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An inflatable shark bounces atop a sea of sweaty headbangers who are all screaming along to the legendary New York death metal band Suffocation. Neumos is jam-packed and limbs are flying past my head as stage divers take flight every few seconds. Suffocation’s Terrance Hobbs, an absolute beast on the guitar, masterfully shreds technical riffs while bassist Derek Boyer only encourages the ceaseless energy.
On paper, lyrics like “Penetrate the minds of those misfortuned at birth / Murder is etched in the deepest chasms of the soul / Salvation stripped from the origin of existence” might seem a bit depressing and morbid, but as I look around, the room is all smiles. Though many fans in the crowd have just endured a whole weekend’s worth of distorted guitars and blast beats, there is an undeniably joyful energy.
That was the scene on Saturday, July 2, during the closing set of a three-day marathon of underground heavy music called Northwest Terror Fest. After two years of pandemic-related cancellations and delays, it was clear the Seattle metal scene was happy to finally have its premiere event back.
"There was this moment last year, when Ludicra started playing their first song,” said Terror Fest co-founder Joseph Schafer. “I grabbed Leah [Solomon] and gave her a very, very hard hug. I started bawling my eyes out. I think that was the first moment where it finally felt like we got out from under it. We survived. It was like, 'We can still do this.' We didn't lose the touch. The community didn't die. Music didn't die. That was one of the most seriously cathartic fucking moments in my entire fucking life."
Solomon recalled the teary moment, adding, "All I had on me for us to dry our sad little eyeballs with after we were done crying for two whole minutes was a Ludicra shirt in my back pocket.”
Schafer, Solomon, and No Clean Singing founder Islander are part of the small but mighty team of staff and volunteers who pour hundreds of hours into the planning and promotion of Northwest Terror Fest. If last year’s successful return to form is any indication, the fest’s 2023 installment May 25-27 will be nothing short of legendary.
As the seemingly endless gray starts to fade and we collectively tiptoe into what is hopefully a beautiful Seattle spring, you could almost feel the city's SAD melt away as lineups for Bumbershoot, Belltown Bloom, the Thing, and Capitol Hill Block Party got announced one at a time. But if you’re anything like me, and your music tastes lean more toward the brutally heavy sounds and you’re eternally banned from the aux cord, Northwest Terror Fest will likely be your shit.
No matter your micro-genre preference, if you have a taste for any sort of gnarly or extreme style of music, it’s a safe bet there will be a few bands you won’t want to miss come Memorial Day weekend. From the nasty, filth-soaked goregrind of Bay Area’s Impaled to the beautiful, punishing doom of Oregon natives YOB, the entire spectrum of all that’s heavy and hard is represented.
"I love almost every single sub-genre of heavy music, metal or otherwise,” Schafer explained.
“But to me, goddammit, if I'm gonna sit there for seven hours of straight, brutal death metal, by the end, I'm not even gonna fucking enjoy it. I think it's better to give people variety. There’s a lot of satisfaction to be derived from parsing through different things that might not make intuitive sense. Instead, they're things that make counterintuitive sense. But there, in that moment, they all lead you down the same path to a similar kind of ecstasy.”
The trick up Northwest Terror Fest's sleeve is what Schafer calls the “seventh-inning stretch set.” On the third night, after fans have spent days enduring hours of punishing riffs and guzzling cheap beer, NWTF mixes things up and doses the crowd with something a little lighter. In the past, they’ve featured dark, gloomy singer-songwriters Marissa Nadler, Emma Ruth Rundle, and Leila Abdul-Rauf.
“You need a break,” Schafer said. “A lot of these folk singers, even if the format is different, they're tapping into the same collective unconscious darkness.”
While heavy metal has traditionally had a reputation to be a bit of a dude fest, the folks behind Northwest Terror Fest have done the work to showcase bands and musicians from a wide variety of backgrounds. But instead of making a statement about it, the team has chosen to lead by example.
“You should be able to put together a fest that has diverse people on stage without having to make the entire thing about that,” explained Solomon. “Not everybody that is not a white dude wants their entire band's life to be about the fact that their band has not just white dudes in it, you know?
“Every fucking year, someone, whether on Instagram, on the Twitter feed, or in person says, ‘Hey, I don't go to metal shows. But I come to this because I felt like I would be safe and I had a great fucking time,'” Schafer said. “That's the spark that keeps me doing this. I really do it for them. I love those people the most.”
Northwest Terror Fest is May 25-27 at Neumos and Barboza, 925 E Pike St, $70-$200, 21+.