The Secret Spot of Mayhem Fest
In metal, like hip-hop, ofttimes one must wade through a lengthy undercard to hit the sweet spot on the bill. For Mayhem Fest at the Austin 360 Amphitheater Friday, that meant surviving post-apocalyptic conditions and a caricature musical genre in order to glimpse Swedish death metal contingent Amon Amarth and their Viking ship stage set.
Now given the homogeneity of talent for most domestic music festivals, the B/C/D acts on any daylong roster usually yield the most surprises. That meant skipping headliners Rob Zombie, Five Finger Death Punch, and Mastodon in favor of arriving at 1pm to assess the dozen-plus bands before Amon Amarth at 6pm.
Around the corner from the mainstage, which stood silent all day except for the occasional soundcheck, most of the Mayhem took place on a burnt-out patch of dirt and hay that made Mercury and Venus look hospitable. The sole row of four or five Porta Potties along the back fence appeared laughingly inadequate until the August afternoon that followed revealed the scarcity of (free) water at the venue and thus the negation for its attendant waste disposal. Bottled H2O was plentiful at $4.50, but like the Old Settler’s Music Fest in April, not a single watering station existed at the A360A.
Countering such negligence at a venue with almost no shade were two overworked water fountains at the bathrooms in the main venue. Most faces rounding the corner to the facilities fell into palpable dismay at the lines they encountered until they were told the wait wasn’t for the plumbing but rather the water. Once that sunk in, they looked suicidal.
Personally, I consumed about two liters of water in six hours, and stood in line 40 minutes for the privilege of doing so. Temperatures hit 100 degrees by 3pm and climbed over the next two hours, after which you pretty much lost the will to live. Any Central Texas music festival without ample watering stations should have the AC and running and bottled water turned off at its offices every summer so they can see what it’s like out here in these alien climes.
The metal was worse – in spots.
Besides cramming three stages into an area smaller than the front lawn at Auditorium Shores, Mayhem lived up to its name not in the ferocity of so-called “extreme music,” but in a disparate jumble of acts foisted on a black-metal-tee crowd without much sunscreen. The thrash metal answer to cock rock (Thrown Into Exile), Goth metal (Motionless in White), silicon stripper metal (Butcher Babes): cartoon metal all. A throat-ripping scream eagle plus Armageddon guitars doesn’t brew instant metal, kids (aka children of the damned).
Music festivals remain BFFs to the underage masses unable to gain entry to most clubs, but a headcount at most metal shows of late attests to a current crossover success the genre’s finally begun to enjoy, not to mention a young clientele almost equal in its division of the sexes. No longer is heavy metal simply the last bastion of crusty old Seventies metal survivors (like myself). As indie rock continues eating its tail, metal’s unabashed energy and attitude is the new punk rock: authentic rage against the machine.
For every throwback to the Nineties big-hair metal of Cinderella and Vixen (Huntress), tomahawking thrash offered up a new generation of heroes (Battlecross). Even then, however, proven vets paid the bills. Machine Head’s canny sound engineering – boosting the vocals and drums over the guitars – hit home with every guitar harmony, extended middle finger, and chorus from main man Robb Flynn in a manner akin to a WWII dictatorial rally, which the Oakland quartet’s red-and-black stage standards unfortunately evoked. Finnish institution Children of Bodom deserves a medal for delivering its witchy death metal in peak afternoon scorch (102) without evaporating.
“Dude, that sprinkler is from God – if he exists,” announced a gal ambling into Scorpion Child’s 30-minute set at the micro third stage, the Sumerian Records tent. Playing just before Children of Bodom, the local fivepiece appeared unfazed by the heat, its home turf advantage discernible in the bandmembers’ strut onstage. They earned that cock of a walk, too.
When Scorpion Child first started performing in the front room of Red 7, its Seventies screech pierced ears like a parody. As demonstrated on the group’s new major metal label debut, they’ve transcended their influences to the point of evoking, say, Uriah Heap or Fastway – and even the mighty Led Zeppelin – without sounding retro. Sidewinder guitars, an impromptu drum solo, and frontman Aryn Black’s charismatic cry (“The Secret Spot”) made the dust emphysema I’d fought all day specifically to catch their set worth it.
Amon Armath’s all-too-brief death surf of the mainstage also proved worth the endurance test – the suffering – yet Scorpion Child was the take-home band. Call it love at first sting.