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Fan's Eye View: New England Metal and Hardcore Fest XVIII

There were rumors that New England Metal and Hardcore Fest wasn't going to happen this year. With some changes in management and the murmurs that the event had run its course, there was a lot of room for speculation. Despite all of this, the fest wound up being organized after all – so I decided to make the trip up to Worcester, take some semi-decent photos and see some of my favorite bands play.


By any metric available to fans, this year’s fest definitely had a strong lineup, but the selections were still very telling. First of all, the event has been trimmed down from three days to two. In previous years, there would be one day that leaned more toward hardcore, another that was more metal-oriented, and perhaps a third day that mixed things up (or featured bands that targeted a younger/trendier audience). This year’s lineup was dominated by established hardcore bands like Merauder, Madball, Ringworm and Earth Crisis – along with Massachusetts-based metal-core legends like Bury Your Dead, Unearth and Killswitch Engage.


In press statements, the organizers described this year’s lineup as one that went back to the festival’s roots. While certainly true, this idea contained the hidden admission that the fest is no longer the new and fresh event it once was. Though this is of no fault of the organizers or any of the bands. It’s just not 2003, 2005 or 2008 anymore. The New Wave of American Heavy Metal, the movement that had the fest as its de facto homecoming, is now long into its legacy stage. You can only book the same bands so many times and still expect fans to see the festival as a novel event. And the landscape of extreme music has changed and expanded. After all, Roadburn and Choosing Death Fest both happened the same weekend this year, snatching away bands that would otherwise be well suited to come to New England.


But it was still an awesome show! Novelty has its own limits, and it’s gratifying to know that there’s still a place to go every year to enjoy the fest’s particular mix of metalcore, no-nonsense hardcore and other varieties of extreme music.


As I walked in on Friday evening, just in time to catch Merauder on the main stage, an unlucky soul was being helped out of the 2nd-stage area – blood streaming from his nose and mouth. Well, some things never change! Merauder gave fans the treat of playing songs exclusively from Master Killer, an important opportunity considering the band’s plans to retire from touring in the near future.


Fallujah has earned a lot of praise in the metal press, especially for 2014’s The Flesh Prevails. In many ways, Fallujah is emblematic of contemporary metal: a somewhat technical hybrid of deathcore, djent and classic extreme metal sounds. They reminded me a lot of Veil of Maya and Born of Osiris, but with perhaps a less predictable approach.


And then Madball got on stage. I’m not sure that statement needs to be expanded on any further. The New York hardcore heroes put on a set packed with fan favorites, opening with “Demonstrating my Style” (because why the hell not) and blasting through bangers like “Set it Off” and “Look My Way.” Funny sidenote: Freddie Madball was particularly difficult to photograph, as the singer likes to run around the stage and makes a lot of sudden movements. I wound up pointing the camera at the drummer and just held down the multi-shot setting and waiting for Freddie to enter the frame…and there he was!

Freddie Madball

Watching Bury Your Dead play that night was somewhat like watching the “house band” play. Not that there’s anything wrong with that! But the band’s last album came out in 2011 and lead singer Mat Bruso is now a father and, as he described to the crowd, a sixth grade teacher (!). No new songs were played, and no new records were promised – the set focused solely on classic material.


Mat’s attitude on stage was very different than the angry, embittered display he put on at the 2011 fest (not to mention the incredibly violent set I saw in 2004): Forceful, yet positive, even bringing his sister on stage to scream along with him! While taking photos next to the barricade, I was mouthing the words to “A Glass Slipper” when Mat caught a glimpse of me and put the mic in my face for a couple lines. That was unexpected! I managed to catch up with him after the set and told him about when I saw the band Danbury, CT’s Empress Ballroom many years ago. He widened his gaze and remarked, “That was a scary venue, dude” to which I replied, “yea, that was a scary show.”


Seeing The Black Dahlia Murder play Unhallowed all the way through might be one of the best birthday gifts I could ask for. To finally hear “Thy Horror Cosmic,” and “The Blackest Incarnation” was melodic death metal bliss, as was the rest of the band’s set. This year’s lineup was very thin on more orthodox black metal and death metal bands, so it was good to have at least one act bringing that flavor to the main stage.


My friend and I arrived on the second day just as Earth Crisis was ready to play the second stage. Standing upstairs by the merch tables, some nice gentlemen from Metal Insider let me stand behind their section to catch the well-organized mayhem taking place below. A hardcore fan couldn’t ask for a much better set – I mean, they opened with “The Wrath of Sanity” and closed with “Firestorm.”


36 Crazyfists killed it that night, their first-ever appearance at New England Metal and Hardcore Fest. Brock Lindow has one of the most unique singing voices among his peers, giving the band a signature edge that many other screamers could only hope for. And speaking of screaming, the man’s harsh vocals come off much better live than his sometimes overly-hoarse delivery on-record. Many in the crowd, presumably less familiar with the band, were noticeably impressed with the performance. And rightfully so, after all, they did play “The Heart and the Shape.”


For several years now, Unearth has reliably delivered records packed with heroic-sounding guitar solos, crushing breakdowns and crowd-ready vocal chants. And every time I’ve seen Unearth, they bring this experience to life in an excellent fashion. There’s something about “Zombie Autopilot,” “Giles” and “Watch it Burn” that throws a crowd into a frenzy.


It was also great to watch the band have so much fun on stage, even when it was the final night of the tour. At this stage in a band’s career, many other acts would be “phoning it in” and growing cynical about circle pits, breakdowns and crowd favorites. Anyone looking for an antidote to this ungrateful crap should invest in Unearth tickets.


 Killswitch Engage are the ultimate home-base heroes for New England Metal and Hardcore, as well as the defining band of their era. And as with Unearth, the band performed as if was their first time playing the fest: smiling, energetic, all members putting on a flawless and memorable show.


Adam Dutkiewicz was his usual hilarious self, running through the crowd with his guitar, making weird faces, and declaring: “You know why we’re here! To play mediocre metalcore, drink a lot of beer, and impregnate you with our seed!!!” In fact, every time frontman Jesse Leach said anything, Adam would retort with something totally ridiculous. For his part, Jesse feels more natural as the band’s leader again, as he’s adjusted his voice perfectly to the Howard-era material. Seeing "The End of Heartache," "Numbered Days" and "This is Absolution" was the perfect way to touch off a great weekend in Worcester.


At this stage in the event’s evolution, New England Metal and Hardcore Fest has become a meet-up for old friends, fans and bands alike. Sure, those in the crowd shouting along to Bury Your Dead’s “Color of Money” aren’t new to the 2004 classic, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is that, like a long-standing Broadway production, the event can still pack the house and get the crowd singing and fists flying (ok, maybe that last part doesn’t happen on Broadway so much…can you imagine!?).


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