…And so we come to the main stage. Mayhem Fest, in a credit to its organizers, did a much better job this year of spacing the last second stage set (Children of Bodom) and the first main stage set. The crowd was settling in but present when Amon Amarth was revealed. For all that the Swedish band eschews the dramatic musical flair of their contemporaries, they swing a very large hammer when it comes to set design.
Centered around the front hull of a Viking longboat, the set was an artistic rendering of a 10th century Nordic voyage. This only accentuated the sheer power of the band’s sonic onslaught, opening with the thunder and fury of “Destroyer of the Universe.” Still, it was the set itself that was the star here, the ship’s head breathing smoke and standing with imposing stature, as the music, for better or worse, sounded very much like it does on the records. Amon Amarth put on a display of requisite hits, up to and including new title track “Deceiver of the Gods.” Then, with a wave and a flourish, Amon Amarth was gone.
I first saw Mastodon several years ago opening for Slayer. Of all the bands that have been recommended to me by friends on the grounds “if you like X, you will like Y,” Mastodon is at the top of the list. Yet, the band remains an enigma to me. I have great respect for their talent and particular blend of quasi-experimental metal, but their live performance is so reserved and so stripped-down that it makes the music seem sleepy. Mastodon got off to a promising star with up-tempo tracks like “Black Tongue” and “Crystal Skull.” As the set moved into its second leg, the crowd, exhausted by the long hours in the sun, found it hard to muster much energy for slow burners like “Stargasm.” Working against Mastodon was the very nature of the crowd, which was gathered in support of Five Finger Death Punch and Rob Zombie, meaning Mastodon’s wandering affect may not have played well no matter the circumstances. Nonetheless, Mastodon captured effusive praise one more time for “All the Heavy Lifting” and then the crowd politely wished them well.
Hidden behind a gigantic shroud was the very crux of Mayhem Fest this year, and that refers not only to Five Finger Death Punch, but to what they represent. In a genre gone wild with the extremes of both artistry and speed, where splinter epithets have become mandatory, the last two acts at Mayhem stood for solid, old-fashioned American metal.
A curtain dropping builds instant drama and anticipation no matter the venue, and the visceral promise of the opening strains of “Under and Over It” made the crowd’s anticipation runneth over. Despite the heat and the long hours, the crowd was born anew for 5FDP, stirred into a boil by a guitar tone like a force of nature. The band has gone all out in set design, combining giant lights with oversized brass knuckles and silver, Danzig-style gargoyles. Even the mic stand was festooned with prop grenades and a handgun in a skeletal hand sticking out the top of a skull. Vocalist Ivan Mood himself is magnetic and it begins with his customary call of “One, two, fuck you!” to start the show. The man’s onstage persona is like that of a heavy metal John Cena, and I mean that as a compliment. (Wrestling fans say what you will about Cena, but the man moves the needle at a time when most pro wrestlers struggle to do so.)
The set itself was loaded with surprises both heavy and startlingly real. The former came in the form of “Burn it Down,” a deep album cut that doesn’t always see the light of day, while the latter was a somber “The Bleeding,” played in honor of a soldier who was said to have listened to the song last before not returning from a mission.
That latter element has become an ever-present part of 5FDP’s message, refusing to allow fans to forget those serving under dire circumstances overseas. And it isn’t just empty platitudes and lip service, as the band has performed several USO tours in recent years, constantly keeping the cause fresh in their minds.
There are also moments of levity, as Moody invites kids on stage for “White Knuckles” and drummer Jeremy Spencer performs a couple pieces in a devilish costume.
But what never gets lost is the spirit of American metal, whether old material or the very new “Lift Me Up,” which we’ll see on the band’s upcoming release “Wrong Side of Heaven and Hell.” It’s entirely possible that there are more skilled or theatrical bands on the circuit, but there may not be any who come with more attitude and bang-for-your-buck entertainment than Five Finger Death Punch. Start to finish, their set is a thrill ride of straight ahead, smashing metal.
This brings us to the day’s finale. I had last seen Rob Zombie live about five years ago, during his phase of stripped-down sets at small venues. It had been a full twelve years since I had last seen him with all the customary regalia in tow. It’s fair to assume the question on music fans’ lips was how dedicated Rob is to his music career, and that was the question I also sought an answer to.
From the very first punch and visuals of new single “Teenage Nosferatu Pussy” all doubt was flushed away. There was the titular figure, cloaked in robes and hat, standing atop a huge half-skull podium with red lettering that said in no uncertain terms “ZOMBIE.” Flanked by John 5 and Piggy D in costumes ranging from demonic to delightfully campy, Zombie bit off his lyrics and served a thick stew of heavy metal to the gathered throngs. One quick costume change and a podium removal later, we were careening ahead into “Superbeast” as fresh now as it was some fifteen years ago. Accented by what amounts to flamethrowers perched on stage right and left, Zombie himself displayed his usual prancing around the stage front, feeling the music much in the same way we do as fans. He leaps and bounds across the stage, fairly attacking each song as though it were new, even including the compulsory White Zombie material such as “Thunderkiss ‘65” and the timeless “More Human Than Human.”
As far as actual new material went, “Dead City Radio and the New Gods of Supertown” was fairly good if not nondescript, while “Ging Gang Gong De Do Gong De Laga Raga” was made much more interesting by Zombie riding around on a giant mobile robot.
A total of seventeen video screens, endless pyro and mannequin characters parading around the stage made Zombie’s hour set fly by in a flash. Culminating in John 5 assisted covers of Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” and Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out” (both partial,) we then were given to an encore of “Dragula,” and the fury was over a quickly as it had begun.
If there was a complaint at all, it may have been with some song selection. The cover of Grand Funk Railroad’s “We’re an American Band,” while it is on the new record and was well done, felt out of place, especially in light of the absence of fan favorites like “Feel So Numb” or “Supercharger Heaven.”
Nonetheless, my question was answered; there is no doubting Rob Zombie, or for that matter his band. John 5, Piggy D and Ginger Fish bring it every bit as hard as the title character and spur each other on to do more.
You can say what you want about Zombie’s three most recent records (and many, including me, have,) but there’s no denying the beautiful sensory overload that his live show embodies.
I found my initial question replaced by another: why is it that when we discuss the greatest American metal bands, we reflexively talk about Metallica, Slayer, Megadeth and a small spate of others, but no one mentions the total career of Rob Zombie? Between White Zombie and his solo career, the man has produced three pretty heavy-hitting albums (“Astrocreep 2000,” “Hellbilly Deluxe” and “Sinister Urge,”) as well as some other strong records and singles, which of itself matches the accomplishments of some of those other bands. Doesn’t Zombie at least deserve to be mentioned and discussed?
As Mayhem Fest packs up and rolls to the next town, I can only hope that maybe that next destination has the answer.