Is there still metal at SXSW? Yes, but it’s in a downward trend

The Tombs perform at SXSW on March 16, 2017. Andy O’Connor/for American-Statesman

Metalsucks’ South by South Death showcase at Grizzly Hall suffered from lackluster attendance, not surprising given metal’s downward trend at SXSW. It just isn’t a destination festival for metalheads, and having a higher-profile metal show away from downtown at a venue that frequently hosts metal shows didn’t help. The showcase did feature a diverse array of bands, spanning from industrial to thrash to black metal. Not every band hit, but multigenre shows should be more common in metal.

Hogswache, a new group from Brooklyn, takes on the industrial metal sound popularized by bands such as Fear Factory, Ministry, and Front Line Assembly in the 1990s. Their start was rocky, as vocalist Travis Bacon’s electronics were on the fritz and there were a couple false starts. Once they got that settled, they were loud and in charge. Bacon has a vibrant stage presence and guitarist Nick Emde is well-versed in industrial metal’s mechanical rhythms, so this group is definitely one to watch out for. Their minor hiccups were nothing compared to the disaster that was Philadelphia’s Ecstatic Vision. Who knew that bad Hawkwind cover bands existed? It’s easy to get jaded on psych music when one of Austin’s main exports is The Black Angels, but the meandering songs didn’t help at all.

From there, the night improved. Brooklyn’s Tombs are no stranger to the SXSW circuit — they played Valhalla back when it was Room 710 — and while their lineup has constantly mutated, vocalist and guitarist Mike Hill has only gotten angrier over the years. Their black metal was once shaded with post-hardcore and shoegaze, but they are a full raging black metal band now, lending an unrelenting wall of noise. Cleveland’s Ringworm are another group of hardened veterans, playing a thrashy style of metalcore that they helped invent over 26 years ago. Vocalist James “Human Furnace” Bulloch has earned his nickname, and he’s only sounded more vicious with time. Their performance did suffer somewhat from the mediocre attendance — while it improved by the time they hit the stage, they need a full house for the most vicious circle pits, not just a couple dudes. Bulloch took it in stride, thanking the crowd for “making it downtown — it’s a destination,” laughing at how downtown is its own world thanks to the fest.

While the showcase made a decent case for metal’s broad range of sounds, most of the bands, save for Hogswache, are on the road frequently. They’ll be back in Austin when you don’t have to deal with the influx of people SXSW brings. Metalsucks’ SXSW show last year had Conan, a British doom band that hadn’t played the States much before hand. This show didn’t have a similar draw — the headliner was Washington, D.C., death metal band Darkest Hour, and while they are a recognizable name, they’re not unique to the metal circuit. There needs to be more compelling attractions, something to put with up with traffic and the specter of surge rates. Given the difficulties that international bands have had with coming here lately, and metal’s decreased value at SXSW, that may be hard to pull off next year.

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