SOUTHWEST TERROR FEST – TUCSON, AZ

Words and images by Joshua Ford (ford-photo.com)

“Those who travel desert places do indeed meet with creatures surpassing all description.”

Cormac McCarthy from Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West

There’s a hardness and resilience to this desert town and its inhabitants. It is dry and dusty, with daytime temps expanding mercury to dangerous extremes. There are five mountain ranges forming a sort-of perimeter around the flat city center. The high peaks and saguaro covered crags of the Catalina and Tucson mountains can simultaneously grant senses of both protection and confinement. Are they walls sheltering Tucson from the outside world, or are they natures megalithic giants entombing and cutting off those trapped inside? Regardless, this climate and terrain is not for the faint of heart. There is an unspoken bond between residents who endure; they wear their resilience and self-reliance like a badge of desert honor.

Born of that same hardness, self-reliance and sense of community is Southwest Terror Fest: Tucson’s profoundly heavy music festival. This year’s SWTF marks a giant leap in their evolution with headliners like Goatsnake, Neurosis and SunnO))), along with roughly 30 other hand selected acts including The Body, Pelican, Eagle Twin, Obliterations, Baptists, Author & Punisher, Atlas Moth, and Primitive Man. Though the headliners and above mentioned bands are all fully crystallized entities, with very specific bodies of work, many of the younger and regional bands painted with more broad strokes and blurred lines between metal/punk/doom/sludge/noise. That’s not a dig, by the way, because they can all fucking play.

Organizers David Rodgers, Larry Horvath and David Carroll began SWTF out of a desire to build a heavy music festival of their own, on their terrain, on their terms. It is refreshing to see people who actually care about music at the helm. David Rogers is a musician in Godhunter, and moreover a music fan and all around a well-liked gent. (He spent 30 minutes laying on stage behind Greg Anderson’s cabs during SunnO)))’s set at the festival, tweeted about it with the hashtag “#bucketlist”, and he was personally thanked from stage mics by almost every band) They have clearly created something special, and this year puts them at a point where they can compete on a national and international level with larger heavy music festivals.

Bands want to play their festival, southwestern locals come in droves, Americans from all corners of the US made the trip, and there were international travelers from the UK, France, Germany, Australia, Brazil, Russia Canada, and Mexico. Though named for the region, the reach of this festival has grown like wildfire.

While SWTF I & II were both housed by the Tucson club venue The Rock (and showcased approximately 30 and 60 bands respectively), this year’s SWTF III jumped to not one but two new locations. The Rialto Theatre, main stage for the fest, is a historic stunner built in 1922 and centrally located in Tucson’s downtown entertainment district. This larger venue is the game changer, opening the door to both amazing headlining acts and larger audiences. Neurosis was reportedly the first band to sign on, causing somewhat of a domino effect. The room sounds brilliant, to boot.

The 2nd venue lies just a block down East Congress Street from the Rialto, The District Tavern. A raucous club, scaled appropriately for the lesser amount of fans that would attend the equally as blistering late-night component of this years SWTF. The District is a perfect counter point to the historic Rialto; it’s the type of place where the walls sweat after a good show. This is, after all, a fucking heavy music festival, and there should be some danger. You’d find it here. On the Thursday night kick-off show at the District, $2 Miller High Life’s were necked in quick succession while patrons to stood on the bar, booths, or anything possible to give a sight-line to the stage. A man in a Mexican luchador wrestling mask walked around the merch area with a ball python around his neck. No one seemed alarmed, though why would they be? Most everyone is heavily tatted with and there’s a sea of patched-out vests, and all are far from nonplussed by the goings on: “Fuck snakes. I’m here for the ear blasting.” Creatures surpassing all description.

THURSDAY:

While the main stage acts were Friday/Saturday/Sunday, the kick-off show did indeed blast ears late on Thursday night, starting with quick-and-dirty sets from Arizona natives Conqueror Worm and Twingiant. The district was equal parts hot, sweaty, loud and packed, and the crowd was primed by the time New Mexico’s Oryx came on stage. Oryx, a two piece sludge outfit, packed a heavy wallop and left onlookers with expressions of “holy shit” on their faces. All three of these bands call the Southwest home; they were perfect choices to welcome travelers to what the desert has to offer sonically. Amigo the Devil, self-proclaimed “Murder/Folk” artist, punctuated the 4 days of SWTF with impromptu pop-up sets. The first of these sets found him atop the bar at the District with the proprietor of the venue her knees next to him holding a mic for 20 minutes him to sing into. Rock and Roll. Throughout the weekend, he might be found playing a set in the men’s after Pelican, at the Rialto’s bar before Baptists, or outside both venues on Congress Street intermittently. Well-received performances for those that were able to catch him, he gained many new fans this weekend. Following Amigo’s bar-top performance at the District, Los Angeles’ -(16)-, veterans of the bill that night, closed out the kick-off show near 2am.

FRIDAY:

Being the first full day of the festival, Friday found downtown Tucson buzzing with black-clad droves, hungry for volume, gravitating toward the Rialto. Properly enough, SWFT organizer David Rodgers and his band Godhunter opened the evening at the Rialto, a case of “hometown boys make good”. Emblazoned on their bass cab was the festival logo: a simple but effective graphic silhouette of the state of Arizona with an inverted cross inside. After just coming off of a 2 week west coast stint with Saturday’s SWTF openers Sorxe, it was evident that Godhunter was battle ready and prepared to represent, and represent they did. Shouts of “FUCK YEAH” from friends and fans came pouring in.

Following Godhunter onto the Rialto stage was the two-piece Eagle Twin, consisting of guitar/amplifier wizard Gentry Densley and possibly the most brutal drummer of the weekend Tyler Smith, who at one point literally beat his drum set with his fists, to the crowds delight. For two people, they take up an amazing amount of sound-real-estate. Strength in economy. Densley’s guitar tone is thick from a foundation of self-made guitars and tube amps (branded with the name “Hex Cabs”). His riffs are as original as his gear; he is intent on conjuring sounds unlike anyone else who shares his love for the riff. Densley and Greg Anderson of Goatsnake and SunnO))) have joined forces on projects and tours in their past. (In fact, Anderson’s fingerprints were all over this year’s SWTF, considering that Southern Lord stable-mates Pelican, Baptists, and Obliterations were also on the bill.)

Pelican’s unique brand of Chicago-heavy came next in the lineup. A sea of head bobbing ensued for their 60 minute instrumental set, with material ranging from multiple releases over their near-fifteen year career. While their heavier side can and does interlock with other bands on the bill, it was unclear how the crowd would receive their more polished/melodic side. Any and all fears were quickly assuaged, as their reception was universal within the Rialto, nothing but praise heard after the red-lights dimmed on a sea of mesmerized faces looked toward the stage.

Capping the night at the Rialto was Goatsnake. After 10 years since their last release, and rumors of band dissolution, they were welcomed with open arms by their disciples, many of whom thought they would never see Goatsnake in a live setting. With a new lineup, featuring Scott Renner on bass, and a new album awaiting release, they came on strong and fully energized giving one of the most inspired performances of the weekend. Anderson’s killer riff-work led the galloping charge with openers “Slippin’ the Stealth” and “Innocent” and from there they crushed 70 minutes of their catalog, including several new tracks with insane mid-song tempo changes that caught the audience unaware. They still have tricks up their sleeve. Vocalist Pete Stahl, who’s voice and delivery is unlike others in his genre, cuts through perfectly in the live setting over the blues-doom of Anderson and rhythm section Renner and Greg Rogers (of doom vets The Obsessed). Toward the end of the set, Stahl made his way over the barricade and into the loving arms of the crowd for their closer “Mower”, singing along with those in the front rows in a show of solidarity (harkening back to his hardcore days in D.C. hardcore band Scream). Things have gotten heavier and slower for him now, musically, but the sense of community remains for Stahl, and fans new and old appreciate it.

For many, Goatsnake was the end of the evening, but several hundred festival goers who’d not yet had their fill made their way to the District for Friday’s after show. It was hard to for some to squeeze their way inside, and many fans congregated outside to listen to Destroyer of Light opening up with dirty Texas doom. Following them were Arizona natives Take Over and Destroy, who did just that, with ease. Finally the 7th band of the evening (proving that sometimes too much is not enough), Chicago’s Atlas Moth, brought a sophisticated frenzy to the stage. Two o’clock am came fast, and many a drunken metal head dispersed onto the streets of Tucson into cabs.

SATURDAY:

Saturday evening began with Phoenix band Sorxe playing to hardcore local fans and unfamiliars who arrived early for Neurosis’ set later in the evening. Traditional metal headbanging ensued, paving the way for the next and most non-traditional act of the weekend, Author & Punisher. The solo project, or one-man-band-with-machines as it were, is the brainchild of Tristan Shone. What the former art-student had created is something to behold. He’s has fabricated and machined his own instruments of aural apocalypse and plays them with an abandon that leaves onlookers speechless and lost within the dark noise. Equal parts electronic doom and drone, backed by perfectly tailored visuals projected on giant scale. Author & Punisher falls into the category of must-be-seen-to-be-believed, and believers were made in force during his performance. The Body followed with their own screaming apocalypse, the 2nd two piece of the weekend at the Rialto. They’ve gained enough steam over the last few years to warrant this slot, and rightfully so. They slay live. Period.

The Rialto’s largest attendance of the weekend was for Neurosis. Fans of this festival’s type of non-traditional metal, doom/sludge/etc., treat Scott Kelly and company with a reverence typically reserved for older giants like Sabbath, Motorhead, Maiden etc. Neurosis long ago reached the point in their career where they are a thing unto themselves, an absolute, and they were properly welcomed by SWTF as such. Opening with the slow-burner “A Sun that Never Sets” from 2001’s album of the same name, they spent two hours building a mountain on stage and proceeded to tear it down piece by piece. Beautiful destruction. They ravaged their way through “Locust Star”, “At the Well”, “Distill”, “The Tide”, “Water is not Enough”, “My Heart for Deliverance”, and “Bleeding the Pigs”. By the time they reached “The Doorway” from Albini-produced Times of Grace, the crowd was in a dark meditative state, fully engaged and aware while rocking the fuck out, yet taken inward into something deep. Earlier in the day Scott Kelly tweeted: “The day begins in Tucson the night will bring the light”. Bright it was...

Amazing to think that anyone could or should follow Neurosis after a performance like that, but SWTF organizers were smart enough to know that those who ventured to the District for Saturday’s after-show would need something just as real at that point. Primitive Man, from Denver, is as real and dangerous as it gets. They were heavy and overpowering, brutality-incarnate, cutting through the crowd like a flaming sword: the perfect closer to the weekend’s club after shows. Primitive Man gave everything they had and totally leveled all those with the stamina to jam into the District sweatbox until 2am again. Setting the stage for them that night were Windmill of Corpses and North, both Arizona bands, proudly showcasing their take on how it is done in the southwest.

SUNDAY:

After the onslaught of slow terror that was Saturday, Sunday’s final shows at the Rialto provided a much needed speedy-counterpoint. The faster acts of Sex Prisoner, Obliterations and Baptists were surely programmed for that day to enliven what might have been a drained audience on their 3rd or 4th day of riding such a heavy wave, but they also worked really well in laying a contrasting foundation for Saturday’s headliners and purveyors of the glacially slow material, SunnO))) As Baptists front man Andrew Drury would later say to the audience about the openers, “You couldn’t have asked for a better ambassador to your city than Sex Prisoner.” The young and hungry members of the local power-violence four piece, Sex Prisoner, came out with no pretense, no flourish, and nailed a dozen songs (some 30 seconds in length) do the door of the Rialto. Southern Lord label mates Obliterations and Baptists were next to the stage, and with both having released albums earlier in the week, as well as touring together, there was a sense of healthy/friendly competition that drove both of their sets. Obliterations came on first, with a swagger and confidence suggestive of a band many years their senior. They don’t give a fuck, and they’d like you know it. Initially they chastised the crowd for just standing there, but later they solved the problem by inviting the crowd over the barricade and onto the stage, or rather, insisting: “We’re not gonna start this fucking song until all of you are on stage,” shouted Sam Velde. Twenty or so accepted the challenge, and then recklessly flailed/danced as Obliterations ripped out “Shame” from their new burner Poison Everything. Behind the backline, festival organizer David Rodgers and his team buttressed SunnO)))’s extensive backline of amplifiers in order to prevent them from tipping, just in case the full stage of audience members got too out of hand. Greg Anderson watched from the wings, knowing that it could be difficult to yield “maximum results” without “maximum volume”. All was well however, amps remained standing, no one was hurt, and the crowds energy level jumped ten notches. It’s a sweet science, and Obliterations know how to get the job done.

Baptists followed, and not to be outdone, Drury took his mic into the crowd and felt first-hand the pounding and shoulder checking of the circling audience full force multiple times during their scorching set. He was unfazed by being repeatedly run into by those reveling up in the moment, and didn’t miss a line or break stride. Drummer Nick Yacyshyn, drove them full speed through a set that dug deep into the new album “Blood Mines” but also reached back into the highlights of 2013’s “Bushcraft” Though from much farther north (Vancouver), Baptists body of work meshes well with the “fuck-you” theme of the weekend, or as their shirt at the merch stand put it: “Punk music for not cops”.

The final act of the festival, appropriately, was sound-pressure masters SunnO))), playing one of three 2014 performances just days before their highly anticipated and widely hailed collaboration with Scott Walker was released. While “Soused” shows SunnO))) pushing into new territory, their live performances over the years are steadfast and can be counted on to examine what colossal volume and mood can do to a room, and those within the room. Their amplified guitar tone and timbre is an ultra-proprietary entity, much in the way Neurosis’ sound is very specific to them, or much like Goatsnake is able to make a precise type of blues based doom. The difference with SunnO))) is that their trademarked ingredients are able to transport onlookers out of the theatre; it becomes another place, on another plane, and is difficult to compare to any other traditional live music experience. While most of the audience was witnessing SunnO))) for the first time (having only played in Arizona one time prior) all in attendance had some idea of what they were in for, and were frothing with anxiousness. As the room filled with fog and lights dimmed, music from the film Halloween III: Season of the Witch was pushed through the PA for 15 minutes, setting an aptly terrifying mood. Some of Scott Walker’s playfulness and humor must have rubbed off on SunnO))) as of late however, because the final bit of intro music shifted to the jangly polka-like Silver Shamrock Jingle from the commercial in Halloween III: “Happy Happy Halloween, Halloween, Halloween! Happy Happy Halloween! Silver Shamrock!” Comic relief yes, but grim in typical SunnO)) fashion, as the song fucking kills people in the film... No boogie, only hate.

All jokes aside finally, O’Malley and Anderson emerge through the now dense smoke with Les Paul and Travis Bean in tow, along with Tos Nieuwenhuizen, center stage on Moog Rogue. For twenty minutes or more, the trio shook the chest cavities of everyone in the room. Having been willingly lulled into an otherworldly state via slow riff and pulsing oscillator, the audience was awoken as front man Attila Csihar slowly made his way to center stage to deliver vocal accompaniment. Those who’ve seen SunnO))) live know that they do not start and stop songs in a traditional format; instead, improvising and delving through their catalog at will, and non-stop. Throughout the set, the four cloaked figures on stage reached into the albums “Monoliths and Dimenstions”, “Black One”, “White 2” and “Grimm Robe Demos”. At one point, O’Malley and Anderson left the stage to Nieuwenhuizen and Csihar for a particularly evocative oscillator/vocal section of performance. Upon their return, with wine bottles in hand, O’Malley and Anderson signal to Csihar, who leaves the stage only to returns some time later as his Mirror-Man persona. Children would run from him, rightfully so, as he is a laser-wielding unearthly figure with a fully black face, Statue-of-Liberty-type mirrored head-piece, and angular mirror shard gauntlets and full mirrored cloak. The vocals are just as unearthly while Mirror-Man is on stage, and no eyes in the Rialto leave him.

SunnO))) has a penchant for theatrics, but unlike any other band that employs similar techniques, there is zero camp. Creatures surpassing all description, The fog, the cloaks, the volume, the riff-drone-pulse, the fear-provoking Hungarian at the microphone: all of this adds up to something greater than the sum of its parts in the live setting. It is also something very different from the formidable work they accomplish in the studio. To be present and see it is the catch, and if looked on with eyes that are willing to get lost, that wish might just be granted and oblivion might be touched. It can consume you, if you let it.

Oddly enough, there’s a lyric on Soused where Scott Walker sings behind a wall of noise from SunnO))) “They’ll hardly be boarding the 12:10 to Tucson.” Walker is clearly not talking about SWTF, but if he were he’d be dead wrong, for once… They will travel to Tucson again, especially if David Rogers and company keep doing what they are doing with Southwest Terror Fest.

 

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