Death in the Desert: Dropdead, Sleep, and Bongripper Decimated Arizona

Thou, The Body, Landmine Marathon, Gatecreeper, and a host of others raged and roared at Tucson's Southwest Terror Fest Volume 4.

by Joshua Levine
Oct 20 2015, 2:17pm

All photos by Valerie Littlejohn

For four years now, the Southwest Terror Fest has served as both a thinly-veiled call into the wild of Tucson's legitimacy as a concert market and a fan's destination. The fourth annual edition took place last week from October 15 through October 28. It's perhaps worth noting that, for an event with over 30 acts plucked from the cream of the contemporary metal and hardcore underground, there were no cops called, and no ambulances; over the course of four days and four venues, there were less drunken jerks kicked out than at a college-area bar on a Saturday night.

On a musical level, it provide a colid answer to the age-old question of "what happens when you mix Black Flag and Black Sabbath?" By 1984, Black Flag themselves had already answered this question, but more than anything, Southwest Terror Fest Volume 4 provided a platform for an additional 30-plus interpretations of the sound of Blacks Flag and Sabbath being combined.

Last Thursday, around dusk, Tucson’s sludgy and excellent Methra kicked this long weekend off at the all-ages venue 191 Toole. Their sparse and scraping bass-driven jams (delivered at the most leisurely pace possible) established a template that would define much of the festival. Over the course of the next eight hours or so, bands came and went—two stages were set up next to one another as to eradicate even the shortest breaks in between sets—and many struck a deep nerve, taking Methra’s blueprint further and further.

In terms of highlights, the quality of night one was surprisingly consistent for a music festival built to cater to such a small niche audience. Dallas’s Dead to a Dying World’s beautifully bruised avant-black metal did for 70s krautrock what Deafheaven does for My Bloody Valentine. Thou’s first set of the night had them performing with The Body (the other was a giddy, all-Nirvana covers romp over at Gary’s Place, a converted living room in a small house right outside of downtown Tucson that hosted the Terror Fest’s after party). With The Body, Thou surfed waves of electronically-enhanced and torturously slow delirium, climaxing in a perfect cover of Fleetwod Mac’s “The Chain,” which was neither reverent nor kitschy, but a starting point for the two bands to go far beyond the constraints of metal or hardcore.

Friday’s show at 191 Toole was dominated by the more aggressive and traditional thrashings of locals Warmonger and Gatecreeper, Denver’s 908, and the synapse-destroying headliners Dropdead, while after a venue change later in the night to Hotel Congress, Graves at Sea and especially Bongripper returned to the more arty leanings of Thou and The Body just 24 hours prior. At times, Bongripper’s rhythm-less passages of oceanic feedback challenged any preconceived notions of what the hell we were listening to. What we were listening to was one of those rare moments where a roar becomes incandescent, the stoned-to-the-bone realization that this is not any kind of metal anymore—this is Brian Eno’s Music For Airports coming out of stacks of Orange amps. As thrilling as it was in its own right, it neatly set the stage for festival headliners Sleep, whose very appearance showed just how far Terror Fest has come since its first year in 2012, when mostly regional acts played tiny stages.

Sleep, who performed to upwards of 800 people at Tucson’s historic Rialto Theatre on Saturday night with Languish, Goya, Cult Leader and Tad Doyle’s Brothers of the Sonic Cloth, was easily the weekend’s pinnacle for us in the audience. Many of the bands who played simply would not exist if not for Sleep’s epochal Dopesmoker and in the expansive setting of the Rialto, they didn’t disappoint. There were times when Matt Pike's guitar soloing was so loud that the slow-motion, cyclical grooves of drummer Jason Roeder and bassist/singer Al Cisneros seemed like footage from a silent movie, with Pike’s Ornette Coleman-esque flights providing the score.

By Sunday’s final showing at Hotel Congress, my brain had just about collapsed under the weight of what I’d been witnessing for the previous three nights. Ice Sword, Fuzz Evil, Night Demon and Demon Lung wound down the festival, sounding improbably calm and comforting while displaying the same heaviness of any of the bands that preceded them, and I took the opportunity to talk to some of my fellow fconcertgoers and get their impressions of the weekend's proceedings.

While most of those I spoke with gave the standard “I’m having an amazing time, maaan,” I also met a young woman from Melbourne, Australia who had, on a whim, come all the way to Tucson just for Terror Fest. Hearing about her trip also provided some context to what 44-year old Gretchen Kappel, Rialto Theatre’s head of security and kitchen manager of the local bar Surly Wench, had observed about the economic impact of the Terror Fest.

“This festival brought a sizable boost to the local economy, and not just to the gentrified places,” Kappel told me as the brutally melodic strains of Acid King closed it out. “The audiences from out of town went into the community, the blue collar places outside of the venues for the festival. They were appreciating Tucson,” she explained, neatly underscoring one of many goals achieved by Volume 4 of the Southwest Terror Fest.