With railroad tracks, state college satellite campus, and blinking street lights after 11PM, Oshkosh, Wisconsin looks like an unassuming cross-section of pure Americana. It's far away from anything resembling a metropolitan area and close enough to Canada where buying anything other than the brown vodka–aka Canadian Whiskey–will likely earn you side-eye from the cashier. Yet this past weekend Oshkosh hosted not one but two metal festivals: the four-day Rock USA festival that featured Kerry King and The Slayer Band and Gilead Fest which I drove 13 hours to attend.
Owned and operated solely by founder Adam Bartlett, Gilead Fest is the culmination of bands and musicians who’ve worked with Bartlett’s DIY label, Gilead Media. While the term “DIY” often gets thrown around with the sincerity of a circus peanut, Bartlett’s work with Gilead Media is wholly devoid of marketing angles or hot-button band signings. This last weekend’s Gilead Fest reinforced that, with the lineup’s 22 bands offering a glimpse not only into the workings of an indie metal label but also into some of the music’s most exciting bands.
Bartlett isn’t shy about the purpose of Gilead Media, explaining on the label’s website: “This isn’t a labor of love. This is a labor of necessity.” The distinction was abundantly clear from the very beginning of the festival on Friday night as Bartlett, along with a festival volunteer, put wristbands on the few hundred that poured into the entrance of the Oshkosh Masonic Center. Just up the steps and around to the ballroom’s entrance was the bar and yet another indication of small but no less telling detail with a sign reading “Free Water.” While it may seem small, the gesture spoke volumes for what would dominate the festival’s atmosphere all weekend.
Comparing Gilead Fest to other metal or music festivals would be problematic simply because it’s a niche festival. And that’s fine. Hell, it’s great. There was the familial sense of solidarity that makes metal fandom so exceptional in the first place. Gilead Fest wasn’t about metal culture or the metal scene or about one-upping the hesher you came with on who had the demo first back in second grade. It wasn’t about the humiliating spectacle of watching a once mighty metal band expel its last few desperate breaths in front of a crowd shouting for the next band or simply not paying attention.
Gilead Fest was about making sure sure you saw every band. With a smaller lineup booked out of fandom rather than an attempt to earn metal cred stripes for getting that one band back together, earlier set times, and shows that end before 1AM, it was a music festival geared toward the music itself rather than the appeal of the names on its lineup. It also showed that music festivals don’t have to be the absolute clusterfuck that they always tend to be. When you watched Kowloon Walled City peel the paint off the walls, you weren’t nervously worrying about if you’d be able to sprint your half drunk ass a half mile away to catch the last half of False or Barghest.
Though no one single band “won” Gilead Fest, Nashville black metal newcomers Alraune certainly underscored their name in the lineup with their performance. Tyler Coburn continues to build a case for himself as one of indie metal’s most talented drummers, displaying a fluidity and controlled but still a volatile sense of rhythmic space. Boise experimental noise duo Wolvserpent demonstrated that minimalism can still be powerful.
This isn’t some smarmy attempt at dismissing other metal festivals or the people who curate them. In fact, Gilead Fest inspires hope that metal fans in other small towns might muster up the courage to put on a show for their favorite band or release a 7” from underneath the fluorescent glow in their parents’ garage. If more festivals embraced the attitude of the music they're presenting. It’s too easy to dismiss the intimacy of a festival like Gilead Fest based on the size of the crowd. I’ve felt the same kind of camaraderie at other festivals even if only briefly, so the potential is there.
Jonathan is an indie metal fest optimist. He's on Twitter - @steelforbrains.
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