Rockstar Energy Mayhem Festival 2009 in Virginia

By Peter Atkinson, Contributor
Friday, August 21, 2009 @ 3:58 PM

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It was officially "hot as shit" when the second Rockstar Energy Mayhem Festival rolled into Northern Virginia Aug. 9. The heat index was pushing 100 at game time, and there was almost nowhere to escape the withering sun and humidity in the gravel parking lot next to the main amphitheater, where the side stages were set up.

Between the sweat and the dust, you basically stewed in your own funky gravy once you were in. The casualties started mounting fast. I saw my first passer-outer 10 minutes after walking in, during God Forbid's set at like 3:15. First puker was five minutes after that. And it just kept rolling from there. Good times.

As if it wasn't brutal enough already, every band's frontman - save for Slayer's Tom Araya - prefaced his stage banter with "I know it's hot as shit out there ..." And though they meant to be empathic, even appreciative, after a while it seemed more like a taunt. Thanks guys.

Anyway, not sure if it was the steam bath conditions or what, but when the main stage bands started playing, it sure looked like "empty seat night" at Nissan - even though it seemed crowded at the side stages. The front section was pretty full, but the second and third levels of seats, and a good portion of the lawn, were so barren you'd have thought you were at a Washington Nationals baseball game. Too bad, because anyone who didn't go - for whatever reason - missed a pretty good time.

The one big improvement over the inaugural Mayhem Festival was the transformation of the Hot Topic stage into an extreme metal showcase. So instead of the smattering of extremity of last year's festival - The Red Chord and Suicide Silence - the Hot Topic stage bands just kept bringin' it this time. Cannibal Corpse frontman George "Corpsegrinder" Fisher summed it up best during his band's crushing headlining set, barking "we're not here to teach you right from wrong, we're here to kick your fuckin' ass."

And kick your fuckin' ass they did - all of 'em. Though I missed deathcore brutes Whitechapel, Job For A Cowboy were raging for all they were worth when I got there, and the intensity level - not to mention the volume - grew exponentially with every band after that. Poland's monumental Behemoth came dressed for battle in their leather, spikes and corpsepaint and were as concussive as ever, tearing through a half-dozen songs with dizzying speed and fury. And their closing cover of Turbonegro's "I Got Erection" was a dastardly wacky curveball that brought some welcome levity to the proceedings.

Levity was never an issue with Michigan's Black Dahlia Murder, who almost stole the show with frontman Trevor Strnad's unbridled energy and his bandmates' viciously precise, slightly off-kilter death/thrash metal caterwauling. Accompanied onstage by a dude in a gorilla suit for "Statutory Ape," there was definitely something different about these guys. And as the shirtless, pudgy Strnad fist-banged, playfully - though profanely - badgered the crowd and screamed his ass off while the band bashed away with abandon, you almost forgot that it was "hot as shit."

Cannibal were an absolute steamroller, crushing all in a hail of scalding riffs and Fisher's ferocious Cookie Monster bellow over 40 minutes of sick and twisted favorites like "Fucked With A Knife," "Hammer Smashed Face" and "Stripped, Raped and Strangled." Killswitch Engage guitarists Adam Dutkiewicz and Joel Stroetzel certainly seemed to be enjoying themselves from the soundboard, especially during Fisher's hilariously outrageous "if you don't buy this record, I'll rip off your fucking head and mail it to your parents" between-song harangues. And why not, with all that and a pristine, bombastic sound, Cannibal were nothing short of awesome.

Up against this, the melodi-core bands on the adjacent Jagermeister stage didn't stand much of a chance. God Forbid, All That Remains and Trivium did try their damndest to keep the energy level up and hold peoples' attention. But after being pummeled by the death metal contingent, distractions like motorcycle trick riders and the myriad tents of T-shirts and assorted schwag proved too tempting to many and there was lots of wandering off during the Jagermeister sets.

Welsh quartet Bullet For My Valentine got things started on the main stage, offering up a undistinguished set of Euro-thrash with lots of guitar solos and "make some fucking noise" cheerleading. Yawn!

There’s a fine line between goofy charm – see Black Dahlia Murder, above – and annoying silliness, and Killswitch Engage live dangerously close to the edge. While the band’s fire-bomb laden set was jarringly heavy, and frontman Howard Jones remains one of the few metal/emo-core frontman who can match the scream-and-sing power and range of his recorded voice onstage, the be-caped prancing of Dutkiewicz, matching faux tuxedo T-shirts and other antics were dopey, if not embarrassing. Though Dutkiewicz’s non-sequitur rants were sometimes amusing – “Hey Washington, D.C., put this in your fucking pipe and smoke it” – if these guys would tame down the jokiness, they’d be a much more formidable, memorable live act and less a bunch of clowns.

Which brings us to Slayer, the serious-as-a-heart-attack antithesis of such tomfoolery who once again killed as few bands can. There was no idle chit-chat, no crowd-baiting and no bull, just a 60-minute speed metal shitstorm. Blazing through a set of classics they’ve been beating our brains out with for eons — “War Ensemble,” “Dead Skin Mask,” “South of Heaven,” “Raining Blood” and, of course, “Angel of Death” — the band also mixed in the slashing new track “Psychopathy Red” and dusted off “Born of Fire” and “Ghosts of War” to keep things “fresh.”

As always, Slayer were lockstep tight and menacingly intense. Drummer Dave Lombardo seemed especially frisky, changing up some of his beats and fills with effortless nonchalance and sustaining the machine-gun kick drum salvo of “Angel of Death” for a good 10 seconds just to fuck with everyone. Nice touch.

With that, there was a steady exodus, myself included. Having seen Marilyn Manson's costume and set changes after every song, high school musical from hell shenanigans last time he toured with Slayer in 2007, I wasn't about to risk enduring it again. If he was great, too bad for me. But by then I was too filthy, stinky and tired to care.

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