By Avinash Mittur
August 25th 2012, USS Hornet CV-12, San Francisco CA: To say that I have merely “been looking forward” to this year’s edition of Slaughter By the Water would be a massive understatement. Despite being only in its third year, the festival is now one of the Bay Area’s largest heavy metal events and this was finally going to be my first time attending the show. Not to mention, the festival featured a ton of acts that I was extremely excited to see, from local favorites Fog of War to the legendary Exodus. After spending a full day at the Summer Slaughter show the day before, I was ready to finally listen to some classic death metal and thrash from the bands who did it best. By the end of the night, I felt that the show was a success, although it was certainly not without it’s fair share of issues. That being said, I would be more than happy to attend this festival again next year, and I can easily chalk the entire experience up as a highlight among the many shows I’ve attended this summer.
After taking care of a few errands when I arrived at the show, I decided to check out the environment of the show and the goodies that were offered. This year, SBTW took place on the U.S.S. Hornet, a massive navy warship. Parking was easy and free for everyone, which was a truly nice change of pace after paying too much and too often to park in San Francisco. On the outside pier a bike-powered stage was set up (more on that in a bit), along with a few food stands, some Native American clothing and jewelry booths, and of course the obligatory band merch stands. Much to my delight, merch was dirt cheap- I ended up coming home with a $10 Impaled t-shirt, while others were treated to a $15 Fog of War shirt that came with a free copy of their first album. Even with $20 in hand, fans could buy themselves plenty of treats for the day. The vibe throughout the day was also very, very friendly. Nearly every single musician was in cheery spirits and happy to hang out with and talk to fans (Autopsy’s Chris Reifert was everywhere), and I know that nearly every attendee was given many opportunities to chat with one of their heroes.
The outside stage was sponsored by Rock the Bike, an organization dedicated to spreading their love of bicycles by setting up music events that run on power from bike pedaling. This was a genuinely interesting concept to help power the outside stage, but it ended up having mixed results. Audience members supplied the pedaling, and usually every bike was occupied. This meant that for the most part the bands were able to play fine, but every set experienced at least a couple of power drop outs. The outside stage was made up of local acts that ranged from high school kids to older veterans of the scene. Sadly, San Francisco’s Mudface suffered the most from the bike power. The band could hardly get through two songs without power outages seemingly every few seconds. This persisted, despite every single bike being pedaled. As far the music goes, the outside stage was relatively eclectic, offering metal influenced by modern hardcore with Enemy in Peril, and Scars of Envy, while Desecrater, Necrosin and Hemotoxin offered us a dose of thrash. My only exposure to Hemotoxin had been through their demo, which didn’t really grasp my attention, perhaps due to the horrible sound quality. The band easily made up for it with their live performance though; their musicianship was tighter onstage, and the songs sounded more effective and punishing as a result. In addition, Necrosin in particular surprised me. I had seen the band only a few weeks ago at the Red House in Walnut Creek, and I wasn’t really very impressed by their set at the time. What I saw then was some kid pretending to be Warbringer’s John Kevill while everyone else just stood still. This go-around however saw a much more energetic outfit onstage, happy to interact with the crowd and I was far more pleased with what I saw as a result. I actually thought that the more random bands made for a good contrast against the main stage performances that we saw later that night, and my only wish was that a backup generator had been in place to power the stage in the event that the bike power was insufficient.
Zombie Holocaust were the last metal band to play the outside stage, but not before being introduced by Testament’s Chuck Billy. Weirdly enough, this ended up being the only appearance made by Chuck for the entire show, despite being advertised as the emcee of the event. It’s a minor thing, but I really would have liked to have seen Chuck be more involved with the festival, especially since his presence was so heavily plugged in the weeks leading up to SBTW. Regardless of that, ZH provided a set that was leaps and bounds better than the one they played at the Red House only a couple months ago. I could easily attribute this to singer Nick Gomez’s decision to stick only to vocals for the first chunk of the set. Nick really is a charismatic and energetic frontman, and seeing him work the stage without being tied down by a guitar and mic stand was truly a delight. As ZH tore down their equipment, a large line built up towards the ship itself, which housed the main stage. Because of this line, I ended up missing Severed Fifth‘s set entirely. I was pretty bummed out about this, especially since I really enjoyed what I heard from the band online.
The Hornet’s hangar proved to be an interesting venue for the remaining activities in the night. A balcony was converted into a bar/smoking area, the merch booths were moved inside and fans could hang out all around the hangar if they didn’t want to watch the band currently onstage. As far as the sound goes, it wasn’t the best sounding venue I’ve been in, but it was surprisingly serviceable. Instruments tended to cut through without issue, and ear plugs easily kept the volume in check without ruining the mix. Given the sheer amount of valuable military exhibits in the hangar though, I really don’t think that placing a heavy metal audience on the ship was a great idea and seeing a place with so much history covered in garbage after the show just didn’t sit well with me.
The first band I did manage to see was Benicia’s Fog of War. When I was in high school, a Fog of War show was a huge event that my friends and I always did our best to head out to. This was my second time seeing the band this summer, and I once again loved their set. The band’s triple-guitar thrash attack is one that I haven’t seen pulled off as successfully by anyone else, and the songs flat-out rule. It’s unfortunate that they only got to play four songs, but every minute of them was killer and I can only hope that they make it down to Los Angeles some time this fall.
Fog of War Set List:
1. No Evacuation
2. The Glow
3. Victims of Progress
4. They Live, We Sleep
Next up on the main stage was one of the most reliable live blackened thrash acts around, Witchaven. I’ve seen the band many times before, but their live set continues to impress me still. Witchaven were also plagued by a short set, but they managed to throw in an old reworked favorite, “Blasphemous Cunt,” into the show- I was really happy to see the band changing their setlist up even just a little bit. Their live performance was stellar as always, but the inside hangar’s sound didn’t do the band a whole lot of favors. The sound ended up being a bit muddy during their set, and Henry Montoya’s vocals came out buried in the sound. Despite this, the band played as well as I’ve ever seen them, and you can bet I’ll be at their next show in my area.
Witchaven Set List:
1. Skinned Alive
4. Blasphemous Cunt
5. Black Thrash Assault
6. Empty Chasm
The music took a break from thrash for the death metal of Abysmal Dawn. I had actually seen the band two years ago at Tidal Wave 2010. I don’t know if my musical tastes simply matured since then or if the band just became a better live unit, but I enjoyed Abysmal Dawn’s set far more than I did the last time. Charles Elliot seemed to be a more engaging frontman this time around, constantly calling for pits and headbanging when he could. The fans responded well, and were plenty active for the set.
The death metal continued with the Bay Area’s Impaled, the original innovators of the goregrind genre along with Exhumed. Although the band suffered from a far too short set, their energy and rock-solid execution more than made up for it. Singer and bassist Ross Sewage was an absolute animal onstage, constantly headbanging or swinging his bass about when he wasn’t trading off his guttural grunts with Sean Ross’ higher growls. The five songs were all jackhammer speedfests, and Impaled hardly left any room for the crowd to catch their breath. I personally can’t wait to see them again, but hopefully with a much longer set to play.
Impaled Set List:
2. Masters of Ordure
3. Spirits of the Dead
5. Up the Dose
After Impaled’s set I decided to return to the Rock the Bike stage to see an acoustic set from Neurosis’ Scott Kelly. His solo music that he played was more in the vein of folk and blues- it was a really nice break from the metal that I had listened to all day and a really good way to relax for a little bit when I wasn’t burning my legs on the bike. Sadly, my friend and I were only among a handful of people genuinely there to see Scott, but that didn’t deter the man from playing with the utmost conviction and emotion. It was a truly great set, perhaps the most intimate one I have seen in a very long time.
I then returned to the hangar of the U.S.S. Hornet to catch most of Autopsy‘s set. This was actually my first time seeing them despite their frequent appearances in California, and I was happy to hear representation from the doomy spectrum of metal. The band mainly focused on playing tunes from their first album, “Severed Survival,” but as it was the most doom metal-influenced tracks that stuck out to me. “Slaughterday” especially was crushing in the live setting. Chris Reifert was also a real treat to watch- singing drummers are a rare sight in any genre of music, and seeing an extreme metal drummer blast away and growl at the same time was admittedly pretty damn cool. I was also happy to see that the band got to play a full set, especially after supposedly playing for hardly any time at last year’s SBTW.
Autopsy Set List:
1. Charred Remains
2. Severed Survival
3. Pagan Savior
8. Seeds of the Doomed
9. Mauled to Death
10. Gasping for Air
11. Ridden With Disease
12. Twisted Mass of Burnt Decay
Philm, Dave Lombardo’s newest project, was the second to last act of the night. I’m going to be frank and say that the band simply did not fit at all with the festival lineup. This isn’t a knock on their performance, which was crazed and energetic enough to fit their schizophrenic songs, but the style of music that the band played was just out of place at SBTW. Where Scott Kelly’s acoustic folk came off as a breather in between slabs of metal, Philm’s hardcore/jazz fusion/alternative stylings just didn’t fit in during the show. Dave Lombardo’s drumming is of course, probably one of the most astounding things a metal fan can ever witness, and the heavy riffing of “Held In Light” certainly induced a few bouts of headbanging (I felt bad for the many fans who probably thought that they were going to cover “Criminally Insane”). In the end, I just couldn’t help but feel that Philm would have been much better suited playing a small club show somewhere here in the bay instead of playing right before a band like Exodus.
Finally, the band that many fans had been waiting for took the stage. This wasn’t any ordinary gig for Exodus - this was the homecoming of the band from Europe and mainman Gary Holt from Slayer. Every time I’ve seen Exodus, I’ve always been pleasantly surprised by their setlist and this time was no different. In fact, this may have been the gutsiest show I’ve ever seen the band play. Most of the set was focused on the band’s recent albums from 2004’s “Tempo of the Damned” onward, the only songs from the ’80s and ’90s to be heard were the warhorses off of “Bonded By Blood.” For me, the real treat was hearing “Scar Spangled Banner” for the first time, although “Deathamphetamine” sent me into a spastic fit as usual and of course, there are few pits greater than one generated by Exodus playing the title track to “Bonded By Blood.”
Watching Gary Holt work a stage is always a pleasure. Seeing him unleash his wild and chaotic soloing while banging his whole body was borderline inspirational, and there aren’t many moments at a thrash concert that are cooler than seeing him crack a wicked grin as kids fly about on the floor. Rob Dukes was the other standout; I have no clue how, but the man refuses to stop improving his vocals. Even compared to just a few months ago when I last saw the band, Rob’s thrash shouts were clear and powerful, especially compared to the sloppy barking heard on “Shovel Headed Kill Machine.” Rob even channeled Zetro at times when he went for his upper register. As far as I’m concerned, Rob Dukes is the best frontman Exodus can have right now- he’s no Paul Baloff, but no one ever will be. I also have to note the outstanding drum performance of Tom Hunting. I was in absolute awe of his drumming for the whole set. Tom, despite being one of the most underrated drummers in metal history (and also one of my hugest influences as a drummer), has been known to make mistakes live. I don’t know if he’s been practicing extra lately or not, but this performance at SBTW was simply flawless. Tom was a well-oiled machine on this night- every fill was nailed with perfection and he unleashed the double bass like I had never seen before. Double bass drumming is a relative weakness on Tom’s end, but you wouldn’t have known it after seeing this show.
Unfortunately, the band’s set was given a significant pause due to a guitar issue on Gary’s end. This ate up a solid ten minutes of the band’s set, and nearly killed the audience’s energy. Rob attempted to tell jokes and random stories during this break, but the crowd just seemed bored during this time. When the problems were finally fixed, not even “A Lesson In Violence” was able to kick the crowd back to life. Luckily the final one-two punch of “Bonded By Blood” and “Strike of the Beast” did the trick and Alameda gave its final burst of energy. It was surprising to have “The Toxic Waltz” cut, but given the time constraint due to the tech issue I undestand why the band chose to play what they did. Regardless of this issue though, an Exodus set is still a truly great time and a worthy end to a really fun day.
All in all, Slaughter By the Water was a mostly top notch experience. The shortened sets and the power issues with the Rock the Bike stage were certainly notable issues with the show, but I can easily say that I had a lot of fun throughout the day regardless. As with every great Bay Area show, the social experience was truly amazing when it came to both my fellow fans and the musicians wandering among us. The shortcomings of the show ultimately proved to be relatively insignificant in comparison to the good times that were had, and I can proudly say that the Bay Area is now the host of not one, but two great summer festivals, Slaughter By the Water and Tidal Wave. I know that next year’s Slaughter By the Water will be an even greater experience on an even grander scale, and I for one cannot wait to be a part of the show once again.