially begins subtly, but quickly conducts electricity: flailing hair, flash of the studded gauntlets and Luna caterwauling. The band isn't built on speed, but certainly gets in your face. A strong sense of melody, the catalog is stocked with sing-alongs aplenty. Dedicating "La Fuerza Negra" to "All the satanic Latinos tonight," Luna adopts his most aggressive voice, for a number that alternates between Anglo and Spanish lyrics. The signature tune rides Bibiano's fleet fingers and Luna's higher register. Melodic hooks, ‘70s hard rock aggression, stage presence, destined for bigger stages, globally. 

Vicious Rumors have long trod those international boards and recently had to return Brian Allen to the frontman role, mid-tour, after the mysterious medical disappearance of Ronny Munroe (ex-Metal Church). Geoff Thorpe and mainstay drummer Larry Howe packaged a career retrospective into their Gates Of Metal set. Coming off the Atlantic Years European tour, much of the setlist has remained consistent (hits) over the years, even with Allen's impromptu return. 

However, while some balked at the absence of early material, the 15 song, hand-written playlist (which they couldn't possibly hope to play in the 40 allotted minutes), included the likes of "Blistering Winds", "Minute To Kill" and the title tracks from each of the initial pair. Wonder if the lyrics to "Abandoned" strike any closer to home for Thorpe and/or Allen, in light of the recent intra-band upheaval? By said track, the singer had removed his jacket, as the guitarist makes a rare visit to the opposite side of the stage. "Down To The Temple" sees Night Demon drummer Brian Wilson headbanging madly, in the front row. Plenty of stage fog for "Don't Wait For Me", Geoff adding backing vocals. Howe too, occasionally chimes in. Hopefully they can keep a staple line-up, as the band sounds lean & mean.

Have wanted to see Hell Fire live since their '16 Metal Masses debut got my attention. Finally! Most of their successive releases have ended up in my Year End polls, with Mania hitting #2, in 2019 and Reckoning logging into the #3 position, last year. Tonight's seven songs were culled exclusively from those two platters. Apart from the Slayer t-shirt, away from the concert venue, the soft-spoken Jake Nunn looks nothing like a screaming, metal guitarist/frontman. Profanity laced "Medieval Cowboys" breaks the speed limit, as the Goodship Hell Fire shows no remorse, pressing the accelerator to the floor. 

Nunn screams through "Mania", initially a brief rest stop on the metallic superhighway, but then it's right back into the HOV speed lane, the audience climbing aboard for the ride. When "Addicted To Violence" is but a few seconds old, a spirited mosh pit breaks out, inside the tiny confines. The singer and six-string partner Tony Campos play off one another, center stage. "It Ends Tonight" features a sing (shouted?) along chorus and the crowd follows suit. While possessing a traditional metal mindset, the music is essentially a classier version of thrash (especially the latest disc), albeit with no loss of aggression. Witness "Reckoning". Amazing they still possess the stamina required of "Warpath", come the finale. It's over, all too soon (especially after years of anticipation), but know it won't be that long until we meet again, as their profile (deservedly) continues to rise. Till next time, cheers!

Not sure how many white Angel Witch t-shirts Haunt mastermind Trevor Church owns, but he's sporting one every time I see them play. When not recording, seems like this band is constantly on the road (usually with a couple of worthy support acts, in tow). "Hearts On Fire" is up early, Church's warm personality translates to the stage and the fans feed off his good vibes. "Fight The Good Fight" is augmented by the small stage's multi-colored "disco" lighting effects. Plenty of headbanging, onstage and in the crowd. However, by "Frozen In Time" some folks started to leave, to get to the main stage, for Riot. Shame.

It was only 8:45, strange time for the headliner, but a hard 11 PM outdoor noise curfew means we all have to adapt. Still, it was too late for some geriatric fans, a day in the sun already taking its toll, and they were on their way home. What? The last couple of years have been good to Riot, longevity and a wealth of classic tunes have seen them headline events throughout the States, as well as coveted slots on overseas festivals. Todd Michael Hall really is one of the elite voices of the "younger" generation (post Dio/Dickinson/Halford/Tate, etc.), yet never gets enough credit. Donnie Van Staven (bass) is the lone holdover to the classic Mark Reale era and he still pours a bit of tequila onto the deck of the stage, each night. Band probably won't admit it, but the success of original guitarist Rick Ventura's Riot Act, playing parts and the entirety of Guy Speranza era material, has made Riot V reevaluate their set to include more vintage numbers. For a long time, these guys used the Thundersteel album as their touchstone, throwing in a couple of ‘70s cuts and focusing on the newer releases. A rethink has expanded the playing field to even include "Restless Breed" from the late Rhett Forrester's days in the band. For longtime, diehards, it's a win-win proposition.

Rousing "Fight or Fall" opens, most of those left are pressed close to the stage, fans, fellow musicians and curious onlookers, side-by-side. Good to hear "Outlaw" back in favor. Todd, in sleeveless red shirt that showed off his toned physique, worked each side of the stage. Meanwhile, Van Staven rarely looked beyond the bill of his Union Civil War cap. "Flight Of The Warrior" soon followed, Hall's voice powerful, but soaring above the speedy, twin guitar buzz. "Bring The Hammer Down" proves it's not all about the oldies. Speaking of which, "Swords & Tequila" remains a constant, all ages enjoying the sing-along. The aforementioned "Thundersteel" always goes down a (crimson) storm and when they find themselves at the end of the night, with a few extra minutes, the Rioters call out Night Demon head honcho, Jarvis Leatherby, for an impromptu rendition of "Road Racin'", which the Ventura trio has been performing practically since their inception. A cool bit of spontaneity, to bring Day 1 to a close.

The contrasting styles between the two days was stark and immediate. Unfortunately, too many old guys used Gates Of Metal as an excuse to get out of the house and smoke copious amounts of weed, regardless of supporting the bands/music. Intentional Rage started Sunday with a Pantera inspired sludge of modern groove metal (friends called it "Bro metal"), performed by a visually discombobulated collection of older scenesters. Not sure what happened, but there was no one on, in the club, for another 90 minutes, meaning the only-back-to-back main stage segment followed, with local doom merchants Stygian Crown taking to the outdoor venue, after a silent (music-less) half hour change-over. Melissa Pinion, in Candlemass tee, and the boys opted to try out some new tunes on a live audience, although many just sat in their seats, filming the performance on a cellphone. The lengthy constructs limited them to just four songs in their time slot, of which "Where The Candle Always Burns", "Scourge Of The Seven Hills" and "Two Cents For The Ferryman" struck a chord.

Kicking off the club space is Sub Surface Tension, whose claim to fame is original The Iron Maidens singer Jen Taylor Warren, who looks a cross between ‘70s Gloria Steinem and your high school English teacher, dressed as metalhead, for Halloween. It is, after all, just down the road from Hollywood, everyone playing a role. While the drummer stands out, as the band's chief asset, never really believed Warren's conviction. Call me a gatekeeper, but her constant tongue waggle, during the likes of "Don't Ask Why" rang hollow. 

The same cannot be said of resuscitated old schoolers Ruthless. Quite the onstage character, Glen Alan Paul may have many miles on his tires, but the engine still purrs, as he bends strings, headbangs and pulls all the entertaining ‘80s guitar god poses. Just an EP and debut full-length, before splitting up in the Eighties, the band (recently signed to Germany's Fire Flash Records, a subdivision of Atomic Fire) suffered the same "tweener syndrome" that stymied many an ‘80s career: too heavy for the burgeoning hair metal of their LA hometown, yet not heavy enough to hang with thrashers. Original frontman, the now bearded Sammy Dejohn, opened with "Defender" before unleashing the title track from the forthcoming "comeback" album, "The Fallen". Newer material, say "Atrocities" sits nicely alongside old gems, like "Metal Without Mercy" and/or "Gates Of Hell" (missed a marketing gimmick this weekend, for that one. Just saying.) Late October, the heavier/speedy, proto-thrash of "Betrayal" will be issued as the first single from the forthcoming album. It's a politically charged number, referring to the US Constitution. Welcome back. Better luck this time around.

Off to the enclosed shelter for some Greyhawk, another outfit making the rounds of domestic events, far afield of their Seattle homeland (Legions Of Metal, Hell's Heroes and Mad With Power), to say nothing of overseas sojourns. Singer (sometimes hooded monk) Rev Taylor has a few illuminated party favors at his disposal, onstage, beginning with a book with lighted pages. Later there will be an oscillating colored orb. Despite the lively, fun heavy metal frontman (with expressive hand gestures), it wouldn't mean anything without some killer sword & sorcery themed music. 

The set is filled with more of those than their flagons of mead, beginning with "Call Of The Hunt", early in the running order. At one point, the lyrics announce, "Greyhawk, that's us!" There's synchronized stage moves: Accept eat your (metal) heart out. Audience members sing, even bark along, to "Halls Of Insanity". It's a multi-sensory ride. After a brief guitar solo, the hooded Taylor appears with his lighted globe for the chugging, high pitched, fist thrusting "Don't Wait For The Wizard". Can help but think there's a knowing glint in his eye. A rumbling drum solo and bass spotlight (all within 30 minutes?) leads to "Steelbound", with the call & response of "This I swear" chorus, as well as the singer joining in on drums, hammering the ride cymbal. If you get the chance, go enjoy Greyhawk live!

Next up was probably the biggest surprise of the weekend, Siglos. Billed as the debut performance by former Ministry guitarist Sin Quirin. Not an industrial beat in sight, as a matter of fact the four musicians wore corpsepaint: bass and guitars (as well as singer), all jet black hair, but the drummer a corpsepainted ginger. Odd visual. Frontman (because he was more than a vocalist) Transtorno channeled his indigenous ancestors, wearing a Mayan inspired outfit, face paint and headgear. Musically, a rhythmic hypnotic hybrid of early black metal drone meets tribal, Roots era Sepultura. A haunting backing tape played throughout. Lots of smoke and energy onstage kept things interesting too. Fans sporting their t-shirts clearly outnumbered all other acts.

Tough to follow that spectacle, so inside the club, Nite did what they do best, a version of the gruff voiced, Midnight/Bewitcher school of blackened rock ‘n’ roll, beginning with "The Way" (just one of the pair off the Darkness Silence Mirror Flame debut). Only had time for five selections, ultimately ending with "The Trident". While it's impossible to get a digital clock to display 666, Evil Dead fittingly took the stage at six. Didn't take long to recount that despite the name, and arising during the thrash heyday, these cats always leaned more towards the crossover end of the spectrum (calling a truce between the warring metal and punk factions), particularly the antics of vocalist Phil Flores (repping a Mentors t-shirt). ‘80s road rage anthem "Gone Shooting" was up early, as was the environmental anthem "Greenhouse". A few intrepid souls skanked around the fringe of the gathering on the floor. As time went on, more slam dancers joined the fray. Mixing old-timers, "Napoleon Complex" and, as Flores put it, "their theme song: Annihilation Of Civilization", with the forthcoming "Stupid On Parade" displayed no stylistic changes, despite the difference in ages.

Really didn't matter WHAT the reactivated Bonded By Blood played, the space in front of the stage was a whirlwind of activity. The fans came to mosh! For the record, "Exiled To Earth" and "Mind Pollution" were aired. David White and Heathen mixed material from the most recent Empire Of The Blind, with classic ‘80s stuff, opening with "The Blight", complete with "This Rotting Sphere" instrumental intro that also starts said disc. Looking fit, in sleeveless tee, White worked the stage and offered, "This is a great job, if you can get it." Remember getting a cassette copy of their "Goblin's Blade" demo, back in the day, from another college radio DJ who had visited Cali. Decades later, still the song I most identify with Heathen. "Opiate Of The Masses" and set closing "Hypnotized" are both from the sophomore effort, but most seemed to recognize The Sweet cover, "Set Me Free", which White acknowledged was aided by old FM radio station KNAC. 

More slamming in the club, this time, courtesy of Fueled By Fire, also returning to action after a lengthy absence. Last, but not least, was a hellacious helping of black metal, from the hands of Sadistic Intent. The band has had many starts & stops, line-up changes and a host of singles, splits & EPs, but no full-length studio release, throughout a recording history that dates back to '88. Best known for backing singer Jeff Becerra, in resurrecting the Possessed moniker, 15+ years ago. Opening salvo, following the introductory "Resurrection", came in the form of "Asphyxiation". Legs splayed, practically straddling the centrally located mic stand, bassist/vocalist Bay Cortez spit out oldies like "Lurking Terror" and "Ancient Black Earth", besides (relative) newcomer "Numbered With The Dead". Big time production values, as fog, and the lighting, after nightfall, further enhanced the ambiance. Might not have been the biggest "name" to close things out, but certainly would have been difficult for anyone else to go on afterwards.

Those that attended have offered positive feedback online and many others are rueing a missed opportunity. The organization is currently assessing plans to continue next year, so watch BraveWords for updates. Maybe we'll see you there.

Additional photos:
Day 1
Day 2

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