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Concert Review - Michigan Metal Fest 2019 (Battle Creek, MI)

The author (Far Left) and his friends pose for a photo.

It’s no secret that Michigan has been largely tapped for metal festivals in the last few years. Ever since the demise of the Rockstar Energy Drink Mayhem Festival (which has since announced a comeback), the disappearance of Dirt Fest, and to a lesser extent, the cancellation of Warped Tour, the Great Lakes State hasn’t seen a whole lot of metal festivals come through besides large-name touring artists.

On top of that, the three-day camping metal/EDM festival Carnival of Chaos was cancelled in 2019 as well, eliminating one of the only options Michigan metalheads had left.

It is for these reasons and more that the third-annual installment of Michigan Metal Fest in Battle Creek may have been the most important day of the year for metal fans.

Characterized by increased attendance, blisteringly hot weather, and a very diverse lineup, this installment saw MMF continue to make its mark as the must-see heavy metal destination of the summer.

What is truly remarkable about the festival is the way it both captures and emulates the feeling of being at some of the earlier-mentioned larger festivals while also presenting it as its own original grassroots project. It has both the large-scale headliners, such as close-out act Hatebreed this year, plus a selection of the best in local and regional metal bands. I’ve been saying this ever since the first installment in 2017, and the team behind MMF has only gotten better at curating the side stages.

Despite some technical difficulties with sound and scheduling, the staff was able to get things back on track. Sound issues were sporadic and did not detract from the overall experience.

As per the setup of previous years, there were four stages that were divided over two larger ones. While a band was performing on one side, the next band would be setting up on the other.

That Saturday, August 3rd, I arrived to the Leila Arboretum at almost exactly 2 PM, just in time to see Mount Pleasant, MI’s own speed metal band Nagazi. Fresh off a tour that was meant to lead up to Michigan Metal Fest, Nagazi was performing on the main stage of the festival for the first time.

Nagazi performed at the main stage and were one of the Michigan bands to play all three years in a row.

“It was an incredible day,” lead vocalist Joe Hafer said of the festival in an email interview. “You can tell that they are learning and improving every year. As with everything new, there will always be little kinks in the chain that can really screw up the schedule of a tightly planned event like this. And you can tell that extra measures were taken this year to keep things on schedule. 2019 ran like a well oiled machine.”

Nagazi was one of only a handful of bands to be invited back to play for the third year in a row.

“With there being a limited number of MI bands every year, to be asked back for a third consecutive year was truly an honor,” Hafer said. “There is an enormous amount of talent in this state, and we are fortunate to have an incredible fan base. I know we wouldn’t have been asked back if it weren’t for their continued support.”

In the days leading up to the festival, Nagazi had been posting on social media that they would not be talking much during their set to make room for more songs, having crafted out a perfect half-hour setlist.

“Set lengths are limited at these large events, and we planned every MMF set to be as seamless as possible,” Hafer said. “For most bands, these shows are most likely your biggest crowds, and often filled with many people who have never seen or heard of you. So this is an excellent opportunity to showcase yourself, and we want to show you as many songs as possible. We crammed in as much rocking metal as we could.”

In a day full of death metal and deathcore-type genres, it was interesting to start the day with something more in the vein of speedy thrash metal. It would provide only a taste of what would follow.

The next main stage band I saw was Dead Nerves, which is a metal band based out of Western Michigan. I definitely saw them perform at the last MMF installment, but couldn’t remember exactly what they sounded like.

Dead Nerves performing at the main stage.

Despite being a deathcore band, I liken their sound to being more “downtempo” deathcore - very slow and slamming beats are paired with odd time signatures and dueling guttural vocals to make a unique spin on the genre. Vocalist Tyler Rosema and drummer Michael Geluso both provide their own vocal styles into making one deeply primal sound.

Members of Dead Nerves were asked to be interviewed, but did not pan out due to schedule constraints.

Although things mostly ran smooth for the day, there were some noticeable sound problems at certain points. Unfortunately for me in this case, they first sprung up during the set of Gabriel and the Apocalypse, which is a band I was very excited to see that day.

Gabriel and the Apocalypse performing at the main stage.

I know for a fact that GATA are great live; I wrote as much about them in my review of a Lords of Acid concert that they opened for earlier that year. However, technical difficulties got the better of them this time.

“We had a couple sound issues, I’m not really sure what was going on with the main sound in a couple areas, but they ended up getting it fixed,” Next Level Entertainment owner and Co-Owner of Michigan Metal Fest Steve Maple said in an interview. “The vocals [during GATA], I don’t know what was going on, they were saying that there was something going on with the effects that they had brought with them. It was what it was I suppose, I can’t really speculate or point fingers.”

That isn’t to say that the theatrics and great stage presence wasn’t there - they were still up there rocking and moving the crowd, but after snapping some good photos, I had to exit the area quickly. The technical issues made the mix sound like high-pitched sandpaper in my ears, and even with earplugs in, it was very painful.

That’s a damn shame, so let’s hope for the better next time. However, I’d still recommend checking the band out if they’re ever in the area.

Also worth noting is that the band schedule was behind by about a half hour for part of the day. Luckily, Maple and the team were able to get things under control.

“We ended up getting back on track, but it was a bit of a Faux pas for a minute,” Maple said. “One of the things I did was pull myself out of a couple of jobs while I was there and focused more on production, so I was kind of on top of it on both sides making sure everything was good all day.”

Some scheduling changes were also due in part to some last-minute lineup changes.

“We ended up having to adjust the time slots, we had to make a couple changes before the show,” Maple said. “That was something that happened this year that hasn’t really happened before. We had to switch out like four bands because of whatever circumstances, my band being one of them because we broke up. It was kind of a lot of scrambling, but we ended up getting all the bands to match up on the shirts and everything.”

Because of these scheduling changes, I ended up having to miss the North Carolina-based band FILTH, which is another one I was looking forward to seeing. They weren’t on the main stage when they were supposed to be, and I have no idea where or when they ended up playing.

That being said, once the bands were back on schedule, there were no more issues that I noticed throughout the day. Overall, there were much fewer technical difficulties than there were last year.

The Breathing Process was one of the highlights of the side stage bands.

One cool thing that this festival provides is the opportunity to see metal bands that you’ve always HEARD of, but never actually looked into. On my end, one such band was The Breathing Process, a symphonic metal band from Pittsburgh. With very few preconceived notions, I was impressed with their performance - a symphonic-influenced set was a nice change of pace during the event.

Another highlight on the side stages was the Detroit-based metal band FORCES, which was one I had never heard of until this festival. The band certainly lives up to their name - they are a force to be reckoned with. It was kind of ironic that I would be burnt out and exhausted during such a powerful set, but the wear of the day plus the heat made it impossible for me to do anything other than observe from a distance while seated. But in any case, they were another treat to witness. Chalk up another one for the Motor City.

The Convalescence performing at the main stage.

About mid-to-late afternoon, Ohio-based metal band The Convalescence took the main stage. I’ve seen them perform several times since 2015, and they get better each time. Their symphonic deathcore sound was accentuated by more theatrics than I’ve ever seen them use, and by that I mean there were whole bottles of fake blood being sprayed EVERYWHERE. Since I made a poor choice wearing a white shirt that day, I decided to refrain from getting in the photo pit for too long.

It should also be noted that at this point in the day, it was HOT. It was the kind of heat that feels like you’re swimming outside, and despite the fact that I was consciously saving energy for Blue Felix, I was beginning to feel very worn out.

Once they took the stage, I summoned up all that stored energy for another chaotic Blue Felix performance.

Blue Felix performing at the main stage.

Following the release of their newest album Battling Gravity, the set contained a lot of new singles - all of which sounded fantastic.

It’s difficult to describe in words the kind of energy that Blue Felix brings to the table - one part punk, one part trash, and all-around LSD-and-Jägermeister-fueled metal, Blue Felix combines several influences into a new spin on the genre. This is what makes them one of the most exciting bands in underground metal today.

Blue Felix lead singer Toxsick Tripp.

I couldn’t help but think back to the very first time I saw Blue Felix at Rock Fest, which took place in 2012 at the now-defunct Chesaning Showboat. Seven years after being floored by a performance that the promoters attempted to cut short, I was now a college graduate taking photos of them in the pit. A lot has changed in seven years, but one thing remains true: A live performance by Blue Felix is a chaotic spectacle to behold. I even got a setlist and a pick out of it!

That show by Blue Felix was a giant expenditure of energy for me, so I needed to find a place to rest (this is how I ended up seeing FORCES). Afterwards, I ended up back by the main stage sprawled out on the lawn as the sun was beginning to dip. During this time, a raffle was held by staff and Miss Michigan Metal herself, Mandy Stephenson.

“I want to give a shoutout to Miss Michigan Metal Mandy Stephenson for doing such an amazing job,” Maple said. “She has set the bar for that position, and she is going to stay with us for years to come to help make sure that everybody else who wins that position knows how to do it with such style and grace as she does.”

As I’ve written before many times, especially in regards to this festival, the best sets you’ll ever see are the ones that revive you after a whole day of festival shenanigans. In this case, (HED) P.E., the wild card on the lineup this year, did exactly that.

From the moment I realized they were setting up, I bolted up from the lawn and ran back to the main stage as though they were the first band of the day.

HED PE performing at the main stage.

(HED) P.E. is a fusion metal band, incorporating many, MANY different types of influences into their material. It can be difficult showing them to new listeners, as every album has a different style and no two songs are usually the same. Lead singer Jahred Gomes is now the sole remaining member of the band, but that hasn’t stopped them from constantly churning out quality releases, with 2019’s “Stampede!” being the latest.

“HED PE really, really brought it,” Maple said. “There were a lot of people who had either never heard of HED PE, never listened to HED PE, or didn’t care about HED PE, and then they watched them and were like, ‘Wow, who are these guys?’ I’m like dude, these guys are the GOAT (Greatest of All Time).”

Being the wild card on the lineup, Gomes made note onstage that he was happy the band had been accepted into the metal community. Their set incorporated punk, reggae, and world music influences, all wrapped up in a nice package by Gomes’ stage presence. No other band on the lineup incorporated playing a melodica into their performance.

“Jahred is just such a showman, he is so natural up onstage and he just sucks you into his world,” Maple said. “I love it. I think they were pretty thankful to be there too. That was a really big crowd and it’s in an area that already likes HED PE, so they already had some fans there, but I know they made a lot of new fans that day, and that makes me happy. That’s what this is all about.”

The crowd seemed genuinely curious - you could easily tell who was a fan and who was just checking out this band for the first time. I can’t say how many new fans they gained that day, but I can definitely say they made at least one. During the set, a teenage girl tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Excuse me, do you know who this band is? Because they ROCK!”

One highlight from the set was during their song “Raise Hell,” at which time Blue Felix lead singer Toxsick Tripp ran out from backstage and into the crowd to get the pit moving. Once the song fully kicked in, the crowd went OFF.

Having (HED) P.E. perform at the festival is something Maple has wanted for a while.

“Sometimes I gotta push a little bit because it’s not just my festival and it’s not just me that I want to please,” Maple said. “I do this festival for myself because I love it, but I don’t put together the best metal show around just for my own taste. But with that said, I love me some HED PE and I’ve wanted them to play my festival since day one. I basically had to fight my partners on it, until this year they gave in and said, ‘Whatever, Steve,’ and I was like, ‘Yeaaaah, we’re getting HED PE.’”

Most importantly about their set, however, is that in a day full of different types of death metal and deathcore, it was VERY refreshing to have something completely different on the lineup. It was like the musical equivalent of a cold drink of water, and a very welcoming one at that.

There isn’t much left to say about HED PE except their set was a blast and it’s very comforting to know that Jahred is still carrying that torch.

This is the last photo I took of the day before my phone died.

The next band I saw was one that I had never been a fan of before, but was willing to give another shot years later - the infamous deathcore band known as Chelsea Grin.

Deathcore was never really my preferred genre, but even to someone like me, Chelsea Grin put on a solid performance that I enjoyed thoroughly.

One thing I was not aware of was how many lineup changes this band has gone through since forming; none of the original members remain, and singer Tom Barber is formerly of Lorna Shore.

Incidentally, Lorna Shore had previously co-headlined Michigan Metal Fest in 2018.

“Chelsea Grin, I love that band with Tom singing,” Maple said. “I was not a fan of them before, but then they got Tom as a vocalist and I was instantly sold. Before, I thought the music was incredible, but I just didn’t connect with the vocals, but Tom is such a force.

I got to hang out with him during the day a little bit, they ate breakfast with our volunteers, I thought that was really cool. I got to be onstage when they were doing ‘Hostage,’ and that’s one of my favorite songs in the world right now. I was very thankful to be a part of that.”

Having never listened to this band much, I cannot say for sure what songs they played, but I can definitely say the track “Playing with Fire” was done in dedication to the fire spinners and dancers that were performing near the main stage.

To wrap up the day, attendees were treated to the undisputed heavyweight champions of hardcore metal known as Hatebreed.

As I’ve mentioned, again, and not for the last time, the best sets you’ll ever see are the ones that revive you and give a second wind. (HED) P.E. had already given me the second wind, but could it be possible that a different band would deliver a third wind?

In short, yes. While a third wind is rare in my experience, they do occur sometimes, and on that day, Hatebreed gave me the elusive third wind I needed to power through the rest of the night.

Although I’ve seen Hatebreed MANY times over the years, this set was the most unique by far - something happened at the airport and they had to borrow equipment from bands who were already there. As a result, they said their set would be a lot of old-school material.

In a set full of older-school tracks, the highlight for me was “Live for This.” For me, it was like a nostalgic trip back to previous concerts where I saw Hatebreed perform, most recently at Dirt Fest in Pontiac back in 2015.

In particular, I had a flashback to TEN YEARS AGO at The Intersection in Grand Rapids for Decimation of the Nation II, featuring Hatebreed and Cannibal Corpse (which was also the very first time I went to The Intersection).

Not to mention, of course, the two times I saw them perform at Mayhem Festival, which were two of the most intense concert experiences of my life.

In the middle of this huge nostalgia trip reliving the last ten years, Hatebreed was still onstage delivering an absolutely CRUSHING performance. Since the sun had gone down long ago, the crowd had summoned up the reserves of its power to throw down in a massive pit.

Not gonna lie, I had some reservations about seeing Hatebreed perform again, as I had remembered thinking their performance at Dirt Fest had seemed a bit “tired,” for lack of a better term.

I can safely say that the very first note had instantly reminded me of why I had ever loved this band, why they were the highlight of Mayhem Festival multiple times, and why I loved going to these types of festivals in the first place.

“There’s no argument to the fact that [Hatebreed] is by far the biggest band we’ve ever had at MMF,” Maple said. “I was never really into Hatebreed until it came up as an option, there are certain bands that I just never really took time to get into. Nothing pro or con, I just never got the time to really check them out. We started listening to them and then I went and saw them at the Intersection when we were promoting, we made our announcement that night they played at the Intersection. I went out and watched them put on a HELL of a show.

Jamey Jasta is just an incredible frontman, he brings it, he brings a huge personality and attitude to the stage. It’s infectious.”

Perhaps “infectious” really is the right word to describe a Hatebreed set - with the slamming hardcore grooves and the massive stage presence of Jasta, it seems borderline impossible to NOT be revived by the energy they deliver.

It goes without saying that the final three bands of the day gave everyone a great triple-dose of variety - Fusion Metal, Deathcore, and Hardcore. This is one of the best qualities of the festival - finding the cream of the crop of metal subgenres and placing them all next to each other.

To wrap things up, I cannot stress enough that this festival absolutely fills the gap that was left behind in the wake of Mayhem Festival, Warped Tour, Ozzfest and other large-name touring festivals. Anyone who enjoyed going to those types of events would do well to consider this festival in the years to come.

The only question that remains now is what will become of the festival. For starters, staff of the festival want to add more attractions for attendees to engage with.

“Next year, we’re gonna have a couple more interactive vendors,” Maple said. “We want to have a dunk tank, and we’re talking about doing some kind of thing where bands vote for one member that has to be dunked. We’ve also talked about doing a break room, you go in and smash stuff, or axe throwing.”

Maple says there will be even more art on display.

“You may have noticed that there was a lot more art this year; That’s just the first installment of what we’ll be growing each year. We will end up with basically one large art display with a ton of metal music. We want to pound culture into these people.”

Maple also advises that many of the local and regional artists who have played for years will be rotated out in favor of a newer lineup.

“We try to revolve bands out after a couple years, or there’s some bands that played for three years in a row, and they are all aware now that they won’t be playing next year, and it has nothing to do with who the band is, what they do, what their sound is, or anything like that,” Maple said. “[We just want] to really keep it fresh for people, there’ll be some bands that played the first year that we’re gonna bring back again next year, they’ll already have a following that want to help them sell their tickets for MMF.

I don’t sit still and I don’t repeat the same thing twice, so you can always look to be a little bit surprised at MMF because I take my job very seriously and I have an extreme passion for this.”

Regardless of what shape this festival will take in the years to come, one thing is for sure: Michigan Metal Fest has only continued to grow in its third year, and has only further established itself as the end-all heavy metal event of the summer for Michigan, and perhaps even the Midwest itself.

Given the fact that options for heavy metal outings are few and far between in Michigan these days, Maple and company remain humble in the success of the event.

“I don’t want to say I feel fortunate, because I don’t wish for any of these festivals to be done or out of the way or anything, I’ve always been the type of person that doesn’t like to consider anyone to be in competition, just in the fact that I like when everybody wins. I just generally wish success on everyone.

Being the only festival left that caters to metal music around here though, part of it’s kind of easy because everyone needs this. We felt that with the first year, that this was something that was needed. I feel like the other festivals could fire back up and we’d still be a stand-out just because we go a little bit heavier. We do our own thing, we always have, we don’t really care what everybody else is doing. We want to bring people some serious metal.”

In the months following the third MMF, new developments have come to light, such as a new installment of the Rockstar Energy Mayhem Festival in the works. It is currently unknown whether it will be a full tour or a few one-off dates, but as far as Michigan goes, I’d say that it won’t really matter while we have MMF available.

As we begin the new decade in 2020, we can only look forward to the excitement that the fourth installment of MMF will deliver - an excitement that is sure to be welcomed with open arms by metalheads everywhere.

The author (right) and a friend pose for a photo. (Courtesy: Rex Elliot)

A full photo album can be viewed at this link.

To keep up with the crew of Michigan Metal Fest, follow these links for further reading and events:

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