Smoke drifts up from somewhere in the middle of a pit that’s maybe ten thousand strong. It’s not a big fire, but the smoke is thick enough that it’s visible from way over on the other side of the field, past the merch stalls and the Harley Davisdon bar, and the shitty, overpriced food vendors. Chimaira, only one song into what turns out to be a suitably blistering set, are forced to stop playing until someone figures out how to get in there and put it out. Luckily, it’s relatively cool today, only a steady 90 degrees. Sometimes it can hit 110 by midday, temperatures only rattlesnakes and metalheads can survive in, and, even then, the weak are turned into shoes or ambulanced away. The rest can turn a little crazy at times, sunburnt and drunk by two o’clock with thirteen bands to go. Why else would anyone start a fire in the middle of the pit? In the middle of the fucking desert! Welcome to San Bernadino and the first day of the Mayhem Festival
Chimaira kick back into gear and the pit turns back into a dust cloud of fists and elbows. The brief fire aside, it’s been like that for nearly three hours now, in front of two stages: 3 Inches Of Blood-bang! In-your-face for exactly 30 minutes. Shadows Falls-bang! 30 minutes on the Jagermiester stage! In This Moment-bang! 30….well, okay ten minutes because Maria Brink sounds like a cat being strangled, but otherwise it’s unrelenting, a heartbeat between bands and each as brutal as the last. In all there are nine bands back to back before the main stage even opens, all of them playing their best and most aggressive six or seven songs. Which, from the likes of Chimaira, Shadows Fall and Hatebreed is saying something. This will continue for five weeks in 26 cities across the United States. Korn, Rob Zombie, Lamb Of God, Five Finger Death Punch, heat, noise, trucks, and enough metalheads to populate an entire country. Cool, huh?
San Bernadino is just the first day of this madness, but it’s also hallowed ground, a mecca for metal. This purpose built 65,000 seater venue, the biggest outdoor amphitheater in America, may change it’s name every half an hour from Blockbusters Pavilion, to Glen Helen Pavilion (it’s currently San Manuel Amphitheater), but in many ways it is to California what Donington is to England. Everyone has played here. Everyone. Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden, Pantera, Marilyn Manson, Judas Priest, Motley Crue, Slayer. Everyone. They had the first Ozzfest here back in ‘96 with Ozzy, Slayer, Danzig, Neurosis, and a line up from the Gods, the same year certain bands were making porn movies in the parking lot. And a good few bands have started out by playing in that same parking lot and gone on to be, well, Slipknot, Fear Factory, System Of A Down. It’s also where that whole Ozzy-Maiden egg throwing feud started.
Not that there seem to be any feuds today. Over in the tented press area bands are herded around and plonked in front of a conveyor belt of press. There’s some shade there and they’ll let you take a cold beer in so the Hammer joins the conveyor, seemingly set on random, with all the bands just doing five minutes, like musical chairs. Except the music’s really loud and they don’t turn it off while you do the interviews. Five Finger Death Punch guitarist Jason Hook and drummer Jeremy Spencer are doing their soundbites before opening the main stage, which is roughly the size of Texas.
“When we played Download,” says Jason, ”we’d just played a bunch of smaller stages and then we get on this big stage and it’s like “holy shit! All my guys are way over there!” That’s a little bit weird, like, I’ve got to switch my pedals but they’re 17 feet that way! Going back and forth is a little tricky because you’re adjusting all the time, but this is cool. We were on the second stage last time, so we were in the parking lot with lots of dust and lots of rocks, but it was lots of fun and lots of great bands too. And brutalizing heat every day, but we got through it! At least now we get to get out of the sun occasionally, which is kinda refreshing.”
Anyone you’re looking forward to hanging out with once the tour gets rolling?
“Jeremy,” grins Jason. “For me the Lamb Of God guys are cool. We made friends with Shadows Fall and did a lot of touring with them last year. Korn is family. It’s gonna be great. The beautiful thing is you get to do this when you feel like it. If I’m tired one night I’ll skip a concert and watch it tomorrow or the night before a night off!”
A luxury that, unfortunately, Metal Hammer don’t share. And Hatebreed are due to close the Jagermiester stage, which is going to be like a scene from Braveheart. Mayhem festival is one of the few in America that are completely insane for the smaller bands and then slow down a gear or two for the main bands. It’s the heat and the seats. There may be more people watching the main bands, but it’s more… civilized. The Hatebreed pit is like a battlefield, almost rabid near the center. It’s an impressive sight. Particularly with a guest appearance from Lamb Of God frontman Randy Blythe and Machine Head guitarist Phil Demmel, cranking out Live For This if front of one hell of a circle pit. Atreyu are up next, hitting the stage to Queen’s Fat Bottomed Girls.
“I kind of dubbed us kings of the parking lot, although I don’t know if that’s too arrogant,” says frontman Alex Varkatas before they go on. “We’ve done a lot of parking lot tours and we love doing them. Amphiteatre’s are fun, but this is more our style. The kids go insane and it’s right in your face . You’re still playing to a ton of people but they’re right there! It’s weird, I never went to seated shows as a kid so it’s weird playing them as an adult. If you pay me I’ll play there, but I prefer it sweaty.”
Doubtless he’s not disappointed today. Another dust cloud full of elbows.
Part of the beauty of Mayhem festival, at least in San Bernadino, is that it still has a wild streak. Festivals on this site have tamed a little over the years, but not too much. There’s still the Nazi skinheads and Mexican gangbangers, the swaggering sheriffs department and, always, the Berdoo Hells Angels, but back in 96 on the Ozzfest it wasn’t entirely safe to walk around, particularly after dark. A generation on, it’s more friendly, but without entirely losing it’s ‘fuck you’ attitude. Don’t forget this is where they egged Bruce Dickenson, and they booed Marilyn Manson last year. If they don’t like your band, you will know about it.
Five Finger Death Punch don’t have any such problems opening the main stage with a thundering 35 minute set. Still in daylight, they have to work hard with songs like The Way Of The Fist to win a crowd that can barely see them, (no big screens!) but it’s slowly working. Next year, no doubt, they’ll be one spot higher on the bill.
Meanwhile in the press area, the Hammer is supposed to be chatting with Fieldy from Korn who is never going to show up, but Rob Zombie guitarist John 5 and bassist Piggy D are lurking about, thankfully not sporting the Rob Zombie hobo/Charles Manson look.
“We did it briefly for a photoshoot and I think both of us simultaneously shaved straight afterwards!” laughs D. “It works on some people, but John and I…. not so much!”
“I know!” adds John. “This is about all I can do beard-wise.”
All the same we’re looking forward to the set, sir.
“You’ve seen a ton of concerts,” says John 5 confidently, “but this is the best show you’ll ever see! It’s amazing! You’ll see!”
The new album absolutely rocks apart from the drum solo.
“Well, we have a special edition coming out and we took the drum solo out!” grins John. “So when the new release comes out, you’ll love it.”
Are you looking forward to hanging out with any bands on this tour?
“No!” says Piggy. “I’m just unfamiliar with them. I’m not hip! I wish I was! I know Korn obviously and I like some of their stuff, but it’s not really my scene. Oh I forgot Lamb Of God. I like them! Randy looks like a serial killer on stage, he’s so intense!”
Indeed. There’s half an hour until Lamb Of God on the main stage and they plan to tear it apart, seating or not.
“Most of the venues have huge lawns behind the seated are,” says drummer Chris Adler, who’d have a better view than the rest of the band. “There are crazy pits up there, fires even! There’s also a small pit area of about 1000 people before the seats begin and they’re all ripping it up. The people in the seats look scared for their lives most of the time! We don’t care what’s in front of us, we give 110 per cent every time.”
It’s 7.35 and Fieldy isn’t coming, no sense in missing Lamb Of God bulldoze through the likes of Black Label and Laid To Rest. The new track Set To Fail, stands out tonight too.
But just as John 5 predicted it’s Rob Zombie who steal the show. Sure, those bagpipes still sound immense when Jonathon Davis huffs into them for Shoots And Ladders and that Giger mic-stand still looks the business, but Blind and a few others sound surprisingly laboured. And with just one little screen over the stage, Korn become ants at times where Zombie has a giant fuckng robot on stage for More Human Than Human and rocks the whole place for House Of Sin. Bigger, louder and better.
It’s unlikely that Mayhem festival will ever be up there with Download, but three years in it’s become a solid fixture, a possible ‘must do’ to add to your travels. There’s still no camping and the nearest town or meth lab will be a bit more lively than Kegworth, but still…Rain or shine it says on the ticket and it’s sure as hell not going to rain.