When the founders of Southwest Terror Fest set their sights on Seattle as the location of a Northwest edition, Joseph Schafer, a frequent contributor to The Stranger's music section, was one of the local metal brain-trustees they assembled to help him pull it off. (He’s also an editor at the Brooklyn Vegan-affiliated metal blog Invisible Oranges.)
Because I am the least metal person in North America, it fell to me to ask young Schafer to explain this new but already popular festival.
Where did your interest in this form of music begin?
I'm almost 30 now, but like a great many people my age, I grew up listening to mainstream rock radio. On the way to and from school or soccer practice, heavy guitar music—metal bands, really—were the soundtrack just about as soon as I got too old to listen to the soundtrack to The Lion King on cassette. Metallica's self-titled record and its seemingly infinite supply of great singles dominated the radio, as did the breakout artists from Seattle at the time: Soundgarden and Alice in Chains. In retrospect, I think of the word "grunge" as a marketing term, not a genre. Nirvana was a punk band. Pearl Jam was a classic-style monster-rock band. Alice in Chains and Soundgarden were, among other things, metal bands. When the next wave of those bands, things like Nickelback, hit, I found them uninteresting, so I kept looking for artists that sounded like the heavier grunge and California thrash bands: Faith No More, Megadeth, Slayer. Those bands led me to Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, classic progressive-rock bands, new wave, punk, goth, and alternative rock. They led me further down the amplifier-worship rabbit hole at the same time. Most of those sounds appear on Terror Fest to some extent, but obviously extreme heavy metal is the organizing principle.
For the uninitiated, what distinguishes the bands in Terror Fest from more traditional metal, or even the more specific subgenres?
The calling card of extreme heavy metal and hardcore punk is the harsh vocal style, distinct from what metal heads commonly refer to as "clean" singing, which most rock bands employ. Many people say that harsh vocals remind them of Cookie Monster from Sesame Street. These vocals can be difficult for many people to register for two reasons. The lyrics are often unintelligible at first listen. Also, they operate with timbres that are almost unheard of in the Western musical tradition, though they do exist in a few folk traditions such as the throat singers of Tibet. I've been listening to harsh singing for so long that I can understand most words very easily, and now I find it quite relaxing, beautiful, and passionate when well-executed. Of course, this sort of music can also inspire fear, but that's part of the point—fear is exciting. Metal and punk are the horror and thriller films of music, so tension and release are very important, as opposed to immediate gratification.
Many Terror Fest bands also play in exaggerated tempos. Noisear, for example, includes Bryan Fajardo, one of the fastest drummers in the world. They play a hyper-quick subgenre called grindcore or just grind for short. Other bands like Lycus or Seattle's own Samothrace employ very long songs at very slow tempos, only a handful of beats per minute. They play a subgenre called doom, which often is a direct echo of Black Sabbath's more dramatic songs. Both of these extreme tempos can create a meditative feeling that is not frequent in pop music and absent from the hard rock radio metal that I grew up with.
Do you find Seattle generally hospitable to metal-related subcultures? As you mentioned, heaviness is prominent in the city's musical DNA, but metal seems to alienate more people than it attracts, sonically and culturally. In the historic divide between metal and punk, Seattle has long seemed to come down on the side of punk. Do you agree? Why do you suppose that is?
I've been documenting the Seattle heavy-music scene for some time now, and I think Seattle and especially the Pacific Northwest at large (Portland, Olympia, Vancouver, BC) has a tremendous fondness for metal as a music and aesthetic culture. Seattle's metal scene is world-class, on par with other US hotbeds like Chicago, New York, and San Francisco, as well as the genre's meccas in Scandinavia. This city hosts great metal gigs weekly in each of the genre's various sub-styles, many of which owe as much to punk as they do to metal.
I hear that metal used to be a genre for jocks. That hasn't been true during my adulthood. This genre has a welcoming and deeply inquisitive community of fans and musicians. In terms of the community, it functions much more like electronica was in the late 1990s and early '00s in that respect. It's not popular music as people otherwise know it, but it's definitely intended for popular consumption.
I'm aware that in the genre's commercial peak in the 1980s, metal and punk were diametrically opposed. That said, I also know that the two have been growing slowly together ever since. The political divides are being erased. Ever since Slayer, the two genres have been conjoined twins, really. Styles like crust, grind, sludge, and doom draw from the two genre traditions equally. In Seattle, the two scenes intermingle and overlap a great deal in my experience, especially at venues like Highline or Victory Lounge. The Terror Fest lineup is friendly to both metalheads and punks, and that the two scenes intersect so much in Seattle is part of what made it an attractive city for a festival like this.
In a scene up to its eyeballs in festivals, why is this one important?
You're right on the money that there are a ton of festivals right now. I assume you're referring to events like Bumbershoot, Sasquatch!, and even the Capitol Hill Block Party, locally. Those are all great events, and they even book a handful of metal acts regularly. That's awesome, because those events are a platform for bands to reach an audience they otherwise would not.
Terror Fest comes from a different genre-specific tradition. Destination metal festivals are opportunities for people who love the genre to experience a lot of it at once, surrounded by their peers. They're also a great way for more casual listeners to deeply immerse themselves in metal culture. They're also a great opportunity for these bands to play venues they otherwise would not.
Bands like Cliterati or Nomads play punk houses and dives—we're putting them in one of the most beautiful venues in the city with an incredibly powerful sound system. There are many such festivals in the United States, but none really in the Pacific Northwest on this scale. For Seattle, this will be a unique experience. My hope is to make it a beloved part of this city's musical year for everyone. The weekend the metalheads come out in force and let their freak flags fly.
Three days, three clubs, nearly 40 bands: How did you know the festival would sustain such a big footprint—and, actually, do you know that it will?
Cities of Seattle's size in other parts of the country sustain festivals like this. LA has several in different subgenres. Compared to a few festivals, especially the massive European camping festivals like Wacken, our lineup is restrained. The advantage of our size is that we can book three full days of all killer bands. I don't think there's a dud on the list. As for ticket sales, our weekend passes to all three venues—Neumos, Barboza, Highline—are completely sold out. There are still individual day passes available, though. Each day has its own specific flavor or attitude, and I expect there's going to be people who only want to attend one or two days to catch a handful of bands, rather than spend the weekend and sample new sounds.
To be completely candid, there are only three artists on the schedule that I've heard or even heard of (Cephalic Carnage, Marissa Nadler, and Heiress), and generally speaking, I dislike metal in a really visceral, cellular way. What bands or bills in the festival would you recommend to help turn me around?
I'm glad you asked. There are a few really interesting and compelling acts on the bill that you cannot see elsewhere. The Thursday headliner at Neumos, Wolves in the Throne Room, play meditative black metal with an ecological bent. They write long, beautiful, and melodic songs and perform with an intense stage atmosphere, with fog and pine branches draped across the stage. Seeing them feels like attending some sort of ritual in the middle of a pine grove. They're one of my favorite groups and, as far as black metal goes, very accessible.
Local band Bell Witch will perform a collaboration set with Aerial Ruin, a solo folk artist, as a power trio. That set will be one to remember. Bell Witch's bassist, Dylan Desmond, is one of the best musicians I have ever seen. Their drummer, Jesse Schreibman, plays drums and organ at the same time. Their songs are long and sad but full of rich melody from the 1970s progressive-rock tradition. They play the doom metal equivalent of, like, the soundtrack to a Studio Ghibli film. That set can't be missed.
Coven, the Saturday night headliner, played psychedelic, occult-themed rock music before Black Sabbath did. This will be their first US show in 27 years. Their singer, Jinx Dawson, still has it: the voice, the charisma. By all accounts their show at Roadburn Festival in the Netherlands was a force of nature. They're a piece of history, and their influence has only grown over time.
Last, a special shout-out to Fucked and Bound, who don't even have a record out yet. They're a side project featuring members of Seattle bands Witch Ripper and He Whose Ox Is Gored. Their singer, Lisa Mungo, only screams in F&B, and the whole band seems to have a righteously feminist bent. It's very aggressive music, but cathartic and empowering as hell. Seeing them on that big stage is going to be like seeing Wonder Woman on the big screen, finally.