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Heavy metal hamlet

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Believe it or not, there was a time not so long ago when the Triangle and surrounding area was considered a hotbed of hard rock music. Before the Squirrel Nut Zippers were a blip on the landscape and when Ben Folds was actually in a hard rock ensemble himself, the likes of Corrosion of Conformity, Confessor, Firehouse and Cry Of Love were touring the world.

The Switch could always be expected to have the latest national acts, whether the tunes they purveyed were commercial hard rock or uglier and underground. And you couldn't get any more underground than The Fallout Shelter, literally a tiny basement alcove in downtown Raleigh, which hosted the likes of Anthrax and punk rock outfits.

You also had Snookers supporting the local heavy music scene and bringing in the occasional Pro-Pain or Circle Of Dust, and The Caboose out in Garner doing the same for crusty D.I.Y. hardcore and death metal. WKNC, known as one of the leading metal stations in the entire country, was cranking out to the entire region 3,000 watts of metal in all of its forms, and local fanzines such as Livewire documented it all.

Things have certainly changed in such a relatively short period of time. Right now, you wouldn't be blamed for saying that there was no hard rock scene in the Triangle anymore.

Just don't tell this to Tony Leonard.

Leonard, who prefers to go by the name Dio after his favorite metal vocalist, is a lifer, both in terms of his fervor for anything with loud guitars in it and his residence in this state. He has seen the Triangle's good times, and now is doing all he can to rekindle them from the ground up.

"I just love the music," he says with a definitive Southern drawl. But it's more than that. It has to be. This is a guy who will be at any show from New York City to Florida if it has some historical meaning to him. Even something as obscure as Udo Dirkschnider (former Accept vocalist) touring with a reformed Raven is worth a four-hour drive and overnight stay in northern Virginia.

Dio writes a column called "Metalshop" that was originally in the now-defunct Phaze Three magazine, and now is online at raleighmusic.com, where he discusses everything from local concerts to German import CD reissues. But his greatest contribution here is his Metalfest.

Since organizing his first Metalfest in 1991, Dio has lost count of how many Metalfests he's put on, as sometimes he'd do a summer one and a Halloween edition. The event is always held at the Wilson County Fairgrounds, always features the best local talent he can find, and for one or two days a year, it turns the tiny hamlet of Wilson, N.C., into the epicenter of hard music in the Triangle.

Ultimately, Dio sees his Metalfest filling a need. "There are not any clubs around that support local music," he laments. "They open and they close. Either they're not supported well or something else happens.

"That building at Mission Valley, it has to be cursed," he continues, talking about the space that was Snookers, then The Mission, then Alive and probably a few other incarnations as well. And although a lot of people complained about The Caboose, Dio says "it really hurt the scene when it closed. [People] never appreciated it. I mean, CBGB's makes The Caboose look like The Ritz! Plus, we don't have anyone who brings in any national bands right now."

While Leonard is very modest about his accomplishments, all one has to do is go to one of his Metalfests to see how much he is appreciated. This past weekend about 500 head-bangers of various ages and hairstyles congregated to see two dozen bands on two stages. And every band that played thanked Dio from the stage, and every time, the crowd applauded knowingly.

And it is not because the Metalfest is a big payday for them either.

"Most of the bands come out and play for exposure. I can't really guarantee anyone anything," he admits. "I have to cover my ass, pretty much, first, and there's a lot of shit involved in doing a show."

That said, word is getting out of the Triangle about this grassroots D.I.Y. movement. "Bands from as far away as Detroit are calling me and saying they'll come down and play for nothing," he relates. "And Jack Koshick, the guy who puts on the Milwaukee Metalfest [a yearly festival featuring hundreds of mostly signed international acts as drawing cards], charges bands to play--like $500 to $1,000! I can promise that I will never do that."

One thing that immediately hits you when you enter the fairgrounds on Metalfest day is the diversity all around. In the crowd, you glimpse older guys who probably saw Nantucket in their prime standing next to teenagers with dyed braids and baggy pants. This disparity continues with the sound and fury emanating from the two stages, which includes new bands that sound old: Soul Preacher is Raleigh-based stoner rock with a punked-up edge. Romeo Delight rekindles Glam memories with Dokken and Yngwie Malmsteen covers (among originals such as "She's Tight"). Sorrow Bequest come off as Iron Maiden doing Norwegian Black Metal. The guitarist in October 31 (Metal Blade signees from Washington, D.C., who make Raleigh their second home) used a vintage Randy Rhodes model. Automag is a pumped-up Skynyrd.

There are older bands that sound new, too. Fly Machine grew out of the ashes of the legendary locals Confessor, with a modern (yet still heavy) sound. Bone Shelter has been around for some time and the Raleigh troupe has evolved into a fierce four-piece that doesn't sound that unlike the metallic rock proffered by arena acts these days.

In fact, among all of those bands, from 6 Pack, 7 Ton Diesel and 12 Oz Curl, to the melody of True 2 One, to the audio insanity of spike-wearing Hatred, the only constant at this Louder-palooza was that everyone was local (or close enough). "I like all of those kinds of bands," Dio matter-of-factly explains.

The string turnout (every year the concert has drawn more people) and the influx of younger fans are evidence that the lull may be just about ending for hard music in this area. Dio's enthusiastic optimism alone could bring a scene back from the dead. Tell him that WKNC is missed, and he says, "96 Rock is playing the hell out of Korn, Godsmack and bands like that, and Dangerboy is one of the few DJs around here who supports local hard rock music. He has the Jim Beam Backroom Break every weekday at 8:00. Those kinds of things are very important."

In addition to his work, Andy Miller, who used to book The Caboose, is now bringing to Kings the kinds of extreme metal the defunct venue was known for. Recently, a bill featuring two bands from Dio's fest packed the place. He had a booth selling bootleg videos, used CDs and records. Local band Drill 187 brought their own Grill 187, selling franks to hungry fans and bands.

And the bands are starting to attract labels again. Soul Preacher is recording its debut for underground artist Frank Kozik's Man's Ruin imprint, and stalwart COC is about to sign a deal after being dropped by Columbia.

Most importantly, however, is that many of the local metallic bands are actually good. Metal has always thrived on adversity, and the recent turmoil seems to have sparked high levels of creativity and dexterity from new and established acts. Even if the cash doesn't come, the fans are here, and Metalfest will continue to visit Wilson each year. As Dio explains his philosophy: "If I was doing it for the money, I wouldn't be doing it." EndBlock

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