Flashback to August of 2001: I made what seemed at the time an ill-advised decision and purchased a ticket to day one of Milwaukee Metal Fest XV. Ill-advised, because a) I had no money, and b) we had read reports and heard rumors of bad blood between overlord Jack Koschick and some of the bands who’d played Metal Fest XIV, which I’d certainly had a blast at but had to admit was not a well-oiled production in any sense. Terrible sound, abbreviated performances, scheduling chaos; still, where else can a guy see these bands? The XV lineup was nowhere near as enticing as XIV, but I needed to see Anathema, and perhaps more importantly, the feeling of being at a festival populated solely by metal freaks is hard to come by.
Things actually seemed to run a little better in ’01 than in ’00, and I wound up getting in free the second night by flashing my stub from the night before! Computers, why did we ever invent them? I apologize if this confession makes me somewhat culpable in the subsequent collapse of Metal Fest as we knew it. In ’02 it moved from the Milwaukee Auditorium (now the Miller High Life Theatre) into the U.S. Cellular Arena (now UWM Panther Arena) but that lineup left much to be desired. I didn’t even realize the event had gone forward in ’03 but based on the extant reports from ye olde internette it sounds like the pay-to-play trend was out of control by then; cue stories of bands traveling from overseas to play for 15 minutes at 10 a.m. and whatnot. Then in ’04, Koshick moved the event back to The Rave, its original home from 1987-1999, and this would prove to be its final resting place as a Koshick production. There was an attempt to kickstart the event in ’07, but the general feeling was that the damage to the brand was irreparable by then, based on everything I’ve heard from every metalhead in Wisconsin the past two decades. Touring metal bands quit even coming to Milwaukee. The metal capital of the U.S. had become a dead zone.
Fast-forward to June of 2022: Koshick announces he’s passing the baton at long last to Hatebreed frontman Jamey Jasta! Jasta is from West Haven, CT; I’m not sure why he thinks he’s the guy to helm Metal Fest but I do know he’s become somewhat more known as a metal ambassador than musician over the past couple of decades, hosting HEADBANGERS BALL on MTV for a few years and a popular podcast for the past decade, as well as running Stillborn Records and his own clothing line and producing for other artists. He has also played Wisconsin a ton; I remember seeing Hatebreed in 2002 in frikkin Newville (then: Club Raven; now: Wet Bottoms Bar & BBQ). There’s also this statement from Jasta: “On a recent podcast I did with the late [Black Dahlia Murder singer] Trevor Strnad (RIP), I fantasized about bringing the fest back and even wanted Trevor to curate it with me. In light of his death, I feel the need to see it through and relaunch the festival in 2023.”
Good enough for me, I guess. The three-day event, back at The Rave again, wrapped up on Sunday; I missed the final day due to Janet Jackson (https://milwaukeerecord.com/music/janet-jackson-takes-control-at-amfam-amphitheater-with-four-decade-career-retrospective/), so here are my thoughts based on what I saw and heard Friday and Saturday.
After a satisfying meal and a few affordable beers at Conway’s Smokin’ Bar & Grill (the official smoked meat authority of Avenues West), we walked to The Rave. As I recalled from the Ministry show a few weeks ago (http://www.you-phoria.com/Blog/2023/May/ministry-or-eagles-ballroom-or-5-7), entry was a breeze and the staff was friendly and helpful. There were cops near the doors on the outdoor patio all weekend, but I didn’t see them DO anything once. I never saw any non-sanctioned violence over the two days I was at the festival, in fact. It was honestly more peaceful than any Bonnaroo.
Speaking of which, the first band we caught was Vio-Lence. Golly you couldn’t ask for a more perfect first set of Metal Fest: legendary underground band, two formative members still at the helm (founding drummer fired just months ago), still pretty much kicking ass. I’m just now realizing how huge late-‘80s thrash is right now, what with Pantera and Metallica on massive tours, the Cavalera brothers re-making those early classic Sepultura albums, Dave Lombardo hopping between Testament and Suicidal Tendencies and god knows what else, Dave Mustaine presumably still whining about Metallica, etc. Still it’s the underground shit like Vio-Lence that you now hear influencing young bands; it sounded positively unhinged back then and is still wild today.
A big part of Metal Fest’s appeal this year was the chance to see a bunch of bands I…probably wouldn’t pay to see individually but did WANT to see. Corrosion Of Conformity fell into this category, even figuring it was likely a shadow of the band it once was. Founding drummer/vocalist Reed Mullin passed away in 2020 but original lead guitarist Woody Weatherman and bassist/keyboardist Mike Dean are still plugging along, and frontman Pepper Keenan has been with them since ’87, so it’s not a weird multigenerational frankenband per se, like a lot of bands of their generation are. I didn’t even realize they’d gone back to a more thrashy sound—at least some of the songs they played were. I actually really like “Clean My Wounds” (the band’s one enduring hit from the ‘90s) but had to leave before they played it; oh well.
Imperial Triumphant was top priority, even though I just saw them last year. They represented pretty much the only wildly experimental music at the festival, one thing I seriously hope changes next year. Their set, like quite a few in the Rave Bar, started a little late (dang it, I could’ve caught “Clean My Wounds” after all), but I don’t think at any point the schedule got completely out of whack; as far as I could tell, things ran pretty close to on-time at all stages, and somewhat shockingly in a post-pandemic world, I didn’t hear of a single cancellation all weekend. Imperial, the trio covered entirely by robes and masks, put on my favorite show of the weekend, driven by the sometimes manic, sometimes meditative drumming of Kenny Grohowski. And yes, the fans in the front got doused with champagne.
The inclusion of a vehemently leftist, anti-capitalist, avant-garde metal band was certainly good for morale, and that went double for booking Napalm Death. Although, similar to CoC, this band barely resembles the one that invented grindcore back in the mid-‘80s (zero original members…since 1986!), they’ve remained a vital force on the death metal scene, and they put on a KILLER set Friday, longtime frontman Barney Greenway not one bit shy about politics. The only issue, and stop me if you’ve heard this one before:
The sound. In The Rave. Sucked.
Not just the Eagles Ballroom upstairs, which we expect. The Rave proper as well, and even the Bar for at least one set I saw. Napalm sounded pretty good compared to bands earlier in the day but I was still squinting to make out between-song banter FFS. I understand it’s hard and it’s grueling, you’ve got to get all these different bands onstage and soundchecked and off over and over again all day, but they’re all metal bands! There’s no reason the kick drum has to be so dominant in the mix that it drowns out the guitars! However, in the case of the last band we saw Friday, the drums were gonna dominate no matter what. James Read might be the best black metal drummer I’ve ever seen live, and now that I’ve listened to some of Revenge’s studio material I can confidently say he doesn’t care if I can understand the words or not, and the guitars on Revenge’s latest album STRIKE.SMOTHER.DEHUMANIZE aren’t exactly forward in the mix either, so maybe they sounded exactly how they wanted to. There’s no reason, on the main Rave stage, that ANY band shouldn’t sound the way they want to. I didn’t really care in this instance, I would’ve stuck around and bathed in the energy coming off Read’s drumkit even if the rest of the band hadn’t been there.
I know, I know, I didn’t catch Dying Fetus, blasphemy, did I even GO to Metal Fest. I saw ‘em in ’01! Maybe next year. We didn’t stick around for the headliner tonight, Biohazard, either. The official reason being ‘we were too tired’.
We arrived early on Saturday, shortly after the music started. We’d be spending more time in the outdoor courtyard today, which was a terrific setup; even if it had rained, most of the ‘cafeteria’ was under a big tent anyway, with food trucks surrounding the grounds. It was an extremely meaty assortment but I heard the mushroom tacos from Pig Tailz were really good.
It turned out to be largely a death metal day, starting with the über-guttural machinations of Phobophilic, followed by Undeath, whose name gives you a hint: these guys are not super cereal. Rather, partydeathmetal, absolutely perfect with the sunshine still streaming through the big windows surrounding the Ballroom. I can recall a time not TOO long ago when you’d walk into The Rave and there were signs up saying ‘Positively NO MOSHING’; I can’t properly express my joy at witnessing some of these massive circle pits. From what I could see people understood etiquette and helped each other out and got nuts and it was just beautiful; I hope this was uniformly true. So much smiling in the Undeath pit; you’d have to be ultra morbid to see this band live and not have fun.
Macabre was another highlight of the day. I probably have friends who would decry the very existence of a walking trigger-warning such as Macabre, arguably a relic from a time before ‘safe spaces’ were invented (lineup unchanged since 1984!!?!). Serial killers aren’t funny, but this IS a metal festival. They had someone in a different serial-killer costume come out for each song and mime killing the band members. It wouldn’t have been Milwaukee Metal Fest without these Chicago nutjobs. (side note: Bummed to have missed Micawber later on—I think I had a whole conversation with someone recently who was talking about this band and I thought they were mispronouncing ‘Macabre’, fuck.)
My most anticipated set of the day was Blood Incantation and they did not disappoint. I’m sure there were other proggy offerings on the schedule but HOLY CRAP how has it been four years since HIDDEN HISTORY OF THE HUMAN RACE came out?? I feel like I just got off the tilt-a-whirl. Again, sound not great; the band certainly navigated their many twists and lurches with aplomb, though. We had a brief breather after this before a nonstop stretch of partial sets, starting with almost all of Frozen Soul who put on a crushing set of lumbering death metal and featured a quick guest appearance by Undeath’s Alexander Jones. Loved this set.
What I saw of Fear Factory’s set was…just fine. Ditto for Kenosha’s textbookdeathmetallers Jungle Rot, who packed the main floor to capacity, you love to see it. I should’ve bailed early to catch more of The Black Dahlia Murder, though. This was a potent dose of a more ceremonial death metal style, menacing without being cartoonish, technical but accessible. I wish I could say more about former guitarist Brian Eschbach’s transition to lead vocals; you don’t want to judge something like that based on an Eagles Ballroom show.
Following Immolation’s set I had to take a bit of a breather. I had completely forgotten that I’d also seen them in ’01, which is ridiculous because how could anyone possibly forget seeing Robert Vigna play?? He’s up there like a Romulan general mercilessly skewering tribbles left and right with his guitar; I could barely take my eyes off him. After this punishing set I was a bit overloaded. Best to take it easy and prepare for Obituary, the best set of the day. Of course they did have one unfair advantage: THEIR OWN PROFESSIONAL SOUND ENGINEER. The pristine mix on the main floor for this set brought home just how poor a job had been done up to that point. I implore Obituary’s sound engineer: PLEASE come back next year and do sound for ALL THE BANDS, I’ll start a gofundme, I’ll do anything.
All that remained after this was Suicidal Tendencies and Anthrax, both up in the Ballroom. While the latter band hasn’t changed much since the ‘80s, Suicidal is almost like a self-tribute band these days, with frontman Mike Muir having assumed full responsibility for its identity long ago. Aside from two tracks off 1999’s FREEDUMB (current guitarist Dean Pleasants’ debut release with the band), they stuck wisely to material written in the ‘80s. Oh and banter. I know I’m the only person on Earth who was introduced to this band via 1994’s SUICIDAL FOR LIFE, one of those contractual-obligation, since-disowned records, but I’ve found that having stomached Muir’s silliest impulses, nothing he does is likely to bug me too much. (Seriously, people don’t like “Don’t Give A Fuck”?? How is that not a bitchin song?) And yeah, it was fun chanting “S-T!” with a few hundred metalheads to Muir’s obvious delight. He’s earned it, come on.
And hell, Anthrax is always a blast too; we shouldn’t take them for granted. I love that Scott Ian just got off Mr. Bungle tour and flew out here just for this; Anthrax doesn’t even have any future live dates listed at this point. I still get the feeling that these goofballs are the quasi-official shepherds of the scene; Metallica is way up in the U2 area and there’s no sense of leadership whatsoever in the rest of the “metal mainstream”, is there? A bunch of wankers for the most part? Anthrax seems like the biggest band to currently hold the hearts of all headbangers and I felt that big time during this set. They brought out Machine Head’s Robb Flynn for “I Am The Law”, making me KINDA wish I could go Sunday. Then again, I doubt anything could’ve made for a more satisfying ending than Anthrax.
Perusing the merch area in the basement towards the end of the night, we had come across the Hells Headbangers stand. I started peering at the merch and was quickly warned off due to Hells Headbangers being (unbeknownst to me) a distributor of nazi metal records and all. Yay, this topic again. An awful lot of metalheads have reached a point, and a lot more will, at which someone close to them gets called out as a fascist sympathizer and says ‘you know what, fuck this, it IS a witch hunt’ and voilà another ally lost. So I try to ‘do my own research’ ARRGHHH. I got about as far as clicking ‘enter’ at hellsheadbangers dot com and bam, a Satanic Warmaster album is the very first offering in their merch section. This is a blatantly unrepentant racist act we’re talking about. That didn’t take much of a hunt. It was incredibly disappointing to discover this trash lurking at this festival.
Then again, you don’t have to go any further than Hatebreed’s wikipedia page to find some disappointing info about Jasta himself, from back before there was any accountability at all in metal. Yes, eternal shame on CNN for incorrectly calling Hatebreed a white supremacist band. The metal community however, like a lot of other musical fraternities, isn’t as quick to judge homophobes as it is to judge racists. Maybe Jasta has denounced his homophobic pride at some point and I just couldn’t find it on the internet; I’m not going to listen to his podcast, I’m sorry. I think there’s almost always a path to redemption if you’re willing to admit you were a piece of shit and you’ve denounced and mended your ways. If you can’t do that then fuck you. And if Jasta has owned up, maybe his manager should do a better job making that information known to the internet, because Milwaukee Metal Fest is just going to go down the shitter again if its organizers can’t do better than this to make everyone EXCEPT racists and homophobes welcome.
This was all post-fest pondering, however, and you can point a finger directly at me for not doing more research in advance if you want, ‘cause I gladly gave them my money, ‘cause the metal community means a lot to me. I sincerely hope Jasta is reformed and that Hells Headbangers was a mere oversight. Because as far as performing bands, I don’t know of a single sketchy association. (NOTE: NO I HAVE NOT EXHAUSTIVELY RESEARCHED EVERY SINGLE ARTIST) Yes, Tim “Ripper” Owens is a Trumper dipshit and I’m sure lots of the musicians were; that’s not what this is about. It’s about actual hate, and if you call your band Hatebreed you should probably be especially vigilant. Hell, Phil Anselmo just a few nights ago disavowed the confederate flag; I respect the hell out of him for this. I’m working on finding a way to believe in that guy. People CAN learn, they can change. They have to be allowed the chance.
I hate to even bring this shit up because I feel so much gratitude that this thing is back in our lives. We heard shout-outs to Jamey from nearly all the bands that played. It was incredibly emotional to be immersed in this particular camaraderie again; it’s not that you can take that away, it happened. Jasta’s inaugural year heading Metal Fest was a necessary ‘greatest hits’ edition; I have no problem with that at all. Bring people back and show them that The Rave doesn’t have to suck (it’s very much improved I swear, I’m not going to harp) and that we can have a peaceful gathering like the old days and celebrate the things we love about this scene. Let’s get more diverse next year, though. There’s more to life than thrash and death. Let’s defy the stereotypes that work against the metal community. Let’s get some more current local bands playing. And let’s definitely eradicate all traces of association with nazis and bigots, is all I’m saying.