[25 March 2009]
Metal has always been something I’d have gladly faked my own death to avoid. Maybe I lack the testosterone levels necessary to fully appreciate the grinding and chugging guitar riffs and four hour drum solos, but metal and I have never been close friends. We weren’t even on speaking terms. So I entered the Soundwave festival, it’s bill heavy with just the sort of acts I fear and loathe, burdened by the considerable weight of my negative expectations. I was sure I would be glassed in the eye with a beer bottle, kicked in the head by the steel-capped Doc Marten of a passing crowd-surfer, or else emerge from the show with blood trickling from my eardrums thanks to the industrial strength noise.
As we made our parched way across the sun-baked festival grounds, we first encountered the Jesus-fuelled riffs of Underoath. Proving that not all metal is death, doom, and darkness, Underoath heartily and proudly espoused the virtues of worshipping the anti-antichrist, and not since Stryper has a Christian metal band made such a holy racket. The kids in the mosh were going crazy for it, and showed their appreciation by performing the modern variation of the circle of death. This seems to mainly consist of jumping around like a maniac, slamming into those around you, and ninja kicking and punching in random directions. They seem to thoroughly enjoy it, and miraculously none got particularly hurt.
A quick walk around provided enough evidence that, at least as far as heavy music fans are concerned, there is no new black. Strolling over a grassy hill found us in the midst of the hardcore explosion that was Dillinger Escape Plan, and we were immediately confronted by a battle-hardened punter emerging from the mosh pit with a face full of blood. He looked remarkably unconcerned, and was soon wading back into the thick of it all to watch lead singer Greg Puciato as he took the crowd into his trunk-like arms and spat their energy back at them through his manic howlings. Dillinger Escape Plan play a unique brand of metal that is muscular, both figuratively and literally, and engaged their rapt audience with an intense, high-energy delivery.
Shortly after, and slightly dazed, we happened upon Funeral For a Friend concluding their set with a rousing run through “Escape Artists Never Die”, but they were leaving the stage all too soon and it was time to go back to school with the frat boy comedy rock of Bloodhound Gang. Living up to their reputation as first class pranksters, Bloodhound Gang peppered their filthy anthems with enough madcap antics to fill several American Pie movies. T-shirts were ripped from torsos, Australian flags were draped around Evil Jared, and Jimmy Pop easily worked local references into his shtick, with the crowd going wild for his crack about needing “a girl who can’t put crack down, so I’m moving my ass to Blacktown.”
You could feel the tension building for the highly anticipated, and equally dreaded, return of Alice In Chains. Blowing away all concerns about his ability to replace iconic singer Layne Stayley, new front man William DuVall proved to be more than capable of nailing Stayley’s vocal nuances. Walking a fine line that could easily have seen him fall, he managed to avoid mere imitation by adding his own unique style, which complemented the essence of the band’s material without ever competing with it.
Lamb of God’s set proved to be a victory for traditional long-hair-thrashing-in-the-wind metal; not for a second did they pretend to be anything but a straight up hardcore metal band. There’s a sincerity to metal performers that is embodied by Lamb of God, adding to the sense of tight community surrounding the genre. Randy Blythe dedicated songs to people who’d been at every gig they’d performed, and also to people seeing the band for the first time, in the process pointedly remarking that the capital M “Metal” stage had been the most heavily patronized throughout the day.
As we stumbled away we caught a glimpse of a kid in a t-shirt that read “Pop Punk’s Not Dead”, which seemed entirely appropriate as we chanced upon the Alkaline Trio getting ready to rock. The band has claimed in interviews that they’re Satanists, which doesn’t seem to fit well with their musical output. I find it hard to spot the hand of the ‘horned one’ in poppy outings like “We’ve Had Enough”, but who cares, right? The band rocked, and the masses of post-emo kids who had turned out couldn’t have cared less about the pentagram on singer Matt Skiba’s guitar.
Finally it was time for the arrival of the dark one himself, and it could not have been more highly anticipated. A devout coven of hardcore fans had followed Trent Reznor to every gig that he performed on Australian soil, and the rest of the crowd weren’t far behind in the adoration stakes. Bringing with them the most insane light show I have ever seen (one that shorted the power for forty minutes at his later sideshow gig) Nine Inch Nails teetered between jackhammer guitar riffery like “March of the Pigs” and the pained slow burn of “Something I Can Never Have”, often in the space of seconds, and remained equally impressive in either mode. As a testament to the devotion of his fans, not one single voice could be heard to cry out for mega-hit “Closer”, and not a single tear was shed when it wasn’t played. Closing the set with “Hurt” was a logical but masterful move, and one that left the crowd ecstatically devastated.
As I sprawled exhausted on the grass listening to Mike Herrera perform an acoustic Cheap Trick cover, I reflected on all I’d learnt throughout the day. There was no need for me to have been afraid; as it turns out metal crowds are the most welcoming and nurturing you could hope to find surrounding any scene. Despite the hyper-masculine posturing and often violent imagery, or perhaps because of it, metal opens its arms to all comers, standing strong as the last refuge of those who refuse any part of the slick world of disposable, fashionable pop; those whose wardrobe palate runs from obsidian to charcoal; and those who would rather bang their heads than shuffle their feet.