(Denver-based NCS writer Gonzo didn’t miss the Decibel Metal & Beer Fest in Denver on December 1st and 2nd, and somehow he recovered quickly enough to turn in the following report on the fest’s first day — and he’ll be sending us a report on the second day as well.)
We all know the story with sequels – they rarely live up to the expectations set by their predecessor. The trend is so common that it makes one wonder why it’s seemingly always the case. Heavy lies the crown of precedent, I suppose.
Music festivals are not immune to this trend. The first go-round of any festival could easily be a trial-and-error situation resulting in way more “error” for most people’s liking. The logistics, planning, promotion, marketing, and everything that goes in between is a waking nightmare to comprehend, and it’s a hell of a lot easier for me to sit here and write about it than it is to organize and execute. When it’s done right, though, people will come back for Year 2, and they’ll bring their high expectations with them.
All that being said, after spending this past weekend at Summit Music Hall here in Denver for the second incarnation of Decibel’s now-annual Metal & Beer Fest, I can happily say that the curse of sequel mediocrity does not fucking apply here.
If anything, the bar has been thoroughly raised for this glorious weekend of revelry and ear-splitting savagery, even though my liver is scowling in disapproval as I type this. (Sit this one out, you whiny little mass of meat. You’ve suffered enough.)
Last year, the Philly-based Decibel crew took a chance and relocated the West Coast edition of their cherished beer-soaked weekend from LA to Denver. It was a decision that seemed somewhat puzzling at first – on paper, a city like LA would be the obvious choice – but being dedicated stewards to heavy-hitting beers and even heavier music, it was clear that Decibel wasn’t looking to make this festival into a quick cash grab and call it good. They wanted to build something.
And in 2023, all it took was simply walking into Summit to see the vision of what they’re building is becoming clearer than ever.
The first thing I noticed as I strolled into the venue at just after 4 p.m. on Friday was the beer. It was just as ubiquitous as it was last year but with a few important improvements: Every band had a beer collab project with one of the breweries, whereas that was only the case with a handful of the acts last year. (And in the spirit of new traditions, I’ll include each respective beer with each band’s performance again.)
The outdoor Indiemerchstore pop-up was bigger and better than ever, and the fact that the crew sat in the cold without heaters for much of it was a sheer act of perseverance and commitment.
Inside the Summit, both floors were packed with purveyors of modern craft beer sorcery, including Adroit Theory, 3 Floyds, Soundgrowler, War Pigs, and local heroes Trve and Black Sky, among others. (Later on, we’ll get to how badly I became hooked on whatever the fuck those warlocks at Brimming Horn Mead were slinging the whole time.)
And finally, the music. Tonight would be headlined by none other than Khemmis, playing their only hometown show in recent memory, accompanied by a litany of other acts that amounted to one hell of a bill. Buckle up, I thought. Or at the very least, find a good spot to stand for the next seven hours.
I’d barely settled in with my first pour and a nice catch-up chat with Jesse from KEN Mode when local black metal crew The Munsens took the stage. It’s becoming an unspoken tradition of this festival to have a local, lesser-known act open things up each day – Glacial Tomb and In the Company of Serpents got us going last year, and The Munsens quickly proved they were also up to the task. New track “Sacred Ivory,” with its scathing riffs and infectious stomp, was enough to pique my interest and find them on Bandcamp, and I hope to see more local shows from them in 2024.
Pairs well with: Sacred Ivory lager, Decibel Metal & Beer Fest limited pour
It was just after 5 o’clock now, and more festivalgoers were trickling in as the workday came to a welcome halt. The beers were starting to flow, and in a show of solidarity, I threw my consumption mantra of “it’s a marathon, not a sprint” to a temporary halt. It was time to make bad decisions.
Upstairs, the hops wizards at Adroit Theory were pouring some shit that would almost certainly be gone halfway through the night, most notably the Dia de Los Muertos, a Russian imperial stout brewed with notes of coffee, hazelnut, and coconut, and I scurried up there to get some.
I shit you not, friends – one taste of this brew was enough to make me want to guzzle an entire keg.
When I was able to pry myself away from Adroit Theory’s setup with an empty cup, the demented death metal Quebecois in Phobocosm were wordlessly starting their set. Diving right into material from their brand-new Foreordained release, this is the kind of band that wants to make you feel every bowel-shaking riff that emanates from their darkened stage. Their set reminded me of Evoken’s performance at Decibel’s Philadelphia festival some years ago – slow, formidable, and heavier than an alien mothership crashing to Earth.
Pairs well with: Everlasting Void Czech dark lager, Soundgrowler Brewing Co
I didn’t know very much about Morbikon before tonight. They’re a fairly new band and Decibel had previously touted that this would be one of the first times they’ve ever played live, so it was hard to know what to expect.
As soon as they took the stage, though, it was clear that my expectations weren’t high enough.
The Richmond, VA blackened thrash crew wasted no time in whipping the crowd into a frenzy. Their debut album – last year’s Ov Mournful Twilight – was made to be played in a dark beer-soaked venue where your shoes stick to the floor. Evidently, they were playing the right gig.
Their set quickly opened up the weekend’s first pit. Vocalist and instigator Quotidius used his commanding stage presence to not only channel his inner Fenriz but also to belt out some seriously ear-piercing screams. Searing riffs, pounding drums (courtesy of Municipal Waste and Birds of Prey kit man Dave Witte), and an overall rollicking good time made Morbikon an early festival highlight.
Pairs well with: Deaththirst cherry barleywine, 3 Floyds Brewing Co
It was time for KEN Mode to grab us by the throat and batter the hell out of our eardrums, and that’s always an experience I look forward to. I caught up with vocalist/guitarist/band mastermind Jesse Matthewson at the merch booth before any music started that night, and it was great to see him since we last connected at Northwest Terror Fest.
Blasting through an array of songs that mainly consisted of the band’s newest work in VOID and NULL, (a “double album” of sorts, per Jesse, which I had been wondering about since the latter’s release in September), the Winnipeg noise rockers came to slay. The relentless chug of “The Shrike” got everyone moving, while the brooding “These Wires” turned Jesse into a demented preacher of sorts during a shouted/spoken word interlude that had my eyes glued to the stage. KEN Mode is the kind of band that makes you glad you remembered your earplugs, and I mean that in the most affectionate way possible.
Pairs well with: Painless IPA, Decibel Metal & Beer Fest limited pour
With the intensity of each set slowly building and the crowd very well-lubricated by now, it was only appropriate that The Red Chord came next to decimate the living shit out of this place.
The Massholes have been intermittently playing shows and festivals over the past year or so, leading to some quiet speculation about whether a new album is on the way. And even though the band hasn’t released anything since 2009’s Fed Through the Teeth Machine, it simply did not fucking matter on this night.
It’s hard to overstate how wildly chaotic but technically precise The Red Chord is on a live stage. They effortlessly shellacked us with the raw, beastly deathgrind from as far back as 2002’s Fused Together in Revolving Doors; the highlights of which being “Nihilist” and the inimitable “Dreaming in Dog Years” to close things out with a roar. When frontman Guy Kozowyk even jumped into the pit to share the ending chorus of “IT’S NOT GONNA BE OKAAAYY,” it was one of those moments you can’t stop thinking about for a while afterward.
Pairs well with: Molasses Through the Vein imperial stout, Magnanimous Brewing
Seeing The Red Chord, as it turns out, is basically giving the band carte blanche to take a sonic branding iron to your Eustachian tubes. The general vibe had shifted after that set, and everyone was laughing incredulously and recapping it as people crawled their way to the beer lines. For my money, it doesn’t get much better than heavy music, high-potency brews, and being surrounded by like-minded weirdos. This, right here, is what I came for, I thought to myself as I headed upstairs for another pour of Dia de Los Muertos.
Much to my horror, Adroit Theory had already called it a night. No sign of their setup was anywhere to be found. No more wickedly delicious Russian imperial stouts from them tonight. “They already sold out,” said someone working at Holy Mountain, right next to where AT had previously been. My gratitude for catching them before their early departure could not be measured in that moment.
Cephalic Carnage picked up right where Red Chord left off, coming right out of the gates like a multi-headed cosmic horror. The seminal Denver grind unit is just as unpredictable as they are entertaining on a live stage, and they wasted no time getting to work.
After tearing through tracks that spanned the group’s 30-year history, frontman Lenzig gave us a look inside what was going on in his brain by leading a one-word chant with the crowd: “WEED!” Well, I thought, that’s a first. Given that Len himself once told me “Yeah, if it hadn’t been for weed, I don’t think this band would exist,” there’s nothing like giving credit to the inspiration that fuels you. If anything, I can relate.
What makes Cephalic Carnage the spectacle that they are, though, is the sheer range of their talent. One song could be a five-minute experiment in jazz-infused doom metal, and the next could be a spastic 40-second burst of the most intense grindcore to ever exist on this dimensional plane. Even if we never get another album from these unhinged geniuses, I’ll never not see them play a show.
Pairs well with: Cephalic Haze IPA, Black Sky Brewing
Incredibly, this night had flown by. I was caught up in endlessly amusing conversations with tourists and locals alike for the entire night. It was no surprise that the experience had been great so far, but this year was on a whole different level. I almost couldn’t believe we were already minutes away from Khemmis’s headlining set.
The Denver doom merchants have seen a meteoric rise since their humble beginnings in 2012. It’s been truly rewarding to see them overcome so much in the past decade to get to where they are now. Their body of work speaks for itself – I was almost shocked to hear how many flew into Denver for this festival specifically to see Khemmis.
As the energetic “Avernal Gate” kicked things off, I could feel a renewed vigor within all four guys playing in front of me. Every song felt vibrant and riveting. Speed usually isn’t their M.O., but tonight, “Three Gates” ripped especially hard, namely when guitarist Ben Hutcherson laid down the growls in the chorus. The pit was reacting in kind, as it was the most active and responsive one I’d ever seen at a Khemmis show.
Being the fans of doom and gloom that they are, it was only reasonable that the band closed things out with the beautiful “The Bereaved” and “A Conversation with Death;” both of which packed an emotional wallop that was on par with how the beer was making me feel by now. Pushing into hour eight of any show is, as I’ve always said, an endurance contest, and Khemmis was sure to reward all of those left standing with the best show I’ve ever seen them play.
Pairs well with: Obsidian Crown imperial stout, Trve Brewing
After just one night, my hat was off to the folks at Decibel for focusing so much effort into making Metal & Beer Fest 2023 an incredible time. From the carefully picked lineup of bands to the hops used in every beer, the passion in this undertaking was palpable.
And the best part? We’d get to do it all again tomorrow night.