By Rob Hughes
In terms of metal fests, you’ve got your Milwaukees, your Maryland Deathfests, your Wackens, your Holes in the Sky, Dudefests, Hellfests, and so on—all of them well out of range of western Canadians. Thankfully, a new metallic mecca has sprung up in Alberta, at Calgary’s Noctis Festival. The third gathering (full title: Noctis III: Tritagonist) featured two days’ worth of gigs and a full-blown conference peppered with esteemed guests and international acts brought in exclusively for the event. The concert lineup, which included Slough Feg, Novembers Doom, Aura Noir, Destroyer 666, Suffocation and Cynic, was more than impressive enough to get me onto a WestJet flight from Vancouver to witness the carnage in Cowtown.
Friday, October 2: Conference Day
Upon turning up at the conference registration table to collect our all-access wristbands and cool swag bags, it was clear that we were in good hands. Terese Fleming and her team at Scarab Metal Productions delivered a top-notch conference, with interesting sessions, engaging panelists, and a perfect venue (the Ramada Downtown).
It would have taken a team of hellbound.ca reporters to cover the entire conference. With three rooms going at once (plus a fourth reserved for one-on-one “mentor” sessions) I had to make some tough calls, but after an afternoon spent jogging between the Slayer Room and the Mayhem Room I could tell that the event was an ideal forum for learning and exchanging ideas between metal musicians, writers, and fans alike.
For Those About to Rock
The sessions for the aspiring metal musicians in attendance were held in the Grand Ballroom, AKA the Slayer Room. With the recording industry crumbling, hard truths and harsh realities were the major themes of the day. The thousands upon thousands of metal bands out there have to work harder than ever in the mad scramble for fewer and fewer resources. As panelist Michael Faley of Metal Blade Records put it, bands nowadays need to have a DIY mentality, and labels mainly function to help bands help themselves. For EJ Johangten of Prosthetic Records, tenacity and touring are essential for a band to get signed, revealing the Catch 22 of the band/label relationship—the bands who land deals are the ones who are getting out there and managing to survive without a label behind them. Faley brought up the example of As I Lay Dying, whom he selected from the slush pile of demos because the last page of their press kit featured a picture of their van and trailer. This was obviously a band committed to living on the road, and that’s what got them signed to Metal Blade.
Michael Berberian of Season of Mist emphasised that the music comes first for him, but that bands really do need to know everything about the business before they sign to a label. He also provided the best quote of the “What Does It Take to Get Signed?” session: When a record fails, the band says it’s the label’s fault. If the record succeeds, it’s because of the band’s talent.
Not that getting signed is the be-all and end-all for a band nowadays. At the “Staying Independent by Chance or by Choice” session, David Gold of Woods of Ypres stated his reasons for not signing to a label (hey, it’s hard to argue with collecting 10 times the amount for selling a CD compared to what a label would give you). Co-panelist Thérèse Lanz of Tosca and Exit Strategy reiterated that it’s possible to achieve a high degree of professionalism as a DIY artist if you employ an extreme amount of organization, build your support network, and avoiding spending “band money” on beer. Seriously—don’t drink your earnings!
Some good-natured unrest erupted after Gold claimed that Woods of Ypres had never been offered anything ever in their career. “Liar!” came the response from Larry Roberts of Novembers Doom, lurking at the back. Heads turned, but the confusion quickly blew over once he explained that Novembers Doom had invited WoY down to Chicago for a show in the near future. It seems that Gold’s phone does indeed ring once in a while.
Many of the same panelists explored the topic of touring later that afternoon. Again, we learned that it’s tough out there. The rewards are slight—100 bucks a show seems standard for an opening slot on a decent-sized tour—but the exposure can make it worthwhile. David Gold gave some tips on drawing up contracts and extracting a guarantee from reluctant promoters, while Thérèse Lanz summed up the key to staying sane on a cross-Canada tour: “You have to really enjoy driving.”
Doing It For the Kids
Dave Ellefson was the special guest at the opening session, sitting down for an interview with Martin Popoff about his career past and present. He came off as professional and articulate, and was forthcoming about most things Megadeth-related, including the high points (receiving platinum records for Countdown to Extinction during rehearsals for that album’s tour) and the low points (the Risk album).
Over in the Mayhem room, many of the visiting bands were available for live interviews with a moderator and an open Q & A session with attendees. I regrettably had to miss Cynic due to a schedule clash, but managed to catch Novembers Doom talking to Alex Melzer from The Metal Observer and an uproarious session with Slough Feg, gamely moderated by Pitch Black Magazine’s Pamela Porowsky.
Novembers Doom (well, mostly Paul Kuhr) talked about the development of their style (“We’ve always been death metal!”) and the influence of the Chicago metal scene. According to Kuhr, during the ’90s death metal boom in Florida, Chicago was sadly overlooked. Never mind My Dying Bride; it was bands like Sindrome, Devastation, Maimed and Contagion who were the formative influences for Novembers Doom. The audience Q & A portion of the interview was a non-starter (“Crickets!” exclaimed Kuhr when the room went silent after Melzer opened up the floor), but really, our moderator had covered everything we’d want to know.
Note to the conference organizers: let Mike Scalzi of Slough Feg do the keynote address next year. The guy is brilliantly funny and apparently has a stockpile of rants he can launch into at will. He opened with some advice for budding musicians: learn how to play some good old rock ‘n’ roll of the Elvis variety before you try playing metal. He then segued into how absurd modern-day equipment is—rack upon rack of gear that lights up like VCRs, and it all ends up sounding like “CCCHHHUUURRRKKK!”—and the beautiful simplicity of plugging straight into a Marshall. With the rest of the band chiming in with their own comments about ape uprisings, Motel Sixes and fanboys, it was all the moderator could do redirect the interview towards answering her actual questions.
So Let it be Written…
With Martin Popoff, the unofficial dean of Canadian metal writers, in attendance, the topics of metal journalism and the future of print magazines made perfect sense at Noctis III. Popoff’s conference duties (apart from manning his book table) came at the opening and closing sessions. First he had the journalistic tables turned on him, being interviewed by Joshua Wood, radio host and creator of the Metal Mental Breakdown board game. They discussed Popoff’s start in the business, self-publishing Riff Kills Man! in 1993, his interviewing strategy, and the many routes he’s taken to publish his books.
A question from an audience member about the uncertain status of Brave Words & Bloody Knuckles led to the topic of the demise of print magazines, where, with ad revenue dwindling (BWBK saw a 95 per cent drop-off in ad sales in the time between two issues, according to Popoff) and the Internet providing a constant newsfeed for everything related to HM, it’s becoming more and more tempting to simply give up on print and go to an online presence.
This pessimistic prognosis for the print medium was also the subject of the day’s final session, where Popoff and many of the previous panelists held court. Michael Berberian from Season of Mist cast his vote for print, saying that you can’t bring a webzine onto a plane or into a toilet with you. On the negative side, he noted that most print magazines have become too staid and politically correct these days. More provocation in their pages would be welcome. Prosthetic’s Johangten agreed, remembering the good old days of Kerrang! magazine and the sense of danger and mystique that bands had back then. He reluctantly blamed Americans for the surface level treatment that music currently receives in most magazines.
Popoff made a case for the ongoing role of the rock critic. Even in the online era, he said, there’s still a need for authoritative writers who can help you enjoy the things you buy and help you appreciate the art better. He also revealed that he’s been working with Sam Dunn and Scot McFadyen on a 16-part series for VH1 Classics entitled Metal Evolution. Everyone agreed that the media landscape for metal discussion and criticism is wider than ever, encompassing the few print publications that manage to survive, the thousands of webzines and blogs online, and the current vogue for film and TV documentaries.
“The next five years will be amazing,” assured Johangten, speaking to the future of the genre itself.
The most fitting, comforting final remark came from Berberian: “Metal’s a cockroach. It’s not going to die.”
Next time: More Calgarian chaos as the Noctis III Festival takes flight for two nights of gigs.