Metal For The Brain @ ANU, 05/02/05

The thirteenth Metal For The Brain kicked off last weekend at the University of Canberra, the first leg of a schedule recently expanded to include Brisbane and Perth.

“Why not Melbourne? It’s only the capital of live music,” I asked of fair organiser and Alchemist drummer Rod Holder. He stared out at the hundreds of metal kids careening riotously through the venue before returning to the question and replying, “The aim here is to keep Canberra as the home of the festival. We want Melbourne metalheads to come to us, not the other way round.”

Indeed, the location of the festival is pivotal if only to remember the beneficiary. MFTB is a fundraiser for Alec Hurley, a local metalhead whose life was unfairly and irrevocably altered after a fracas in a bar left him a quadriplegic. “Today’s aim,” reminded Holder, “is to raise $10,000 to buy Alec a new wheelchair.” I’m yet to receive notice of whether this goal was achieved. I’m thinking it was.

The necessity of a charity event is never more apparent than when it stops running, as it did in 2002 and 2004. I’d previously speculated that the festival’s “dry years” were caused by escalations in public liability insurance. “That was the case in 2002,” said Holder, “but we were saved when a group of insurance brokers heard about our plight and offered us cut price insurance. 2004 didn’t happen because Alchemist was in Europe touring.”

It’s an alarming thought that the health of the entire festival rests in the hands of one band. Alchemist has been running MFTB since 1996 and the guys do a bang up job of it but it’s now crucial that the festival continues annually for a variety of different reasons, notwithstanding its role in unifying the Australian metal community. I can only hope that the expanded schedule this year is the first step towards a nationwide program: an Aussie Ozzfest, if you will!

Metal For Breakfast.
It was early in the day but I’d already watched blistering sets from Tailbone, a nu-metal quartet from Melbourne, and Repture, a very hairy five-piece that crammed its special blend of deathrock and syncopated metal onto the small stage with considerable difficulty. I was chatting with Kent Haines from the self-dubbed “melodic death metal” group Minus Life about how unpredictable drummers were when it struck me that Minus Life had supported The Haunted. If there’s a better way to convey the depth of talent at this year’s festival, I’d like to hear it. “Where else in the country would you get such a talented and established band appearing so early on the bill? If the running order is any indication of the quality of music, then I’m in for one hell of a treat,” I thought to myself.

As it turned out, the running order had more to do with chronological establishment and politics than it did with talent. A memorable feature of MFTB 2005 was that the best bands appeared early, like some kind of reward for those ‘first past the post.’ And the best of the lot was a Byron Bay quintet called Parkway Drive, fresh from a stint with US hardcore band Hatebreed. I must admit that I’d been expecting some wishy-washy emocore in a similar vein to At the Drive In. Boy, did I have it wrong. When Parkway Drive exploded into current single Smoke ‘Em If You Got ‘Em, I almost collapsed. Believe the hype, this band is that good if only because they manifest a youthful energy on stage that just draws you in. I felt 19 again; all I wanted to do was smash shit and run around in circles! As the singer prowled the stage like a hungry animal, I remember marvelling at how well this pack of hardcore kids impersonated a metal band. Or was it metal kids impersonating hardcore? Either way, those lucky enough to catch the gig emerged with their chins-a-waggin. Parkway Drive is the band to watch in 2005 and, with a Shadows Fall / As I Lay Dying support this month, expect big things.

Parkway Drive had stepped on stage after Sebasrockets, a 1986-era, L.A. Guns-style, good old fashioned, heroin-chic rock band with an enormous triple vocal that helped the band to cut through the cookie monster screams that reverberated from stages all around them. That’s the beauty of MFTB: the diversity of the acts. Already I’d watched grind, nu-metal, melodic death, power, hardcore, and good ol’ rock and roll. Though I thought bands like Fort, Log and Sebasrockets were strange choices for a metal festival, they only served to heighten the day’s variety and that’s a good thing.

Dented Dramas
It was around midday when I managed to catch up with 4 Dead, a local metalcore act with the human equivalent of a Mexican jumping bean for a singer. Loaded with talent, 4 Dead is one of those bands cursed by constant controversy… apparently. Today was no different, a crushing set of dew-covered hyperactivity cruelly cut down by a short-tempered soundman with a grudge after the group’s singer (sorry, I didn’t get any names) “made a small impression” in a foldback grille with his foot. To be honest, and I was watching from the band room at the side of the stage and thus had an unobstructed view of the foldbacks, there didn’t seem to be a difference to the naked eye. Dad thought differently and sent the lads to bed without any supper. What a rock and roll start to the day, eh? Not only was the band thrown out of the bandroom by this megalomaniac curmudgeon, the singer was ordered to get out of his sight. Sitting with this frustrated five-piece in the comforts of the bar after festival organisers had overturned the ridiculous ban, the lads had this to say: “You know what? When we played, it was only 11am. If he didn’t like us, he’s gonna shiver at Mindsnare, recoil at Fuck I’m Dead and absolutely hate Stockholm Syndrome.” It seemed right to laugh, so we did, and it felt good.

On With The Show
Moving back into the Utopia Records Stage, Skintilla and The Deadly were two bands that I was unfamiliar with, yet both warmed my ears with tremendous vocal sounds (a twin vocal in the case of The Deadly). I love a bit of power-metal with my morning coffee and Skintilla frontman Darren Pretty proved to have a voice almost as large as his gargantuan forearms as the band belted through a set of tight, gallop riffs and smoking lead breaks that left me converted. Finally, something to come out of Adelaide other than Lleyton! C’MON! 

I must say I was surprised to see Shannon (vox) from The Deadly strutting around in a little black dress, replete with designer handbag (?!) prior to her set. I had to check my ticket to ensure I wasn’t at an inner-city supper club. When second vocalist Tommy clambered about the stage in a black Fu Manchu suit, I was tempted to run for the door. I’m glad I didn’t. The Deadly is one of the most diverse bands on the metal scene at the moment. Anchored by some rapid chug-chug, courtesy of Rick Withoos (ex-Earth) and co, the interplay between Tommy and Shannon was well measured and very catchy. Sure, it can get a little emo, but who doesn’t love to punch the air every now and again?

Trying to catch 34 bands across two stages is tough and I had to bail on The Deadly before the end so I could get upstairs for the last half of Walk the Earth. Comprised of members of Damaged and Superheist, the hype surrounding this band is insatiable. Walk the Earth produce good, different music. Jamie’s voice, which in my opinion is the best grind voice of all time, is strong and active. Skitz’s drumming is sure, if not a little controlled. But it’s going to take at least two or three releases for these guys to work themselves out of the shadow that is Damaged. (If you don’t know who Damaged is, you should be shot. Only kidding. Damaged was Australia’s most popular metal band for about a decade during the ‘90s.) While such a resume ensured a big turnout – the hall was packed in anticipation – it also ensured expectation… and disappointment. I overheard numerous punters lament, most of whom left mid-set, that “they aren’t Damaged.” Unfortunately, it’s going to take some time for the group to break such shackles. I say unfortunately, because Walk the Earth is a band with the talent and the contacts to get where they’re going and, while there was disappointment from some, there was bewilderment and excitement from others. Let’s call them “new fans.” 

It was around this time that the day started to blend into itself for me, the humble reviewer. Running from stage to stage was taking its toll and the desire to conduct interviews in between acts meant that I was missing large chunks of different performances. West Australian band Plague passed by in a blur whilst I was watching Skintilla, The Day Everything Became Nothing lost out to lunch, and I caught little of Log’s freaky mask set because I was watching the drummer from Alarum churn out the individual performance of the day. Alarum is an awesome band. Together ten years or so, the technical proficiency that the lads display is light years ahead of your average garage metal group. Perhaps this explains why it took them five years to crank out their latest album Eventuality. When the lads closed a tight set of fusion metal, (I’d also accept jazzmetal), with the Death classic Flattening of Emotions, they brought the house down. Alarum is another band that I expect will make serious inroads in 2005.

If the bullet-belt brigade from Gospel of the Horns does nothing else for the remainder of the band’s life, they should exclusively play metal festivals. The stagnate stench of hairspray and beer was broken beautifully but the old school thrashings of the denim-patch crew as Gospel ripped through a blistering set that paid homage to a bygone era. So good were they that I skipped on Mindsnare, though I was later informed of what a mistake I’d made by an imbibed ‘snarehead who swore it was the set of the day.

This is indicative of how things continued, really. Everyone had favourites, such is the loyalty of the metal fan, and for the next eight hours, I heard someone after every set proclaiming loudly “That was the best band yet!” To save from boring you, I’ll say this much:

The Stockholm Syndrome ripped my eardrums wide open with an explosive package of melancholic soundscapes and monstrous riffing; the classic deathsters from Earth brought a tear to my eye with their second to last set ever (and packed the bar stage to boot); Vanishing Point brought a tear to my other eye with an effort that struggled under one of the worst mixes of the day; Portal just plain freaked me out with a show that included expressionless ceramic masks and a singer who didn’t move (read: couldn’t) for the entire set because of the confines of the elaborate warlock garbs that covered every inch of his self; Dungeon proved worthy winners of the ‘Best Live Act’ accolade at the Kerrang awards night with a joyous vibrato-laden tribute to dragons and galloping unicorns; Psycroptic blazed; Astriaal blazed harder; Contrive battled valiantly but fruitlessly for numbers against both; Frankenbok was as solid as Daysend was boring; Blood Duster played it by numbers to a massive crowd and Alchemist closed the show with class and professionalism.

MFTB 2005 was faultless. The choice of bands was nothing short of excellent, and the performances brilliant overall. Holder and crew did a tremendous job of bringing it together and I couldn’t imagine anyone else running it better. The festival, as I said before, is crucial for the development of heavy metal in Australia and I strongly urge every fan of heavy music to make the holy pilgrimage to Canberra at least once for an experience that I haven’t surmised particularly well.

I never got to catch Fort, Brace, Sakkuth, KIN, Pod People, Japunga or Fuck I’m Dead and I apologise for it. Was 34 bands just too many for one reviewer? I’m not sure. I’ll have to do some more research. Bring on MFTB 2006.