Heavy-Vinyl Presents: Hopscotch Festival 2018
It’s oddly quiet when I walk into the Raleigh Convention Center.
When I cover music festivals, they are normally a heavy rock and metal affair, which usually means the party starts at breakfast, ends at the witching hour and the day is peppered with tattoos, metal horns, spilled beer, screaming, nudity, drunk bodies on the ground (and occasionally in the air) and a general sense of chaos.
So when I walk in to pick up my press credentials, there are a handful of other press agents prepping their mics and cameras, soft music playing over the PA and a few vendors selling artwork. It was so quiet, a sense of impending doom crept in and I wondered if I should take cover.
It turns out that due to the spider web nature of the Hopscotch Festival-which utilizes multiple stages for more than 100 diverse musical acts-I was simply very early for one of the metal shows that I would be covering this weekend. Hopscotch started it’s run back 2010, and has hosted many musical acts, such as Public Enemy and Pissed Jeans, to this year where they have brought back stoner metal legends, Sleep, for a second time.
I have been attending live performances since I was 2 years old, when my mother and father took me to see Carlos Santana perform at Carowinds in Charlotte, NC in 1977 and I have been to countless shows ever since. I am now 43 and I have to admit that in the last year or so, I have noticed my endurance for attending late night shows has started to dwindle. I won’t ever concede defeat, but I have to reconfigure my priorities to make it until 3 am. (i.e. drink less beer.)
The three day Hopscotch music festival begins it’s festivities each evening around 5 pm, which means as a music writer and photographer, days like offer a good bit of down time you need to kill while waiting for the music to begin. The majority of festivals I attend are non-stop, multiple day affairs, where you can jump from place to place, conduct interviews, drink and hang with the bands as you refill and siphon from a tank of bacchanalian energy. You don’t notice that you are dehydrated and pale-you have to keep moving. But what many people do at Hopscotch is party their assess off for a good part of the daylight hours and find themselves buzzed and primed for a multifaceted musical experience when twilight descends. Since I have a job to do and I don’t possess the superhuman stamina of Hunter Thompson, I cannot allow myself to take the chance that I may pre-game too heavily and miss the music entirely lying on the sidewalk with drool leaking from the side of my mouth. So I must wander Raleigh each day, trying to engage in the fun while outwitting the devil on my shoulder that gnaws on my ear with temptation.
Thankfully, the first day of Hopscotch is on a Thursday, so it’s not an all day affair of vice-and as 9 pm rolled around, I waited by the Basement Stage to watch the native Raleigh metal band, GROHG, perform. I had checked them out earlier in the year when the first Hopscotch lineups were announced and was looking forward to hearing their sound live.
Their set was an impressive one. Even though it was an early set, and therefore a smaller crowd, they poured their energy and aggression onto a crowd that slowly warmed and grooved to their crunchy tunes.
Vocalist/Guitarist Will Goodyear spewed a gravelly venom while guitarist Andy Townsend stalked the stage ominously, drummer Joel Willis breezily pounded the beat as bassist Mark Connor plucked away at the low end.
After GROHG’s set, the crowd began thickening, throngs of metal vampires were waking up, and walking in the shadows, waiting for Skeletonwitch to make their appearance on the stage.
The Athens, Ohio five piece made their mark in 2007 with their album, ‘Beyond the Permafrost’ and have maintained a dedicated fan base for their unique brand of unrelenting blackened thrash metal. But when original singer, Chance Garnette, began to have alcohol and legal issues, Skeletonwitch parted ways with him in 2014 and found their new vocalist in former Veil of Maya and Wolvhammer member, Adam Clemens. The band subsequently released a four song EP in 2016 with Clemens, titled “The Apothic Gloom” and fans were inevitably divided about the direction of the band. The heaviness wasn’t gone, but some melody had begun to creep in and Clemens’ style of singing was less Bathory and displayed a little more range. But no matter how dedicated a band’s fans are, there will always be blocks of them that will jump ship at the slightest change in the tide. Some people simply fear change.
Skeletonwitch jumped on the stage and pounded the audience unmercifully for a little less than an hour. Clemens howled through classics (Beyond the Permafrost) and gave style and dimension to several songs from their latest album, “Devouring Radiant Light”, such as ‘Fen of Shadows’ and ‘Temple of the Sun’.
The band kept the between song banter virtually non-existent, only pausing to pronounce the title of the next song and quickly charging forward while the fans bumped and swayed and engaged in mini-pits. Skeletonwitch disappeared from the stage as quick as they emerged-no pomp, no pageantry, just the music ringing in your ears.
It was 11 pm when the mighty Sleep took the stage. If you’re reading this, you should know who they are and why this concert is momentous. In the off chance you are new to the scene, here are the Cliff notes (Is that still a reference?): Sleep are one of the disciples Black Sabbath in the 90’s whose albums, ‘Vol. 1’, ‘Sleep’s Holy Mountain’, and ‘Jerusalem/Dopesmoker’ are legendary not only for their love of Devil’s Lettuce but also the resulting cosmic riffs that it inspired. They split right around the turn of the century and subsequently formed two bands that are different in sound, but legendary in their own right: Al Cisneros forming Om, a slow moving beast that incorporated Benedictine chants and hints of world music, while Matt Pike created the fast moving, thunder god invoking riffs of High On Fire. Two years ago, they reformed Sleep for a handful of reunion shows (One of which was Hopscotch) which confirmed that these guys had become worshiped in the subsequent years that Sleep had been away. Early this year, on April 20, 2018 (cough) it was announced out of the blue that Sleep would be releasing their first new album of tunes in 20 years on Jack White’s Third Man record label. Pants worldwide were collectively shit into with joy at this announcement.
AND HERE THEY ARE. Give thanks.
I have seen both Om and High On Fire several times, so seeing these guys play was not the amazing part. What was the amazing part was to hear them play these songs that have become legendary for two decades LIVE. Feeling the punch of ‘Sonic Titan’ right in my gut and sack was the way this song was always supposed to be heard. Historically, when an older band puts out new music, fans rarely give a shit about hearing those on a setlist and just want the classics. Sleep’s newest album, “The Sciences”, has not suffered that fate. The majority of fans, including myself, love the new album and hearing “Marijuanaut’s Theme” getting just as much of a response as the standards, was exciting.
The next day I wandered the landscape of Raleigh, popping into a few local bars and chatted with multiple patrons who were pre-gaming the Hopscotch festival. Speaking with one of the doormen, Alex, at a bar two blocks from the city center of Hopscotch, he said that this was his favorite weekend of the year.
“Today is when the party really kicks off,” he told me, “A lot of people take Friday off and start partying from now until Sunday morning. I make awesome tips, and most people are surprisingly cool...hardly any fights or assholes.”
As the afternoon slowly morphed into twilight, I wandered over to the City Plaza Stage, where the crowds had thickened significantly to watch Mipso play a catchy set of funk tinged reggae/rock that primed every one for a good time. I sampled several shots of free whiskey from the Bulleit distillery, grabbed a fresh personal pizza from Gigi’s pizza, which had one of those ‘pay by the ounce’ serve yourself beer taps with 20 beers, all of which begged to be tasted. However, if you are not well versed in how to pour beer from a draft, ask a professional to assist you; otherwise, you will be paying a lot of money for foam.
Nighttime had finally descended and I made my way to the Lincoln Theater, which was one block away, to catch sets by Raleigh’s own Lightning Born and the Swedish riff dragons, Monolord. I had a chance to talk with Monolord’s drummer, Esben Williams, about their sound and some of the themes on their most recent album, “Rust”:
David Locklear:What kind of gear do you use to achieve your sound?
Esben Willems:That's the eternal question, the search for the Holy Grail of the Perfect Sound (laughs). When it comes to gear, it's so much more than just the inanimate objects that gear is. It's far more about how it's played and how it's used. Another band wouldn't sound like Monolord if they copied our gear and we wouldn't sound like them if we copied theirs. For me, my main gear is my ear. In the band, we work a lot with the collective sound, how our respective instruments sound in relation to the others and how we can best compliment each other’s soundscapes to make it a combined unit. I think that's the key to a good bad sound, to have your ears open and listen to how all pieces fit together in the best way.
DL:What drew you all to the doom sound?
EW:When we first started out, there was no genre label in mind, our only focus was to make music that was as heavy and massive as possible, but without losing the groove or the dynamics. And I feel it still is. Playing a song you like live and simultaneously making that a rumbling wall of sound is fantastic. I feel that sometimes this genre can be more about sound than songwriting, which honestly bores me. Combining that mammoth soundscape, with songs that are strong enough also without it, is a killer combination to me. And that's what we aim at, what we're always working on refining.
DL:You’ve had the same lineup of yourself, Thomas Jager and bassist, Mika Hakki since you began in 2013. How do you keep your sanity?
EW:We don't. I'm insane now.
DL:What tuning do you use for your low end?
DL:What sorts of outside influences infect your music?
EW:It's always next to impossible to present a list of influences. It depends on time, mood and place. Also, the three of us come from very different places when it comes to taste in music or any other culture. The common denominator is the band, which I like and think is our strength. It can be crazy frustrating at times, but when we have filtered out songs, artwork or anything else that all three of us like and can get behind, it's very satisfying.
DL: Would you mind explaining the lyrics to the song, “Dear Lucifer”?
EW:(Vocalist/Guitarist) Thomas Jager wrote them. They're basically about not believing in any form of religion or superstition, including satanism; this genre is over saturated with pretended super-evil satanists and that can get a little boring.
DL:Is there a constant theme that connects all of your albums?
EW:No specific theme per album as such. We constantly work on new music and we have allowed each album to develop around the material we were working on at that moment. Musically, the theme is the same on all our releases, which is finding the best way to perform the songs that we have filtered out. What we feel sounds like Monolord and what we feel sounds good within that spectrum. Lyrically, a recurring theme is misanthropy, the disgust about what we humans do to each other...It's an endless source.
DL:So what made you want to incorporate strings on the song, “Wormland”?
EW: It just fit so well. That violin added that last ingredient that song needed to sound like how we heard it. Still gives me goose bumps when that comes in at the end.
DL:What do you love about being on the road?
EW:Hearing the walk-on music and entering the stage to play. It never gets old. Playing our music live is the driving force behind everything we do. That's always the end goal. On top of that, meeting our very supportive fans is nothing short of amazing.
DL: What do you hate about the road?
EW:The 23 hours in between shows. (laughs) But seriously, the time off stage is not exactly exciting. We seldom get to see anything of the cities we visit and the majority of the time is spent traveling, waiting, eating bad food, and sleeping.
DL: How long did it take for the band to achieve success?
EW: How long is a rope? I honestly wouldn't know how to calculate that. The band has existed since 2013, but I don't know at what point we would be considered successful. I have played drums for about 36 years – and wouldn't have been the musician I am if I hadn't – and I think that we are now what could be considered successful. So, it took me 36 years.
DL:Do you ever think about how long you can do this?
EW:Everyday. I always come to the conclusion that I could never stop playing drums. That would be like amputating a critical part of me. It's exhausting, frustrating and never ending work, but it's even more rewarding to be able to do it as much as we do.
DL:With that in mind, do you guys have an endgame in mind about how Monolord will end?
EW: As long as we love what we do, I don't see why we would have that. Let's keep the future open, that's more interesting.
DL: Do you have a regular job when you’re not on the road?
EW:We all have to, so we do our best to make ends meet in between tours. Not the easiest part, considering that we tour as much as we do, but that's just part of playing in a band. Gotta make it work, gotta keep fine tuning that real life Tetris. (laughs)
Monolord’s brutal set saw a mix of newer tunes (“Where Death Meets the Sea”) and older ones (“Empress Rising”) and brought an energy that usually evades many doom bands when they play live. So often, doom is great for listening to on long drives or when you have an afternoon to just drink a beer and lie down outside looking at the sky. But when it comes to the live show, some doom bands just don’t bring much energy due the monolithic pace of the music they play. And witnessing how Monolord managed to kick the shit out of their instruments, bounce around on the stage and whip the audience into a synchronized bounce house was a vision to behold. Guitars were held high in the air, heads banged and ears were crushed. As a self-admitted older guy, I wear earplugs to every show and tonight I was very happy that I did for Monolord. When I had to take one out to readjust it, the downtuned demon of sound that Monolord conjured ripped right into my eardrum for a moment and made me flinch with a quick flash of pain. This is a high compliment.
As their set drew to a close, I began the long walk back towards my car when I remembered that Prince’s band, The Revolution, were playing tonight in the Basement venue where Sleep were playing the night before, which was literally on the path I was walking on so there was no reason I couldn’t check them out. As a child of the 80’s, I was also bound by a generational virtue to watch at least a few minutes of their set.
When I walked in, the whole place had been seized by the Shakin-Your-Ass muse and it was working it’s magic. Guitarist Wendy Melvoin, wrapped in an all white suit, bounced and grooved her way around the stage while bassist Brownmark slung the rhythm low with Lisa Coleman and Matt Fink provided the synth and piano while the whole funky package was held together by the stomping beats of drummer, Bobby Z. They bounced and grooved their way through many nostalgic Prince hits, including “1999”, “Purple Rain”, and “Raspberry Beret”.
The band had only played together sporadically for the last two decades, so it was a privilege being able see them play live with all of their infectious energy and positivity. Every member was smiling as they played, while the audience danced together and swayed in waves of group love. The joy and fun was palpable in the air and it was impossible not to smile.
It was a little after 1:30 am and I stood outside and took in a deep breath of the heavy summer air and thought about all the great things about music: joy, fear, hate, spirituality, a connection with God-it has something for everyone and communicates in it’s own language and yet without language. One line from “Raspberry Beret” sums it up the best:
“I think I love her.”