The Palladium in Worcester is not much to look at from the outside. The concert venue is just another big, brick building on Main Street, its marquee giving it a bit more personality than the other big, brick buildings on Main Street.
Scott Lee sees the Palladium differently, especially this time of year, when the New England Metal and Hardcore Festival takes over the old theater. That’s when the Palladium becomes, in Lee’s mind, “a sanctuary.”
A very loud, aggressive sanctuary, yet still a place where thousands gather in devotion to a style of music that is as cathartic to them as it is abusive to those who have no taste for extreme music.
Lee has been at the helm of the New England Metal and Hardcore Fest since its inception in 1999. Every year since then, he has worked with the rest of the MassConcerts organization to bring a cross-section of bands that represent what’s going on in the heavy-music underground.
For its 15th year, Metalfest once again offers a careful blend of music that both sticks to the niche but likewise demonstrates just how broad the heavy spectrum is. The festival, which runs Friday through Sunday, has “classic” acts Anthrax, Suicidal Tendencies, and Exodus and rising stars such as After the Burial and the Contortionist. There is a variety that runs from the experimental approach of Dillinger Escape Plan and Every Time I Die to the nasty thrash of Municipal Waste. You’ve got folk-metal with Týr, technical-death metal with Born of Osiris, and straight-up hardcore with Sick of It All and Terror. You’ll hear songs rooted in everything from Norse mythology to Christianity to plain ol’ disgust with the human race. More than 70 bands are on the bill.
“We’re a mall, a great mall,” Lee says.
And like a mall, Metalfest has an ambling feel, one where fans interact with bands, and musicians likewise catch up.
Hatebreed singer Jamey Jasta, who announced his band’s participation in Metalfest during a show at the Palladium last fall, sounded more like a fan than a headliner when talking about sharing the stage on Friday with Anthrax, which plans to perform its landmark “Among the Living” album in its entirety now that original singer Joey Belladonna is back in the lineup.
“I am so inspired by Joey Belladonna. Even in those years that were not looking so great, when he was out of Anthrax and back in clubs, he had heart and was doing it for the love of the music,” Jasta says. “I was in Australia with my other band [Kingdom of Sorrow] and met Joey and we talked about Metalfest. We’ve never done a co-headlining show with Anthrax, so this will be special.”
Making something special is what Lee had in mind when plotting Metalfest after attending the Milwaukee Metal Fest in 1997 with the band Shadows Fall, which he was managing at the time. Lee and Shadows Fall guitarist Matt Bachand both size up the experience in Milwaukee as horrible.
“I was trying to hand out CDs of our music and I’d just watch people throw them away. It was like nobody cared,” Bachand says. (The reception will likely be different when Shadows Fall returns to Metalfest on Friday.)
Back in Massachusetts, there was already a fertile scene for heavy music, one that was especially unique at the time for its fusion of traditional metal with hardcore punk. The first Metalfest combined influential local bands such as Diecast, Converge, and Isis with touring bands that were popular in the heavy underground, such as Gwar and Manowar. The event took hold, and soon it was elevating homegrown talent such as Killswitch Engage and Acacia Strain and presenting other developing bands from around the country, such as Mastodon and Lamb of God.
The festival also draws from metal enclaves around the globe. In 2001, Opeth launched its first US tour at Metalfest. The Swedish band had developed a cult following for the prog-metal albums it began releasing in the mid-’90s, but rarely played live until that first tour launched from the Palladium.
By 2003, Opeth was back headlining Metalfest, which it will do again on Saturday. Opeth is unpredictable, moving from a grinding death-metal influence in its early work to the more melodic sound of last year’s “Heritage” album, which band founder Mikael Åkerfeldt says is in line with Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin.
“We do challenge our crowd,” Åkerfeldt says, noting that this upcoming show will cover more of the full Opeth legacy as well as material from “Heritage.”
“This band has been together for 23 years and has 10 albums,” he says “I know we have something that other bands don’t have.”
At the other end of the spectrum is Texas in July, a band whose members are barely out of high school as they make their second consecutive appearance at Metalfest.
“It’s a legendary festival, something we always wanted to be a part of,” says Texas in July bassist Ben Witkowski.
The Pennsylvania metalcore band recently released its third full-length album and is at a juncture where it is influencing the heavy-music scene with a fresh energy as well as still learning the ropes. Witkowski says last year at the fest he simply watched how bands carried themselves and presented their work.
“You never want to be comfortable. You never want to feel like you’ve arrived or you’re cool because you’re on this stage,” he says. “When you’re playing with a bunch of other great bands in front of that crowd, you have to keep the pressure on.”