I grew up in the Indiana metal scene, but the pursuit of my goals has brought me to Europe. The Adventures of Indiana Man details my metal adventures across the world. I’ll note the differences between metal culture in each place to back home as appropriate, and I’ll detail accounts of amazing bands that we should bring back home to the States. Note that this is an opinion piece, and opinions are subjective.
Bristol Deathfest took place April 15th and 16th at the Bierkeller venue in Bristol, U.K. The lineup included Vader, Immolation, Hour of Penance, Defeated Sanity, Kraanium, Nader Sadek, Epicardiectomy, Cytotoxin, Dyscarnate, Man Must Die, Ascaris, Abrupt Demise, Necrosis, Ancient Ascendant, Scordatura, and Body Harvest. I’ll detail a few standout performances below.
The Bierkeller is a great venue. The stage is front and center, and the sides of the venue extend out and are filled with merch booths and benches. It was a nice layout, since you could stand front-and-center and get your mosh on, or you could find some comfortable seating and enjoy the show with a few drinks. The areas further out from the stage were elevated, so unlike most venues, where you’re stuck behind some lumbering goliath, here you could find a place to stand and easily see over the crowd. The sound was mostly superb, and the atmosphere was comfortably in that sweet spot between a bar and a formal venue.
Necrosis (U.K.) was the third band on day one, and the first to catch my attention. Their frontman, Ben Sims, was the one that organized the whole event. They play pretty standard gore-themed brutal death metal, but they do it with a dedication and energy that makes it easy to get won over by them.
Things really kicked it up a notch when Norwegian slam masters Kraanium took the stage. The mix was crushing, and I instantly came to realize one thing about the English: they don’t play around when it comes to slam. Whereas doom seems to be all the rage back in Indiana, here in Bristol, slam was the name of the game. Kraanium threw inflatable hammers into the crowd, and so with each subsequent slam, dozens of hammers were raised in the air, hammering down with each crushing note. As if this wasn’t enough of a sight to behold, there was a person in a dinosaur costume in the pit smashing into everyone, which created the Jurassic Park slam experience you never knew you wanted. Guitarist Mats Funderud and frontman Martin Funderud, who are twins, showed the English crowd that the Norse can slam with the best of them.
The next act was one that was a general curiosity for me: Nader Sadek. Nader is a renowned artist among the metal community, and he has put together different supergroups of musicians and released albums under his own moniker. For this performance, he had drumming legend Derek Roddy behind the kit (known best for his work in Hate Eternal), with Destructhor (Myrkskog, Zyklon, ex-Morbid Angel) on guitar, and Sarah Jezebel Deva (Cradle of Filth) offering up her operatic vocals (also George Maier from Pestilence and Mahmud Gecekusu from Perversion). Nader Sadek’s music is a bit more tame than the pedigree backing his band, but it was the aesthetic that really made this set stand out. Nader lined the stage with trees, free of any leaves or ornamentation. It was clear that he had a distinct vision for how he wanted the stage to look, as he’d walk into the crowd to look at it before the set, and he’d snap tree branches and adjust things until the stage fit his vision. Some of the trees scraped against the roof of the venue. I was uncertain who would be fronting the band, but it was Nader Sadek himself. I have utmost respect for Nader, as he was there all weekend, watched all the bands, and was clearly there as a fan, not just as a musician. But I’m not completely sold on him as a frontman. He comes out wearing a mask that looks like a bloated version of something Corey Taylor might wear, and provides a serviceable job belting at out growls and screams. Halfway through the set he removed the mask. His stage banter was clunky and awkward. As an example, after producing a scream during a song while on his knees, he proclaimed “I got on my knees for you Bristol.” It’s not that Nader didn’t perform well, it just felt a bit jarring to insert himself as the frontman of so many well-established and legendary musicians without yet matching their respective pedigrees. I managed to speak to Nader, Destructhor, and Derek when they weren’t performing and they were all really nice and courteous dudes that I have utmost respect for. Derek in particular was much more humble than I expected. He’s easily one of the nicest metal dudes I’ve ever met and he clearly still has a passion for what he does.
To say that my expectations were high for the next act would be an understatement. New York death metal legends Immolation have a stage presence that few can rival. Outside of their music, I have utmost respect for these guys, especially Ross, since I see him at many shows that he isn’t playing at. He loves this music, and he shows that clearly at Bristol Deathfest when he commands that the fest continues every year. Frontman Ross Dolan’s well-annunciated growl is a genuine weapon, and guitarist Bob Vigna always exudes a vicious, contagious energy unlike anything I’ve seen. Even in the intense warmth of the venue, Bob viciously lunged at his guitar with every note, as sweat poured from his head. They playing a number of songs from their latest album, Atonement, which I enjoyed more live, but I still would’ve liked to hear more of their earlier material. The major downside to Immolation’s set was the sound. The mix lacked low-end and was really gainy and the drums were clicky, which took a lot of the intensity out of their music. This was a great disappointment for me, having seen them in all their glory previously. I think the heat and sound quality might have rubbed off on the crowd too, as there were little to no pits during Immolation’s set, even though Kraanium had the whole room wild only a couple of hours earlier.
The first night closed with a Polish death metal band that needs no introduction: Vader. Their sound was superb, and even though I’m not as huge into them nowadays, it was still awesome to hear their classics played live. If you enjoy Vader on album, you’ll definitely enjoy them live. I was still a bit bummed while watching Vader’s set, having still been annoyed about Immolation’s mix. Vader concluded day one on a victorious note.
The first band I was really excited to see on the second day was Ancient Ascendant. I had really enjoyed their Dan Swanö-produced 2014 album Echoes and Cinder, especially highlight track “Fueling the Flare.” It was one of my top albums for 2014. Ancient Ascendant are a staple to shows in the UK, since they’re from there, but as an American, this was my first time seeing them. In my anticipation for their performance, I picked up their albums The Heathen Throne and The Grim Awakening from the merch table, and my girlfriend surprised me later with an Ancient Ascendant shirt. Then they hit the stage.
The sound was fine, and I really wanted to like their set… but I didn’t. Their setlist was composed of basically all of my least favorite songs by them (the ones you skip on the CD), but what really turned me off was how the band came off. The frontman asked the crowd if they love rock and roll, which, undoubtedly many do, but I couldn’t help but feel that this question felt out of place at a fest littered with slam and old school death metal. The songs they chose were more straight-forward, including a new track that definitely sounds more rock and roll than their stuff previously. I felt that Ancient Ascendant were extraordinary on album for finding moments that seamlessly blend catchy black metal with melodic death metal, but live, they don’t play to these strengths. They don’t even seem to be aware of them. If a band wants to play rock and roll, more power to them. That’s just not what I had come to expect from Ancient Ascendant. I expected darkness and I received dad-rock banter and attitude.
Regardless of the sour note that Ancient Ascendant’s set was, it was hard not to be consumed by the infectious attitude of fun that poured over the crowd as Epicardiectomy took the stage. It was time for more slam, and it was clear that Bristol was still hungry for it. Even without the presence of a bass player, Epicardiectomy brought the groovy, delicious slams that made pits erupt and caused hands to slam up and down as if the audience was all in the middle of a sick rap verse. Like Kraanium the previous night, their set was a fun sight to behold and experience, as all the crowd was a churning sea of bodies, jumping into action as each slam dropped.
It is always amazing to get your ass kicked by a band that you’re not that familiar with. That was case when Dyscarnate played. These U.K. death metallers played a set that spanned their discography, including early, blastier songs and new songs from an upcoming release. The dual vocal approach keeps their music intense, as if the onslaught of rifs wasn’t enough. I had to meet them afterwards, and they’re all really nice dudes. I picked up a CD and a shirt before getting ready for my most anticipated act of the day: Defeated Sanity.
Before they played, I went and spoke with Defeated Sanity members Christian and Lille to get some perspective on their risky decision to release a split album with themselves. The Disposal of the Dead / Dharmata album has one half that is a tribute to old school, simple, brutal death metal, and a second half that sounds more like progressive-era Death. Defeated Sanity are a band known for mixing technicality with brutality, so both sides of the split are a departure from their usual sound. I noted to them that bands generally get backlash for changing their sound like that, but Defeated Sanity seemed largely immune to that. Lille brilliantly explained why he thinks that is: they took a chance with their progressive music on Dharmata, but then they also gave fans the most brutal Defeated Sanity music yet in Disposal. In other words, there’s something for everyone. I saw Defeated Sanity before, but even that prior experience didn’t prepare me for the clusterfuck of technical brutality that was about to. be unleashed. The sound was perfect. Their new frontman, Josh Welsh, is the best vocalist they’ve had since A.J., and he brings an intensity to the stage reminiscent of Barney Greenway. Christian Kühn effortlessly summoned forth the type of rifs that you can only find in this band, backed by the outstanding Jacob Schmidt on bass, and one of the most talented drummers in metal, Lille Gruber. They opened with some old stuff, then they played all of the Disposal of The Dead EP, then they got to the stuff that really made my night. It was the tenth anniversary of Psalms of the Moribund, so they played half of that album, including “Stoned then Defiled” and “Hideously Disembodied.” At one point I shouted from the front of the crowd, “Engulfed in Excruciation,” the notorious head-banger of a track off of their Chapters of the Repugnance album. Their bassist turned to me and laughed, which caused me to suspect that it was in their set. Finally, the band came to their final song, and sure enough, it was “Engulfed in Excruciation.” The pit erupted, this time with me inside of it, as Defeated Sanity plowed through one of the most devastating death metal tracks ever recorded. Then, after that final crippling breakdown, their set was over. I poured some water over my head, completely satisfied. Nothing was going to top that tonight. This was the highlight of the fest. I went over to their merch booth to purchase something, only to realize I already owned all of their merch.
Italian death metallers Hour of Penance were next. I loved their 2008 album, The Vile Conception, and their new album, Cast the First Stone, is great too. On album, Hour of Penance have a lot of layered vocals, so I expected some kind of vocal trade-offs or something live. On album, they’re intense, a verse is spoken by one voice, then a second layer of vocals joins in for the second part of the verse. During the live performance, there is only one set of vocals, all performed by frontman Paolo Pieri. Sadly, without the vocal layering, their live performance doesn’t live up to the intensity of their sound on album. I don’t think this was helped by the fact that they followed Defeated Sanity, a band that only an hour before was absolute auditory perfection. Hour of Penance sounded decent, but not quite like the tight and thick sound of their albums. I can’t help but wonder if I’d have enjoyed their set more had they not followed Defeated Sanity.
That concludes Bristol Deathfest. A brilliant, well-attended indoor death metal festival in the United Kingdom, at a great venue, and with a great lineup. I got my ass kicked by some classics, I got my slam on, and I got my mind blown. I look forward to future iterations of this fest, and if anyone from the States is visiting Bristol, be sure to swing into the Bierkeller and enjoy some quality death metal.
I must note that days after Bristol Deathfest took place, Kraanium frontman Martin took his own life. This article is dedicated to Martin Funderud. May death grant you the peace you could not find in life. It was an honor for me to witness your performance, and to meet you briefly at your merch table. If ever there was a good note to go out on, it’d be there, kicking the asses of friends, family, and fans. Rest in power.
(all photos by Kyle Messick)