With the Omicron variant of COVID spreading quickly around the world and once again, live music under threat of cancellations and postponements, it was nice to be able to get a strong dosage of heavy music as Decibel Magazine’s Metal & Beer Fest made its return to Los Angeles at the Belasco. The two-night festival’s opening featured performances from a diverse range of metal bands, from the galloping thrash of Sacred Reich to the spastic metallic hardcore of Early Graves (playing their farewell show) to the traditional metal of Night Demon. And of course, headlining the whole thing was Converge playing their game-changing 2001 album Jane Doe in full. All photos shot by Ekaterina Gorbacheva.
The night started with performances from Los Angeles glam metal band Saber and San Jose-based death metal band Ripped To Shreds, introducing themselves to the crowd as folks shuffled into the magnificent theater that would be pummeled with blast beats, raw-throated screams and shredding guitar leads for over six hours.
If you mistook Ventura’s Night Demon for a young Motorhead last night, you’d be forgiven. The power trio deals in traditional, old-school heavy metal and are led by fu manchu’d singer/bassist Jarvis Leatherby. The end of their set featured a rollicking performance of their song “The Chalice”–very appropriate for a metal and beer festival–replete with a skeleton coming on stage with his very own chalice. The set finished up with the riff-y titular track “Night Demon” from their 2013 EP Night Demon.
As mentioned before, San Francisco band Early Graves was playing its final show ever. Sporting a five-man lineup, the group was able to pull off complex, breakneck-paced hardcore-infused death metal that placed a lot of emphasis on the “hardcore” aspect, particularly via Dan Sneddon’s drumming. Singer Chris Brock’s inhuman barks and screams were a preview for the night’s headliners, as his delivery (at least in a live setting) has a striking similarity to that of Jacob Bannon on Jane Doe. After the first song, Brock shouted, “Faith is Shit”–the name of their next song. Throughout the set, bassist Matt O’Brien would occasionally approach the mic and add in a deeper, bellow-like vocal delivery which added a nice layer of complexity to Early Graves’ sound.
The audience slowly began to form a circle pit during their set, which didn’t impress Brock at all as he chastised them for being too slow and fucking dolts: “I’m glad this is our last show. You wanna know why? Because you fucking suck!” The audience took those acrimonious words to heart; the pit’s speed and intensity increased, and the singer voiced his approval like a tough dad, “That’s better!” “Pure Hell” was dedicated to the band’s late lead singer Makh Daniels, who died in a van accident while on tour in 2010. As the band left the stage, Brock had one final message: “We’ll never see you guys again.”
Repulsion was the first band on the bill for which many of the audience members came specifically to see. Unlike Early Graves, the tone of Repulsion’s set was a lot more lighthearted (when you are singing about maggots eating the brains of corpses, it’s probably a good thing to make jokes about it). Lead singer Scott Carlson encouraged the audience to keep drinking beer, and fellow band co-founder Matt Olivo could be spotted taking selfies of himself in front of the crowd in between some shred-tastic guitarwork. Despite being around off and on for the last 30 years, the band has only released one full-length album, 1989’s Horrified. They made the most of that one LP, with the record going on to be a major touchstone for the goregrind genre. They played “Decomposed” from that record, laying down pummeling riffs under Carlson’s gruff and gravely, mostly indiscernible vocals.
During the set, Carlson took the time to mention that Decibel had recently published a feature on the 40th-anniversary of Carcass’s 1981 album Welcome to Hell, astutely noting that “We wouldn’t be here tonight if not for Venom’s album…and your moms.” They dedicated their next song, a cover of Venom’s “Schizoid,” to the band, and of course, moms. They finished out their set with performances of “Black Breath” and “Maggots In Your Coffin.”
Another band that was obviously just psyched to be on the stage again was Sacred Reich. The second-wave thrash band from Arizona was playing their first show in two years, and the joy was palpable. Bassist/singer Phil Rind couldn’t wipe the smile off of his face, and the band was a tightly-oiled metal machine as they launched into “The American Way” with Rind pronouncing, “No truth, no justice, the American way!” They played songs like “Divide and Conquer” from their “new” album Awakening, which was released pre-pandemic in 2019, but the band never had a chance to tour behind. That song in particular showcased Rind’s impressive pipes, wailing like he was Dio out there. “Manifest Reality” was an uplifting song about bringing about positivity in your own life, and “Salvation” touched on how music can save us.
After several hours of unrelenting metal, it was finally time for the headliners. In a lineup that touched on several sub-genres of extreme music, Converge is a bit of an outlier, less hesher and more hardcore. The audience was abuzz with the prospect of hearing Jane Doe, a true masterpiece in the history of heavy music and a record that’s influenced countless artists (metal and non-metal). It’s not surprising, considering the massive reach this album had across genres, that at this point, the audience wasn’t just metalheads anymore.
Before they started playing, there was a humorous moment as the house music played Disturbed’s alt-metal hit “Down With the Sickness,” snickered at the playing of the song a festival with a decidedly “cooler” lineup–as did much of the audience, some of whom were ironically headbanging to the butt rock–remarking “This song is like our generation’s ‘Crazy Train.’” The band’s set was dedicated to the late Gerad O’Donnell of Planes Mistaken for Stars, something that singer Jacob Bannon acknowledged between songs.
Kurt Ballou’s two-note guitar lead opening to “Concubine” signaled the beginning of our journey. The band smashed through the blistering one-two punch of “Concubine” and “Fault and Fracture,” two songs that merge seamlessly together. Just four minutes into the set, Bannon needed a minute to catch his breath after performing like an athlete. After a few beats, he addressed the audience and talked about how good it was to be back performing. As the band got ready for track three, “Distance and Meaning,” Bannon implied it’s not one they play often, and they probably wouldn’t ever play again. It’s no surprise that when a crowd surfer landed on stage, practically on top of Ballou as he transitioned from the opening riff to the verse, he was greeted with a hearty shove.
At this point, the circle pit had reached levels not before seen during the previous sets. The center of the crowd was swirling around, building off the intensity of the first three songs. “Hell To Pay” offered a short respite from the chaos, as a haunting guitar riff became the center of focus, putting the psychedelic nature of Jane Doe on display. Of course, that peace was short-lived as the song gradually built up to an emotional (and noisy) crescendo; the dissonance ebbed back into a hypnotic riff. “Homewrecker,” “The Broken Vow” and “Bitter in Than Some” dialed up the intensity as the crowd windmilled and two-stepped around the floor. The sludgy “Phoenix in Flight” and its short interlude-like counterpart “Phoenix in Flames” led into “Thaw,” which features some of the album’s most unforgettable and frankly, mind-boggling guitar leads. The conclusion of the set was the 10-minute-plus title track, an epic that moves from atmospheric and haunting to heavy and passionate several times. Surprisingly, there was no encore, and the house lights came on immediately following the completion of “Jane Doe.”
Day two provided even more heavy thrills, with Cave In playing their own landmark metalcore album Until Your Hearts Stops, a reunion from Deadguy and a set from rising death metal crew Gatecreeper. Also performing will be ACxDC (how they haven’t been sued yet is incredible), Spiritworld, Crypt Sermon and Ghoul.
Converge Set list:
Fault and Fracture
Distance and Meaning
Hell to Pay
The Broken Vow
Bitter and Then Some
Heaven in Her Arms
Phoenix in Flight
Phoenix in Flames
All Photos by Ekaterina Gorbacheva