Show Review: The First Annual Arkansas Deathfest

In all the years I’ve lived here in Arkansas, I never expected that there would be an actual metal festival of really any kind. It’s just not something one expects for a state so firmly rooted in the Bible belt, which as you know is quite against the advent of loud, erratic music. Marilyn Manson was even banned from performing here which added even more fuel to the fire, as the religious right seemed to have their way with our little state. People familiar with the game Redneck Rampage might even recall the adventure taking place in Hicksville, Arkansas; a place (which to my knowledge) doesn’t actually exist, along with the Japanese made Steins;Gate visual novel/animated series bringing up Arkansas as one of those great big rural communities where there’s nothing but farms and hillbillies. So yes, even Japanese people think that our little state is nothing more than a literal Hicksville of sorts, even though in some parts of the state that is most definitely the case. However, a sprawling metal scene attempted to crawl out from the murk, resulting in acts like Vore, Apnea, Living Sacrifice, Epoch Of Unlight, Rwake and several other Arkansan metal projects that most people didn’t even know existed outside of the state. Then came rockers Evanescence, who broke into the mainstream and put Arkansas on the map completely. Later came the mighty Pallbearer, which attempted to bring even more exposure to the music scene that was coming from out of northern and central Arkansas, as new bands started to form and old bands started to reunite. That leads us into this event, which is the state’s very first metal festival and seems to have been inspired by MDF (Maryland Death Fest) even though the true focus of the festival here is actually that of death metal, unlike the former which now caters to everything. Even though I feel that it would be better for the state to differentiate from that title and to come up with something that seems more unique to the scene, I feel that it will do for now and seems to do a good job representing both the new and old blood that has made our small scene what it is for a number of years now.

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The festival was actually not held in Little Rock, which was admittedly odd considering that that is where most of the acts have played (as well as Fayetteville) and was instead held in a large metal shop in Bryant known as MF Metal. When we first arrived, I was a bit surprised to see that a massive metal festival was going to take place right next to a Hallmark, a chiropractor and one of the biggest fucking Goodwill stores that I’ve ever seen in my life. (It literally took everything I had to resist not going in there as I love second-hand stuff). We also started debating as to what the “M” and “F” could mean on the large sign emblazoned before us, yet I could only think what everyone else seemed to be thinking at the same time, which was that it was a “mother fucking metal” shop of sorts. At any rate, we walked around a bit and browsed at the selection of metal, rock, punk and other kinds of albums that they had while the first band was setting up their equipment. Originally the event was a two-day festival in which you could pay a dollar to see ten local bands on the first night, which we unfortunately could not attend. The second night however was a ten dollar show and featured a slew of bands from out of state. Ash Of Cedars unfortunately couldn’t make it (which was a shame, because I’ve never heard them and have been hearing that they’re slightly of the black metal variety which had me intrigued) that night, resulting in Epoch Of Unlight as a stand-in. But Epoch of Unlight were by no means an ordinary stand-in, as these guys were signed to Relapse a while back and put out some pretty impressive melodic technical death metal during that period.

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In any case, let’s begin with the first band of the night, Negligent Aborticide. These guys came with a furious sense of brutal death metal in their hearts, and a drum machine that was doing a pretty decent job as well. I must admit that it was odd to see a drum machine there, but I guess in the age of digital recording it will be a more common thing. I’m still waiting for the days when we’ll have robot musicians entirely. The next band to step up to the plate was Sol Inertia, of who I became rather close with shortly after their awesome set. Sol Inertia mix modern death metal elements along with bits of technicality and progression, which resulted in their frontman (and now Tower writer) Zora McBride performing sets of harsh vocals along with some rather spacey keyboard playing. It might even surprise you more to note that he did this while completely blind, which fascinated me even more. The prog jams that were forming from the slices of brutal and current death metal which formed the base of the act were really quite astounding and rather unexpected. I’d known that I found something of note as soon as that performance ended, which was one of the major reasons I was there. I actually jumped right out to tell the guys how much I enjoyed their set and asked if they had any recorded material, of which they did not at the time. (But hopefully they will soon.) All Is At An End and Burning Nursery came next to deliver some rather solid sets, proving that they’ll delight the fan of death and gore well enough, but what really struck my attention was that of a death/doom act by the name of Apothecary. Bill Masino (Tower writer and Torii mastermind) said that their set was one of the main reasons that he was there, and they’re apparently ranked just one row below us on Toilet Ov Hell, even though they actually had enough guys to roll out a full and undoubtedly crushing set. Maybe we’ll do the same next year, if we’re lucky. As I had observed the entirety of the Apothecary show, I definitely felt the atmosphere right from the very beginning, as it attempted to reach out and grab me, stilling me in place quite like the Portal show I saw a year earlier. It wasn’t something that you merely saw; it was something that you felt. I was entranced, quite in the same manner that I was when I first saw Neurosis and felt some sort of odd spiritual connection to the music. But this wasn’t exactly like that; rather it was the vast amount of drone that pulled me towards the stage without ever having moved a muscle in that room. Without a doubt, Apothecary performed one of the best sets there.

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Splattered In Traffic played another good round of solid death metal, although I felt that there wasn’t much to separate the sounds of the bands from each other. If you like death metal with no real frills, there were tons of bands to check out there and I’m sure they’ve got fans and followings in their own right, as they should. But as a seasoned reviewer and metal journalist, I was looking for some of the acts that really blew my mind and thought out of the box, and I found several, which I’m talking about here. But all of the bands really did an excellent job bringing forth the sounds of death at it’s most menacing and it was definitely a death metal show in the truest sense!

Moment Of Fierce Determination came on next, to which there was a great deal of confusion. I was first told that they were a hardcore band, but when I went to observe their set, it sounded like old school Cannibal Corpse. I mean, that’s simply what I heard. There was a hefty amount of vocal gravel as was carried by the majority of the other acts, but these guys definitely brought that old school approach over. Whatever hardcore influence was discerned, I didn’t notice it and scratched my head the entire time. What’s more, is that Bill remarked that they sounded like Exodus or some other classic thrash act, and by then I was so confused by what I’d heard that I thought I was in the fucking Twilight Zone. Maybe Moment Of Fierce Determination is one of those odd acts that sounds different to everyone. They’ve been playing in the scene for many years now and a lot of the old heads and well as the new were glad to see them play regardless. Abated Mass Of Flesh were a Christian deathcore act, which seemed to do a rather good job channeling all of those Living Sacrifice influences along with mounds of modernisms which I heard through the entirety of the night.

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Finally, Epoch Of Unlight came in and I was literally blown the fuck away. You might have read my review for their brand new Foreshadows EP (of which I highly recommend for fans of early melodic death metal, before all the core) of which several of the tracks in their set consisted of. They had an amazing intro, and some of the most awesome and technical melodies I’ve ever heard. Describing that set to you would literally be like sending you a more technical version of Dark Tranquillity’s The Gallery, except in a live format that saw the songs displayed with a beautiful sense of grandeur. The best thing I can say about it was that it was a spectacle in every sense of the word. I saw a good chunk of well-known and heavily praised live acts over at Housecore Horrorfest in Austin last year, but that set definitely served to interest me more than some of the bigger ones I saw at the fest. They might be an older act, but they’ve still got it and it shows. Epoch Of Unlight are back and better than ever. The only thing that irked me was some girl sitting on the couch (yes, there was a couch there) and she seemed to be falling asleep, even though it wasn’t that late. I was going to say something, as it began to grate on my nerves; but it was probably just some dude’s girlfriend that got brought along with him to see the show, much like my editor at the time, Taina Tirado. (We were going to call her “The Grim Princess” but you see how that turned out.) In any case, the Epoch Of Unlight show was my major highlight of the night and I’d recommend going to see them live if you get the chance. Aborning came on next, delivering thick masses of gore and grime along with a barefoot female bass player who jumped around as she pounded out licks. It was fucking insane to be honest, and they’re definitely the kind of act that I think works better live. Vaginal Bear Trap came on next, as their female vocalist worked to kick some serious ass. I mean, these guys were fucking relentless and it felt like they played for hours. You could tell that they were used to it, but I was quite flattened by the ordeal. It was simply unrelenting from the beginning… until the punk cover they performed (rather well, I might add) at the end. Taina was a big fan of punk and I thought about waking her up to see the performance (as she was asleep in the van) but that didn’t seem worth it, so I just let her sleep. She also changed into some kind of non-rock outfit near the end of the night, which left me clueless. I dunno, women are weird. Before I get onto talking about the next act, a local rapper actually performed a fifteen minute set in between two of the later bands that night and surprised everyone. It definitely shows the tolerance of metalheads in this day and age, because I’m sure about twenty years ago, that sort of thing would never fly. at any rate, he rapped about watermelons while mentioning the fact that he raps about anime. I had yet to hear anything from the masterpiece that was Cowboy Bebop however, but I’m assuming the melons in question might have something to do with Prison School, High School Of The Dead or Eiken (which also took place in a school) of which the viewer is assaulted by the nosebleed causing melons, quite like those that populate my Instagram account. Might as well call it “Instaporn” at that rate. But what else is a thirty-year old single metalhead to do? ignoring the weird obnoxious rant, I will say that the rapper also growled a little during the introductions of his songs in order to keep the mood and it’s safe to say that he was a metalhead himself. Which is definitely cool in my book. I’m glad to see that there were many people of different shapes, sizes and colors there as the line between Sun given hues begins to blur and it all amounts to a bunch of people who just love metal music. We were all like a family of metalheads that didn’t care about race, color or who someone liked to fuck. That’s kind of how fucking humans should be. Despite all the time I was there, I never heard anyone badmouth or degrade another person during the whole time. Even when the beer started flowing outside the venue.

As for that last act, it was Despise The Sun who managed to offer a strong death metal performance and close out the show on a good note. It was absurdly heavy, full of weed-soaked hymns and even featured a nice photo session to celebrate what had definitely been an awesome time. Maybe it was those weed-soaked hymns, or perhaps the real deal, but as soon as I got out of there, I admittedly woke up said editor lady and we headed out to Taco Bell, where I ordered ten tacos and later found myself on the throne. But what a perfect porcelain throne for a Grim Lord, wouldn’t you say? In any case, I highly recommend that you all come from far and wide to the 2nd Annual Arkansas Deathfest, where I guarantee that you’ll hear more death metal you can stomach, along with several other types of metal acts to come in the future. I’ve got to buy a black hooded robe and a faceless white mask, but hopefully I’ll be able to bring the majestic atmospheres of Torii to you all next year. But even if we can’t get it rolling by then, you’ll still see me there checking out the bands that this great Arkansas scene has to offer! I’m quite certain that this is only the beginning…

(Kudos to Stephen McCord and ZeroKnight Entertainment for the pics! I really should have taken some, but my cell camera is junk!)

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