Milwaukee Metal Fest 2024

Tue May 21 2024

After a successful resuscitation in 2023 (, Hatebreed frontman Jamey Jasta brought Milwaukee Metal Fest back for another round this year. While last year’s lineup went heavy on crowd-pleasing thrash and death road warriors, the 2024 edition boasted fewer acts with significant mainstream recognition, and it also featured more unique offerings by prestigious bands, yet it still didn’t come close to tapping into the diversity of the massive modern field of metal. It was still mostly death and thrash, with extra dosages of power metal and metalcore (…yay…) thrown in.

And The Rave was a packed house once again, with three stages going strong for three straight days and nights (not including the Thursday night pre-party). Jasta didn’t change much about the logistics from last year; the only major differences were the expanded parking lot with more food trucks, and seemingly little to no police presence. As a result, things seemed to run pretty smoothly once again, aside from some significant scheduling delays on Saturday.

Why mess with a good thing, right? Attendance seemed at least as strong in this second year of the fest’s revival, so perhaps the idea of ‘diversity’ runs up against financial viability. After all, one of the first things fans were forced to confront at this festival, before even having their tickets scanned, was the Hells Headbangers merch booth, proudly displaying obvious neo-nazi iconography even more prominently than last year. The metal community loves to tout freedom of expression; unfortunately as you probably already know, that often becomes code for harboring fascists. It’s a condition that alienates a whole host of potential artists and fans, stifling the possibility of diversity. So as grateful as I am to have this festival back, as little-inclined as I am to undermine its success, Jasta has to find a way to make it happen without the sponsorship of metal’s most notoriously racist slimehole of a music distributor.

If I were being paid big bucks for this coverage I would’ve researched every band on the bill for fascist ties; sorry. I know there were plenty of musicians on these stages with dumb and shitty opinions but this actually wasn’t a witch hunt. There was good music being played at virtually every moment I was at The Rave and that’s why I’m here. It started Friday with Eternal Champion out of Austin up in the ballroom. Epic fantasy-based retro-metal wouldn’t normally be my bag but these guys have their tongues stabbed so deeply into their cheeks and pulled off the act so well they were impossible not to like. Talk about a good-natured mosh pit, nerds and heshers united at last, the first time I’d ever seen a chorus line of arm-in-arm headbangers right in the middle.

Incantation played next in the Rave proper and sucked me in immediately. Not unlike Summerfest, Metal Fest excels at giving its fanbase opportunities to see aging legends, and John McEntee certainly fits that description. Incantation’s sole constant member, guitarist/vocalist McEntee was a leader in the early East-coast death metal scene and still leads a powerhouse band whose extra-evil sound has aged well. It was a pleasant surprise, too, hearing a fairly balanced mix in the Rave so early in the evening, particularly because sound issues would plague this stage (as well as the ballroom SIGHHHH) all weekend.

Next up was arguably the greatest thrash metal band of all time, Overkill. While not as commercially viable as the “big four” of the ‘80s, Overkill has a much more imaginative presentation, particularly over-the-top vocalist Bobby “Blitz” Ellsworth who frankly puts most thrash singers to shame even at age 65. He seemed completely stoked about the enthusiastic Milwaukee crowd and led the band through a career-spanning set; two of the eight songs were from the band’s latest album, last year’s SCORCHED, which might not have gone over well for a lot of other legacy acts but nobody in this crowd batted an eye. I had no idea that they’d co-opted The Subhumans’ “Fuck You” as an anthem of their own; I can’t even describe the glee in that room as they closed with this, except maybe to call it an Anthrax-y moment, in the best sense. The one-two punch of Incantation and Overkill was by far the highlight of day one.

That’s not to knock Macabre at all, without whom, would it even BE Milwaukee Metal Fest? Compared to last year’s set, this Macabre performance featured fewer “special effects” (i.e. people in serial killer costumes pantomiming violent acts onstage) but the band was maybe even tighter and more ferocious, with the added bonus that the Rave Bar stage is always the best-sounding in the building. They were a perfect warmup act for Autopsy who followed in the adjacent room, drummer/vocalist Chris Reifert sounding as unhinged as ever. The band’s often abrupt shifts in tone and tempo set it apart from typical death metal, at times evoking Today Is The Day in some of the chaotic shifts.

It was Blind Guardian headlining Friday night, a popular pick no doubt, just an incredibly boring one from my standpoint. As hinted above, power metal isn’t my bag; I think we stayed until almost the end of the set but fatigue was definitely setting in on the feet and ears and brain and the fairly predictable riffage of Blind Guardian wasn’t providing any chills or thrills.

HYPOCRITE, you’re thinking. Yep, just like last year, I saw the Hells Headbangers tent the first day and nevertheless proceeded to patronize Milwaukee Metal Fest even a second day. I’m an imperfect human being and I had to interview one of my favorite singer/songwriters ever and also Mr. Bungle was playing. The thing that makes me angriest is that this distributor has already been called out over the years by publications with far more reach than this one, yet here they are, at a marquee event for the community—that’s the kind of clout and/or funding these fascists have. They’re listed unabashedly on Maryland Deathfest’s site as well, a far more prestigious event these days than Milwaukee’s, featuring a much more diverse and progressive lineup. They clearly don’t NEED Hells Headbangers as a vendor. Yet they won’t divest themselves from these fuckers. Sometimes the state of the world sure makes a pandemic’s worth of activism seem like a charade. Here I go, playing my part.

My first time seeing Skinless live was back in 2002 in Newville, Wisconsin at a joint called Club Raven. To be honest, hanging out with their singer, Sherwood Webber IV, that night was more memorable than the music but that’s a story for another time. For Metal Fest on Saturday, they played only material from their first two albums and it was a real trip because I doubt I’ve actually LISTENED to Skinless in 20 years and it was probably a pretty similar setlist to what they played at Club Raven only I’m way better equipped to absorb it now. Just good old-fashioned not-taking-ourselves-too-seriously death metal (despite it being the first gig in the band’s 32-year history not to feature founding guitarist Noah Carpenter! I didn’t catch the reason for his absence but he’ll supposedly be back for Maryland Deathfest this weekend), and after concluding with “The Optimist”, they cranked the PA and blasted Eric Weissberg’s “Dueling Banjos”, inciting a gleeful hesher hoedown the likes of which I’d never before witnessed.

Soilent Green was the next instance of my not having given a band enough of a chance thus far in life. There’s just too much music, and in reality I didn’t know this band was even still a band; as far as I can tell, they hadn’t played a show since 2014 prior to this! The last Soilent Green album came out in 2008! Besides, there’s no way their albums can convey the animalistic stage presence of vocalist Ben Falgoust. He held the crowd in the palm of his hands as the band ripped through a tight set of complicated subgenre-splicing metal…after being dormant for ten years? Amazing.

Following the Katatonia interview and a quick dinner at nearby Conway’s Smokin’ Bar & Grill, I was able to catch the end of Death To All’s tribute to Death’s seminal 1998 swan song THE SOUND OF PERSEVERENCE. The group (singer/guitarist Max Phelps (Obscura, ex-Cynic), drummer Gene Hoglan (Dark Angel, Testament), bass beast Steve DiGiorgio (Testament, Sadus) and Bobby Koelble (Death)) reportedly experienced some technical issues early on but what I caught was slick and punishing, including, somewhat surprisingly, the Judas Priest cover “Painkiller”. There was a twinge of agony here, thinking about how this could’ve become a perennial concert highlight had Chuck Schuldiner not passed away in 2001, ending Death for all practical purposes. Saturday’s set—as well as Sunday’s ‘SCREAM BLOODY GORE + hits’ performance—boasted cuts this group had never performed live before. Time and again this weekend, we did feel the love from these artists for the legacy of this festival, particularly the years when it was held here at The Rave. I didn’t come close to seeing all the ‘special’ sets put on by artists specifically for this event. In this sense, this year’s edition was even more emotional than last year’s.

I gather that Municipal Waste’s set was wild; I spent a good deal of time outside commiserating over the couple hours or so after DTA’s set. It was pretty hot in the building and so nice outside, and nothing against Hatebreed but again, not my thing really. The only thing I couldn’t skip in that span was Possessed, about whom there’s not much I can say except to join the consensus of virtually the entire metal community in stunned disbelief at how good the resurrected band continues to be, including its new(ish) material. I can’t deny that catching some of Deicide’s set a little later I was underwhelmed; not that Deicide is trying to be Possessed, it just came off a little hollow in the wake of Possessed. Go ahead, throw stuff at me.

By the time Deicide finished, the fest was already running behind schedule; kudos to the Rave website for adjusting set times accordingly as best they could. So, ANOTHER arguable best-thrash-band-ever, Testament, played in the ballroom. It’d been billed as an ‘old-school set’ but it actually was their 1987 debut THE LEGACY in its entirety! Have they ever done this before? Boy I WISH it could’ve been in, I dunno, the Riverside, or hell, Alpine Valley, almost anywhere but the Eagles Ballroom. Don’t get me wrong, it was grand. I’ve experienced much worse sound in that room. I COULD HEAR Alex Skolnick’s glorious guitar solos. I don’t have to harp on this any more, right? It’s the Eagles Ballroom folks.

Katatonia’s set time had already been pushed back 20 minutes; it would be ANOTHER 20 before they finally emerged. Having interviewed three of the members earlier in the day, and being a huge fan of this band, you might say yes I felt OBLIGED to be there, waiting. I’m here to admit that a wiser man would’ve gone to Belushi Speedball. This was already set up as the worst conflict of the weekend. Probably not for very many attendees.

I’m not sure what’s going on with Katatonia. Founding guitarist Anders Nyström bowed out of their winter 2023 tour citing “personal family reasons”. No news regarding his status since that January. Katatonia’s tour manager instructed me not to ask the band any questions about Nyström. Perhaps more puzzling: guitarist Roger Öjersson, with the band since 2016, also couldn’t make it. As singer Jonas Renkse would announce from the stage, their guitarist for this lone scheduled 2024 U.S. appearance had to learn the set in five days. I cannot find any information about this guitarist; it sounded like Renkse said “Milton Alex” but…that can’t be it, unless the guy is a complete unknown…?

Whatever the case, Katatonia with just one guitar isn’t exactly the most satisfying sound, and to make matters worse, Renkse had persistent issues with his mic, or so it seemed. I was dying inside, because this was supposed to be a REVENGE set for the band’s poor treatment at the hands of former Metal Fest mastermind Jack Koschick at their disastrous U.S. debut in 2000, a performance that the band for years considered the absolute low point of their career. Tragically, tonight was looking like another trainwreck. I couldn’t make myself stay and watch this (note: technically, only because Mr. Bungle was scheduled to start). For the record, the oldest song they played was “Teargas”—that’s the oldest song they ever play any more. In a very real sense their metal days seem behind them. That’s not to say their new material is no good; I dig a lot of it! But why did they fly over here JUST for this event—AGAIN—only to give us this truncated set of what could bluntly be termed post-Nyström Katatonia? When I’d last seen the band in November of ’22 they’d still seemed so vital and potent. Nowadays there’s not even any chatter about this show on the Katatonia reddit. Am I an idiot for continuing to follow this band? I’m just left with all these vexing questions.

The last time Mr. Bungle played Milwaukee, sure it was great, but also, come on. They were the opening act on the Sno-Core Icicle Ball Tour in 2000—or wait, was Puya first? I have no memory of Puya that night, maybe they played first and I missed ‘em. Anyway the entire Bungle set was material from their 1999 album CALIFORNIA, except for the opening number, Burt Bacharach’s “What The World Needs Now Is Love”. Now, unlike a lot of Bungle fans I really like CALIFORNIA but for one thing I went into this gig assuming they’d HEADLINE over the likes of System Of A Down (they had one song on the radio! I was only just hearing of them!) and uhhhh Incubus? So that dinky little set and then POOF Mr. Bungle is gone forever? That pretty well sucked.

Happily, the suckage ended in 2020. This would be my third time seeing the resurrected Bungle (I also saw the ‘original’ Bungle in the basement of this building on a SWELTERING night in the summer of ’99 (someone PLEASE tell me you taped this show, I’m on the internet, I’m right here)). The modern Bungle, the RAGING WRATH OF THE EASTER BUNNY Bungle, would seem the perfect fit for this festival. See ‘Posers Must Die’ fanzine’s facebook comment: “It’s nothing like the lame bullshit they put out in the 90s. A totally different (good) Mr. Bungle.” I somehow doubt that’s a Bungle or even metal fan consensus; still, point taken!

I’m still getting over how different it was from the set they played at Riot Fest last summer. ( At the time I marveled at how much of an evolution THAT was from three and a half years prior. Now I think about that as almost like they were goofing around; at Metal Fest they were fucking SERIOUS. I mean, as serious as a metal band doing straight-up covers of Timi Yuro and 10cc and Seals & Crofts and Spandau Ballet can be. Not to mention a world debut in the encore: the “Let it be Löwenbräu” jingle AHAHHAHAHAHAA I could’ve died.

The biggest surprise was that they didn’t do ANY of their hardcore/metal covers except 7 Seconds’ “You Lose”, a one-minute song. That, and a completely left-field samba breakdown in the middle of an utterly glorious full-on version of “My Ass Is On Fire” from their debut album, still the only song from ANY of their original run of albums that they’ve played with this lineup. Last year it was a partial version, little more than a fuckaround. And now, folks, it sounds like it BELONGS in this set. Probably more even than “Methematics” which they didn’t play and haven’t been playing as regularly as before. Definitely more than “Eracist” which is a fine song but I could see it getting dropped if

BIG GULP I couldn’t finish that thought. Once again I’m sitting here figuring on having seen Mr. Bungle for the last time. They’re going on three years of (sporadically) touring on the same album; they can’t do this forever. If they haven’t already made a decision, they’ll have to soon: do we do more than just add new covers now and then? Do we try writing? Do we…become a real band again? Only my question would be: how is this NOT already a real band?

The dream of hearing even more beloved oldies at future shows does get stronger with each new Bungle experience. Even stronger is the desire for this band to carry on, in this form or whatever, even to the detriment of every other project these guys have going on simultaneously. Because the longer they carry on, the more the Dunn/Patton/Spruance weirdness infects the performances. Little improvisational urges they give in to. That lame bullshit from the ‘90s. You guys know Lombardo is up for whatever. Scott Ian, heck maybe you can turn him…?

Bungle’s triumph was the end of Metal Fest for me. Some day if this thing continues I’ll do the whole weekend but as mentioned above, metalcore thus far isn’t my thing. (Note that five years ago I would’ve said the same about screamo but that’s no longer true.) All in all the downsides and upsides were pretty similar last year to this, although in most logistical aspects things did improve a bit this year, and I don’t know what can actually be done about the sound issues except hire better or more specialized engineers or move to a different venue. And this venue really seems like a good home for Metal Fest. The whole thing is so close to being an all-around positive experience; some things are beyond the organizers’ control, granted. Why not take control, though, of what you can? In a recent MILWAUKEE JOURNAL SENTINEL article (, Jasta claims to be devoted to making the festival as eclectic as possible, a noble cause I wouldn’t say he’s delivered on yet, but this year was step in the right direction. “‘We have the power to create the headliners of tomorrow,’ Jasta said. ‘You have to facilitate an environment that can do that.’” Keep pondering that one, Jamey.

Cal Roach

Cal Roach is a word whore currently being pimped sporadically by Milwaukee Record and the Journal Sentinel, and giving it away for nothing right here at He also co-hosts the Local/Live program on 91.7 WMSE FM every Tuesday at 6 p.m. and spouts nonsense on twitter as @roachcraft.

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