Written by Will Kriss
Additional photos by Emily Sabourin (DJ Shadowplay)
In 2022, Michigan Metal Fest held its fourth annual installment after being postponed multiple times due to the COVID pandemic. It was a day characterized by rain, lightning and set delays.
In a weird way, the bad weather only added to its memorability, but it was still very rough for all involved.
So this time, when the forecast called for clear skies in the high 70’s and low 80’s all day, I couldn’t be more thrilled. Since the weather was perfect for the occasion, the festival could run ahead uninhibited, resulting in quite possibly the best installment yet!
As with my previous works, it is my intention to provide a written boots-on-the-ground report of my experience with Michigan Metal Fest, with added insight from staff and performing artists.
While journalism is usually a solo task for me, I had some extra help this time from Emily Sabourin (DJ Shadowplay of WIDR FM), who took a lot of excellent photos for me.
Since returning to live events last year, it has been an ongoing theme of my writing to NOT look too much into the lineup of whatever event I was covering, with the intention being to organically discover as many artists as possible.
This has paid off pretty well for me before, as I stumbled into a lot of really cool sets I might not have otherwise.
However, it later became apparent that this method has some drawbacks, namely that you might actually miss something really cool, or you might not find out about something until way later, if ever.
I already had a handful of artists I knew I wanted to watch, but originally, I did not look too heavily into the lineup.
In the days leading up to the festival, I took another run-through and realized pretty quickly I was messing up by NOT looking into it. There was a lot of great stuff I was missing out on, and as a result, my schedule for the day became a lot more packed.
Because of this, there would end up being little downtime, which is a good problem to have.
What started as the “discovery method” quickly gave way into the “college cram method” - not ever recommended, but pretty effective most of the time.
And boy, did it get me some great results.
Arriving - Getting the Lay of the Land
On August 19th, we arrived at the gorgeous Leila Arboretum just before noon and were pleased to see that the parking areas were already very full. Spirits were high on my end based on the weather situation alone, and I had almost forgotten what the place looked like when it wasn’t all gray and washed out.
Intricate wooden statues by local artists decorate one area of the venue, and some of them have been swapped out in the last year. I’ve never actually been to this spot without an event going on, and would be curious to experience it on a regular business day.
But for now, the Arboretum was hosting another day packed full of local and regional metal.
Rather than the near-mystical atmosphere brought by the rain of 2022, the venue instead reflected an environment of hard work, dedication and craftsmanship - which was certainly also reflected in the event itself.
After checking into the press booth, we were able to fully appreciate the infrastructure improvements made since last year.
To begin with, the main stage, which had been moved to a slightly different position from before, had nearly doubled in size and came with an actual roof, rather than tarps.
During the bad weather last year, one guy stood on the side of the stage and would periodically push the tarp up with a stick to get the water off.
Even if there was bad weather this year, there would have been no need for such things.
It was very professional looking and a massive upgrade, which set the tone for the day - bigger and better.
If anything, the bad weather last year made me re-appreciate how nice it is when things go smoothly. Since there were no major delays, we were almost constantly on the move because there was always something to see.
The first band of the day would end up being Indiana-based Filth Spewer, who we had only just decided to watch after hearing a few tracks that morning.
However, before that happened, we made a stop at the booth for Peril Hot Sauce, who we had interacted with the year before.
After a rigorous taste test, we walked away with two band-themed sauces - one for Putrid Pile (a jalapeno lime cilantro sauce) and one for Filth Spewer (a key lime jerk sauce). Putrid Pile wasn’t even on the lineup, but I can’t say no to a good jalapeno sauce.
So we had a bottle of Filth Spewer sauce and hadn’t even seen them play yet, but that would change in a matter of minutes at the stage in the sculpture area, dubbed the “Quality Roots” stage after the sponsorship this year.
The South Bend melodic death metal band would prove to be a great one to kick the day off with, and ultimately, one of the best of the day. Their sound reminded me of The Black Dahlia Murder, who I’ve been a fan of for years (May Trevor Strnad Rest in Peace).
In the middle of the set, I had a flashback to years ago at Mayhem Festival, when my cousin told me to “always pay attention to the lower-tier bands, because you never know who’s going to blow up next.”
I really should have taken that advice to heart a lot sooner - but again, better late than never.
Highlights of the set included Sewer Scum and Dead World, as well as an as-yet unreleased track to close out with.
After the festival, I had the opportunity to conduct a phone interview with Drew Vargas, guitarist for Filth Spewer, and the first thing I asked for was a brief history of the group.
“Filth Spewer has been going for about four years now. We’re dealing with a bunch of lineup changes, so it’s basically a new band at this point,” Vargas told me. “Since we started, I assembled the people that I wanted to be in the band. We went through a bunch of bass players and now we recently went through another guitarist, and we’re on our second drummer as well. So me and vocalist Natalie McKay are the two original members.”
When asked what inspires the band, Vargas said that each member has their own influences they bring to the table, all of which help to create their melodic tech-death type of sound. Vargas cited As Blood Runs Black and All Shall Perish among his own influences.
Although the band was playing MMF with a revamped lineup, Vargas said Filth Spewer had a successful set regardless.
“We do have a couple new members, so we’re still adjusting and getting tight together,” Vargas said. “But overall, that was the best we’ve probably played with all the new members. It was cool to see that, right after we started playing, I looked up and there’s just people pouring down the hill. So I feel like we had a really good crowd for the stage. I have no complaints at all, it was a great time.”
In terms of overall festival experience, Vargas said the band had a blast - both off-stage and on.
“To me, that festival is the biggest metal festival that we have around, so I’m always extremely excited to go,” Vargas said. “People were buying tickets left and right. I’ve sold tickets to shows before, and for this one, they sold themselves. There’s a lot of energy there that you can’t really get anywhere else, and it was something that we were really happy to be a part of.
We’ve played a lot of shows with PHAROHOUND, but I haven’t caught them since they got a new vocalist. I feel like that set was the hardest-hitting I’ve ever seen them play. I was just disgusted-face in the crowd excited about it, so shout out to them and Mantra of Morta, those are our homies for sure.
I’d seen Born of Osiris maybe 11 years ago, so it’s crazy that before I was playing in bands, it comes full circle and you start playing with bands you went to see yourself. I also never thought I’d see Psychostick, having been jamming them for many years, so that was surreal. But shout out to all the bands there that day!”
I had to ask about the hot sauce too.
“That was the first day we had the sauce on hand,” Vargas said. “We were playing Toledo Death Fest this year, and one of the vendors out there was Peril Hot Sauce. I was talking to them to see what we gotta do to make this a reality. It actually was really simple, they were really on board. They sent us a prototype bottle, and after giving it some notes and slight adjustments, it was a win-win for both of us.”
Side Note: In the weeks following the event, I’ve used both the Filth Spewer and the Putrid Pile sauces for two different batches of tacos. For the Putrid Pile sauce, I copied a similar recipe that involved the hot sauce of the stoner metal band Weedeater, which manufacturer Outer Limits Hot Sauce has their own marinade recipe for.
Those tacos were delicious, but upon trying out the Filth Spewer sauce on some tacos, I realized I had grossly underestimated how hot it actually was. I’d only done a dab of it at the event, so I didn’t get the full effect.
I managed to choke down one taco, but had to toss the other one, and I haven’t figured out what to try it on next.
But for a band like this, a very spicy sauce seems appropriate.
In the meantime, Filth Spewer plans to stay busy through the end of the year and beyond.
“The current goal right now for us is, now that everyone in the band is caught up, we can start writing more material,” Vargas said. “We’ve finished a sixth song, we have another one pretty much finished, and another one mostly finished. Two of those are gonna be ones we haven’t played live before, and our new guitarist went to school for recording, so we’re starting to lay down tracks, and then I’m thinking we will shoot a music video for it. We should have some new material before the end of the year.”
After Filth Spewer wrapped up, we grabbed a giant pulled pork sandwich (which is pretty much tradition at this point) and prepared for one of the most important sets of the day: MMF Mastermind Steve Maple’s band NuSkin at the main stage, which would contain one very big surprise.
NuSkin / KILLCROWN
So not only was this NuSkin’s return to Michigan Metal Fest, it would actually be the last show they would perform under that name. During the set, Maple announced that going forward, the band would now be known as Killcrow
I asked him about the rebranding, among many other things, in an interview after the festival.
“When Nuskin broke up about four years ago, we just didn’t want to rehash the same music anymore,” Maple said. “We had been through a lot of members, and we looked at each other one day and asked if we wanted to keep doing this. We didn’t know what it was that we needed, but we knew we didn’t wanna do that anymore, so we put the band down.
A few years later, my guitarist and I ended up talking about making music. We both were a lot heavier than what we were before, and we both wanted to not let anything get in our way of that.
That’s the main goal of this band - don’t let someone come in and change what we’re doing ever again. We did that with each new member of NuSkin - whenever someone didn’t work out and another member would come in and wouldn’t like this song, we’d move on, write some new ones, and we just became a watered-down version of ourselves.
So when we got back together, we decided to call it Nuskin at first and rebrand ourselves as a heavier band. We had a new logo made but I still honestly wasn’t feeling it, and then suddenly, our Facebook page got shut down because we have the same name as a skin care company. We didn’t know this when we started the band, so we tried to appeal it, and they removed the page completely.
It was at that time that I talked to everyone and said let’s just go full-steam with this, we’re not the same band, we really don’t have interest in playing any of the same songs. I think that we just needed a completely new facelift to fit us as a completely different group - none of us are the same as we were back in that band.”
Regardless of what band name he’s performing under, watching Maple work in this role is something else. All hunched up on himself and red in the face with veins literally BULGING out of his neck, it’s the complete opposite of how he is in person - a friendly and relaxed demeanor.
DJ Shadowplay had never seen him perform, only having met him a few times off-stage, and remarked that his stage presence was SCARY. And that’s part of what made it awesome!
Maple also noted that new Killcrown music will be available for listening in December, which will coincide with a very big show (more on this later).
Mantra of Morta
This next set was also important, and one that I had made a point of seeing over a year ago.
They were one of the bands who didn’t end up getting to play in 2022 due to weather issues. Although they were able to play a make-up show at the Music Factory after the fact, they were now about to settle the real score.
Taking the main stage, you could feel the energy and excitement crackling from the band.
But before diving in, lead singer Jessie Cochran announced that their drummer Justin Ashley wouldn't be at this performance because he was expecting his newborn. Instead, he would be replaced with C.J. Parker from the band Darker Than Fiction.
As I would find out later, this was actually the first time the band had performed without Ashley. But no matter - the band delivered a great set that I’d been waiting over a year to see.
Although I would much rather have avoided bad weather and seen them play the first time, it was a set worth waiting for.
Knowing what was at stake with this set, I knew I had to talk to them after the event was over, and I spoke with bassist Dominic Vicente via email after the show.
When I had done some initial reading on the band, they claimed “Farmland, Indiana” as their home territory, which I thought was a joke.
But according to Vicente, that’s not a joke at all, and the band has been together since 2015.
“It’s really hard to find a genre that we feel fits us, we’ve heard everything from Alternative Metal, Groove Metal and Melodic Metal,” Vicente said. “We always try to generate a sound that is real to us. I appreciate all types of music even if I don’t listen to it on a regular basis.” We had to address the elephant in the room on not being able to play last year, and it turns out, the weather wasn’t the only hardship they dealt with that day.
“We were so bummed about MMF 2022,” Vicente said. “We started that day with some vehicle issues. So after finally getting a rental to make our way up there, we were ready to hit the stage! But shortly after arriving the weather had other things in mind. Ourselves and others were unfortunately unable to play last year.
This all made MMF 2023 that much more special. All in all, we are thankful for the MMF crew to have had us back this year! From organization to the overall culture of the festival, this is something you have to experience if you haven’t. It means a lot to us.”
One of those dates will take place at The Music Factory in Battle Creek on Saturday, November 4.
As for new releases from the group, Vicente said to stay tuned!
The only thing I knew about Cultus Black was that they had just done their first shows in person earlier this year, opening up for some dates on a Static-X tour earlier this year.
That’s one hell of a way to make a debut, and a good enough reason for me to plan on checking them out.
The lead singer (whose name I can’t find online) was decked out in corpse paint with runes and related regalia, while the other members were shrouded in mystery, similar to bands like Ghost.
Immediately, I knew that this was something I was going to enjoy.
Instead of the black metal I was expecting, their sound was more of a Nu-Metal and Deathcore fusion with a symphonic edge. One YouTube commenter even referred to them as “BlacKnot,” which seems appropriate.
Pretty soon, it made way more sense to me why they opened for Static-X.
So with that in mind, it was much more like watching a Motograter or Blue Felix kind of show. There were even flaming hula hoop dancers towards the back of the crowd, which reminded me of what it was like being at the old Carnival of Chaos music festival.
The singer’s presence was serious, but also very humorous - he made jokes during the show, saying stuff like “You’re looking at us like, who are these weird motherfuckers on this stage? We’re gonna tell you who we are! WE ARE CULTUS BLACK!”
With some help from the audience, the band closed the set with their song “You Make Me Sick.”
After a high-profile debut earlier this year and a memorable MMF appearance, it’ll be very interesting to see how this band grows.
“Mark my words, Cultus Black will blow up, and they will be all over the radio,” Maple told me. “They’re incredible.”
Implicator’s set is another instance of how the “discovery method” bit me in the ass that day.
Earlier that day, almost immediately after I arrived, I ran into a friend from Kalamazoo, Brian Storch of Merciless Booking. He asked if I was gonna watch his band, and it dawned on me that I didn’t even know they were supposed to play.
Even worse, I’d forgotten Brian had even STARTED a new band, or what it was called. Clearly, I’ve been away from the ‘Zoo longer than I realized.
It was an embarrassing moment for me, and one I was going to make sure to rectify. So after Cultus Black, I made a beeline back to the Fountain Stage.
Both Brian (guitar) and lead singer Eric Boysen have been heavily involved in the Kalamazoo metal scene for a long time through Merciless Booking, and have both become friends and press contacts of mine in the process.
Since I lived in Kalamazoo for eight years for work and school, I once again felt a responsibility to show support to the scene.
And since I hadn’t heard one song by Implicator, it would be a completely fresh experience for me. Turns out, they play a subgenre of metal I’m largely unfamiliar with called “Beatdown,” but with a comedic edge.
This was made apparent before I even saw them play. At their booth, Boysen was telling me that when writing this article, to “make sure you write about how terrible we are, and how we’re the worst band you’ve ever seen, and you can’t believe anyone would pay to come see us.”
“Actually, don’t write that,” he laughed. “We do want people to come see our shows.”
I reminded him that it could actually be a great gimmick, as it worked out pretty well for Green Jello. People might actually come to the show thinking, “how bad could it possibly be?”
He couldn’t help but agree.
Much like Steve Maple, Boysen also has a pretty scary stage presence, including the red face with bulging neck veins.
“THEY TELL YOU - TO KEEP YOUR HEAD UP - SO THEY CAN CUT - YOUR FUCKING THROAT,” he bellowed.
There were a lot of tongue-in-cheek elements that were an interesting contrast to the music, and pretty true to Brian and Eric as I know them.
The band remained on brand when I interviewed them after the show via email. In an unusual move, they opted to answer as a group, rather than as one person.
“Implicator became a band around December 2022,” the members wrote. “We like to consider ourselves party, metal-beatdown, but like to do what we feel during our writing process. Whatever we like, we make it heavier. Our approach to writing always starts with what we find to be serious topics, but make light hearted comedy about those topics, because if the shoe fits, wear it.”
When asked about their influences, members answered everything from Bodysnatcher and Periphery to Miley Cyrus and A Flock of Seagulls.
Notably, Michigan Metal Fest would only be their second live performance as a band, so Cultus Black wasn’t the only band that day that was relatively new.
“We felt confident going into our set,” Implicator wrote. “The amount of support we got even before our set from people who had heard about us really helped boost our readiness. We happened to set up our merch tent with Hostages; they killed it on stage right after our set and helped make our experience that much better. It was awesome seeing the crowd enjoy our music while they punched their friends. Also, the PBJ that Brian got handed on stage was made with love.”
(That’s one thing I forgot to mention until they pointed that out - someone DID hand Brian a peanut butter sandwich during the set).
“The event was a great time, we had great weather and were surrounded by our kind of people,” the band added. “Being our second show, we held ourselves to a high expectation of giving the crowd a good show to help raise the bar for the festival next year. Steve Maple and his team put on a great festival and we would love to thank him for the opportunity to get on and show the crowd what we are doing.”
At the time of this writing, only one studio track exists, “Chin Up Buttercup,” but Implicator says more music is on the way.
“Currently, we are working on getting some more of our singles recorded,” the band wrote. “We have a few shows on the schedule that have not been announced yet. A lot of internal issues have happened due to a Hep-C outbreak that one of our members has passed to the rest of us.”
Regardless, it’s great to see another band from the Zoo thriving, and one I’ll be keeping an eye on. Hopefully we can hear some more recorded material soon.
I actually have seen the Las Vegas-based Hemlock once when they were opening for Ministry back in 2015.
No disrespect to Hemlock, but since it’s Ministry we’re talking about, I was scraping my brain and realized I couldn’t remember a single thing ABOUT them. Since it was my first time seeing Ministry too, I think I could be forgiven.
But since I didn’t remember DISLIKING them, I figured it couldn’t hurt to see the show again and get a refresher.
At the main stage, Hemlock’s meat-and-potatoes heavy metal show provided a mood that was in pretty stark contrast to the last two bands - it was a much more “fun” atmosphere, for lack of a better term.
“We need everybody here to help us out,” lead singer and bassist Chad Smith yelled. “From front to back, get a SMILE on your face!”
He would later declare that he needed the crowd to only remember one thing - that Hemlock is the “most smiley metal band you’ve ever seen! Get ‘em up, we’re here to celebrate music! Horns up! Smiles up!”
Every now and then, it’s nice to see a band that’s just having fun - nothing more, nothing less.
And apparently that’s worked out really well for them, as Smith noted that the band was now celebrating 30 years - all without a label, bus driver or manager.
Considering the band has opened for Ministry, Slipknot, Slayer and other big names, I’d say that’s one hell of an accomplishment.
An excerpt from the official band biography reads as follows -
“Hemlock gets the crowd involved in the show, and puts on the show of a lifetime, every time. The band makes sure that everyone goes home knowing they had fun with Hemlock.”
Well I definitely had fun, and I would be more than happy to see them again, smiles and horns and all!
Let it Rot
Since moving to Lansing in 2022, I had heard talk of local metal band Let it Rot, but I’d never caught any shows or heard any of their music. I figured this would be the perfect opportunity to see them for the first time, letting the “discovery method” do its thing.
The band was performing at MMF for the second time, having played in 2022 before the big storm rolled in.
The first thing that struck me was vocalist Brandon Hartman. He wasn’t a huge dude, but his vocals were very guttural - one of those “Where is THAT coming from?” moments.
I enjoyed the show, and the band made a great first impression on me.
I knew I needed to talk with these guys, so after the festival, I had the opportunity to talk with Hartman to learn more about the group.
We spoke on the phone while the band was in the middle of a tour with Heartsick out of state, and the first thing I wanted to know was the basic history of the group.
Describing LIR’s style as deathcore with a tinge of metalcore, Hartman says the group has been going for quite a while now, and he himself is a founding member.
“I think it’s gonna be exactly seven years on September 29th,” Hartman told me. “It started out real slow and small, it was a hobby with a former guitarist that started in his basement just jamming and having fun. We played a couple local shows for fun, and we quickly realized we had something bigger going there.”
When it comes to new listeners, like myself, Hartman has some suggestions of where to get started.
“Lake of Fire and Pesticide,” Hartman said. “Not only do we have music videos for both of those, but I think they’re two of our most dynamic songs throughout our song list. We have one E.P. that has seven songs, and then we have our full-length album with both of those songs on it. We’ve gotten a great crowd response every time we play them too.”
During the live performance of Pesticide, the group was joined onstage by Keato, vocalist of Lansing-based “Accuser of the Brethren,” who also features on the studio cut of the song.
“We were all really happy about the set,” Hartman said. “We took the time to build a really cool backing track for it, so all the songs bled nicely into each other, and we even did this one at the end where we included snippets of the big bands like Psychostick, Traitors and Born of Osiris in these little radio snippets. It all flowed really really well together, we worked really hard on it and we were really proud of it.”
Beyond their own set, Hartman said he and everyone else in the band had a blast that day, meeting fans and bands and enjoying the atmosphere.
When discussing immediate plans for the band in the near future, Hartman noted an upcoming show with Of Virtue, to take place at the new Grewal Hall in Lansing.
However, that show has since been rescheduled, and is currently slated to take place on Saturday, November 4th.
“We’re definitely striving to always be a better band,” Hartman said. “We want to keep moving forward, keep playing shows, keep expanding ourselves, and we’re always trying our hardest to be the best we can. We hope more fans see it, jump on, appreciate it, listen to us and follow us. That’s our prerogative and that’s our goal.”
Following the show by Let it Rot, we moved back to the main stage to catch one of the big highlights of the day, Raven Black, who were making a return to the festival after performing in 2018.
Raven Black, a dark circus-style metal band, was one of the wild cards on the lineup that year, and were noteworthy for being something radically different that day.
In other words, they ended up being one of my favorite sets of that installment.
They were originally scheduled to come back for the 2020 event, but thanks to obvious delays over two years, were not ultimately in the revamped lineup for 2022. (Psychostick as well, actually).
It was a different experience seeing them in broad daylight as opposed to nighttime, but no less entertaining.
Keeping the theatrics up to date, the painted-up band brought a very fun and spooky vibe - tons of fog machines and props, Raven holding items like teddy bears and razorblade lollipops, and stage hands throwing what appeared to be small toys out to the audience.
At one point, they even threw out a giant inflatable pool unicorn, which a guy in a clown costume (who had been in EVERY main stage mosh pit ALL DAY) took a crowd-surfing ride on.
Speaking of costumes, actors from the Jonesville-based DarkSyde Acres Haunted House, who appeared in the music video for “Dollhouse,” had been lurking around the venue all day, and even joined the band onstage for the performance of that track.
Having worked in a haunted house myself, I couldn’t imagine how some of these actors could stand walking around in full costume all day long in that kind of weather, so I chalked it up to “years of practice.”
Raven Black proved once again to be a premium wild-card addition to the lineup, was a lot of fun, and served as a great precursor to the spooky season.
Fools’ Brew // Traitors
This was an instance where I had to divide the time between sets.
I had listened to the Chicago-based Fools’ Brew the night before and thought lead singer Jarrett O'Cooley sounded remarkably like Corey Taylor (Slipknot / Stone Sour).
This realization actually proved to be true in two different ways - at different points of the set, O’Cooley would bang on a metal keg with a baseball bat, Slipknot style.
It was an enjoyable hard rock performance, and I would have liked to have seen more than I did, but I also wanted to see what all the hype around Traitors was about.
Once I returned to the main stage, I was astonished, because the crowd was now the biggest I’d seen that day. How had I not heard of these guys before?
The music was like a mix of deathcore and Nu Metal as well, but in a different way than Cultus Black.
By that, I mean there were a lot of guitar effects that had the really discordant sound of early Slipknot, along with turntable scratching effects (which may or may not have been from the guitars), and it all meshed very well.
Not knowing anything about this Florida-based band beforehand, I could see why people were excited for them, as the performance was absolutely slamming, and the crowd was actively encouraged by vocalist Tyler Shelton.
“I love the energy, you guys got me fucking amped up, and you’ve still got a couple hours ahead of you with some fun-ass music! I love to see it!” Shelton exclaimed.
In addition, I didn’t realize until after the festival that Traitors was actually out on tour opening for headliners Born of Osiris and Upon a Burning Body, with MMF being one of many stops.
“Those guys are DISGUSTING, man, absolutely just brutal,” Steve Maple would later tell me. “That was my favorite pick of the year personally, that hits the hardest for me. When I found that band I was like, ‘no, these guys are writing music for my angry soul right now.’”
A memorable show, but quite the opposite for what was to come immediately after.
The comedy metal band known as Psychostick was one of my most highly-anticipated sets of the day.
As mentioned earlier, part of the reason why is that the band was originally supposed to play in 2020, but again, did not ultimately end up playing in 2022 after postponements.
But in writing this article, I found myself hitting a wall. How in the world do I explain this band to people who don’t know about them? And aside from that, how do I explain the show itself, which was a complete spectacle?
I’ve seen this band MANY times over the years, but I’ve never been in a position where I needed to explain them. They are most simply described as a comedy metal group, but they’re so much more than that.
Most people would recognize their hit song “Beer,” which came from their debut album in 2003 (later reissued in 2006, when I first heard it).
The band, wearing their signature silly outfits, took the main stage and began with a cover of “Tequila,” which they said was in tribute to the late Pee-Wee Herman.
But when it got to the first “Tequila!” chant, lead singer Rob Kersey yelled, “No! BEER!”
And the band launched into Beer!
A LOT of stuff happened during this set, so I’m just gonna shotgun a list of the most notable parts, aside from all the funny banter:
“Numbers (I Can Only Count to Four)” - a parody of “Bodies” by Drowning Pool.
After asking who the “biggest toughest motherfucker in the crowd” was, they handed this big guy “who looks like he’s been to a gym” a sombrero to wear. The idea was that once the song “The Sombrero Prophecy” began, the crowd's goal was to get the sombrero from him. By the end of the song, the guy still had one piece of straw left, and he was rewarded with beer! It even came in the commemorative glass!
The last song, which they hyped up big-time, was a metal version of the Hokey Pokey, which I can’t say I’ve ever seen done before.
Just like with Green Jello from last year, I don’t feel that I’m doing any real justice by writing about the set. Normally I would just paint a picture with my words, but in this case, a live video was taken by staff, and it’s one that I’d like to call attention to. Rather than me talking about it, readers can watch that video and get a better idea of the show at this link.
“Psychostick is amazing, they just put on such a fun show and they’re such great guys,” Maple told me later. “They caught up with me all day long, and were just so down-home, polite and thankful, just over the top cool guys, same with Hemlock.”
Maple also said that he would like to have Psychostick and Hemlock involved with future events.
Earlier in the day when I was looking at the schedule, I noticed a name that I somehow hadn’t before, “Voraath,” who would be closing down the Quality Roots stage by the sculptures.
A quick internet scan revealed the following:
“An otherworldly and experimental metal act based out of the Carolinas, Voraath unifies epic soundscapes with bone-crushing brutal riffs.”
It sounded right up my alley, and something was telling me I’d regret not seeing this.
After Psychostick was over, I figured we could head over to the stage and at least see some of the set before deciding what to do next. While most of the crowd had remained at the main stage, a small number of people had migrated over there as well.
The band took a while to set up and started bleeding into the main stage schedule, but the payoff was well worth it - while the set was happening, I couldn’t help but think “all those people over there have no idea what they’re missing right now!”
Clad in post-apocalyptic outfits and matching helmets with red LED eyes, the music was a mix of death metal with symphonic overtones. The incredibly deep vocals of singer Chelsea Marrow caught me completely off-guard - it was another one of those “Where is THAT coming from?” moments.
Maple would also later tell me that Marrow was in another band that had previously played at MMF 2018, Accursed Creator, which I know for a fact I did NOT see that year.
“She came up and played and did a fucking incredible job,” Maple said of that performance. “No one had ever really heard of them up here to my knowledge, and they made one of the biggest impressions that time. She’s just making a really good name for herself in the metal scene, and the bands she’s in are doing good things.”
I kicked myself upon hearing this - another instance of not doing enough research on my part, only made apparent five years after the fact.
“The company these guys are working with, Exitus Stratagem Records, are actually a sponsor of ours, and they were last year,” Maple added. “They’re looking to become a permanent fixture in the MMF family.”
If the other bands on that label sound as good as Voraath, I’ll be excited to see more of them.
Ultimately, it was one of the best sets of the day, and it was all very new and fresh to me. I hadn’t even heard one note from the group before the show, but by the end of it, I knew I made the right call.
In hindsight, it was kind of poetic that my day started and ended in the same place. After being floored by Voraath and their sci-fi themed blend of death metal, we both decided it was the perfect note to end on for the night.
Wild cheers were still coming from the main stage area, and rightfully so, but the prospect of beating traffic after discovering a new favorite motivated our exit.
We headed out into the night with a feeling of total elatement from the day we just experienced.
After the festival was over, I spoke with Steve Maple on the phone while he was preparing for a practice session with KillCrown.
I started off by asking him about the obvious - how did this installment stack up against the storm-laden 2022 event?
Even though I already knew the answer, I needed to hear it from him.
“Like you said, it was an obvious contrast to the year before, when we got a large rain and lightning storm that caused a lot of havoc and a couple of bands that couldn’t play,” Maple said. “So last year was definitely kind of a bummer in a couple senses, but the community we created through that event by staying open, it really made this huge strengthened unit.”
Because of the bad weather, Maple said he and the MMF team were more prepared than ever going into 2023.
“We worked on this festival every two weeks, going over all these policies and everything to be prepared for, everything we can possibly do better,” Maple said. “So this year, 2023, was actually incredible. We have never been able to take care of our artists in the way we did this year.
Born of Osiris and Upon a Burning Body, they said they’d been touring all summer and that this was the best festival they had stopped at, because we really took care of them. We had a really good hospitality team and everyone had a clear understanding of what was going on.”
Next, I explained my methodology, and how I changed my approach leading up to the event. I noted that the lineup seemed to be more diverse than it had ever been, which Maple said was intentional.
“We try to make sure we get all the mixes of metal,” Maple said. “We do want to represent as many genres of metal as we can. We’re not gonna promise to represent every variety every year, but we’re gonna try to get that spread out a bit.”
I thought it was cool of the festival to get bands back who were supposed to play in 2022, like Mantra of Morta for example.
“That was my first concern, was to make sure we represented everyone correctly,” Maple said. “It doesn’t matter if something happened last year, I’m not gonna blow you off as a band. These bands traveled to play, so they all got taken care of and put back on the bill again, because that’s just how we do it.
A lot of people that didn’t get to play were good friends of mine, and it really hurt me to not see them able to play. But to see them be so humble and understanding about what happened, they more than earned their spot on the lineup.”
I congratulated Maple on all of the success and improvements, but he excitedly noted that next year will see even more changes.
For starters, the festival will now have two stages instead of three.
“What we’re gonna do is cut back on the number of bands, but we’re gonna keep working on improving the quality,” Maple said. “We are still going to showcase lots of local bands, but you’ll see more names that you recognize. Both of the stages from this year are going to be bigger.”
The main stage will stay where it is, while the Fountain Stage will be improved and upgraded to be more comparable in size. Both of those stages will now alternate acts, so attendees won’t have to miss bands due to overlap.
The third stage by the sculptures will be used for something he couldn’t elaborate on just yet.
“We are going to consolidate the area a bit so it’s not so spread out,” Maple explained. “I did think that happened, like you said with Voraath, you felt not enough people really saw their set. We talked about this a lot, and we really feel like it was a setup issue. There were too many people hanging out near the main stage waiting for what was gonna happen next there, when if our setup was closer together, they would see this other incredible band going on and could just walk over and watch them real quick.
We’ve been working really hard to improve the whole experience. No matter what fun you’ve had there before, expect to have more fun, because we’re working really hard to just make it amazing for everyone.”
In the immediate future, fans who can’t get enough metal will be treated to a number of opportunities to keep the party going until the next MMF installment.
On Saturday, October 28, “The Black Hallows Tour” will make a stop at The Music Factory in Battle Creek.
The event includes several acts from Michigan Metal Fest this year, such as Raven Black, Cultus Black, Casket Robbery, and Maple’s KillCrown, with Dying Oath rounding out the lineup.
“Casket Robbery is another one of my personal favorites, they’re just absolutely hitting the vein of what I love,” Maple said. “I’ve joined them onstage before to sing with them, you can probably look forward to me doing that again on this night. For 13 additional dollars, there’s a VIP afterparty where all of us musicians are gonna get together and play some acoustic sets. That’s super off-the-cuff, you’re not gonna see this stuff anywhere else.”
More on that event can be found here.
But the party doesn’t stop there - another super heavy event is planned for December, which is now the second of its kind.
Dark Christmas 2023 is meant to showcase some of the heaviest bands on the scene, many of which have also graced previous MMF lineups.
It made its debut in 2022, with the lineup including Embryonic Autopsy as the headliner, and one of the standout performances from MMF that year.
At the time of our interview, Maple remained tight-lipped on who would be playing this time, but the lineup has been announced since then.
“We’re gonna do this every year at the Music Factory, and we just highlight extremely brutal bands,” Maple said. This is gonna be Beatdown, Deathcore type bands. This will be an extremely brutal fucking show, so we just really like to stamp that as the heaviest event we do of the year.”
True to his word, Dark Christmas 2023 will include the likes of Filth, KillCrown, Implicator, Let it Rot, and Accuser of the Brethren.
It will also mark an important milestone for Maple and KillCrown.
“This is when we’re actually going to release our first music,” Maple said. “We will have a brand new single with new artwork, new shirts, and everything to go along with the single. We will have a massive distribution situation set up, so that when we release it, it’s released on all kinds of networks all over the place.”
For more information on Dark Christmas 2023, click here.
Final Thoughts from Maple
At the end of the interview, and with the sounds of the other Killcrown members beginning their practice session in the background, I gave Maple the floor to add whatever else he wanted to.
“We’re looking to build trust in our community, because that’s what this thing was built by, the community. It’s all kinds of people volunteering their time with no payment to motivate them - the only thing that motivates our people is progress with our local festival that no one else has. It just makes us feel so good to have this. We want to nurture it and build it, and the people who want to do that just keep growing.
It’s been incredible seeing it go through so many phases and stages and growths, and the hardship of not being able to be a festival for two years during a pandemic, and then the year we come back, we got rained on, and we did have an attendance loss that day. We did okay still, and we made it through to build stronger the next year. To me, it’s an absolutely incredible underdog story, and we’re just getting started.”
My Final Thoughts
Overall, Michigan Metal Fest returned with a vengeance in 2023, pushing past the issues of its previous installment and proving to be, once again, a standout event of the summer.
Featuring a large variety of metal subgenres, upgraded production, a gorgeous venue that was easy to navigate, and even more plans for improvement in the future, I again ask, what more could you ask for?
It might be a no-brainer, but it can’t be stressed enough that without bad weather interruptions, there was nothing else to do but fully appreciate the hard work that goes into making this event run, and to fully enjoy the end result in motion.
On my end, I re-learned the value of actually looking into festival lineups before attending one, rather than just walking in and being surprised, and will be sure to do this more often from now on. I shudder to think of what I could have missed that day had I not done some cursory listening, and I really have to wonder what else I’ve missed over the years, even when I was better versed in the lineups.
It is for all these reasons and more that metal fans everywhere should consider adding Michigan Metal Fest to their planned summer stops, as there really isn’t anything else in the Mitten State like this.
Just as Maple said in our interview, it’s been amazing watching this event grow and shift since 2017, and considering the trajectory it’s on now, will surely only get even better from here.
Here’s to another amazing day of metal in Michigan, and many more for years to come.
Will Kriss // [DJWILLKILL]
Steve Maple, Killcrown and the collective MMF staff, volunteers and sponsors
Emily Sabourin (DJ SHADOWPLAY) for the photos