Eighteen bands arrived at New Jersey's The Starland Ballroom on Saturday July 2nd for a full day of metalcore, thrash, hardcore, grind, industrial, stoner, and death metal. Headlining the festival was Lamb of God, who brought along with them other heavyweights like Clutch, Poison the Well, Opeth, Unearth, Strapping Young Lad, Chimaira, From Autumn to Ashes, and of course, GWAR! The weather was hot, the estimated crowd of over 5,000 was thriving, and the sounds of a host of underground bands was certainly crankin' at this great outdoor metal fest. Sea of Tranquility's Pete Pardo and Ken Pierce were on hand among the masses and bring their full report of the show, along with some interview comments on the festival from Strapping Young Lad's Devin Townsend and Per Wiberg from Opeth.
Read on for the full coverage!
OK, one of the first few things I noticed as this full-day event started, which was about at Noon, was that a) it was damn hot, probably going to get well in the 90's, b) the average age at the show was probably close to 18 (a far cry from my 39), and c) this was sure to be a long day of kick ass metal of all styles. All three of my assumptions were pretty much spot-on, as The Sounds of the Underground made its way to the parking lot of The Starland Ballroom in Sayreville, NJ for a grueling afternoon and evening of loud and aggressive metal mayhem amidst sweltering temperatures and throngs of metalheads of all ages. For the most part, there was something for everyone, although obviously the roster of bands leaned a little heavy on the metalcore/hardcore/grind side of the music, but there was also some death, thrash, industrial, stoner, and even a little prog-metal to go around for those who like a little variety.
The Red Chord opened up the show as folks were still being bused to The Starland Ballroom lot from the parking area that was about a mile away. The stage was set up in the back area of the parking lot, and it was a sizeable stage, with more than enough room in front for folks to gather as well as set up a mosh pit. Along the back area were tents and booths for each band, food, and refreshments, and other assorted vendors. Call it sort of a mini Ozzfest, although at this location there was no grass or shade to be had anywhere, just pavement and rubble, which made for even hotter conditions as the day wore on. Back to the band, The Red Chord steamrolled through 20 minutes of technical metalcore fury, playing songs from their Metal Blade Records release Clients. Featuring guttural screaming vocals and fantastic technical twin guitar work, The Red Chord got the festival off to a good start with anger, aggression, and great chops. Devil Driver kept the momentum going with their brand of old-school 80's thrash. Hot off the release of their brand new CD The Fury of Our Maker's Hand, these guys kicked ass with brutal riffs, manic guitar leads, over the top vocals, and galloping rhythms. Of the early bands, Devil Driver were one of the best, and a band to be on the lookout for if you like vintage Slayer, Exodus, Cirth Ungol, and Testament.
After the rather generic nu-metal/grind of A Life Once Lost, the hard-hitting All That Remains brought their modern thrash attack to the stage. Fronted by Philip Labonte, the original lead singer for Shadow's Fall, these studs from Massachusetts had a good following among the fans in attendance who seemed to be well familiar with the few songs they played in their short set. This is a band who are making strides up the metal ladder, and will be a group to watch out for in the next few years. Madball were up next, a workhorse New York hardcore band, who had the audience at a furious level with many little mosh pits forming in front of the stage area. These guys took the best of legendary bands like DRI, Crumbsuckers, and Agnostic Front and unleashed their own brand of aggressive and loud hardcore featuring thick and crunchy guitars and a serious bottom end. The grimy stoner lads from the Relapse Records stable, High On Fire, closed out the first wave of bands that ended at just before 3:00, and laid down a heavy groove of sounds that saw influences range from Black Sabbath, Motorhead, Slayer, and Mastodon. Easily the most diverse and different band of the first part of the festival, High On Fire spewed out an effective little set of blistering tunes, mostly from their latest release Blessed Black Wings. Featuring doomy guitar riffs and the Lemmy influenced vocals Matt Pike, these guys certainly left a mark on the crowd, especially those who liked the older, more vintage metal sounds.
Strapping Young Lad
The heat of the mid-afternoon brought sweltering temperatures and equally hot sounds, with Devin Townsend and Strapping Young Lad commencing the ceremonies. Devin Townsend is one of the more outrageous performers out on the scene today, and the Canadian musician led his band of merry men through 30 minutes of raging progressive metal that includes heaping amounts of thrash, industrial, and out-and-out sheer metal ferocity. Part of Townsend's act is to play with the audience, and there was no shortage of expletives, put downs, and verbal tirades to keep the audience laughing and loving every minute of it. Playing songs from their new album Alien like "Skeksis", "Shitstorm", and "This Love", as well as a few older classics, SYL raged like a runaway train, with tight dual guitar work from Townsend and Jed Simon, meaty bass grooves from Byron Stroud (who also does double time with Fear Factory), and the insane, faster-than-the-speed-of-light drum work of the legendary Gene Hoglan, this four-piece left the crowd breathless and wanting more. We had a chance to speak to Devin Townsend after their set, and this is what the conversation looked like:
SoT: How is the tour going so far?
Devin: Surprisingly excellent!
SoT: Was it tough today to go on first in your group as opposed to being the "headliner" of the afternoon as you might be normally?
Devin: We are on a rotating tier, so each day it changes. It doesn't actually matter in the long run, cause the fans are here all day anyway, and in most cases they want to go home after 8 bands, let alone 18, so when you think about it we are really in a good position no matter if we go on first or fifth in our little group of 5 bands that start at 3:00
SoT: It's a long day…
Devin: Totally, real long day. Long day of people yelling at you! (laughs!)
SoT: How do you decide the set list for a festival tour like this, and do you change it as you go along?
Devin: Yeah, we change it, but we are trying to do a cross section of our records because we have such a short set, so we'll do one from each older record and a few from the new one.
SoT: Speaking of the new record, how is Alien doing?
Devin Townsend and Jed Simon of SYL
Devin: It's doing awesome, just wicked!
SoT: Is Century Media taking care of you guys?
Devin: I've been with Century Media for 10 years now, so our relationship is long and sordid, but at the same time the relationship is better than ever I guess.
SoT: You are working on another solo album correct, on InsideOut Records?
Devin: Yes, working on another solo record, then we will dive right into another Strapping album.
SoT: What's the new solo album going to be about?
Devin: Ah, it's basically going to be like what you listen to after the Alien record, so you can come back down to earth a little. I mean, most of my solo albums are that way anyway.
SoT: Do you feel the band's sound is better suited to an outdoor show like this, or in a club atmosphere?
Devin: Personally, I like shows like this the best. We've been doing what we've been doing for 10 years. I've been cussing out the audience for 10 years!
SoT: And they love it!
Devin: I know, they love it! Fucking crazy! We open the show and say "Thank you San Diego!" today and they loved it! For 10 years we've been doing that, so we're not going to change for this tour or any other tour. So here we are doing what we've been doing for 10 years, playing with a bunch of bands that, maybe don't do that. So we kind of stand out like a sore thumb right?
SoT: Do you bring out that little shark with you every night? (Devin did a little monologue with a shark puppet between songs)
Devin: I just picked him up yesterday.
SoT: That's nice and spontaneous!
Devin: Yeah, I'm always thinking each morning "well, what am I going to do today?" or "who am I going to rag on today?".
SoT's Pete Pardo and SYL drummer Gene Hoglan
SoT; The Mosh Pit was getting a little crazy for you guys today.
Devin: Yeah, it was actually really good for us today.
SoT: I see you just finished a video for "Love?". How did that come out?
Devin: Came out great! It makes us look like Twisted Sister or something with this real campy video, but I mean we're so old and so fucking ugly, so we figured we should make a video that really represents us. As opposed to us wearing tight black jeans, big white belts, extra small shirts and an army hat or something. We're like so not hip. (laughs!)
SoT: Aren't you sad you're not playing the Live 8 show today? (laughs)
Devin: (pauses) Ah, no.
On the TV monitor, Green Day is ruining Queen's classic "We Are the Champions", which prompts Devin to rip into the words to the song in his SYL maniacal voice! Truly a hilarious moment!
Devin: God, this is awful.
SoT: Who told them they could even attempt to play that song?
Devin: Come on Ethiopia, sing with me! A sack of Wonderbread to the person with the loudest voice, come on!
Well, after the complex and maniacal set that was SYL, the metalcore fans were kept happy with bands like Throwdown, Every Time I Die, and Norma Jean. While Throwdown had some serious, pulverizing riffs that kept the mosh contingent happy, it was the classy, psychotic, and virtuoso music of Buffalo upstarts Every Time I Die that really hit home. Anyone who caught these guys opening up for The Dillinger Escape Plan in 2004 knew that they could work a crowd with their brand of punk/hardcore infused metal, and they did so in spades this afternoon as well. With the charismatic singer Keith Buckley leading the way, their set of melodic yet screaming metal was filled plenty of angst and guitar muscle. Easily another band to really watch out for. All I can say about Norma Jean is too much screaming, not enough memorable tunes. Keep trying guys.
As the afternoon wound down, the crowd was eagerly anticipating the arrival to the stage of the legendary GWAR. Basically more like a sci-fi/horror metal stage production than an actual band, this revolving door of musicians puts together a show that is just that, a show, and one that needs to be seen to be believed. With all the band members wearing huge costumes, roadies running around in loincloths, and enormous monsters ambling about across the stage, metal music is the accompaniment to sword battles, decapitations, and lots of shooting blood. Anyone anywhere near the front of the stage should expect to get soaked with the huge amount of fake blood that comes shooting out from one severed appendage or another. Lurking amidst all the carnage are some smart metal anthems that to some ears might sounds a little monotonous after a while, but it's all meant to be a fun time. One hour of GWAR is usually more than you need to see, but it's an eyeful for the eyes and catchy to the ears. Considering how long this band has been around, it was amazing to see how much the younger fans in attendance were anticipating their set, and how much they enjoyed themselves during it. As evidenced by the many folks drenched in red after GWAR's set, you can guess where most of the crowd flocked to during the band's performance.
The evening section of the festival brought the bands that most came to see, and the announcement of Sweden's Opeth saw swarms of people running to the stage area, but most of the younger fans seemed to stay towards the back disinterested. Opeth were basically the only progressive death metal band on the bill, and their intricate mix of deft acoustic and thunderous electric had fans who came to see them in ecstasy. As Opeth was only allowed 30 minutes, and most of their songs lie in the 10-15 minute range, the band only were able to play three songs, including a new song from their soon to be released Roadrunner Records debut Ghost Reveries. Lead singer/guitarist Mikael Akerfeldt asked the fans what song they would want to hear to close their short set, and of course many shouted for "Demon of the Fall", which the band then launched into to the delight of the crowd. Talk about classy, expertly played death metal, Opeth really know how to craft powerful songs that have huge riffs, demonic death vocals and passionate clean vocals, warm acoustic interludes, and intense prog-rock workouts. We had a chance to catch up with Opeth's keyboard player Per Wiberg for a few minutes backstage after their set, and he had this to say:
Opeth's Mikael Akerfeldt
Per: The tour has been a lot of fun. It's good for us since we haven't played live in about a year, so this tour, even though it's only a thirty minute set, gets us back in the groove of touring again. We also get to meet a lot of cool people, plus people we know from before as well.
SoT: I'll bet you wish you could play more than 30 minutes?
Per: Of course, I think that goes for everybody here, we all want to play longer than 30 minutes.
SoT: The new song you played today sounds great. Does the rest of the upcoming album sound similar to that one style-wise? It sounded pretty diverse, and real complex musically.
Per: Yeah, I mean, all Opeth albums have been pretty diverse, but this one is the most diverse of all I think.
SoT: The guys at Roadrunner Records are pretty excited about this record.
Per: They should be! (laughs!)
SoT: So this is going to be the best one?
Per: Well, that's kind of hard for me to say since this is my first proper recording with the band, as I have only been playing live with them for almost two years now. I guess I don't have the same perspective as some of the others in the band might have. I really like the album. I've always liked the band though, so I guess the back catalog is more from a fans point of view from my side. This one is pretty intense though, and I think a lot of people are really going to like it.
SoT: You're songs are so long, in most cases 10-15 minutes long. How do you pick a set list to fit into a 30-minute slot?
Per: You pick your best songs! (laughs) Each one is 10-15 minutes, so with 3 there you have the whole set! (laughs)
SoT: How do you get along with the rest of the bands on the tour?
Per: Great! There are some good fiends of mine in a few of the bands here, especially Clutch, who are my favorite band on the tour, and I really enjoy hanging out with them and watching them play each night. The Strapping Young Lad guys are awesome, and just fantastic players, but we know them from the past as well. We've met some of the newer bands here too, and they seem really nice.
SoT's Ken Pierce and Opeth's Per Wiberg
SoT: When can we expect an Opeth tour here in the US?
Per: This fall I think. When we get back home to Europe after this we are going to do a couple of festivals through August, then a headline tour of Europe in September, and then we are kind of up in the air. We are definitely going to come back here, but I'm not sure if we are going to support something or do our own headline tour. Whatever it winds up being, it's going to be a longer set than 30 minutes!
Chimaira and Poison the Well had the pleasure, or displeasure of being the next two bands to take to the stage after Opeth. After the spectacle that was GWAR and the cult frenzy experienced during Opeth, these two metalcore band probably noticed that a good amount of fans had already left the show, perhaps because the bands they wanted to see had already played, perhaps from the constant and never ending heat, or perhaps because their was simply too many bands of their ilk on the bill. Regardless, each still had plenty of eager metal fans thrashing to their nu-metal/metalcore sounds. Both bands have a similar sound, mixing massive guitar riffs with aggressive growling vocals, which combine with moments of catchy hooks and melodic vocal passages. Think Killswitch Engage and you get an idea of what to expect from both bands. Not the most original sound, but both are solid, and played very good sets that rocked hard yet lacked anything really memorable. Unearth however, are a totally different beast altogether. These guys play lean and mean, technical thrash, fueled by massive & intricate guitar riffs and powerful vocals. Playing many tracks off their acclaimed album The Oncoming Storm, Unearth conducted themselves with the poise and skill of a veteran band, and the crowd knew it and loved every minute of it. Judging by the sheer professionalism and killer metal sounds of their set, not too mention the roar from the crowd, don't be too surprised to see Unearth in a similar place that Lamb of God is in now in the not too distant future.
Clutch were definitely the odd band on the whole roster, as they are not really even a metal band at all. More like a throwback to the 70's hard rock acts like Deep Purple, Atomic Rooster, Mountain, or even Budgie, as well as jam bands like Widespread Panic and Govt. Mule, Clutch's bluesy & meaty guitar riffs, driving Hammond organ, and husky vocals, got the crowd to take a breather from all the mayhem and relax a bit with some serious grooves. Hot on the heels of their brand new CD release Robot Hive: Exodus, Clutch played one memorable track after another, proving that music can still be heavy even if it's not really metal. While they might have been more at home at a hard rock or jam band festival, the audience loved them, and it was nice to see all the older folks come out of hiding for the band's set. Perhaps they were hiding inside the Starland bar all day waiting for Clutch?
My question is, why was From Autumn to Ashes playing second to last on the bill? No idea. This band has been around a few years, playing competent hardcore, punk, emo, or whatever you want to call it, but really they just sounded too similar to so many of the bands that had played already during the day, although From Autumn to Ashes include too many wimpy vocal passages in their songs to appeal to the real metal crowd. Speaking of the "real metal crowd", they were in attendance in droves to see headliner Lamb of God, the current heir to the metal throne left vacant by Pantera. If you have never seen Lamb of God, you are missing out on a real experience. Singer Randy Blythe worked the crowd into a real frenzy, all but inciting a brutal mosh pit. Playing the longest set of the day, Lamb of God tore through tracks like "Omerta", "Now You've Got Something to Die For", "Laid to Rest", and "Black Label", among many others. It was a powerful show from a powerful band.
It was a long day, but a great time spent with a lot of very good bands. An event like Sounds of the Underground is a perfect place to experiment with some new music, enjoy some familiar sounds, and meet lots of new people. Next year should be fun as well, but I'm now padding my wish list for more death metal to add to the variety factor.
Photos Courtesy of Natalia Liaszkiewicz and Pete Pardo
Additional Commentary from Ken Pierce
The Sounds Of The Underground Tour for 2005 rolled into the parking area of The Starland Ballroom today and it was truly a day to be reckoned with. This tour has been steamrolling venues recently and how can a Festival that brings you 18 of the hardest bands around do any less. Some listed shows had 22 groups but due to some scheduling conflicts we would have 18 at our day. Given the fact that this would prove to be one of the hotter days of the Summer I was quite happy with the 18. My overall plan for the day was to absorb as much of the bands as possible, with particular focus on some that I have either never seen, or had wanted to see once again. As the sun blazed above us The Red Chord began their set. I was still on the very long entry line in and as a result basically heard more than saw this Metal Blade band. I do feel that they were better live than on the CD that I own. Devil Driver came up almost immediately and were excellent. This band features Dez formerly of Coal Chamber and I most definitely want to see them perform again.
When Strapping Young Lad came on it seemed that the event had everyone who was planning on getting there inside. The group which is led by Devin Townsend was quite fun to see. Devin is a crazy man onstage and continually yelled nonsense to the crowd like "Hello San Diego", or "It's great to be here in Long Island". There set was a nice mix of stuff and of course featured their newest track "Love". We caught up with Devin inside and found out that he loves messing with the audience to see who is paying attention. We also discovered his impromptu puppet show was a last minute idea. This band defines Metal and also features Burton from Fear Factory.
For Opeth I was very intrigued as I have been watching their "Lamentations" DVD of late. However, the band was to play an incredibly short set. If they played 30 minutes it was a surprise. I am happy to report that some material off the new release on Roadrunner Records entitled "Ghost Reveries" was played and if the remainder of the CD is like this piece we will all be pleasantly satisfied. They seemed to have gotten cut off towards the end of their last number as some die hards near me said that something was not right with the last song. I did not really look further into it. Some also felt cheated at the very short set they played but the band told everyone to count on them returning for longer touring sets soon after the album comes out. Opeth is really one of those bands that is creating a new musical genre by emphasizing more Progressive in a Death/Black genre. Backstage I ran into Johnny Kelly of Type-O-Negative who informed me that work was being done for the new album.
There was a longer break between bands when GWAR was set to come out. I had to say that the changeovers were awesome with little downtime between each band. When the group hit the stage the audience was very wild with many of them jockeying for position to get splattered by the blood that is the trademark of the bands live set. I wandered too close at one point and was doused as well – all of a sudden a shrill whoosh sounded from over my head and I looked up and well you can imagine the rest. I guess I am just lucky that my cell phone was in my pocket at the time. The GWAR set is rich is chaos and special effects. In the 40 or so minutes that they played, these Conquerors from a distant Galaxy killed the "Nazi Pope", President Bush, "The Reaganator" and some kind of dinosaur. All the while the audience screamed for more and moshed in the mix of mud and GWAR blood. I was really surprised at the support the younger fans were giving GWAR for the most part. I mean I don't think these kids are buying the records, but instead are more interested in the legendary stage performances. I remember stopping two of the "Sticker Girls" as I called them. They were in white when I met them, and after the GWAR set were completely drenched red. When I said what is it you like about GWAR, they simply replied "GWAR is cool". That will have to suffice on that topic.
For Clutch the audience had a complete change of attitude. Gone was the crazed moshing and crowd surfing and instead simple dancing and swaying came about. It was almost like watching a "jam band". They sounded great yet I felt that they sounded heavier on the new CD "Robot Hive/Exodus". The band really leans more toward the hard rock vein and it was really a surprise for me to find them to be on a bill like this. I did not think they fit in very well, yet they were well received and seemed to have a lot of fans in the audience. It's a tight band that I think is bringing back a great style of hard rock music. Their sound was dead on clear also that night.
Lamb Of God, having recently toured as support for Slipknot were the headliners of the show and also were supporting their latest live DVD release "Killadelphia". Their set was the longest of the night and they pretty much performed a lot of the same material you either saw with Slipknot or see featured on the DVD. As it was evening now, the lighting was most effective and pretty much the best of the day's bands. This band definitely captivates the audience and has seemed to fill a void left by the absence of Metal bands like Pantera based on their level of aggression and delivery. Musically they show more than ample proficiency to carry on the work started by Dimebag and Vinny.
There were other bands that were interesting and I think among the other standouts was Unearth. Really heavy and slamming music. I want to hear from them and think I shall look into the album. Bands like Norma Jean and Madball had a lot of the hardcore element in their sound and while it is not my cup of tea it seems to be making a general comeback. Not as hardcore bands as much as in these underground metal bands that have been gaining steady momentum of late. All in all I felt this was a great time, albeit a little longer than I expected. I felt a few less bands and one or two differences in the genres/styles performing might have made this even better. I gave a lot of credit to the organizers for running a tight ship as far as changeovers and keeping the music running. I did hear some rumblings of too many restrictions from the venue on the audience but in the larger scheme of things they were most likely set in place to protect you more than hinder your enjoyment of the day. Despite the blazing heat, and it was hot for I looked like a lobster for days – it seemed like about 5,000 people attended.