In booking the second annual Bull City Metal Fest, Casbah talent buyer Steve Gardner had a clear goal: variety.
"Really, it's kind of metal and heavy music and a bunch of stuff rolled up together," he says. "What I wanted to do was have a variety of music—as big a variety as I could."
On the contrary, heavy metal and its fans aren't exactly known for their embrace of inclusion. The genre's seemingly infinite micro-genres back that point; it's a form in which a band, such as Brooklyn's Liturgy, is lambasted by the scene for taking an unorthodox approach to its chosen subgenre (black metal) whether or not the music itself is any good (in fact, it's excellent).
Peter Hasselbrack, who performs old-school death metal with his one-man-band Bloodsoaked, declined the offer to play Bull City Metal Fest because he wasn't interested in being the sole representative of his chosen metal sect. The rich mix doesn't suit his ideal.
"It just doesn't fit for the style that I'm in," he says. "I've played those kind of shows before, and most people that say they're into metal aren't really into the real heavy death metal-type stuff, so once you get up there and start playing everyone starts looking at you like you've got 16 heads."
It's not necessarily a bad or good thing, he says, but in his experience, fans don't tend to cross between genres. "If you have three death metal bands play, pretty much if you close your eyes and turn your back, all the bands pretty much sound the same," he explains. "Then the fourth band goes on and they're a deathcore band. The death metal fans will turn and walk away. Splitting hairs? For sure."
Gardner says Durham doesn't quite live up to that description, though. "In Durham, what I think we have is a pretty young scene, where people are still just kind of enjoying the music and experimenting. People aren't so niche-based, as a whole," he says. "I wanted to kind of reflect our area and where we are right now, which is really eclectic."
The bands that did sign on for the festival are aware that they might be upsetting the purists' blinders-on view of what metal is or can be—and they're OK with it. "I want to let everybody in," says M/\KE frontman Scott Endres. "I would eventually like to keep pushing this band into a position where there's not really a completely or widely agreed-upon shelf that we sit on."
The night before they play in Durham, M/\KE will play WKNC's Double Barrel Benefit at The Pour House in Raleigh; they're the only metal band included on the two-night, eight-act bill. Despite the purist factions, says Endres, much of the current climate for heavy music is plenty hospitable to new mutations.
"In the past couple years," he explains, "it seems like suddenly, metal has just blossomed into this really interesting thing where more people are pushing boundaries and genre-defying."
He cites two of this year's more notable Metal Fest performers: Rhode Island duo The Body and Greensboro outfit Braveyoung. Separately and respectively, they play oppressively heavy doom and majestic, gloomy post-rock, but together, as on last year's Nothing Passes, they find a dramatic middle ground where The Body's scorched-earth scuzz and Braveyoung's cinematic sweep form something new and exciting for both.
Ken Rumble plays drums for Durham's Knives. For Rumble, metal offered something he wasn't finding in the grungy punk he'd played in prior bands. "What we saw in it was metal's celebratory aspects," he says. "While there's a lot of doom and gloom and those sorts of things in metal, there's also a real boldness and kind of a celebratory thing in being so big and being so loud."
That's the idea this year's Bull City Metal Fest hopes to embrace. Gardner hopes that approach will find continued success, despite the naysayers.
"I hit the goal that I wanted to hit," he says, "which was an eclectic festival."
Our guide to the essential listens at Bull City Metal Fest
This weekend's Bull City Metal Fest draws together 16 regional and local metal acts over two days. If you see them all, you might not be able to hear the Super Bowl on Sunday. Here are five not to miss.
Knives: Power, not poison
As Durham's Knives began to take shape, its members—guitarist Greg Sheriff, bassist Travis Coe and drummer Ken Rumble—were playing what Rumble dismisses as "very '90s, alt-punk, indie rock, kind of grunge."
Independent of each other, though, Rumble and Sheriff found inspiration in contemporary metal bands, especially their incorporation of new textures and dynamics. The trio dropped the early impulse and opted for a heavier, more metallic sound, christening itself Knives.
"I don't want to apply labels to the band, so I'm not going to say, 'Yes, we're a metal band,'" Rumble says. "But I am gonna say that the stuff that we listen to—and are influenced by and aspire to—are largely metal bands."
Knives hasn't completely abandoned its punk roots: "Cobalt," for example, is a straight-ahead bruiser, suggesting Helmet's powerful marriage of driving punk and sludgy weight. Live, the band incorporates sweeping psych-rock ambiance, classic-rock riffs and jagged post-punk lunges. With Knives, Rumble hopes to capture metal's boldness and energy, not its "doom and gloom."
Knives' performance at Bull City Metal Fest might be its last for a while, too. Coe will depart the band following Friday's set. They'll soldier on, says Rumble, but they haven't replaced him yet. Though he hasn't left, Rumble says a few players have already volunteered for the role. Strength in numbers. —Bryan C. Reed
M/\KE: Necessary restraint
M/\KE doesn't want to lose momentum, and who can blame them? Three months after the release of Trephine, the band's debut LP when the band was still called "MAKE," positive press is still filtering in. And M/\KE (phonemically pronounced "muck" with the new spelling) finds itself suddenly in demand: They're also playing WKNC's Double Barrel Benefit, putting the band on two exciting, major local bills in as many days. What's more, M/\KE is one of only three repeat bands from Bull City Metal's inaugural year.
M/\KE is that good, as is Trephine—an open-ended apocalyptic parable that offers an unflinching treatise on mortality and grief with daring, nontraditional pacing. Triumphant themes surface mid-record in the euphoric instrumental "Valhalla" and the beautifully balanced "Surrounded by Silent Lies." Then Trephine darkens again, finishing with a teasing ellipsis of noise.
Despite the movement, M/\KE won't play many local shows in 2012.
"We didn't have practices, we had rehearsals," Scott Endres says of the band's times together in late 2011, meaning the band hasn't been able to work on new material. This almost counterintuitive drop from the public eye shows remarkable restraint and poise, in line with the patience and maturity of the band's carefully paced, drone-built metal.
Tentatively set for a 2013 release, the next record will be built concept-first, says Endres. He's as excited to start writing it as he is about the public response to the debut. In the meantime, keep an eye out for a more purely drone-oriented project he's starting with drummer Matt Stevenson, still in the early stages. —Corbie Hill
Music Hates You: A balanced misanthropy
Music Hates You prides itself on a live show it describes as "a hurricane of sweat, blood, spit, whiskey and shattered equipment." The Athens, Ga., trio has been hammering away at working-class punk-metal since 2001, although last year's Where Did All this Dirt Come From was Music Hates You's proper debut. It injects art-metal complexity into a barreling mix of speed and swamp. "I never lived in a trailer park/ but I didn't miss that shit by far," guitarist and vocalist Noah Ray sings on the album's closing confession. This admission illustrates the entire record.
Over All this Dirt's 37 brutalizing minutes, Music Hates You mixes self-conscious absurdity and seething resignation. The pace doesn't slow until "You Have Failed As an Audience" meanders in with the threatening swagger of a shotgun-wielding son of the soil, its patience setting the stage for Ray's questioning: "So what the fuck are you looking at, asshole?/ Were you plotting against me, boy?" It remains oddly transcendent when Ray pulls the camera back, hollering, "You have failed as a higher species," after an album's worth of self-effacing, occasionally paranoid hyper-Southernisms. It's an unexpected, uncomfortable pinnacle, somehow sympathetic and misanthropic all at once. —Corbie Hill
Black Tusk: Unobstructed motion
Google "black tusk" and among the photos that pop up are at least a couple of pictures of a mountain. That mountain is British Columbia's Black Tusk, a jagged slab of volcanic rock. That description easily fits the band Black Tusk, too.
Like their namesake, Savannah, Ga., band Black Tusk is raw and jagged, hot and explosive with big, massive riffs. In a 2009 piece in Spin, they were profiled, alongside Baroness and Kylesa, for a piece on the city's swampy, sludgy metal scene. Black Tusk is the one that takes the swampy part most seriously. They're crustier and sweatier and a hell of a lot meaner. If the producers of the History Channel's Swamp People need a new soundtrack for that show's gator-killing scenes, then Black Tusk's latest Relapse release, Set the Dial, contains many excellent options.
All three members were in punk bands before forming in 2005, and the band has held on to those hardcore roots. Everyone sings—or rather, screams—spitting their vocals in the same monotone chant. They're not a band for soaring guitar solos, either; Set the Dial contains plenty of hot licks, as well as one unexpected but brief, pretty interlude at the beginning of "Resistor," but little in the way of guitar god wizardry. Black Tusk's brand of heaviness is like a thick slab of molten rock—in motion, unstoppable. —Karen A. Mann
Widow: Teaching class
What would a metal fest be if it didn't feature some sort of straight-up traditional metal? That's where Raleigh's Widow comes in. If any band in this two-day fest deserves to be called "metal" with a Rob Halford wail as the goat is being thrown, it's certainly Widow.
Indeed, Widow is metal—pure and simple, denim and leather, chicks and beer, classically inspired solos and clean singing. Lyrical inspirations on last year's Life's Blood included fallen angels and ice queens that look like Tawny Kitaen, the night, attempts to take hold of said night and riding on the wind. This is the type of stuff your older brother (or, if you're young enough, your dad) used to bang his head to back in his dorm room at ECU. If Widow had existed at the time, he would've had their poster on his dorm room wall, right beside Iron Maiden's Eddie, and Joe Satriani's Silver Surfer. Now, go put on your dad's fading Yngwie Malmsteen shirt and take hold of the night. —Karen A. Mann
The Body and Braveyoung: Future visions
For all of heavy metal's traditions of burning and burying the sacred and advocating for the profane, the term and its subdivisions depend highly on rules and strictures. But that hasn't stopped wave after wave of pioneers from adding new elements and pushing the form forward, ire and scorn of the true believers be damned. Bull City Metal Fest, then, is a fitting microcosm, with bands that cling (proficiently, even) to the past stacked alongside those that demand something different.
It's telling, ironic and appropriate that The Body and Braveyoung are not only the two performers at the second annual gathering most prone to being lambasted as "not metal at all." They are also the two that have the most to say about the future of that loosely used, tightly guarded term. When it comes to aggression, it's more suitable to be remembered than loved anyway, right?
The Body, from Providence, R.I., is certainly heavy and loud enough to fit the metal category, but they're just restless enough to sometimes be expelled from it, too. Chip King and Lee Buford are, at base, a doom metal duo, laying low long tones and militant barks behind drums that pound into eternity. But they add electronics and work with choirs, shape songs around mangled samples and cover folk songs.
Greensboro's Braveyoung makes what indie rock kids might call post-rock and what metal dudes might generously call doom. Slow and steady, with peaks of light shooting from an oppressive dark, Braveyoung is actually a fitting intersection of both. They show that metal is welcome to bleed into other ideas of heaviness, and vice versa.
In Durham, Braveyoung will play Saturday night at 10 p.m., followed by The Body at 11 p.m. They'll then join for a set that, one expects, should pull from their collaborative 2011 album, Nothing Passes, a record of drones, builds and quakes that tugs gloriously at the meanings of beauty and abrasion. Don't expect your parents' metal, with its goblin talk and showboat riffs; do expect a sound that's heavy and foreign, new and forceful, which are, of course, characteristics your parents might have once used to describe their metal, too. —Grayson Currin
Correction (Feb. 2, 2012): The Body and Braveyoung play Saturday (not Friday, as originally stated in the text).