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Bull City Metal Fest embraces the genre's many alloys

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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

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