Over the weekend of October 25 and 26, 2014, my 11-year-old son Jesse and I embarked on a heavy metal pilgrimage. San Bernadino, CA is 60 miles away from our home in Burbank and is home to the San Manuel Amphitheater. It was there that Slipknot was holding Knotfest, a three-day heavy metal summit featuring 60-plus bands on five stages over the course of three days.
This occasion was custom-made for some quality father/son bonding time and an early celebration of Jesse’s 12th birthday (which was on October 30th — Happy Birthday, Jesse!).
The festival actually commenced on Friday night with a special pre-event concert for the folks who purchased camping passes for the weekend and it featured performances from the likes of Suicide Silence, Chelsea Grin, and The Black Dahlia Murder. Since we aren’t really the camping type, we unfortunately missed that night.
We made the trek out there on Saturday morning with the intention of arriving in time for the first band that interested us, Immolation, who were scheduled for stage number five at noon. Despite arriving almost an hour prior (and that’s AFTER the 20-minute uphill hike from the parking lot), we were greeted by a massive crowd at the security check. We’re talking about ten or so lines, divided into male and female and probably a couple of hundred people deep each. The lines were moving very slowly, but we were able to pass the time by heckling the hellfire and brimstone religious protestors. Needless to say, we were not alone in this pursuit. I seriously don’t know where these people muster the gall to try to shove their delusions down the throat of a hostile mob, but that’s a rant for another column.
All the time we could hear Immolation playing away in the distance. Once we finally cleared security and having only surrendered the caps of our water bottles (no closed containers allowed in the venue), we were prepared to make a mad dash to the far end of the grounds where the side stages were located. But, alas, we hit another bottleneck as the mobile ticket scanners all went offline just as they were preparing to scan ours. After five or so minutes of dumbfounded looks from the teenaged minimum-wage sentry, his boss came by and told him to just start tearing the barcodes off of everyone’s tickets (old school, yo) and let them enter.
Saturday went fairly smoothly after the initial hassle though. We managed to make it across the grounds in time to catch legendary band Prong play on stage number five to a small but rabid crowd. They put on a high energy set despite guitarist/singer (and only original member) Tommy Victor’s mic being completely inaudible for half of the set, a fact that took on a certain air of irony, as that stage was sponsored by Electro Voice, a microphone manufacturer.
The mic issues continued into the next set on that stage from underground metal legends Amen. We were especially interested in this set, as family friend Roy Mayorga was sitting in on drums with them. Roy is also the drummer in Stone Sour, Slipknot singer Corey Taylor’s other band, and lo and behold, who should we sight rocking out in the wings while Amen played? Yep, none other than Mr. Taylor himself. As for Amen, I thought they were pretty good, but lead singer Casey Chaos didn’t agree and declared from the stage that it was “by far, the worst set I’ve ever played and we can thank all of these diesel generators powering the stage for that.” It seems that Casey has a lung condition that makes him have bad reactions to diesel fumes. For the record, Casey, I think you were being a bit over critical of the performance. Amen has just finished recording a new record that will be out in 2015 and features ex-Slayer drummer Dave Lombardo on drums. They played a song from it and it sounds like it’s going to be pretty awesome.
After Amen finished, we headed on over to stages two and three. The absolutely wretched Butcher Babies were just finishing their set. I heard that they managed to cram no less than 2 covers into their very short set, indicating that even they can’t stand their generic originals. The best thing that I can say here is that, for once at least, the two (admittedly hot) front women were wearing actual clothes instead of relying on their usual duct tape over the nipples and little-else gimmick.
Japanese band Maximum The Hormone was up next. Despite their incredibly weird name (something lost in the translation I suppose), this band is an exciting enigma. It’s like someone threw death metal, hardcore, rap, J pop, and a lot of other things into a blender and created an unlikely but tasty heavy metal smoothy. Their high energy set was near rapturous and their female drummer addressing their fans in Japanese and broken English was absolutely adorable. I’m not sure what she was on about, but she seemed to be having the time of her life. Maximum the Hormone were one of the highlights of the day.
Next up was a band with an even worse name (perhaps the worst in metal) who can’t even blame it on a language barrier, The Devil Wears Prada. I really went into their set knowing very little about them, but they came across as your garden variety screamo, metal core band, a fact that wasn’t helped by their heavily leaned-on computer backing tracks being very anemic in the mix. Move along, nothing to see here.
What happened next was absolutely legendary. The recently reunited Carcass, touring on the strength of their stellar comeback album Surgical Steel, came out and stormed the stage with a fervor usually reserved for men half their age. Frontman Jeff Walker was having a ball, taking the piss out of event co-sponsor Rockstar Energy Drinks declaring “How do you guys drink this shit?” after spitting out his first swig of it. He then proceeded to go on a rant that I can only assume was directed at The Devil Wears Prada about how a bunch of the bands were “cheating” by using computers and promising the crowd that Carcass would only be playing organically generated material, most of which was recorded “before you fuckers were born.” Walker is a man of his word and Carcass proceeded to school the kids with a blistering dose of old-school death metal that probably killed a few trees on the San Manuel grounds. They were the absolute highlight of the Saturday side stages.
In This Moment was taxed with the unenviable slot following Carcass. I’m told that this band is ever growing in popularity and that was evidenced by their sizable fan turnout. They put on an ambitious show with background dancers and front woman Maria Brink ducking into a red tent behind the stage for numerous wardrobe changes. Their set was enjoyable enough if you like your metal with some serious pop/cabaret leanings. Not my cup of tea and I suspect that their show would have a much greater impact indoors with theatrical lighting and the such as opposed to the glaring mojave sunshine. All in all though, I think they did a pretty good job given the circumstances.
Jesse makes friends with a stilt wearing sideshow performer.
Closing out the side stages for the day was the mighty Testament. These Bay Area thrash stalwarts have never disappointed me live and this day was no exception. They plowed through their greatest hits like a runaway freight train, stopping only long enough for security to haul some drunken jackass down from the stage truss that he had scaled.
By now the sun was starting to recede and the crowd was making a mass migration to the main stage for the evening’s main attractions. There were numerous carnival rides and assorted attractions set up at the top area of the lawn, including a “thunder dome” that periodically shot towers of fire into the darkening sky. Jesse and I took our seats in the upper seating section and waited for Hatebreed to start. These metal core veterans always bring a high energy to their performance and the ever-growing crowd responded in kind with a hearty welcome, singing along as the Connecticut band ripped through a hits heavy set.
Up next was former Ozzy guitarist Zakk Wylde and his band Black Label Society. This is a band that I absolutely cannot stand, so Jesse and I decided this would be a good time to get dinner. Apparently we weren’t alone as it seemed that half of the crowd had the same plan. We were treated to Wylde’s off-key caterwauling as we spent nearly an hour in line at one of Live Nation’s incredibly incompetent concession stands (one credit card reader for 8 lines. Really? it’s 2014 people), only to be told that the sign above the stand was displaying false advertising and we would not, in fact, be receiving fries with our cold $12 cheeseburgers in spite of it clearly saying we would (“they just changed that recently” said another teenaged minimum wage earner behind the counter). I did manage to badger her into giving us one order of fries and a free drink after throwing a fit when she tried to up-sell me from a $4 Coca Cola to the $8, refillable souvenir cup.
Anyway, having stared e-coli and a frightening glimpse of our nation’s future down and emerging victorious, we returned to our seats in time to catch Anthrax play, by far, the best set that I have ever seen them do. They even teased a snippet of a song from their upcoming record that sounded pretty killer.
Then came something that I was really looking forward to and dreading at the same time, Danzig‘s set. I saw Danzig once back in the day and they were great, but I had heard some disparaging things about the band’s more recent history. Glenn is overweight and out of breath all the time on stage my friends said. So, while I love Danzig and their legacy, I was a bit apprehensive here, hoping that they would not ruin my good memories of the past. Well, I’m not going to tell you that they lived up to my memories, but on the other hand they really were pretty good. Tommy Victor from Prong is doing double duty as the guitarist of Danzig now and he and the band were tight and energetic. Glenn Danzig actually looked as though he may have lost a slight bit of the weight that he has been carrying around recently and he gave a lively and energetic performance. Unfortunately, that stuff about him sounding winded proved to be true at various times. He had some absolutely stellar moments though such as “How The Gods Kill” and the obligatory, mega-hit set closer “Mother.” All in all, a pretty enjoyable performance from this legendary band.
Finally, at 11PM sharp, Slipknot took to the stage for the first of their two-night headline slots. I am a massive fan of this band, so the presence of a new drummer and bassist were a big wild card. Would they still sound like Slipknot? Would the live performances live up to the very high standards that the band have set in the past?
As soon as the strains of the opening tape of the track “515” faded, the band appeared and launched into a crushing version of “People=Shit” from their 2002 masterpiece album Iowa. It was clear that Slipknot is back in full force and firing on all cylinders. The 15-song setlist covered almost all of the band’s biggest hits and the live debuts of the new tracks “The Negative One” and “Custer” from their freshly released fifth album .5: The Gray Chapter. The album debuted at #1 on the charts in numerous countries last week, selling 132,000 copies in the U.S. alone. The new additions to the band meshed seamlessly and provided a rock solid bottom for the rest of the band to reek their mayhem over. This amazing set was only slightly tarnished by Corey Taylor’s new mask causing him some problems at various points (issues that were quickly resolved in time for the second night). The set closed out with scorching encores of the classic anthems “Spit It Out” and “Surfacing.” You can see the full set right here:
It was then off to fighting our way back down the hill to the parking lot, where Jesse and I reenacted our own version of Heavy Metal Parking Lot, sitting on the back of our rented car, eating the basket of peanuts that we had obtained earlier in the day during our pre-show lunch at the local Five Guys Burgers and Fries (can’t say enough great things about that place BTW). We had a blast watching the drunken, stoned, freak show pass by for the hour or so until we could even begin to move out of the parking lot. We then proceeded to our hotel room at the local Days Inn and slept like babies, dreaming of another kick ass day of metal and father/son quality time the Bergen way.
Stay tuned for my wrap up of Day 2 and my overall impressions of the festival.