(Today our friend Gonzo brings us his third and final report on the recent Fire in the Mountains festival in Wyoming, along with a few of his own photos. You can find the first two installments here and here.)
Day three of any festival hits different. It’s no longer a matter of going balls-to-the-wall for 12 consecutive hours. It’s an endurance contest. It’s a marathon you’re running against yourself. One minute you’re staring bleary-eyed at the roof of your tent before the sun comes up, and the next, you’re chugging espresso you made in the back of a Subaru Outback in desperate hopes of being able to slog your way through the rest of the weekend.
And that’s just the first two hours.
But never mind that. No point in wasting any time lamenting your mental condition, I thought to myself as I threw some extra clothes into my backpack. Today would first be spent outside the confines of our beloved festival, and into the mountain range that we’d only been able to admire from afar. Before any music, we’d be taking a side quest to Grand Teton National Park.
If you ever find yourself in western Wyoming with a day or two’s worth of time, it would be ridiculous of you to not visit the Tetons. The scenery and natural wonder rival anywhere else I’ve ever seen in my life. Sprawling mountains, trees, lakes, and rivers are all teeming with life, as we unwittingly discovered during the first 10 minutes of the hike we had intended to take.
Not long after we got on the trail and started heading around Jenny Lake, a grizzly bear cub wandered into the path in front of us. He didn’t seem to care about us being there, as the little guy was probably used to seeing humans wander around his back yard every day, but I didn’t care. Neither did anyone else in our group, thankfully.
“Jesus god,” I whispered, “everyone, get the fuck back! Go! Go!”
We backed away very quickly, but quietly, and made our way back to where we’d just come in. If the cub was there, mama bear wasn’t far away. I had no intention of finding out. For as metal as it sounds, a midday encounter with an 800-pound grizzly bear was a story I wasn’t excited to tell later.
With our original plan in the shitter, we opted to take a boat across the lake, near Inspiration Point. We weren’t looking to hike all the way up, as the music was starting at 2 p.m. today with The Otolith. But with the morning already giving way to afternoon, even that would be a stretch. The trail we took, though, ended up being more than worth the trek. The views were unspeakably amazing.
Once we got back to the car, I realized there was no way we could catch The Otolith’s set, and that was disappointing. I had wanted to see what some of the ladies from SubRosa had reemerged as, but it wasn’t meant to be today. For what it’s worth, everyone who was there told me they put on one hell of a show. We’d also miss Lykotonon, a side project of some guys from Wayfarer and Blood Incantation. Bummer.
I walked back into camp as soon as BardSpec was about halfway through their set. That project is a side project of none other than Enslaved’s Ivar Bjørnson. It’s definitely a folky sort of style, but the 2017 debut album Hydrogen had a prevalent amount of synths, effects, and other instrumentation woven in. The result is music that takes you somewhere, even if you’re not entirely sure where the final destination is. [Correction: What I was hearing wasn’t Bardspec after all, but Austin Lunn doing an acoustic Panopticon set on the main stage.]
Though I’ve said it before, I can’t shout it enough – the organizers of Fire in the Mountains have conducted a fucking masterclass on how to assemble the most insane lineup imaginable. You’d be hard-pressed to see an act like BardSpec play anywhere, let alone in a setting like this.
And as the brains behind this operation know all too well, there’s no better follow-up to one genre-bending act than another genre-bending act. Colorado’s Snakes were up next on the Buffalo Stage, and from the sounds of it, their music was always meant to be played under a backdrop of mountains and dusty trails. It was the perfect soundtrack to the kind of day we were having.
“I wasn’t sure how we’d fit in,” said the Snakes frontman/guitarist towards the end of their set, “but this is amazing.” From the sound of the crowd, it seemed like everyone agreed. It was then that another realization hit me: Have I ever been at a festival with a more supportive and open-minded crowd? I wasn’t sure then, and I’m still not sure now.
And just like that, our daily flirtation with folk would come to an end. From here on out, things were about to get a whole lot heavier to close out the festival. We were ready. Tired, sunburnt, and sore. But ready.
Minnesota’s Obsequiae came out next on the main stage, with vocalist Tanner Anderson proudly roaring “WHO’S READY TO GO TO FUCKING CASTLE LAND?!” I had had many moments of this feeling during the past 48 hours, but this was my most recent moment of “Fuck, I love metal.”
The band immediately dazzled us with “Ceres in Emerald Streams,” and it was all a rousing trip into their world from that moment on. Showing up with three guitarists, the medieval black metal warriors came to throw down. It was a memorably awesome set from a band I’d never seen, and I did not walk away disappointed.
The mysterious Tchornobog came up next on the smaller stage, drawing my interest immediately. They came out and rivaled any heaviness that the likes of Haunter summoned up the previous day, and arguably exceeded the morbidity of those terrifying depths. The band’s dissonant death metal blasts reminded me most of Blood Incantation, and after two songs I was walking to the merch tent to buy a shirt before they were almost certain to be gone.
If Snakes were the band that painted a peaceful, calm vision of this magnificent landscape, Tchornobog was now vomiting demons all over it. Chaotic, pounding rhythms were angrily snarling out of the stage, fomenting a mosh pit despite the high temperatures. Dear god, I thought. It can’t possibly get any heavier than this.
Sometimes watching a really intense metal band is a little like going to war. By the time we all collectively picked ourselves up off the ground and dusted off in Tchornobog’s wake, something truly incredible was about to happen on the Tetons Stage.
One word is all I need here: YOB.
Easily one of the most anticipated sets of the weekend, Oregon’s YOB really need no introduction to anyone reading this. Their specific brand of psychedelic stoner doom remains legendary in metal circles from Wyoming to Bulgaria, and they’re the kind of band that would find a way to blend in with any festival circuit, genres be damned.
When they came out and silently, expertly ripped into “Prepare the Ground,” all other life in a one-mile radius seemed to stop. I could feel the energy this band was emitting, and it wasn’t all sonic. Anyone who’s seen YOB perform before will know what I’m talking about, but this was unlike any other performance I’d seen from them before. Mike Scheidt could’ve physically grabbed the sky and made the heavens his audience if he wanted to.
He had the composure of a god on that stage.
“This is the kind of world I want to live in,” he stated to the crowd, equal parts grateful and somber.
Then, something weird happened.
During the opening notes of “Adrift in the Ocean,” Scheidt broke two strings on his guitar. Not missing a beat, though, he said into the mic, “I guess this just means we’re having a good time.” With that, a tech came onstage and gave Scheidt a couple of new strings. “This will no doubt take a while,” I turned and said to my friend.
Not only was I wrong, but I was wrong in a way I couldn’t have expected.
Scheidt not only re-strung the guitar himself, but he did it while the other two members of YOB kept playing an even-longer intro to “Adrift” without even so much as pausing. Scheidt re-tuned his new strings, jumped back into the song, and the trio finished the song in truly spectacular fashion.
I’d never seen that happen quite like that on any stage before. Then again, watching YOB live has been likened to a religious experience by more people than just me. They’re the kind of band that might change your life without your consent.
At this point, the sun was granting us some mercy by retreating behind some clouds. The ensuing breeze was a welcome relief. It came just as Salt Lake City power metal heroes Visigoth were taking the stage, and something almost as impressive as what just happened during YOB was about to go down during this set.
Visigoth’s drummer wasn’t able to make the show, and behind the kit was Andy Patterson, a guy who had apparently never played the band’s songs all the way through. “Not even once,” said vocalist Jake Rogers. (Worth noting that Andy Patterson is the drummer of The Otolith/SubRosa and produced Visigoth’s material.)
Somehow, you’d have never known that was the case. The band came out firing on all cylinders, powering their way through an infectiously energetic set that featured “Dungeon Master,” “Steel and Silver,” and “The Revenant King.” There must’ve been some crazy creative force at work behind the scenes here in rural Wyoming, because the level of technical prowess on display was face-melting enough, but even more impressive was the fact that the past two bands were still fucking slaying it in the face of unplanned disruptions.
All of this unlikely heroism and prevailing in the face of adversity was leading us to one final set. One set to close us out for the weekend, and one final heavy barrage before we’d say goodbye to both stages at this breathtaking setting:
Wolves in the Throne Room.
Coming off their lauded set at Decibel Metal & Beer Fest in Philly just a month ago, the Washingtonians felt right at home in the outdoor setting. Hell, this place was made for them to play here.
Their usual practice of using sage to cleanse the stage of negative energy was cut short; I can only assume it was in the interests of the noise ordinance and set length. The opening salvo of “Mountain Magick” sounded positively breathtaking, and I would later learn that this was actually the first time the band had ever played the song live. Crazy to think the post-covid world of live music was still catching up with itself, as the album featuring that song came out almost exactly a year ago.
Then, something went oddly wrong.
“Spirit of Lightning” came next; its grandiose beginnings echoing off the mountainside as majestically as anything we’d heard through the entire weekend. But about two minutes into the song, the band fell out of sync, and they had to start the song over. “Sorry, all,” said a befuddled Nathan Weaver to the crowd.
Puzzling, but then I remembered the band had barely played live through the past year, and this moment was probably one they’d been dreaming of for god knows how long. Pressure can still be a very real thing on stage, even for a band as musically accomplished as Wolves in the Throne Room absolutely are.
The rest of the band’s set had a hard time picking itself back up, if we’re being honest. The song selection of something from the largely ambient Celestial Lineage album overstayed its welcome a little, but things redeemed themselves with the closing selection of “I Will Lay My Bones Among the Rocks and Stones”, which turned out to be entirely fitting. If nothing else, it takes balls to belt out an 18-minute song no matter where you’re playing, and I have to give credit to Wolves for navigating their way out of a setback and into what we all know and love them for.
When it was time for them to lay their aforementioned bones down for the evening, the crowd insisted on an encore. Aaron Weaver came to the mic, smiling, and politely told everyone that not only was there a noise ordinance, but “those were the only songs we know right now anyway.” Well, shit.
I exhaled quietly. We had made it. Though I had no desire to say goodbye to this place, with the incredible views and all the amazing people I’d gotten to know so well over this unforgettable weekend, it was slowly coming time to do just that. But before my mind could wander too far into thoughts of hitting the road tomorrow and lamenting the fact that I might not set foot on this ranch again (the festival announced it would not take place again in 2023 and it’s unclear where it will be if and when it returns 2024), it was time for Austin Lunn of Panopticon to serenade us one last time.
With a couple of his bandmates – one on the fiddle, one joining in for vocals – Lunn gathered around the huge bonfire that was set in the middle of the festival grounds. He joyously played us some bluegrass and folk songs; one of them could’ve been an acoustic number from Panopticon themselves, but I wasn’t sure. It was a mind-blowing experience.
But for as joyous and soulful as it was, I couldn’t help but detect a vague undertone of sadness.
We were all about to leave this place and never return, and that was worth mourning. For a moment, anyway. The reality of the situation hit me before I was ready for it, and I know I wasn’t the only one around that campfire who was tapped into that feeling.
Lunn’s voice rang out beautifully. I took in the moment, not wanting to take too many pictures. It was the kind of moment you just wanted to breathe in, almost as if ingesting it would somehow make it a part of you long after you’d leave it. I knew that in 24 hours, I’d be home, reflecting on what a special and unique weekend this was. It was unlike any other festival that I’d ever been a part of, and it was then that I remembered the wise words of Mike Scheidt just two days ago during his breathtaking solo performance:
“Take some of this back with you when you leave.”
I can say with the utmost certainty that I have. It’s rare that a festival can have such a profound impact on your life experience, but that’s precisely what makes Fire in the Mountains the unforgettable experience that it is.