Special report by Mark Gromen
Santa Anna succeeded in breaching the walls of the Alamo, but the battle raging outside the old mission’s walls this time was more of a friendly rivalry. A short cannonball lob from the sacred grounds of the Alamo, in a converted brick railway warehouse, Minnesota based Nightmare Records held their second annual two-day event showcasing the talent on the roster as well as regional/national acts. To call the Nightmare Fest a prog festival would be inaccurate, given it was three bands in before keyboards appeared onstage (MINDWARP CHAMBER). Like a turn of the century circus gradually working its way across Dixie (Tampa ’09, San Antonio ’09, next year rumored to be a cruise!) owner Lance King (also vocalist for KRUCIBLE and AVIAN) is gaining fans town by town. SXSW being an hour’s drive to Austin was a double edged sword, siphoning off those that might have been curious, as did the opening rounds of the NCAA basketball tourney, invariably keeping come college age kids at home.
As dusk began to fall on a warm March day, a group of high school teens calling themselves METALAVENGE took the stage. What a pleasure to see/hear youngsters enthralled with the music of yesteryear, adding a slowed down ‘Wrathchild’ (IRON MAIDEN) to a set of Kill ‘Em All inspired originals (‘Time To Kill’). The lead singer Anthony Cruz’s guitar was almost as tall as he was, but that didn’t prevent the curly hair in the face pose from recalling 80s era Mille Petrozza (KREATOR). Despite considerable technical difficulties (PA shut down three songs in and at times without lights), they soldiered on (no stopping, no complaints/apologies/excuses). Good thing as a Texas crowd can be dangerous, as carrying concealed guns and brandishing cigarettes in public are both legal!
HALCYON WAY, aka trench coat mafia, would drive school principals/counselors crazy, for the entire band perform in floor length dusters. Luckily, these Atlanta area guys are well out of school, playing a modern, effects tinged take on QUEENSRŸCHE (think Rage For Order). Pudgy, spiked hair singer Sean Shields strolled onstage and demanded a pit and seeing some horns when only a couple dozen people were watching. Might need to change the raps, depending upon the audience. The Georgians aired ‘Inversion’, with its three part harmonies, the suicide tale ‘Powder Burn’ and a cover of Sabbath’s ‘Neon Knights’, as well as utilizing a bullhorn/megaphone.
With keyboards at the front of the stage, Chicago’s MINDWARP CHAMBER tries hard to be SYMPHONY X. So much so that the X’s bassist Mike LePond (in attendance moonlighting with SEVEN WITCHES) had to laugh. Decent selections, expertly performed, just too derivative. Speaking of (unintended?) similarities, the dual-sex vocalists of One Of Sixx have songs entitled ‘Cry Of The Banshee’, ‘Witch Hunt’, ‘Crusader’ and ‘Prelude To Madness’… Hey, are there any original choices? Yes, the concluding ‘Legion Of The Czars’. Female singer Jeska Real took the low register, while her male counterpart hit highs typically associated with the fairer sex’s range. Nice twist on expectations.
Not to be confused with the other Six shooter, SIX MINUTE CENTURY are a single guitar four-piece somewhere between TNT and a JORN fronted FIFTH ANGEL, only rougher around the edges. There’s actually a sushi restaurant steps away from the Alamo, in the heart of cattle country! Six Minute Century are a similarly tough sell, fish out of water story. It will never do anything in the USA, but overseas… ‘Killing Fields’ sees the band stop for a pre-recorded classical orchestra/choir interlude.
Speaking of Europe, as ASKA (Scandinavian word for volcanic ashes) took the stage, temporarily thought I was back in Germany. Why has this band remained virtually unknown outside Texas for all these years (despite five albums since the early Nineties and setting foot in 37 countries, to date)? Rarely have I attended a showcase (anywhere on the globe) to find a more professional outfit (look, sound, presentation) with killer songs to boot. Singer/guitarist George Call has been at this a long time (dedicating ‘Leprosy’ to Z-Rock, the two decades’ dead satellite radio station) and currently fronts Omen as well. Unfortunately a good percent of the world’s press will be fixated on the legendary act, rather than Aska. If these guys were German, they’d not only be signed, but second division stalwarts behind only the biggest names in metal. Speedy traditional metal (is hot now!) of the ACCEPT, GRAVE DIGGER, RUNNING WILD variety, played on twin guitars by a leather clad foursome. Hell, they even have a song called ‘Valkyiers’. ‘Invasion’ saw synchronized movements by the non-drumming trio. ‘Crown Of Thorns’ and ‘Martyrer’ were also amongst a ripping set that threatened to upstage the headlining VICIOUS RUMORS! The band is playing Keep It True in April, which will undoubtedly win them thousands of new converts. Last time I was this excited about uncovering an American act was CAGE at Dynamo ’99, so praise don’t come cheap. Check them out at www.askaband.com
VR is breaking in yet another singer, Ronnie Stixx (formerly of Britain’s SHADOW KEEP), who definitely has the high end sustain to sing the Carl Albert-era material. Without a new CD (only ‘Mr. Miracle’ from ’06 Warball was on display), the show was a greatest hits parade, not that anyone complained! They aired ‘Don’t Wait For Me’, ‘Soldiers Of The Night’ with guitarist/mainstay Geoff Thorpe adding backing vocals, ‘Abandoned’, ‘World Church’, ‘On The Edge’, ‘Ship Of Fools’, ‘Lady Took A Chance’ with an extended drum/bass solo. Drummer Larry Howe introduced ‘Six Stepsisters’ with, “Anybody wanna a threesome, a foursome, five-some…” For the encore we got ‘Down To The Temple’ and ‘Hellraiser’. If they’re playing anywhere near, GO!
Saturday began with news of Ohio’s “battle metal” warriors LUNARIUM would not be playing, actually never made the trip due to illness within the band. That was to Aetherius’ advantage, starting an hour later, to more people. The six college students from Massachusetts were happy to leave the cold weather up North (weren’t we all!). Lead by Olivia Berka, their recently recruited mini-mite powerhouse vocalist (equally at home with the hoarse ALANNAH MYLES smoothness or forceful JANIS JOPLIN barrage, the tattooed vamp opened lots of eyes (and ears) while the twin guitarists distributed tech-prog equations.
As a dual guitar foursome, Chicago’s SACRED DAWN was heavier than most others on either day of the bill, utilizing the occasional gruff vocal. Points to blond guitarist Michael Carpenter for sporting a Swallow The Sun t-shirt. By their own admission, this was a set of relatively new material, although ‘White Road, Black Sun’ off their Gears Of The Machine…A New Beginning was mixed in with newbies ‘Delirium’ and a slower, BLACK LABEL SOCIETY vibe for ‘What You Did To Me’.
There might not be anything funnier than the pantomime of a vocalist without a working mic: mouthing all the words, selling it visually to the crowd, only problem, no sound. It happens to the best of them, just ask Jorn Lande about his appearance with AVANTASIA, in front of 70,000 at Wacken ’08. After similar technical problems plagued THEOCRACY, the Atlantans produced their strongest material, speedy, double bass drumming melodies (ala ‘On Eagles Wings’) that recall the glories of FIREWIND and/or early ANGRA. This is the band’s strong suit, by far. The keyboard intro to ‘Writing In The Sand’ was pre-recorded as were occasional ivory flourishes throughout the set. Matt Smith even got the crowd to participate, swaying arms, call-backs and sing-alongs. Good stuff.
San Fran based “power metal thrashers” IMAGIKA are a single guitar four piece comprised of scene veterans. Norman Skinner is the size of a football player, capable of hitting the highest notes, cementing the power metal part of the description, while the likes of ‘The Fallen One’, ‘In Your Shadow’, ‘Thinning Out The Herd’, ‘Evil’s Rising’ and ‘Bleed As One’ are definitely Bay Area influenced, both in sound and lyrical bent. A good portion of the set was culled from their newest Feast For The Hated.
Finally promoter/host Lance King had a chance to perform, alongside Krucible, which also features Eric Halpern (HELSTAR/CRESENT SHIELD/ex-DESTINY’S END) on guitar. King sort of looks like a cross between Steve Perry (JOURNEY) in Ralf Scheepers (PRIMAL FEAR) body… a gentle giant. After a fast start, the band settled into ‘Reborn’, ‘Moonlight Shine’ and even a new as-yet-untitled which the label prez turned vocalist claimed, “We’re leaning towards ‘Archangels Fall’.” For the closing cover of DREAM THEATER’s ‘Pull Me Under’ they were joined by the drummer from Six Minute Century.
Festival closer Seven Witches, with James Rivera (temporarily?) back on vocals and the aforementioned LePond on bass, tore things up from word one: ‘Metal Tyrant’, ‘Camelot’ and ‘The Answer’. A short drum solo led into ‘Metal Asylum’, then ‘Year Of The Witch’ with LePond adding backing vocals on the chorus. Jack Frost offered a short guitar solo, which included a snippet of forbidden fruit from his stint in SAVATAGE, prior to ‘Warmth Of Winter’, where Frost did backing vocals. The band were thoroughly enjoying just their third gig together. Frost teased the crowd with a few bars of DEF LEPPARD’s ‘Wasted’ before everyone joined in for ‘Metal Messiah’, followed by ‘Passage To The Other Side’. It was getting late, but after the ubiquitous pre-encore exit, the band returned for Black Sabbath’s ‘Heaven & Hell’ where Rivera and Frost called up any remaining singers for a big vocal jam. No names, but it’s amazing how some of these guys don’t know the words to such a seminal song. When everyone thought it was done, they quickly kept the ball rolling, launching into ‘Victim Of Changes’ (Judas Priest), which provided everyone, even those (again!) unfamiliar with the lyrics to scream at the top of their lungs. Regardless, Rivera played ringmaster and kept the actual cadence moving forward. A fun-loving end for all, both on and offstage.
A gallery of photos from throughout the weekend can be viewed here.