MAD WITH POWER FESTIVAL - Metallic Fun & Games!

August 31, 2021, 2 weeks ago

Mark Gromen

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Timing is everything in the music business. Initially, it appeared as if post-pandemic good fortune had smiled on the organizers of Madison, Wisconsin based Mad With Power (aka the musicians in Lords Of The Trident, who played the two-day event), as tickets for the boutique, 350 fan extravaganza went on sale, just as Covid-19 restrictions started to loosen nationwide (and people were chomping at the bit, to get back to the "new normal"). Wisely planned to involve only US based acts (thus no possible international lock-outs), the music/gamers weekend was happening, come Hell... or high infection rates! But as the months dragged on and immunization rates stalled, the weeks leading up to August 27-28 were met with other hurdles. First came the announcement that all band/fans/crew had to be vaccinated. A couple of bands dropped, unable to make the deadline. Next, not only were you required to be fully vaccinated, but had to produce a record (ID card) to prove it. Then the Dane country (where Madison is located) public health officials re-enacted a mandate, meaning, regardless of vax status, indoor activities must have all participants masked. The things we endure... I know it's only rock ‘n’ roll, but I like it. If it was too much, could have stayed home and live streamed it. Nah, live (especially after almost two years of musical inactivity) is where it's at! 

Not really gentrification, as they're not displacing current residents (Madison is a college town, as well as the state capital), but the surrounding neighborhood is dotted with hip restaurants, bars/brew pubs, a mead house, even a distillery! Just a few blocks walking distance from one another, among the boarded-up, overgrown and vacant, old brick buildings, is a slice of forgotten industry/Americana: former offices of Burgess Battery, Wisconsin Telephone (part of Ma Bell's empire) and baking goods warehouses. 

Mad With Power is housed in a video arcade/bar complex, with many of the metal acts having a crossover gamer appeal. Late August is just a couple weekends removed from the traditional ProgPower USA timeslot and many of the same fans (band members) would normally find themselves in Atlanta, for that annual confab. Yet, due to the aforementioned uncertainty surrounding Covid-induced travel restrictions (especially from overseas), that event was postponed until June 2022, thus Mad With Power got an extra bump in interest. While some of these bands undoubtedly live in the same realm as ProgPower (a few, Paladin, MindMaze and Seven Kingdoms, have either already played, or are scheduled to be onboard, future shows), in terms of stature, we're talking the early day/opening caliber acts. 

Nothing wrong, everyone has to start somewhere, just thinking that the future of Mad With Power is probably best served out from under ProgPower's rather lengthy shadow. I know the final weekend of August is about as late as they dare go, tempting the last snow-free days ( I kid, I kid), but moving forward, selecting a late spring/early summer spot on the metal calendar might be warranted, once annual fest schedules are normalized. 2022 is already scheduled for August 19-20, so mark it down. You see, there's plenty to like about the close knit, homespun (sometimes affectionately quirky) weekend, plus it gives worthy power/traditional metal bands, a chance to hit (select members) of a national audience, spreading their fanbase(s) beyond (often) regional limits.

DAY 1

Sponsors and higher priced ticket holders got an hour head start, entering before the general public, on Friday evening, with the first band, Oracle, hitting the stage at 7 PM. Basically every act had an hour to get on and off the stage. One straggler threatened to derail the whole process, but thankfully, none were forthcoming. Turns out, I was familiar with about half the overall line-up, having either previously seen or heard their music. The St. Louis based openers (a last minute replacement for one of the aforementioned vax cancellations) were an unknown quantity; a one-guitar foursome with piped in keyboards/effects. Manowar kingpin Joey DeMaio would have approved of the bass dominating mix. The four-stringer is nearly seven foot tall and his sound was just as lofty, often drowning out the shredding guitar on high pitched anthems like "Frozen Throne" and "Shadows Aflame". 

Next up, the all instrumental Knights Of The Round. By their own admission, the two guitar foursome (one sporting a seven string, the other a headstock-less model) are "a Final Fantasy video game metal band," which means, they play snippets of music used within the game series. Nothing new, Powerglove made an industry out of it, seemingly usurping the opening slot on every US tour there for a while. However, the Indiana based outfit is beholden to just one franchise: Final Fantasy. In fact, their current album is dedicated solely to the seventh edition of the game. The music was definitely the heaviest metal of the day, with the ultra-nerdy headbanging to the music heard within the game. As a non-gamer, way over my head, but it did lead to the craziest quote of the weekend, being uttered onstage: "Can I get a lot more of me in there?" No context will be provided, sorry!

The first of three female singers to close Day 1 saw the Minneapolis area After Time offer a trilling vocal take on European power metal, similar in scope to bands like Sirenia and/or Visions Of Atlantis. The guys all wore white, matching medieval peasant garb (smocks, rope/drawstring belts, etc.), while Sarah Wolfe donned a frilly barmaid/wench get-up, with corseted waist. It was a couple of songs in before the gruff male accompanying voice was added, but only sparingly. Do the genre well.

Been a couple of years since last taking in a MindMaze show (but could say that about EVERYONE these days, what with the pandemic, and all). Jeff Teets was once a pudgy farmboy with John Denver wire-rimmed glasses, content to stay in one corner of the stage and let his sister's powerful voice and occasional flute accompaniment be the focal point. No longer! Having dropped some weight and toned up, the guitarist is now confident enough to wear eye liner and commandeer center stage. Aggressive and refusing to lurk in the shadows, he adopts all the rock god poses, moves about and even punctuates a frenetic night with a leg kick, all while never losing sight of the prize: hard driving rock/metal. Yeah, they opened with the lengthy "The Machine Stops" and "Destiny Calls" sees flute atop searing guitar, but this pared down set was devoid of most prog trappings, honed for the kill. Punchy "Stand Your Ground", issued as a single, last year (their most recent release) is a lively addition. Sarah wore an ornate military/old school band uniform jacket and was very appreciative of the crowd and the opportunity to play live again. Fans aren't the only ones who missed concerts (and on this scale, it's NOT about the lost paychecks, but rather the pure joy of music). Other highlights in a fast paced set, that was over too quickly, included “Dreamwalker" and emotive closer "This Holy War", which kicks into another gear, come its second half. If you have the opportunity to experience MindMaze, don't miss your chance.

Dare I say, with teased out hair and facial expressions, if the Muppet Animal played guitar, instead of drums, he might be Camden Cruz. In real life, the founder of Seven Kingdoms is soft-spoken, thoughtful and friendly, but onstage, with a plugged in amp, look out! He pulls more mugs than a Bavarian brewery during Oktoberfest. There's a real energy, almost foreplay, between he and singer Sabrina Valentine (the two are a couple), the sense of enjoyment radiates between the two and translates to the crowd. She started the night in a shiny gold lame bowling jacket (kind of girls' gang attire, like the Pink Ladies wore in Grease), hair in a pony tail that bobbed up and down as she headbanged. At one point, the crowd attempted a small circle pit, Valentine ditched the jacket, revealing a black body suit, underneath, prior to "Neverending".

At the pre-party, joked with Camden, asking him "What do Floridians know about 'Castles In The Snow'?" Sand castles, maybe... Good to hear that recent video track receive such a positive response. As the night wore on, it was evident both sides of the stage were having fun. They revved up Don Henley's "Boys Of Summer". That's the sort of zany, non-metal cover that could get some play overseas (they love when bands step WAY out of character: "Rock Me Amadeus"?), a territory Seven Kingdoms needs to visit. Air punching finale "In The Walls" was really supposed to be the last one, but managed to sneak one more into the tight time schedule: "Undying". Headlining festival set concluded by 12:30 AM... no way! The band performed as a two-guitar quartet, without a bassist, and will do so, throughout the ongoing North American tour. When they come close, check 'em out and see if you miss the bass, I didn't.

DAY 2

In all honesty, there is a certain sameness to most of these bands, this being essentially a power metal-only event, differentiation coming from personnel, instrumentation and costumes/props. It is indicative of a trend, where newer American power metallers lack songs that translate to a live audience. Technically skilled (often hyper, so), there's nothing for the live audience members to do except watch and/or mosh into someone. There's no hooks/melodies to sing along to (a hallmark of the European variety). Hell, the South Americans even sing along to the guitar harmonies! But prodigious displays of talent generally don't afford such moments. True, outside of fests like this, fledgling US bands generally don't have opportunities to field test their material (notice all the eyes trained on fretboards, rather than the crowd, inherent in these shows). Maybe I'm the minority, but feel the fan experience is about more than being "wowed," but rather connecting with the band and sharing a collaborative moment. This is not the local club show/fans. When you commit to taking part in a multi-band, out-of-state event, showcase yourself/music in the best light possible. Bands certainly load up on merch to potentially sell, but if you don't take the same mindset in presenting the band (music, look, hob-knobbing with crowd, before/after) probably going to be taking a lot of that same swag back home.

First up, South Dakota's own March In Arms, fronted by backwards baseball cap wearing Ryan Knutson (a former drummer) on guitar and James Hetfield impersonations. That said, it's my pet peeve when bands play higher profile events, like this, that they DON'T wear other band's merch onstage (however famous and widely known that band might be). Invest in your band, look like it's important to you (so others might think the same). Hell, wear your own merch, take it off and throw it to the crowd as a souvenir, but leave your influences at home, in the drawer. Especially when your presence (physical appearance, mannerisms/stage antics, voice) ape the group you're hawking, on your chest. Lyrically, band is wading into Sabaton, military-based subject matter. The one exception was a heavier, proto-thrash run through of Def Leppard's "Satellite". Although most were seeing band for the first time, decided to debut an unreleased cut, "Lightning War", which, by their own admission, it will probably take them ten years to get around to recording.

All-day events where friends congregate from across the country never have enough built-in pit-stops, time for grabbing dinner, or getting into in-depth conversations, as there's always another band, minutes from starting. Inevitably, someone grabs the shortest straw and on this night, that was New Yorkers ShadowStrike. Did get to see much of the set. A heavily facial hared sextet (two-guitars, plus keys), apart from the clean shaven bassist (how much longer will he be allowed to flaunt "the code?”). Feels unnatural for such a voice to come out of a grizzly mountain man of that size. Wow. "Forever As One" was memorable.

Previously saw Paladin, a speedy twin guitar four-piece (bordering on thrash), as last-minute, local replacements at the ProgPower. This smaller, more intimate club setting suits them better. They appeased the video game junkies with "Black Omen", while video single "Shoot For The Sun" laid down a blistering pace. At the end of their set, called up Sarah from Mindmaze to do a number. Wonder if that collaboration was hatched this weekend, or a while back, in Atlanta?

Dire Peril is fronted by Judicator singer John Yelland, these days looking a bit like our Brainstorm friend Andy B. Franck (especially with the mustache), with a bit of Ron Jeremy too. Energetic set, with a female bass player; they too opted to play some songs that had never been publicly aired before, in a set that including "Total Recall", a classic Iced Earth sounding "Always Right Here" and concluding cover of Blue Oyster Cult's "Godzilla", with an onstage appearance by the big green guy.

Lords Of The Trident, who play every year, are something of a cult around these parts. 50% of the fest tickets were sold to their Patreon contributors. Needless to say, the room was packed for them: some there ONLY to see the Lords: hang out beforehand and leave afterwards. While it helps pay the bills, doesn't do much to advance the scene. What you get is an extravaganza, sort of KISS on a Ronco budget. The fact the band performed a half dozen unreleased songs, for the first time, didn't damper the crowd's enthusiasm. Ty Christian (aka, Fang von Wrathenstein, master of ceremonies and Mad With Power organizer) is bedecked in red/black protective super hero apparel: one part football uniform, one part Tron. An electric fan billowing his hair only adds a layer of surreal to the fantasy imagery. His bandmates are an assemblage of other festooned characters: a frilly shirted Britny Fox refugee, a cloaked wizard, on bass, and one with gaiter obscuring his face, but everyone in the audience pretty much adopted a similarly masked look, this weekend.

Many tunes were augmented by props, many with fire: a burning mic, sparkler bedazzled sword, Guitar Hero replica mini-axes that spun, lit up, or were set alight! Thing is, Lords don't need all the excessive hokum. They have some really good songs that stand (proudly) on their own, even if Christian's corny (well, it's Wisconsin, so guess that should read: cheesy) proclamation that, "there's nothing more power metal than a harpsichord solo." There was "These Tower Walls", a thrashy, self-described "angry at your Dad" number christened "Power Of Evil", but the best, straight ahead/no frills track was punishing, high vocal "Knights Of Dragon's Deep". One of the newbies ("Charger", maybe?) offered some aggressive guitar as well. As always (apparently) the concluding number, "The Metal Sea" sees not only Christian unfurling a flag, waving it about the stage, but several punters, with their own miniature pennants, as they all sing, "We'll get drunk and we'll pillage together, as we're sailing the metal sea." Pirate metal, a little out of character (if that's even possible, with Lords Of The Trident!), but eat your heart out, Alestorm.

Anything after that spectacle would be anti-climactic, but Immortal Guardian (on tour, from Cali) did their best, with a laser light show and elaborate mic set-up. The stand was an entire human spinal column (vertebrae), topped off with skeletal fingers, holding a human skull. The eye sockets pulsated different colors and the mic itself was embedded in the jaw, thus singer Carlos Zema had a face-to-face "chat" with Poor Yorick, throughout the set. A lone guitar foursome, to his right, Gabriel Guardian doubled on guitar and keys, the ivories hung vertically, the keys up, Finnish style. Actually, his frets were decorated to look like black and white piano keys.

In-house, all the coin-op arcade games are on free play, throughout the weekend and there are sponsors that provide access to a myriad of home gaming configurations, new and old, so there's ALWAYS something to keep you busy/provide a diversion. Still some uncertainty, moving forward, but keep Mad With Power as a possible music/travel destination.

Featured Audio

IRON MAIDEN – “Stratego” (BMG)

IRON MAIDEN – “Stratego” (BMG)

Featured Video

SUMMONER’S CIRCLE – “Chaos Vector”

SUMMONER’S CIRCLE – “Chaos Vector”

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