Soundwave Festival @ Flemington Racecourse, Melbourne (1/3/2013)

Metal is absurd. Fantastic, yet absurd. With no other genre could you walk through a crowd of fans and see a 50-year-old with the same long ragged hair, t-shirt, and tattoos as his 16-year-old equivalent.

So this is Soundwave – the festival that’s selling point is also its biggest drawback: 70 plus bands, over six stages and 11 hours. Clashes are inevitable, so one has to ruthlessly cut bands from their daily schedule – or get used to running from stage to stage, dodging and weaving between 60,000 or so people. The timetable is best approached like a “Choose Your Own Adventure” book, and mine starts with some punk.

Mindless Self Indulgence are absent, due to their luggage not making it to Melbourne with them, yet word of their cancellation hasn’t yet spread through the audience. Playing on the adjacent stage The Lawrence Arms bassist Brendan Kelly addresses the crowd gathering for MSI, “You guys are in for major disappointment there.” Before adding “life is cruel and a series of kicks in the dick.” A roadie then informs the audience that MSI will not be playing their scheduled set, stressing that the airline is to blame.

“Victoria! The place to be!” says the always sardonic Mike Patton. His band Tomahawk are an aesthetic anomaly at today’s festival: there are no visible tattoos and their outfits are more stoner jazz band than metal overlords.

Following brutal renditions of ‘South Paw’ and ‘God Hates A Coward’, their performance is momentarily derailed so Patton can yell at an intrusive cameraman who is invading the stage and throwing him off his game: “My friend I’ve got news for you, I don’t want to look at you, you leave!” He adds, “Let me fucking do my job Goddamnit! Arsehole!” The crowd respond with cheers, but it’s only a couple of songs later that he loses his cool again. This time, it’s with a heckler. “This guy just said ‘do something’”, Patton explains. “What would you have us do, fuckhead? You’re unhappy but you’re still sitting here looking at me? Get the fuck out of town!”

His outburst is again met with cheers from an approving audience who don’t let his short fuse overshadow what is otherwise a terrific performance. With heavily distorted vocals and abrupt time changes, Tomahawk seem as if they’re fighting off metal within their music.

At Gallows a man in a wheelchair is crowd-surfing, a good indication that things have gone to another level, already. The act in itself mocks the redundant signs at the side of the stage advising “No Crowd Surfing, No Moshing”. Wade MacNeil of Alexisonfire is the new face and voice of the band. He paces back and forth as if preparing for a fight. His raspy voice comes like a kick to the face, as opposed to the sharp slap his chav-punk predecessor, Frank Carter used to serve up. The audience embraces the new material and with old favourites such as the closer ‘Orchestra of Wolves’ no one is put off by the fact it’s MacNeil on stage, not Carter. If this doesn’t establish the success of the new line up I’m not sure what does.

Just like a Carter-less Gallows can still thrive, so can a Homme/Oliveri-less Kyuss. Under the banner Kyuss Lives it seems that apart from the visible signs of aging, nothing has changed about their sound or performance. With your eyes closed, you could fool yourself into believing this is Kyuss in their prime.

Billy Talent look like they have stepped straight out of an early-noughties Warped Tour. Dressed in black with a conspicuous quaff, front man Benjamin Kowalewicz’s high-pitched vocals carry over when he talks to the audience in what is the most inclusive performance of the day. They are perfectly suited to a festival crowd as their music is so full of accessible hooks. In ‘Devil On My Shoulder’, Kowalewicz’s leads the audience like a pop-punk choir before set closer ‘Red Flag’.

As 5.20 approaches, the majority of punters at the festival cross the racecourse to converge at the main stage for Blink 182. The fervour for Blink is staggering. Two teenage girls next to me are almost crying with excitement, exclaiming, “I can’t believe this is actually happening!”

The Mark, Tom, and Some Other Guy Show begins with ‘Feeling This’, the first of many instances where the crowd will sing along and drown out the band. Their greatest hits set abounds with dick and mum jokes. They may be 40-year-old adolescents but that is exactly how their fans wants it. The set closer ‘Dammit’ is the quintessential Blink track. It is the best argument for their likability as a band; ‘Family Reunion (Shit Piss Fuck)’, which follows, is the best argument for their likability as people.

Shirley Manson of Garbage is the most compelling person I’ve seen front a band today. During ‘Why Do You Love Me’, a song about a relationship breaking down, she paces across the stage as if in an argument with a partner. In the bridge, when the lyrics suggest infidelity, she collapses to the stage and lays on her back in a moment of emotional resignation. Even their new material works with this amount of passion and professionalism.

Damian Abraham of Fucked Up is just the opposite. And it seemst here are two things he doesn’t like: clothes and being on stage. The audience is much smaller than they deserve but Abraham is quick to acquaint himself with them. After a few minutes of yelling lyrics into the faces of fans, a punter’s fist starts pumping in the air, clenched inside it is Abraham’s shirt. He gets back on stage after ‘David Comes To Life’ yet half a song later he removes his singlet and throws himself back into the pit, from where he performs the majority of the set. Somewhat surprisingly, he tells the crowd “If you ever see me [offstage] I’m very insecure, please tell me you like the band.”

And then there is Metallica, who exist on another level altogether. Their ability as live performers hasn’t been hindered by the fact they haven’t released a decent record since the early ‘90s. They are a spectacle. They are technically superb and deliver the clearest sound which has passed through the main stage speakers today.

Their set list consists almost entirely of material from their first four records. ‘All Nightmare Long’, from 2008’s Death Magnetic, is the only post- Black Album track to appear. It is the perfect balance of songs for the layman (‘Enter Sandman’), the fans (‘Master of Puppets’, ‘One’) and the die-hard fans (‘Leper Messiah’). Between James Hetfield’s old nemesis, pyrotechnics, and the multiple guitar, bass, and drum solos, something comes back into my mind: Metal is absurd. Fantastic, yet absurd.