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In 2011 we covered the Mayhem Festival way out in San Bernardino at the San Manuel Amphitheater, nestled deep within the pocket of cities outside the crest of LA county that are commonly referred to as the Inland Empire. Last year, the festival was headlined in this location by a one-off performance by Dethklok, the quasi-cartoon band headed up by Brendon Small from Adult Swim’s Metalocalypse. Dethklok was curiously joined by the nu-metal bands Disturbed and Godsmack, both of which don’t really pack sufficient punch to be considered true “metal” bands. This year, we returned to cover the yearly festival, only this time the lineup was everything a modern metalhead could hope for. The 2012 edition included Slipknot, Slayer, Motorhead, Anthrax, The Devil Wears Prada, Asking Alexandria, As I Lay Dying and more.
Last year’s festival featured two side stages placed directly adjacent to each other–much in the fashion of producer Kevin Lyman’s Warped Tour–allowing no set breaks between performances. This year, the stages were separated and the Jägermeister stage featured all of the major side stage acts. Metal Blade Records’ As I Lay Dying had the early slot this day, pummeling the crowd with a full-throttle onslaught. Lead singer Tim Lambesis controls the stage with imposing stature much like The Dillinger Escape Plan’s Greg Puciato, not only in monster-truck-vocal-roar, but in also looking ridiculously buff. He’s musclebound to the point that he looks like he could punch through a wall. Like the golden age of Fear Factory in the early 90’s the band balances the dry-lung vocals with clean vocals from bassist Josh Gilbert. Also noteworthy were the stellar leads from guitarist Nick Hipa.
Not long later, British exports Asking Alexandria brought the same sense of power and authority, albeit with a little more attention to presentation. Without going full-board into creating characters, the band is thoroughly branded as their own entity. Their AA logo largely presented everywhere around the stage, and the band themselves wearing self-made vests and armbands displaying the logo. The band’s lead singer Danny Worsnop dashed about stage playing the ringmaster role, inciting the crowd. The rest of the brand thrashed with manic energy as they played “To the Stage” screaming, “I’m so sorry.”
The side stage area reached an intense level of energy as Anthrax was about to take the stage. The crowd could visibly be seen getting squished up to the barricade trying to get near the thrash metal heroes. Guitarist (and longtime public representation of the band) Scott Ian took the stage first and started hammering out chords with the explosive aggression only he’s capable of. The band started with early favorite “Caught in a Mosh” and reunited lead singer Joey Belladonna bounded around the stage with joyous energy. For a band known for being on the gritty edge of thrash metal, it’s a pleasure to watch Belladonna so comfortable in his element looking like he’s having a blast. That stage presence counts tons to the band’s dynamic and recent resurgence. Worship Music track “Fight ‘Em ‘Til You Can’t” came next with bassist Frank Bello rocking like a train about to go off the tracks. Unfortunately, drummer Charlie Benante was not present while he recovers from minor hand surgery (Jason Bittner of Shadows Fall subbed in). Belladonna joked with the crowd to bring up their energy even further, “I’ve seen bigger pits at a fucking Maroon 5 concert.”
The action then shifted entirely over to the main stage. The first band up (rotating the spot on different tour dates with Asking Alexandria and As I Lay Dying) was The Devil Wears Prada. A Christian metal band, TDWP roared with purpose without regard for some of the darker leanings of other bands on the bill. Unlike nearly everything else on the bill today, this was one of the few bands that allowed for moments where the crunch would die down and allow for keyboards, samples and sequencing to drive the music forward. Lead singer Mike Hranica screamed to the point that it looked like his head might pop off and rhythm guitarist Jeremy DePoyster provided the cleaner vocals as a contrast.
The trifecta of headliners followed: Motorhead, Slayer and Slipknot. Motorhead, now something of a proto-metal standby inclusion, was perhaps the weakest offering of the day. The band had plenty of fans in attendance, but the group’s chugging songs about 20 minutes in, come off sounding relatively cookie cutter. The audience seemed bored and disinterested, it nothing else merely being polite. Frontman Lemmy Kilmister’s raspy guttural howl is still fun to hear on tracks like “The One To Sing the Blues” and the group’s biggest fan favorite, “Ace of Spades” but there’s just not enough dynamic range to make this interesting for more than 15 minutes. Klimister finished off the set proclaiming, “Don’t forget us. We are Motorhead,” which seemed like an oddly appropriate sentiment.
The highlight of the day was without question the technical majesty of Slayer. The band still performing with Gary Holt subbing in for recovering guitarist Jeff Hanneman, showed with stunning precision why they shaped the modern face, structure and form of heavy metal. Lead singer/bassist Tom Araya heralded the second song in with his trademark blood-curdling wail of “WAR ENSEMBLE!” Other tracks early in the set included “God Hates us All,” “Hate Worldwide” and “Mandatory Suicide,” all featuring nimble solo trade-offs between Holt and Kerry King. Along with rare inclusion of Reign in Blood‘s “Jesus Saves,” the band’s final 5 songs are almost to impossible to top in this genre. The eye-opening song construction of “Seasons in the Abyss” into the menacing weight of “Dead Skin Mask” into the freight train speed of “Angel of Death” into the eerie crescendo of “South of Heaven” ending with riff explosion of “Raining Blood.” Special credit has to be given to Dave Lombardo for his varied, nuanced and powerful skill behind the kit. No kidding, this is metal’s John Bonham. Slayer should pay Lombardo whatever they have to in order to keep him in the band. There really is no price tag on how valuable he is to bring the band’s sonic tapestry together.
Lastly, Slipknot ended the evening. Where Slayer is a mesmerizing display of professional and songwriting skill, Slipknot is more a convincing display of brutal force. They trade the inventive time signatures and fills for literally turning the energy, emphasis and nerve up to 11. The band’s stage setup looked like a massive carnival setup, lead singer Corey Taylor flanked on either side by the large trashcan percussion arrays of Chris Fehn and Shawn Crahan. Rounded out by turntables and samples, the band’s sound rarely leaves the upper level of full-on brutality. “(sic),” “Wait and Bleed,” “Vermillion,” “Duality” and “The Heretic Anthem” gave the fans the crunch they were eager for, but didn’t quite gel the way Slayer’s onslaught never fails to. Taylor is a solid frontman though, cementing the band’s energy and stage presence. Taylor announced sadly from the stage that guitarist Jim Root was unable to perform because his appendix burst and is awaiting surgery. “He’s being monitored by doctors right now,” Taylor told the audience before they proceeded. Interestingly, the band was also joined off stage by As I Lay Dying’s Nick Hipa and Phil Sgrosso on guitars and Donnie Steele on bass. All in all, Mayhem delivered the goods and the fans left with a solid metal show, one that quite frankly, has been harder and harder to put on these days.
All photos by Raymond Flotat