- by Zach Johnson Rating: Release Date: Label:
If Day 1 of Riot Fest leaned a little too heavy on the “cute and cuddly side”, then the lineup on Saturday was seemingly the perfect antidote. One might even argue that it was somewhat of an extreme antidote at that, given the markedly heavy-metal nature of the bands at hand. We’re talking a lot of very old-school, very textbook thrash-metal bands here, including the likes of Gwar, Testament, and two of the so-called “Big Four” classic thrash bands: Anthrax, and the almighty Slayer.
Yes, it was a very metal Saturday indeed, the type of day that called for throwing on a shitload of denim (preferably torn of course), and/or dusting off your grimiest leather jacket, lacing up your combat boots, and wearing as much black as humanly possible (extra points for black denim). The type of day for huge chops, long unkept hair, and generally putting all your personal hygiene and grooming habits on hold in honor of all the thrash-metal royalty on display.
Yours truly, of course, did absolutely none of those things (black shorts and borderline bushy chops notwithstanding), largely because standard old-school thrash is not my preferred genre of heavy music. But regardless if it’s my (or your) cup of tea, 80s thrash is a fairly venerable genre of music, and I had a lot of respect for the bands on the bill, particularly Slayer who would be performing for their final time in Chicago as part of their broader farewell tour.
But before all that metal glory reigned down upon Douglas Park, there was another very different type of heavy band slated to hit the Roots Stage shortly before 2:00. Granted this was not a heavy-metal band, but make no mistake: Turnstile are heavy. And it’s a distinctively groovy and deeply rhythmic brand of heaviness at that. Call it crossover-hardcore with some alternative-rock undertones, call it what you will, but chances are whatever you want to call it will not fully capture the combustible experience that characterizes their notoriously unhinged live shows. Yours truly had the chance to catch them in LA earlier this year, and while Turnstile definitely lived up to the hype at the El Rey Theatre, I was somewhat curious to see how their style would translate in a festival environment (with an early afternoon set no less).
In short: it translated quite emphatically. Kicking off their set with “The Real Thing”, Turnstile immediately whipped the packed crowd into a frenzy that essentially never let up for the entire duration of their incredibly awesome set. There was moshing, there was slam-dancing, and practically everyone (even an inflatable blowup doll) were crowd-surfing with joyfully reckless abandon. Just when I thought I’d seen every type of human/doll riding the crowd, I heard a huge roar coming from directly behind me. I turned around to see a ridiculously awesome (and pretty brave) physically disabled young-man who surfed atop the raucous crowd to much fanfare, chrome walker and all. Further evidence that not all heroes wear capes. Not only was that an awesome sight to see, but it was also kid of heartwarming frankly.
And, it may sound crazy, but overall, Turnstile shows are in a way, a bit of a heartwarming experience in and of themselves. Despite the intense and turbulent nature of their music, the band seems to give off nothing but positive energy during their performances. There’s a palpable sense of enthusiasm and good vibes that come from Franz Lyons (bass) in particular, as he is often grinning ear-to-ear and applauding the audience during their set, seemingly in awe of the crowd’s response to their music. And lead singer Brendan Yates seems to convey a remarkably stoic and (relatively) calm presence on stage, which acts to somewhat mitigate the explosive nature of the music and crowd swirling around him. He’s like the eye of the proverbial storm, so to speak, but still manages to deliver his emphatic vocals with a subtle sense of restraint.
The overall positive energy of the band also translates to the crowd. If you get knocked down at a Turnstile show, you’re going to immediately get helped up by your fellow brethren. Not that such communal actions are unique to Turnstile shows, but there’s a palpable sense of comradery there, probably because there’s not a pervasive sense of anger about Turnstile’s music, despite its intensity. It’s hard, and it’s heavy, but at the end of the day, Turnstile shows are about having fun and moving your body, and the crowd, particularly at this show, seemed to exude that positive energy as well. I’m a big believer that music should move you. It should set you free, whether it be for a fleeting moment, a riff, a breakdown, a whole song, or in the case of Turnstile Saturday, the entire duration of their 45-minute set. Hands down one of the best performances of the entire festival (not that Turnstile fans were expecting anything less, but I digress).
The only downside of actively participating in a Turnstile show outside in the middle of the day is that it gets really fucking hot! That meant this reviewer had to cool off during the majority of Gwar’s set, which started on the adjacent Riot Stage shortly after Turnstile exited. But I could hear Gwar’s set loud and clear from the press tent, and what I heard sounded equal parts absurd, cheesy, rad, and kind of hilarious. So basically, it sounded like Gwar, but I somewhat regret not being able to witness the visual aspect of their show, which is arguably much more infamous than their music itself. I did, however, get to witness them enjoying some hard seltzer water backstage after their set, so that was kind of amusing. Huge intimidating dudes in even larger foreboding demon costumes drinking seltzer water backstage? That’s not very “metal” man (but who am I to judge). Kidding aside, they were nice guys and they’re Gwar, so they can drink whatever the fuck they want as far as I’m concerned.
Anyway, after that, it was time for a much-needed mid-afternoon break from all the testosterone, so taking in a set by The Selecter seemed like the perfect tonic. Plus, did I mention it was a ridiculously beautiful day that Saturday? Considering the warm and balmy conditions (and my modest affinity for two-tone ska), I was looking forward to seeing The Selecter live, and they more than delivered the goods. The crowd at the Radicals stage was a decidedly jovial bunch, and how could they not be given the infectiously joyous vibes radiating from the stage courtesy of The Selecter? They were clicking on all cylinders really, between the piping hot organ, sultry sax, jaunty rhythms, and fantastic vocals from the beautiful Pauline Black, their music was simply too much fun not to dance to. Lots of big smiles that afternoon at the Radicals Stage, as The Selecter proved to be one of the best “pleasant surprise” sets this reviewer witnessed all weekend.
Making my way back to the Riot Stage (which was essentially the “Metal” stage that day), I caught the back-half of Testament’s set, a band that I was not particularly familiar with beyond their name and generally esteemed reputation in the metal community. Funny thing is, for a band I had very little knowledge of, they somehow sounded exactly how I thought they would: powerful, thrashy, lots of guitar solos, and maybe a smidge heavier than I suspected, so good for them. Can’t say they really made much of an impression on me, but their performance was solid nonetheless.
Continuing with the 80s thrash, up next were Anthrax, a band some folks don’t think are quite worthy to be in the “Big Four” with the mighty Metallica, Megadeth, and Slayer, but, whatever the case, they really came out with an initially impressive, high-energy, and dare I say “gnarly” performance to kick off their set. With all the band members decked out in Bulls jerseys, they opened in raucous fashion with “Caught In a Mosh”, which is not only a personal favorite but also seemed to go over well with the crowd, who immediately broke into a gigantic circle-pit in response. Anthrax were performing a fan-voted set, so it felt like their show was a bit frontloaded with their best material, which made the back-half of their set feel a little underwhelming as a result. Regardless, the band’s power and energy level were consistently impressive, almost surprisingly so considering their age, so have to say their set somewhat exceeded my expectations, despite it wearing a bit thin during the back-half.
And finally, with a fittingly ominous full moon slowly rising over Douglas Park, preparations were underway for Slayer to take the stage for the final time in Chicago. For those not privy, Slayer has been embarking on their final farewell world tour for the past year or so, and now their hotly anticipated Chicago performance was finally imminent. Although yours truly is not the biggest Slayer fan in the world (I was always more of a Sepultura kind of guy), as mentioned prior, I certainly had a lot of respect for them, and despite haven never bothered to catch them live before, I was certainly well aware of their live reputation, so was definitely excited for the occasion.
And of course, the hardcore Slayer fans packing in all around me were certainly excited too, in their own special way. You see, Slayer fans have a certain aesthetic quality about them that is somewhat unique. It’s kind of an I’ve-been-to-prison type of quality, or maybe an I’ve-been-stabbed (or have stabbed someone) on-at-least-3-separate-occasions type of quality. Whatever it is, it’s authentic, but all joking aside, it was safe to say the fans in attendance were serious about fully enjoying the mayhem Slayer was about to unleash upon the crowd.
But unfortunately for Slayer fans (not to mention yours truly), we all had to get through what became a gradually more insufferable experience courtesy of Rise Against, who were performing loud and clear on the adjacent Roots Stage. It wasn’t so much that Rise Against were a terrible band (it’s entirely possible they’re just mediocre) but suffice to say their melodic brand of polished, triumphant-sounding “punk-rock” did not go over particularly well next to 1,000s of venomous Slayer fans. And just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse, their singer, with his dashing good looks and a twinkle in his eye, pulled out his acoustic guitar for a radio-friendly ballad that felt like watching some douche on the latest episode of “The Voice”. At that point, Slayer fans just couldn’t take it anymore and started raining down a loud chorus boos, which was quite hilarious to witness. A classic case of different strokes for different folks I suppose, but, nonetheless, was quite amusing.
So, although a few of us at least got some comic relief out of Rise Against’s set, when Slayer finally hit the stage, was safe to assume there would be no more smiling! Which is a lie of course (Slayer fans smile too you know), but from where I was, people were much more interested in tearing each other to pieces as Slayer rained down their distinctively deranged and hellish brand of thrash-metal upon the chaotic crowd. And when I say hellish, I mean it, as Slayer brought along some appropriately-timed pyrotechnics that shot-up searing hot flames (I could actually feel the heat down in the crowd) from the stage. It was admittedly pretty awesome, but it all kind of felt a little too Beavis-and-Butthead-ish to me (“fire! “fire!”) as Slayer hammered away in front of a backdrop of smoldering flames.
But isn’t that kind of the essence of Slayer really? On the one hand, yes, between all their cheesy “evil” imagery and blisteringly heavy assault, it would be easy to dismiss them as a band of cheap, dumb, maniacal thrills (which is, regardless, a lot fun mind you). But on the other hand, the reality is that Slayer is made up of technically excellent musicians. They didn’t become the legends they are today just by way of their extreme sound itself, but there’s actually a lot of supreme talent creating that sound (Kerry King, Tom Araya, Dave Lombardo, and Jeff Hannemen (R.I.P.) anyone)? And although ½ of the original lineup is no longer with the band, you would not have known that seeing them tear through their nearly 90-minute set at Riot Fest Saturday night. Although some of their songs tended to blur together a bit initially, they saved their best stuff for last, as “Seasons in the Abyss”, “Raining Blood”, and “Angel of Death” (which closed their set) really sounded like true forces of nature in a live setting. Regardless if you’re a fan, there was no denying the sheer power Slayer unleashed upon the masses that night. A truly impressive and memorable performance.
And as the final distorted waves of feedback from “Angel of Death” echoed into the audience, each member of the band took the time to throw a few souvenirs (guitar pics, drumsticks, etc.) into the crowd as they stoically waved goodbye to Chicago for the final time. Tom Ayaya kept it simple with a heartfelt “thank you, thank you for everything” as he said his goodbye to the audience, lingering on stage for nearly 10 minutes in an effort to soak it all in, one last time.
It may sound slightly hilarious (this is fucking Slayer we’re talking about after all), but it was kind of sad in a way, as chants of “Slayer! Slayer! Slayer!” echoed from the crowd while the band waved goodbye, Tom lingering on stage and gesturing thank you as he clutched at his heart, etc. I think I even saw one wistful metalhead with a tear rolling down his cheek…or maybe it was blood, but, whatever the case, it was kind of touching.
If this was indeed Slayer’s final Chicago performance (and there’s really no reason to believe that it wasn’t), they could not have ended it on a more righteous note. Between their blistering performance and heartfelt farewell, it was a truly memorable way to wrap-up perhaps the most “metal” day in Riot Fest’s history.
Day 2 Tidbits:
The number of people that complimented by ADIDAS t-shirt: zero again (but, it’s not even a band shirt so…)
Cool t-shirts spotted: Whores, a “Science: It Works Bitches” shirt, Coal Chamber (don’t judge me)
Total number of black t-shirts with heavy-metal band embroidery: 23,692 (approximately)