On October 24th and 25, 2015, my 12-year-old son Jesse and I made our second annual pilgrimage to Slipknot’s giant, weekend-long heavy metal festival Knotfest. The event once again took place at San Manuel Amphitheater at Glen Helen Regional Park in San Bernardino, California. This is a recap of our experiences on Saturday, October 24.
The event actually kicks off on Friday night with a show just for those who are fortunate enough to be holding camping or VIP passes. We were not among those folks, so we missed out on Sepultura, The Faceless, and several others. A bit of a bummer, but nothing compared to the gut-wrenching decisions that we would have to make later in the weekend with so many quality bands performing opposite each other on the side stages (more on that in a few…).
Our weekend began Saturday morning with the 60-mile drive from our home base in Burbank, CA, to the venue. We got an early start this year so as to not experience the same heartbreak that we had last year when we were still standing in the insanely long line listening to the distant strains of the mighty Immolation kicking off the festival without us. To the credit of the San Manuel staff, this year’s line was substantially smaller and moved at a much more efficient pace. The only disappointment here was the lack of deluded religious zealots picketing the entrance this year. Nothing passes the time quite like skewering bible thumpers with their own flimsy logic.
Having also learned the expensive lesson that is $5 bottled waters and skimpy $12 cheeseburgers last year, we decided to buck the system and pack lunch, waters, and snacks for both days. Pro tip here for anyone who might be considering checking out the festival next year (assuming it returns to San Manuel for a third year): the venue allows you to enter with as much food as you can cram into a clear 1 gallon baggie for each person. This rare moment of foresight on my part probably saved me around a hundred bucks on the weekend.
We made it inside before Battlecross took to the stage. I’ve been a big fan of these Michigan thrashers for several years now, but had not yet had the pleasure of catching them live. They did not disappoint, laying down a fast and furious set, and giving a crowd that appeared generally nocturnal a swift noontime jolt of adrenaline to get the festivities underway.
The festival organizers clearly learned a few lessons from last year and prime among them was replacing the second and third, side-by-side stages with a single turntable-type rotating stage. The result was super smooth transitions between bands on the primary side stage. So, while still buzzing from Battlecross’ performance we were immediately treated to an equally energetic set from Portland, Oregon stoner metal veterans Red Fang. Being an old dude myself, it’s inspiring to see a band like Red Fang who is a bit longer in the tooth just laying waste to the youth.
Then came the first of several of those instances that I alluded to earlier where a tough decision had to be made. New Orleans blackened thrash battalion Goatwhore, a band that I absolutely love and have immense respect for, were playing next on the very same stage.
Now I’ve seen these guys twice before and can attest that their show is a force of nature. So it was with a great amount of remorse that we had to walk away while they were just leveling the place on only their second song. You see, a friend of ours who works at one of the big metal labels and always takes very good care of us here at GoD is the girlfriend of Charles Elliot, the singer and guitarist for Abysmal Dawn. They were about to play over on stage 4 and we felt it only right to go show our gratitude and support even though we had only a peripheral knowledge of the band. And guess what… it turned out to be the best decision of the weekend because these guys are AMAZING! I cannot believe that they have not really registered on my radar until now, but they very definitely made at least two new rabid fans with their breakout performance. I’ve been submerging myself in their four albums ever since. The guitar work, in particular, is very reminiscent of the grand-daddy of all death metal bands, Death. If you haven’t taken the time to check these guys out, DO IT NOW! You won’t regret it, I promise.
It was then a race back to the second stage just in time to catch At The Gates for the second time this year. The band is still touring on the back of their first album in 19 years. I named At War With Reality the #1 metal album of 2014 and the band has all the live chops to back it up. Their set drew equal parts from that record and their legendary back catalog. One would never guess that this band was on hiatus for nearly two decades. It’s as though they never missed a beat!
Up next was another dilemma: Body Count and GWAR were wrapping up the day on the second stage, but two of my favorite bands Belphegor and Kataklysm were in the exact same time slots over on stage 4. My friend Vince is the bass player of Body Count, so I have seen them before and I can’t even recall how many times I’ve witnessed GWAR’s spectacle. Having never seen either Belphegor or Kataklysm live the choice was obvious. So like a yo-yo, were were back off to stage 4.
Belphegor are among the blackest of black metal bands, so the idea of seeing them in broad daylight was a bit strange. Fortunately, by the time they took to the stage the sun was starting to creep behind the band shell taking a bit of the edge off of the direct sunlight. It mattered not the the Austrian purveyors of the left-hand path. They brought an darkness and evil through their superb performance that not even the high desert sun could pierce! Drawing on two and a half decades of uncompromising malevolence and hate, their set culminated in the brand new track “Totenkult (Exegesis of Deterioration)” which I featured in last week’s Black Metal Friday column. I MUST see this band in a properly low-lit setting as soon as the opportunity presents itself!
Kataklysm is a Canadian band that (just like Belphegor) formed in 1991. Their brand of old-school death metal went over extremely well with the crowd and was the perfect way to round out the side stages for the first day.
After six hours on our feet and trekking who knows how many miles, we were happy to grab some dinner from the concession stand (the 1 gallon bag of food had long since been depleted) and headed for our seats. Thanks to a Live Nation pre-sale invitation, we had staked out really good seats, stage left and about half way up the first (orchestra) section of seats.
The first act of the evening on the big stage was Corrosion of Conformity. One never really knows which version of COC you’re going to get; there are at least three versions of the band out there touring and I’ve now seen all of those in the last couple of years. On this night, the crowd was very pleased to be witnessing the reunion of the band’s most successful and well-known lineup featuring Pepper Keenan on vocals and guitar. This incarnation is working on a new record, and judging from the very quality performance that they put on this night they seem to be having fun and firing on all cylinders. I very much look forward to hearing their next effort.
I can’t even begin to voice my frustration with the next band Trivium to you. This is a band that I was 100 percent behind at one point. They have proven to be capable of churning out some of the greatest metal this side of the millennium. They’re also guilty of some of the most egregious attempts at mainstream rock radio sellout this side of Metallica’s Black Album. They will now forever be tainted by the stench of Disturbed leaded David Draiman who (over)produced their 2013 album Vengeance Falls. Their recently released album, Silence In The Snow, despite the absence of Draiman, slides even further into pop metal blandness. Their performance here relied heavily on songs from those two albums in lieu of their MUCH stronger older material. I’m all for bands experimenting and growing, but it really seems that these guys are devolving. To make matters worse, every song sounded rushed and the set was marred by some technical issues. I have seen Trivium live many times over the years and they are at least usually a top notch live band. This was far and away the worst that I have ever seen them play.
Thankfully Mastodon was up next to save the day. This was the band’s 2000th show and they were on fire! They are another band that I’ve seen multiple times with mixed results. Tonight was without a doubt the best performance of theirs that I’ve ever seen. It was also their last date for a while as they announced they’re now off to begin work on the follow up to this year’s excellent Once More ‘Round The Sun.
Korn was the penultimate band of the day. In the interest of full disclosure, I actively HATE this band. Their whole ’90s nu metal pseudo rap garbage was awful even in its day and has not aged well at all. Apparently they played their first album in its entirety. I couldn’t tell you for sure, but what I can say is that I was actually surprised by their set. While still not my thing, I have to concede that they are an incredibly tight and energetic live band. The crowd ate it up, and I suppose there is a reason that they are still out there playing to these big crowds after 21 years!
There are no words for how excited both Jesse and I were for headliners Judas Priest. It was his first time seeing them and my first time in 31 years (damn… I’m old! When did that happen?). There is a reason that metalheads refer to Halford and company as “The Metal Gods” and it was all on display here. Newcomer guitarist Richie Faulkner has breathed new life into one of metal’s most seminal bands. He stalked the stage like a man possessed firing off fluid legato lines reminiscent of Michael Schenker. Rob Halford may move a bit slower these days, but the man can still hit every last note of his legendary multi-octave range. There were notes that came out of his mouth that we feared might shatter all of the glass within a mile radius. The set was a somewhat surprising mix of the big hits like “You’ve Got Another Thing Coming,” “Breaking The Law,” and a very fiery rendition of “Turbo Lover” and some more obscure gems like “The Rage” and “Victim of Changes.” Literally the only bad thing that I can say about this performance is that I wish it had gone on for much longer.
We learned our lesson about the parking lot of this place last year after being stuck in gridlock for over an hour, so we started heading down the hill to the parking lot while the band was playing their final encore and managed to beat most of the rush out of the park. We were off to our hotel, which was a Days Inn in one of San Bernardino’s sketchiest meth-head neighborhoods. It was the kind of place where the front desk was behind bulletproof glass and you had to “check out” the TV remote via credit card deposit. Ignoring the stained carpet and broken shower curtain, we collapsed from an action-packed day of metal in the desert sun and recharged for day two. Stay tuned right here for a recap of Sunday’s festivities and my overall thoughts on the weekend in the days to come.