There are a seemingly limitless number of metal festivals in the United States right now. Last weekend proved though given how many there are, there is only one like Northwest Terror Fest. It was the third year for the Seattle, Washington-based event and the third time was certainly a charm. The four-day affair split amongst three of the city’s premier spaces for live underground music featured a number of prominent and talented bands from across the United States and Europe.
Festivities began on Wednesday night with a pre-show at Highline featuring unique and rare takes on popular and often hidden musical acts. Slasher Dave of Acid Witch performed a solo synth set. Austin Lunn, of Panopticon fame, performed an incredibly personal and poignant set filled with covers from some of his favorite country and folk artists like Blaze Foley and Guy Clark. In addition to covers, he performed original material from the second half of his The Scars of Man on the Once Nameless Wilderness double album and a couple of songs from Kentucky and Roads to the North. Lunn’s set also featured a surprise guest appearance from Marisa Janke of Isenordal who accompanied him in the later portions of the set with her violin.
The pre-show concluded with an even quieter version of Thou than in previous instances. The band played without their drummer, Tyler Coburn, who wasn’t in attendance that evening due to prior touring plans. Nevertheless, the Louisiana band—led by guitarist KC Stafford and MJ Guider members Melissa Guion and Emily McWilliams showcased their brilliant and versatile musicianship performing their Inconsolable EP to a packed crowd. The following three days then unfurled a trilogy of various styles and sounds rife with underlying and ever-present themes that highlighted the very mission statement of Northwest Terror Fest.
From the very first iteration of Northwest Terror Fest, the organizers have encouraged diversity, not only in the acts that perform but in the people who attend. This was evermore present this year. The previous weekend, controversy emerged at Maryland Deathfest. A patron of the event was asked to leave for displaying a patch of a known NSBM band—a flawless move on behalf of those festival organizers. In the wake of it, the minds behind Northwest Terror Fest doubled down on their message, posting signage throughout the venues and taking to their socials to adamantly proclaim that hatred or intolerance of any kind would not be taken lightly.
Perhaps the strongest showing of diversity came through the representation of women, LGBT, and non-binary individuals in the bands throughout the week. At least 14 acts (to my knowledge) featured non-straight male members. For comparison’s sake, as a personal friend pointed out, amongst all of Maryland Deathfest’s acts the prior week, there was reportedly only one band that had a woman. Northwest Terror Fest packed almost half of their bill. They, not coincidentally, were some of the strongest performances of the festival.
Rae Amitay and her deathgrind band Immortal Bird delivered a fiery performance featuring songs from their impending album, Thrive on Neglect. Also performing brand new music, Dead to a Dying World captivated an at-capacity Barboza with songs from their brilliant album, Elegy. The mighty Derkéta took no prisoners when they unleashed their cavernous death-doom. Elsewhere, death metal maniacs, Vastum, delivered one of the most intense and physically punishing sets of the festival while modern grind forces, Cloud Rat and Closet Witch, set the Neumos stage early for the final day. The biggest highlight of the festival, however, came from Dorthia Cottrell. The Windhand vocalist performed a touching solo acoustic set in between a string of grind bands—a brief and emotive respite in a wave of chaos. She performed her own material as well as Windhand and Roky Erickson covers.
The rest of the festival was as fervent and (sonically) diverse as it’s musicians and attendees. Spirit Adrift showcased why they’re emerging as one of the most exciting, newer metal bands on the planet. Nate Garrett’s continued growth as a musician and as a performer combined with the burgeoning cohesion of him and his bandmates highlighted a loud and energetic set that stole the show on the first official day. Dawn Ray’d also captivated festivalgoers on day one with a torrid display of antifascist, anarchistic black metal. Headliners Cirith Ungol capped the night with a rare performance and a soaring display of epic traditional and power metal.
The following day brought an array of dark, deathly, and destructive talents. The Inter Arma, Thantifaxath, and Wayfarer tour made its way to town. The Rocky Mountain Black Metal that Wayfarer so brilliantly created on World’s Blood came to life in one of the week’s tightest, cleanest sets. A rare appearance by the mysterious Thantifaxath brought a shroud of dissonance and blinding blue lights. Meanwhile, Virginia’s Inter Arma further solidified themselves as one of modern metal’s preeminent talents by ripping through their AOTY contender, Sulphur English. The second night culminated in an exclusive US appearance of Swedish d-beat legends, Wolfbrigade, who turned the feverish crowd into a swirling mass of bodies as they rattled off a medley of their greatest hits and deepest cuts.
The final day gave no rest to those who fell prey to Wolfbrigade (me). In addition to the incredible performances from Immortal Bird, Closet Witch, Cloud Rat, and Dorthia Cottrell, Gadget’s grind and Khôrada’s artful metal medley wonderfully segued into the main event—Pig Destroyer. Beach balls and animal floats rained from the ceiling as “Stagedive Saturday” concluded with a raucous hour from the D.C. natives who spanned their discography and instigated mosh pits.
Each night of the festival had a subsequent after show to properly conclude each string of sets. Bongzilla and Pound, Indian and STAHV, and Oxygen Destroyer and Bongripper all, respectively, capped off each successive night of Northwest Terror Fest. Each of these shows took place at Highline—the same place that held the pre-show—a brief walk from the main Neumos and Barboza venues.
Ultimately, the strength and diversity of the festival’s lineup will be remembered most, but there is much to applaud about the organization and execution of the festival as an operation. Organizers and volunteers worked tirelessly each day—occasionally stopping to mosh or crowd surf—to set up and take down equipment, assist bands, and more. The venue staff and individuals associated with sponsors were incredibly gracious and helpful. Even the surrounding restaurants and bars welcomed festivalgoers throughout the entire festival—many of the workers regularly asking how the festival was going and which bands people played in.
Holistically speaking, Northwest Terror Fest was a brilliant time and an immaculate representation of how diverse and inclusive heavy metal can (and should) be. Through a unique lineup of incredibly gifted musicians and a continuously positive and powerful message, the Seattle-based event positions itself as a high mark amongst United States-based festivals. It’s certainly incredibly exciting to think about what they have up their sleeves for the next iteration.
In addition to this festival coverage, I would like to extend a personal “thank you” to all of my friends and all the organizers and bands who made the week such an incredible experience. It is an event like Northwest Terror Fest that reminds me why I love heavy metal music so much. It’s the strong bonds formed with not just the music, but the people who make it and cherish it.