Festival Review: Epicenter Festival in North Carolina

Words and Photos by Masen Smith

Bar none, the best time of year to be a metalhead in the US is the month of May. Dubbed “World’s Loudest Month” by promoters Danny Wimmer Productions, 2019’s incarnation featured three consecutive festivals across the eastern US, drawing hundreds of thousands of fans. Following the always successful Welcome to Rockville in Northern Florida was a newcomer to the festival circuit: the inaugural Epicenter Festival in North Carolina.  Set in the tiny town of Rockingham, the brand new festival promised a unique experience and boasted a killer lineup. Legions of fans flocked from all over the country to take part in the ‘christening’ of Epicenter, and it was a weekend they won’t soon forget.

DED kicked off the weekend with a healthy dose of nu-metal on the Octane stage.  Their high-energy performance set the tone for the day, the band’s zombified, empty stares contrasting with the mayhem of the mosh pits.  Such a spirited, enthusiastic crowd response this early in the festival was a fitting start for an incredible weekend.

Arrested Youth followed on the Pine stage, just next door.  The two smaller stages were aligned side-by-side, creating a nonstop party atmosphere throughout the day. Limiting the time spent walking between stages only frees up more time for music, so I give DWP serious credit for incorporating that into Epicenter.  Before I could even get settled into the photo pit, Arrested Youth’s guitarist Aaron Shadrow barreled onstage, shredding as if his life depended on it. Such a shocking introduction was fitting for the alternative trio’s dynamic performance.  While they weren’t heavy per se, the permeating aggressiveness and confidence onstage juxtaposed with honest vulnerability made their performance unique.  Vocalist Ian Johnson’s delivery made it impossible to not vibe with his music.

As two of the only true hardcore bands on this year’s lineup, Vein and Knocked Loose packed a doubleheader barrage of punk like I’ve not seen before. The frenetic, raw aggression throughout their sets brought the grimy, heavy, violent vibe of underground hxc to a massive stage with rave reviews.  Both Anthony DiDio (Vein) and Bryan Garris (Knocked Loose) invited fans to interact with them, rushing the barricade for some intense mic-grabbing action.  Security was wholly unprepared, as for the rest of the weekend this sort of behavior would be entirely out of place, but what is hardcore without chaos? The raucous pits raged for a solid hour between the two sets, a nonstop show of brutality to prove punk’s not dead.

Up next: the forefathers of djent, the almighty Meshuggah. Hailing from Sweden, they brought their unique polyrhythmic style of prog metal to Epicenter, flanked by massive album cover backdrops. If you’ve never experienced a Meshuggah show, it’s hard to describe. Simultaneously trance-inducing and impossibly heavy is probably the best way to explain them. Crowd favorites like Rational Gaze and Lethargica all but ceased the mosh pits, instead of an endless sea of headbanging.  This was the first set of the day that truly made use of lighting to create atmosphere. The frenetic strobes combined with smoke and the band’s imposing presence only augmented the wall of sound from the stage.  The intricacy of the light show was rather impressive, even during the day each musical nuance had a part in the lighting, and everything felt distinctly purposeful. However, nothing could compare to the madness of their most popular song, Bleed. The unending Herta kick drum pattern created a sort of jagged monotony, and that rhythm juxtaposed with Jens Kidman’s barking vocals made it a perfect pit soundtrack.  I knew Meshuggah would be one of the best of the weekend, and they sure did not disappoint.

As one of the black sheep of the lineup, rapper Machine Gun Kelly had a lot to prove.  While the metal community is great, sometimes it can come off as elitist to those who don’t fit into what metal is ‘Supposed to be.’  So, naturally, MGK took to the mainstage on Friday night with a fair share of doubters. The set that followed, though, should have put all those doubts to bed. Blazing through his fastest tracks without missing a step, he ripped through hits like “Bad Motherf*cker” and “Golden God”  to get the crowd into it early. Near the end of his third track, MGK jumped from the stage and climbed a radio tower to finish the outro. His playfully cocky attitude is and has won him fans and detractors, but he pulls off that energy naturally without seeming fake.  The middle of his set featured a slew of covers with AWOLnation’s “Sail” being the best of the bunch (which did feel like a bit of filler). However, considering the fact that he’d only played three shows in 8 months and nailed his original tracks, I didn’t think of that as a negative. However, as I moved over to the other mainstage to prepare for Rob Zombie,  I couldn’t help but notice the throng of hecklers mocking MGK’s performance that’s where the elitism comes into play. Why do we have to subscribe to specific genres, instead of just appreciating great music and artists? Nevertheless, Rob Zombie was due to put on a hell of a show.

Zombie’s set was an hour-long theatrical whirlwind, to say the least.  This was my first experience seeing him live, so I was shocked by how easily I could forget that there was a human under all the tassels and makeup.  Zombie’s dramatic movements, stark lighting, and swirling visuals made him more of a character than man, and that’s a good thing. His masterful use of shadow and physical dynamics made him truly a spectacle to watch.  The set meandered through Zombie’s back catalog, inevitably including the iconic Dragula and Living Dead Girl.  While I don’t actively listen to his music, I can say for certain that I’ve never seen a frontman so engrossed in an onstage persona.  Everything about RZ feels larger than life, and that’s part of how he creates such memorable performances. However magnanimous RZ felt, though, we still had the nu metal gods KoRn to finish out the night.

Korn took the stage to a raving throng of 30000 metalheads eager to lose their minds.  Opening with Falling Away From Me, the classic nu-metal vibe coursed through the venue to get the energy up early.  The relentless, textured instrumentation melded with Jonathan Davis’s iconically haunting voice to create a distinctly, believably sinister vibe.  The pits had redoubled in size, a sea of limbs only parting once for what I assumed to be a wall of death. Guitarist Head ’s (Brian Welch) driving, bouncy riffs drove those pits through the entire set, a truly surprising feat for a band with such a long career behind them.  It’s rare that a band can maintain the aggression of early material as time passes, but Korn hasn’t lost a step in the slightest. Classics such as Blind, Rotting in Vain and Coming Undone assured everyone in attendance that the titans of 2000s nu metal weren’t going anywhere soon.  The atmosphere of the entire set was convincingly, unnaturally eerie, the exact unease and frenetic their music create on record.  The crushing 13 song set came to a close with the iconic Freak on a Leash. The famous beatboxing bridge catalyzed some of the most intense crowd response of the day. You’d never have guessed that that energy came at the end of a 12-hour day of nonstop metal.

Epicenter day 1 set an incredibly high bar and was a very promising sign for the two days to follow. The location proved to be efficiently designed, set times didn’t clash, the acoustics were fantastic, and of course, the lineup was stellar. As KoRn’s final notes rang out over the grounds, I couldn’t wait to see what was in store for days 2+3.

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Day 2 began with ominous clouds spreading over the campsite.  Not to be deterred, fans still came out in droves early to catch British newcomers SHVPES on the quarry stage.  Fronted by Griffin Dickinson (son of Iron Maiden’s Bruce Dickinson), he clearly had learned quite a bit about fronting a band from his father.  The intro track, Their in-your-face stage presence certainly didn’t feel like that of a new band, and the early crowd knew they were watching an act soon to be on the rise.  Look out for SHVPES to blow up, and soon.

As the rains started to fall, Badflower and The Damned Things traded killer performances on the alternating mainstages.  The two bands were entirely different energies – Badflower being an up and coming band with youthful enthusiasm, contrasted with the veteran swagger of The Damned Things. Featuring members of iconic acts Every Time I Die, Anthrax, and Fallout Boy, they brought a different shade of aggression colored by each member’s varied experience.  It was interesting to see the juxtaposition of the two acts, both receiving rave response from festivalgoers; a testament to the broad spectrum this festival appeals to.

A pyro-filled set from gothic metalcore giants Motionless in White kept morale through the roof, even as storms began to bear down on the festival. New bassist Justin Morrow brought a new, brooding presence to MIW’s already sinister ambiance, and it was clear that this was a role he was meant for.  This set brought on the best dose of moshing of the day, and there’s no doubt MIW is best seen commanding festival stages. Still, though, the rain continued to fall sporadically, and it came to a head early in Black Label Society’s performance.  Zakk Wylde was only getting the crowd warmed up, but after only three songs it was announced that the impending storms would force site evacuation.  Unfortunately, as 30000+ people fled for their vehicles, that would be the last note of music heard that day. Among those canceled were headliners TOOL and Judas Priest, but while many were disappointed it was apparent that the festival valued safety over all else.

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After a night of sheltering from the storm, the forecast for day three was much more promising.  The first set of the day came from UK metalcore band While She Sleeps, a UK-based metalcore band I’d only heard good things about but had never seen live. Their explosive, expressive sound blew me away, their frenetic punk roots being evident through their entire set.  As was the case with other punk-influenced bands throughout the weekend, the common thread was making such a massive crowd feel intimate and unified. They quickly became one of my favorite early bands at the epicenter, and I couldn’t wait to see how their performance translated to a smaller venue.

After spirited performances from the likes of Yungblud, Reignwolf, and SCXRLXRD, the variation in genres showcased at this festival couldn’t have been made more clear.  This lineup brought fans from all over the spectrum of rock and metal music together to experience both new and familiar music, which for me is a huge part of the appeal of these festivals.  As the day rolled along, the enigmatic Fever 333 was up next, and just based on their reputation I knew the set would be wild.  From the outset, the atmosphere was significantly more charged than any other set of the weekend. Vocalist Jason Aalon Butler was led onstage in a prisoner’s jumpsuit and black hood, while the intro track to their latest record (simply titled “…”) played over the PA. When the tension broke, all hell broke loose. Often, one person in a band is the center of the mayhem – for Fever; all three members created unique energy onstage.  The tumultuous 40-minute set was a political demonstration woven with music, the themes of social justice and injustice an integral part of the message. The chaos wasn’t confined to the stage, either – for the outro of their debut track Made An America,  guitarist Steven Harris climbed the radio tower across from the stage while Butler’s repeated vocals became progressively more unhinged.  With an air of RATM infused with new-school hardcore, watching Fever perform felt like witnessing the seeds of revolution take hold.  All I can say is you have to see it for yourself.

As the sun set on the last day of Epicenter, Bring Me the Horizon, and 311 provided contrasting vibes to set the stage for the final set of the weekend.  BMTH’s pop-infused metalcore, backed by an extraordinary stage show, drew one of the most lively crowds I’d seen over the three days. Dancers, cryo cannons and an insane pyro setup proved that BMTH had brought their production to the next level.  While their newer material proved popular amongst those in attendance, older favorites like Shadow Moses and Can You Feel My Heart? Were what put their performance over the top.  The emotional weight behind their earlier material was tangible, with a sea of fans echoing Oli Sykes’ every word.  From melancholy pop to unbridled aggression to pure tenderness, BMTH’s set covered a vast spectrum of emotions and made me eager to see them again.  On the other side of the coin, 311’s chill energy kind of clashed with the whirlwind intensity prevalent throughout the weekend. Crowd response seemed positive enough, but everyone was waiting to see Foo Fighters.

The legendary Foo Fighters took the stage for one final set and delivered an iconic 2.5 hour set for 30000+ screaming fans. So many people, myself included, grew up on Foo Fighters’ music, and the nostalgic energy was palpable all night long.  To witness such an influential band from the photo pit felt like a privilege – capturing Dave Grohl’s manic joy, onstage didn’t entirely feel real.  With the cancellation of TOOL the night before, Foos had a monumental task to compensate for the loss of a headliner, and damn, did they deliver.  The set was dotted with classics like My Hero, Monkey Wrench and Best of You, and I was surprised how much of their lyrics I still had ingrained in my mind.  Foos’ finale, Everlong, was a perfect, almost anthemic sendoff to the inaugural Epicenter festival.

Replacing a longstanding festival is always difficult, but the wealth of memorable moments at Epicenter’s debut made it clear that this event fills the shoes of its predecessor and more.

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