In a time flooded with music festivals near every major city, Pomona’s inaugural Epicenter ’09 seemed to quietly appear. Without incessant marketing or rampant hype the Los Angeles-adjacent festival managed to curiously build an impressive lineup, almost as if the organizers were confident that alone was enough to guarantee a successful launch. A bold move considering Epicenter’s lineup was anchored in primarily in hard rock, whereas nearly every other major festival in the USA (including the jam-heavy Bonnaroo) tends to lean heavily on the fame of popular indie rock bands of the moment.
But here at the Pomona Fairplex, Epicenter’s open-minded look at the modern face of hard rock was more than enough to draw an impressive crowd. One that was remarkably well behaved considering the potential culture clashes fans of art metal (Tool), nu metal (Linkin Park), grunge (Alice in Chains) and hardcore (Atreyu) all congregating in the same sun-soaked place could yield. Epicenter—billed as “So Cal’s Rock Explosion”—uniquely focused in a time where the overall music listening populace seems to fearfully avoid the crunch of hard rock, was in every way fun and unpretentious.
Sonny, a youthful and scrawny singer backed by a band he referred to as “The Blood Monkeys,” was an early performer at the fest’s lone alternate to the main stage, the Monster Energy Stage. Bleating his lyrics in a high-pitched tone, Sonny’s band played like a mix of the marching band percussion of the Mutaytor and the new-school histrionics of Circa Survive. While enjoyable in the early afternoon without decent competition elsewhere at the event, Sonny’s jumbled concoction seemed a bit unfocused.
Street Sweeper Social Club
“We’re not a band, we’re a social club!” rapper Boots Riley of Street Sweeper Social Club triumphantly proclaimed on the main stage as his new band rocked through an instantly catchy performance of “Nobody Moves (Til We Say Go).” Along with Rage Against the Machine/The Nightwatchmen guitarist extraordinaire Tom Morello, SSSC were the surprise of the day, guiding an unschooled crowd to rousing chants of “Let’s fight! / Let’s smash! / Let’s win!” on “Fight! Smash! Win!” and “Alright motherfuckers / fight motherfuckers” on “The Oath.” Riley hopped around joyfully rhyming, sounding like comedian Katt Williams might if he had lyrical flow while Morello suavely displayed the many tricks and techniques that make him a jaw-dropping guitar player to watch live. Coolly covering M.I.A.’s hit “Paper Planes,” Morello’s flicks and tweaks even accurately approximated the cash register/gunshot samples in the tune’s chorus. Far more engaging than their debut album, this set showcased the band’s real potential.
The Hollywood Undead
Just skimming the outskirts of what could be considered hard rock, the MySpace born-and-bred Hollywood Undead were more a throwback to the Insane Clown Posse’s era of ’90s rap rock. Lyrically, the band alternates between playful misanthropy (“This city looks so pretty / Do you wanna burn it with me?”) and thugged-out misogyny (“Everywhere I go / bitches always know/ that Charlie Scene has got a weenie that he loves to show”). On paper this might seem like a recipe for nothing more than offensiveness, but much like The Beastie Boys in their infancy, the six members of the band managed a caustic and enjoyable batch of songs. What remains to be seen is whether the band’s songwriting can evolve past the juvenile jokes that currently mar their sound.
Along with the heavily rap infused style of the Hollywood Undead, Epicenter also included a few hip hop acts for variety. Previous mxdwn album of the year contender Aesop Rock made quick work of a brief time slot, prompting the crowd to wave their hands as he spit rhymes with verbal finesse. His comfort and composure on “The One That Got Away” and “None Shall Pass” easily won over those in attendance.
Representing the new face of Southern California hardcore, Orange County’s own Atreyu kept the energy moving as the sun beat down the crowd. Scores of fans moshed on either side of the main stage appearing from a distance to be little dust storms as they kicked up massive clouds of dirt. With intensity and fun-loving enthusiasm, the band played some of their best from their earlier catalog (“Ex’s and Oh’s,” “Right Side of the Bed”) along side cuts from Lead Sails Paper Anchor (“Falling Down,” “Becoming the Bull”) and new tracks from their upcoming album Congregation of the Damned. While the rhythm section delivered the bombastic stomp, the band’s strongest asset is the trade-off vocals between lead singer Alex Varkatzas and drummer Brandon Saller. The two together provide just the right mix of roaring screams and no-nonsense singing, a combination that many other previous Victory Records bands have failed to successfully accomplish.
Filled out to a proper band with a backing singer, guitarist and keyboardist, the on-record duo of Slug and Ant of Atmosphere commanded respect on the Monster Energy Stage. Early track “GodLovesUgly” instantly provoked a singalong chant from the crowd.
Andrew Stockdale, lead singer/guitarist of Wolfmother used his downtime after the departure of founding members Chris Ross and Myles Hesket to regroup, recruiting Ian Peres, Aidan Nemeth and Dave Atkins to round out the band. The results are encouraging, as the band has lost none of its stomping retro flare. “California Queen” and “New Moon Rising” from the band’s upcoming Cosmic Egg had all of the bombastic riffs and anthemic choruses that bring their formula to life. However, in spite of their own technical acumen, Wolfmother failed to connect with the crowd on hand at Epicenter. The vintage hard rock Wolfmother revel in gives indie rock fans license to appreciate something more ferocious than the standard fare they’re used to. Here, amidst fans normally expecting hard rock with just a bit more gritty edge, the band’s music came off as a little less than enough to wow the capacity crowd. “Dimension,” “Woman,” “Mind’s Eye” and particularly “White Unicorn” (with its ambient and then tremulous bridge) still proved the excellence the Australian group is capable of, even if it wasn’t quite the right fit set against Epicenter’s lineup.
Alice in Chains
Of the many tragedies ’90s rock and roll bands have suffered, one of the worst was the demise of Alice in Chains’ lead vocalist Layne Staley. With a raspy inflection controlled with soulful precision, Staley was a rare talent, imitated poorly by a legion of bands following in his wake. It’s with much apprehension that even a diehard fan might willfully take part in seeing the band reformed without Staley, especially with another singer filling his role. Such attempts are often disastrous and embarrassing.
Alice in Chains though, showed with power and authority how they are undaunted by the tragedy. With renewed focus and a veritable army of classic songs, the once heralded grunge all-stars captivated the audience. New lead singer William DuVall bears an uncanny vocal resemblance to his predecessor. His throaty intonations on vintage Dirt tracks “Them Bones” and “Dam That River” took nothing away from the raw fervor that made them great 17 years ago. What’s more, while DuVall does echo Staley’s vocal approach, he slyly delivers it all with an ecstatic reverence that somehow manages to pay homage without sounding ham-fisted.
Lead guitarist and co-vocalist Jerry Cantrell is still the shining truss bridging the band’s heartfelt pieces to its menacing façade. Harmonizing just below the forceful current of Duvall—this one-two punch is Alice in Chains secret weapon, just as it was in Staley’s time—he shredded with nimble fingers throughout the searing “Man in the Box” and new single “Check My Brain” from the band’s first new album in 14 years, Black Gives Way to Blue. The finale of “Would?” (the crowd’s completion of the crescendo was a thing to witness) coupled with the beautiful “Rooster” was enough to wish the band had a solid hour more to work with for their set time. For all they did play, there wasn’t even a song brought forth from Sap or Jar of Flies. Alice in Chains easily gave the best performance of the day.
Perhaps the most obvious representative of the mainstream face of hard rock at Epicenter, Linkin Park occupied the penultimate slot right before Tool. With the hordes of Tool’s fans having a reputation for being “particular,” it was well within reason that they might clash audibly with the also sizable gathering of Linkin Park devotees. The good news on the scene was that all coexisted in harmony, dispelling unfair assumptions about the aggressive nature of what crowds at hard rock shows are truly like. Wasting no time, LP opened on the galloping side with “Session” and “Given Up.” The set was a hit-by-hit recap of the band’s best material from their three albums, dividing up Minutes to Midnight tracks “What I’ve Done,” “No More Sorrow” and “Leave Out All the Rest” between “Somewhere I Belong” and “Lying From You.”
Emcee Mike Shinoda’s role in songs such as the vulnerable “In the End” and the freight train-paced “Faint” still proves his invaluable place in rounding out the band’s sound, but it seemed on this night that the band leaned a bit more towards the material featuring primary vocalist Chester Bennington. Radio staples “Crawling,” “Numb” and “Breaking the Habit” highlighted the more tender side of the band as the show progressed. And while apparently ending with the band’s own brand of chant song (“Bleed it Out”), Linkin Park left the stage to allow for a curious interlude…
Dead By Sunrise
Following a brief break Chester Bennigton returned mid encore to debut his new band, Dead By Sunrise. A more straight-ahead variety of hard rock in comparison to LP’s calling card of rap, metal and electronica, the band played three decent enough songs before quickly allowing Linkin Park to return. This may have been worthy to debut at Epicenter, but regardless of the group’s quality it was a momentum killer for the set in general. Dead By Sunrise should have debuted earlier in the day on the main stage, but this felt more like an attempt to force the largest possible crowd to be exposed to them. Still, Linkin Park recaptured the crowd’s energy on their return, the banshee scream of “Shut up when I’m talking to you!” on “One Step Closer” being ample enough fury to raise anyone’s pulse.
And to wrap everything up, were the art metal titans themselves, Tool. Enshrouded mostly in shadows, the band quietly took the stage and enveloped the audience in the brooding, bass-heavy dirge that is “Jambi” from 10,000 Days. Lead singer Maynard James Keenan could visibly be seen sporting crutches and struggling to maneuver between mic stands. Keenan stated his own determination to fulfill the commitment to play quipping that he wanted to make sure the crowd could, “Get drunk and run into each other,” and offering, “And all that I ask, is acknowledgment for my sacrifice.”
It must be stated. Guitarist Adam Jones, bassist Justin Chancellor and most importantly drummer Danny Carey, have to be the tightest instrument section of any band heavy music has ever been fortunate enough to know. Chancellor weaved sinister tapestries (the unforgettable snake-like intro to “Forty Six & 2”), Jones provided sonic alchemy (the otherworldly guitar solo on “Stinkfist”) and Carey… well… Carey pretty much floored the Fairplex with thunderous, meticulous, unprecedented power (the breakdown on Ænema). There was one old school Undertow-era track played as well, the intimidating, Melvins-style patience of “Flood.” However, this brings to the light the only real problem with Tool’s headlining performance: with so many excellent, long songs 90 minutes just isn’t enough of a set. For those curious, “H,” “Eulogy,” “Prison Sex,” “Sober,” “Third Eye,” “Pushit,” “Hooker With a Penis” and many, many more were nowhere to be found. Amidst hypnotic visuals custom rendered or pulled from their own videos, Tool ended with a solid one-two finisher of “Lateralus” and “Vicarious,” however, it was hard not to want 90 minutes more.