Gilead Media Fest gets the Lambgoat treatment courtesy of writer Chris Dorsey.
Words by Chris Dorsey
Photos by Mary Manchester
Oshkosh, Wisconsin is an unlikely place for a gathering of the metal and punk underground. This is a low-key college town set squarely in a Republican-bent region of the state, and not what anyone would tag as a hotspot for extreme music. But the city has been ground zero for Gilead Media since 2005, when longstanding resident, Adam Bartlett, founded the label. Gilead's steady run of vinyl releases, EPs, and a seemingly tireless work ethic on Bartlett's part have established it as a consistently relevant member of the DIY music community.
And it's all led up to the Gilead Media Fest. The nineteen artists coming together in this final weekend of April all have ties to Gilead. While the concept of the label showcase isn't anything new, it's rarely undertaken on this level for a label this size. It seems to rest in that ideal middle ground between the bloated one-night lineup and the full-blown, port-o-pottied bender. Artists and fans have converged on Oshkosh from everywhere. A quick survey of the parking lot across the tracks from the venue yields plates from Illinois, Minnesota, Iowa, Louisiana, New York, Oregon, Ohio, Tennessee, Oklahoma, and Washington. One guy even made the trek here from Australia. All the same, the atmosphere I find pulses with a singular, communal vibe, and there's a genuine sense of purpose that permeates the weekend.
Oshkosh's Electric Lounge and Lanes plays host to the event—"lanes" referring to the fully-functional, impossibly-vintage bowling alley in the basement. The music space itself is a fantastic Beowulfian dining hall, replete with wooden chandeliers and buttresses and a massive stone fireplace set at the far end of the room. It's fitting that I end up drinking homemade mead in the parking lot with a crew of Minnesotans later on.
And where there is music, there will be merch. Tables line the north and south walls, and Gilead reps peddle show-themed gear alongside labels like Eternal Warfare, Halo of Flies, and Cavity Records. Vinyl is clearly king here, based on the boxes upon boxes of varicolored offerings, and even the strangely-resurgent cassette tape greatly outnumbers the options on CD. Illustrator Bryan Proteau represents the visual arts, offering original inkwork and prints for his Natvres Mortes Illvstration, including pieces that have graced a number of album covers in recent years.
Nine bands are slated to play today, with Loss as the late-night headliner. I'd intended to highlight only a few bands each day, but in the end felt like every act was integral to the fest itself, inserting its own unique tendril in the experience. Basically, that means you're stuck reading about all of them now…so bear with me. And thanks.
Things kick off around 4:00 with a short set from Darger + Plague Mother, a collaborative noise project with Ohioan roots. People still filter in, the crowd for the most part donning requisite black, with beards and glasses and jean jackets sporting unreadable fonts in abundance. The three members of D+PM are hooded and hunched over their instruments, issuing slow-shifting passages of guitar squall interspersed with crumbling punches of static. The mellow and dreamlike performance feels like the tranquil preface to the storms to follow. When Arms Aloft takes the stage minutes later, they introduce themselves as "Adam's guilty pleasure," but their feisty brand of melodic punk-n-roll carries enough of an edge and enough volume that nothing feels out of place. One of the guitarists sports a shirt reading "Jesus didn't die for me and he doesn't give a fuck about you," and there's no mistaking the punk-by-way-of-old-school-emo attitude at their core. The first serious rumblings of the day arrive courtesy of doom outfit, Aseethe. Spawned in Iowa City, they wield a straightforward brand of heaviness, ENTRENCHING THEIR SOUND at a lumbering pace that's steady enough to keep heads in the crowd nodding solemnly along with every crushing downbeat.
The first of the acts to rep the Badger home state are Milwaukee hardcore stalwarts Get Rad and the metallic-tinged Protestant, both of which ably inject a shot of energy into the building. Protestant, part of the Halo of Flies roster, burrows through thirty minutes of stripped-down metalcore, to use the insufferable title in its purest sense. The size of the crowd has increased steadily over the last hour or so and people are pressing in. Get Rad takes this opportunity to assault the crowd, in the best way possible, with their gritty, tongue-in-cheek hardcore. They're aggressive and raw, and fun. The frontman (sporting a Slap Shot hoodie) recklessly dodges in and out of bodies, and the band is backed by a weird Lite Brite display that shifts from quirky verbiage to inverted crosses and back again.
Between sets I run downstairs for a beer/oxygen break since that cloying, inevitable people smell is starting to take root in the upper room. I'm immediately reminded of another factor, in addition to the 100% free, ten-feet-away parking options, that speaks for the smaller-town gigs. Cheap drinks. No $7 domestic taps here. There isn't any alcohol permitted in the music hall itself, but a cordoned-off bar area at stage left allows the drinking set to enjoy the bands. It's easy to feel like a corralled piece of beef in there, but no one seems to be complaining.
Then in a rare live performance, Salem, Oregon's Hell claim the stage to give me my first holy shit moment of the day. If you're going to name your band something as basely sinister as Hell, you'd better warrant the moniker. They do. My familiarity with them isn't much beyond name recognition, but their stark, feedback-drenched doom crunches and slithers its way through the building, sounding like Sabbath as filtered through one of the deeper circles of…well. Early in the band's set, as a sea of blue light swims around the quartet, Adam Gilead grabs me by the elbow and says "I fucking love these guys," and nothing more. It's easy to see why.
Things shift into blackened mode at this juncture. Fell Voices and Ash Borer, aside from being label and album-mates (see their recent split on Gilead), share a conceptual connection in their art. Their sounds are massive and hypnotic, and they feel like the triumphant force of whatever nth wave of black metal we're in. They play separate sets, but their approaches are essentially the same. For these performers, the focus is on the hypnotic barrage injected small, subtle shifts in melody and tempo over the course of an extended piece. The idea of accessibility is all but factored out. It may come across as overly repetitive at times, but without question the music forges its very own atmosphere.
During another quick venture for fresh air, I find it impossible not to address the Hispanic baptismal celebration going on downstairs. Anyone venturing into the lobby of the building gets inevitably sidetracked by the party in the large ballroom on the first floor. It's populated by men in slick white cowboy hats and little girls in Sunday dresses. The room is decked out in blue and white balloons, and a band churns out peppy tunes at a considerable volume, the whole gathering entirely unaffected by the awful noise upstairs. The dichotomy of the two parties is almost surreal, and it's funny watching fest-goers' inability to resist peeking in on the scene.
But to return to the event at hand, Loss rounds out evening one, launching into an appropriately epic, final production. They unfurl their signature funeral dirge—idealized on last year's "Despond" LP—in methodic fashion. Someone opens a window somewhere and a breeze carries the warm scent of cloves or cinnamon or something into the hall, washing away the sweat-and-shit smell that's been trapped in the rafters all day. I admit I find the band lethargic at certain points, but it's hard not to be drawn in by harmonized guitar melodies that tend to come forward like shafts of light out of a dark void. The crowd gives a final, rousing ovation, proceeds to wind itself down, and everyone filters out into the night.
Sunday's lineup starts a few hours earlier than yesterday's. The weather outside is sunnier and warmer, and everyone mills around sleepily—some with coffee in tow, others already starting in on the harder stuff. But eardrums aren't given any warm-up set today. Mania, a one-man black metal project born out of the Lone Star State, ends up being another of the weekend's great revelations for me. Wasting no time, project mastermind Nate Myers shatters the placid silence with a scathing black metal set in which he handles drum duties and vocals over pre-recorded swaths of searing guitar. The audience doubles in size by the end of the second song, and Myers exhibits some of the most furious and skilled drum-work of the weekend. It's compelling stuff, and it isn't like you need a degree in music theory to recognize the compositional skill and the all-around musicianship on display.
Baby Boy then steps in to tame the post-Mania air. Taking a page from Arms Aloft, they quickly identify themselves as "the least metal band here," and they look it in their bright colored shirts. Two members of Thou populate the ranks, and they're a difficult band to pin down as far as sound. There are melodic hooks and a healthy dose of screamed/shouted vocals, with driving moments that even venture into post-rock territory. They get a hearty reception before yielding the floor to yet another one of the weekend's collaborative acts. Out of the cinders of Ash Borer and Fell Voices, Sleepwalker emerges, taking cues from its paternal influences but employing a more straightforward approach to the music. It's blackened stuff by nature, but the drumming seems to direct things, and makes what could be a post-whatever metal project vaguely rockish and a little punk at times. It's an interesting alliance and seems to offer said artists a space for exercising ideas outside of their norms.
The crowd bristles in anticipation for A Scanner Darkly's first live gig in over six years. With nothing other than an eponymous EP under their belt, they've managed to develop a cult-like following. Today, the band plays as a five-piece, with a man on electronics and Adam Gilead standing in as lead vocalist. Strobe lights flash and the band launches into a vicious rendition of "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" They whole project is haunted by sci-fi god Phillip K. Dick, both lyrically and conceptually, leading to an angular, futuristic brand of grind spotted with slow, robotic breaths of low-end dissonance. Between songs, several of the band members offer a sincere shout-out for Bartlett and his work in putting this together. But he quickly deflects the praise, making a sweep of his arm to suggest the importance of everyone involved. Then, after returning his attention to the band and surmising that "It's a fan boy dream-come-true to sing these songs," ASD launches into another devastating track. They cover the entire EP, and there's no question the wait was worth it. (Note: shortly after the weekend come rumors of more ASD shows…but then again, those are just rumors…)
A Scanner Darkly
Milwaukee's Northless are slated to follow up the PKD barrage. Several months ago they were scandalously booted off a Madison, WI stage for very literally being too loud. Today, flanked by twin Emperor cabinets, they seem to be making up for it. Drawing on material from their 2011 full length, "Clandestine Abuse," they deliver spacious, sludgy grooves and depth-charge bass that rattles the windows. I now find myself in the middle of a select run of bands that I've particularly been looking forward to seeing for months. Always at the top of that list have been Brooklyn thrash monsters, Mutilation Rites. They enter the weekend as one of the more buzzed-about bands in the metal underground, and it takes about 30 seconds to grasp why. I could toss out a bunch of overused genre labels to convey their live presence, but I'll spare everyone involved and just point out that these guys absolutely shred. As a unit, they're fierce and they're precise and they pluck with equal ease and abandon from the entire encyclopedia metallum. I am slightly disappointed at the lack of material summoned from the recent "I Am Legion" 12", but it fails to detract from the experience of getting to see this band live.
By the time The Body comes on, my brain and ears are starting to feel like mush. This is either a good or a bad sign. It's almost easier at a show where you know there are only a handful of acts worth seeing, as opposed to feeling the need to watch every single damn band because you don't want to miss something great. On record, this Rhode Island duo's sound is intricately layered. Hypnotic looped samples and swimming choral progressions fill the gaps left by the sparse, muddy riffs. In the live setting, however, nearly all external influences are removed, and the band becomes a different beast altogether. These guys are loud. Like your-ribs-might-just-float-up-and-out-of-your-chest-loud. They play a bruising set in a style that borders on minimalism, with bespectacled frontman/guitarist Chip King howling mercilessly into his microphone over the crash of the drums.
Things shift back into black metal mode again with performances from False and Barghest. The Minneapolis-bred False have a diligent following here, and they churn out riff after charring riff, while fronted by a petitely-formed girl in a dress. You'd never know that was a fair maiden at the helm of this blistering act when confronted with the gravelly shrieks that make the hair on your neck stand straight. To follow, Barghest descends upon the hall. Hailing from the murky depths of Louisiana, their set today is the band's first live performance with its new lineup. Unadorned black metal spews out in waves, strewn with Darkthrone influence and the band commands a sizeable following for having come so far.
Speaking of which, I mentioned that guy that was here from Australia. Perth, to be exact. I was introduced to Troy yesterday, but we don't get together until here in the fest's twilight hours. He's decked out in a patched-up leather jacket and nose ring and seems to have had no problem making friends over the weekend. He apologizes to me for having a number of beers in his system already, but I find him to be funny and intelligent, and the enthusiastic disgust he has for the "amazingly fucked" state of things in his home country makes me somehow happy that there are people somewhere else just as livid about the modern state of things. "I've always wanted to come to the states, he says. "And Gilead is like a focal point, I feel."
I miss some music because Troy and I discuss everything from the Fawstuh's clichés to Nick Cave's moustache. But I make it in time to catch the weekend close in as punishing a way as possible, with Louisiana doom merchants Thou performing, in entirety, their sprawling 2007 debut LP, "Tyrant." They play surrounded by a circle of fans that bellow along with every line, physically twisting through the melodic interludes and moments of sheer bludgeoning force. They leave attendees with a final, resonating blast of noise that echoes off into space.
Aussie Troy's perception of the fest as a focal point is spot-on. That sense of convergence I spoke of. Referring to "passion" in the music scene is clichéd, and I try to avoid clichés, but it's the word that won't stop cropping up in my head. Bartlett's concept and execution of the event; the artists performing; the determined fan base; the mutual respect and admiration visible everywhere. And all of it from a disparate collection of people brought together by that unique connection that music, and art in general, provides.
Another Gilead Fest, at least in this all-encompassing format, may not happen again. But maybe that's a key part, since it renders this particular assembly in this particular slice of time distinctive, and for anyone who played a role, ultimately important.