In the aftermath of The Big 4’s first ever appearance together in Indio just over two months ago, a metal fest without a true headliner feels a bit lacking in heavyweight power. Mayhem Festival 2011 fell into this trap, putting together a respectable lineup—and thankfully one far better than this year’s Epicenter lineup—though not one strong enough to incite real shock and awe. The tour itself at least had the bounty of Megadeth as its official headliner, but on this Saturday stop and beginning of this year’s festival, Megadeth was curiously not present. In their place the semi-fictional band Dethklok (whom some of you might know as the cartoon band from Adult Swim’s Metalocalypse) took the spot at the top of the bill. Did Dethklok have the goods to finish off the night and make sure the fans enjoyed their day?
All photos by Raymond Flotat
Multi-stage festivals are the norm right now in Amerca’s music industry. Every major city and every traveling festival uses numerous stages, but few end up working quite like this year’s Mayhem did. Through the daylight hours the Jagermeister Stage and the Extreme Stage ran nonstop, bands playing on one stage or the other without break for changeover. It was an interesting way to maximize available time slots, yet still a curious choice given that the main stage stood abandoned until 7 p.m. It was here that Unearth, Trivium, Kingdom of Sorrow and twenty-five year veterans Testament played to moshing crowds stomping up dust clouds. Jamey Jasta (of Hatebreed) led Kingdom of Sorrow to urge the crowd on to excitement, running frantically from side-to-side of the stage as he would in his main group.
Unearth opted for raw power, while Florida natives Trivium catered to the more accessible side of metal (think melodic singing instead of growling or dry-lung vocals).
Testament, somewhat curiously placed on the side stages, did extremely well, showing the wisdom of their long career in brutal efficiency. The dueling solos from guitarists Eric Peterson and Alex Skolnick were everything one would want from metal guitar playing: lightweight, memorable and impressive. Lead singer Chuck Billy stormed around the stage with a gleeful grin.
After those bands completed, it was over to the main stage. The side stages were closed and the audience was funneled over to the main amphitheater stage where the final four acts of the night were set to play, only with large delays between each set. Strange indeed. Thankfully, the day’s best act Machine Head was next. For those unfamiliar, get yourself acquainted. Machine Head has been a reliable beacon of quality in metal for almost twenty years. Lead singer/guitarist Robb Flynn exalted the day when Pantera took them on the road and how great it was to still see the fans respecting the defunct band’s influence. He also took the time to explain how Pantera’s tutelage of Machine Head helped shape the band’s respect for their fans, instilling the value of treating them right early on in the band’s career. Flynn introduced a new song “Locust” from upcoming album Unto the Locust telling an intriguing story about the directionless way that locust’s fly and just land randomly causing havoc before aimlessly flying away again. The band was a no-nonsense and technical assault, perhaps not enough to draw trendy fans to the table, but more than enough to cement the value of a band taking serious pride in their craftsmanship.
Next up were two of the day’s most curious additions, Godsmack and Disturbed. Both a bit more in the vein of late 90’s nu-metal than the modern, hardcore or death metal that filled this year’s Mayhem Festival, they lacked the appropriate crunch to really bring this festival home with authenticity. And even though both have sold millions of albums and had numerous hit singles, neither were strong enough to bring this show to more than half sold out. This might have been one of the most empty amphitheater shows this reviewer can ever recall seeing. Godsmack started out strong with a few aggressive numbers, but quickly descended into a drawn-out version of early hit “Voodoo,” a copious drum solo and a medley of far better songs (“War Pigs,” “Back in Black,” “Tom Sawyer”) played only in sound bite form.
Disturbed did little better, opting for an array of mid-tempo tracks that fell flat after hours-upon-hours in the San Bernardino sun. Even a song like “Ten Thousand Fists” which literally features the words “ten thousand fists in the air” failed to draw any real reaction.
And lastly, Brendon Small’s ingenious Dethklok project finished off the event with their only planned show of 2011. Sadly though, this was not the performance this band is capable of. The live presentation of the music the five fictional members (Nathan Explosion, Toki Wartooth, Skwisgaar Skwigelf, William Murderface and Pickles) features the show’s lead writer and voice actor Brendon Small on vocals and guitar accompanied by none other than Gene Hoglan of Death and Strapping Young Lad fame on drums. The four-piece is backlit by a massive video wall playing custom videos and interstitials from the show. Two very large problems with this set kept this from being the explosive slugfest it should have been. One, the mix was horrible, only the lowest fog of the bottom end could be heard, drowning everything about the band’s music out. Two, the fictional band members weren’t used directly in the interstitials between songs, only during the numbers played. The characters themselves are hysterical and instantly recognizable. It would be worth whatever time it takes to prepare to have just a few moments of levity to use those characters to pop a solid laugh out of the crowd. That’s really what makes Dethklok special, the ability to entertain as well as be totally brutal.
All in all, Mayhem Festival 2011 was not a bad time, but the curious and seemingly never-ending changes to the event’s seating protocol hurt the continuity of the event. Segregating the three stages was also odd. Not having a strong-enough headliner hurt the attendance too. Sad, given it could’ve been a better show.
All photos by Raymond Flotat