Founded in 2007, Columbus, Ohio's Rock on the Range has become one of heavy metal's largest events, and every year, it just gets bigger and better. As Jacoby Shaddix of Papa Roach said in an interview: "As far as rock festivals in America go, Rock on the Range in No. 1 in my book. Straight f****n epic!"
I attended in 2012, but this year's event (May 17-19) had some significant changes, and sold out -- for the first time -- to ticket-buyers that had traveled from 49 states and three countries.
This year, ROTR expanded to live music all day Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, as opposed to last year's Saturday and Sunday, and the headliners were more focused on bringing then nostalgia for powerhouse '90s rock -- Soundgarden, Bush, Smashing Pumpkins, Korn and Alice and Chains, with the side stages bringing more of the metal. Last year, headliners included Marilyn Manson, Rob Zombie, Five Finger Death Punch, Megadeth and Mastodon, and the side stages were more radio rock. So this year, it seemed the stages were switched: The majority of the metal acts were on the side stages, providing a plethora of opportunities to check out the best up-and-coming metallers around -- even if it did force me to hightail it to stages spread across Columbus Crew Stadium for a straight 10 hours a day. But who wouldn't want to try and catch more than 50 bands in one weekend? Especially at a festival that's actually great to watch from the bleachers, even with the pollen floating through the air as thick as snow at times.
The crowd was a mix of young and old music enthusiasts, from the pockets of hardcore moshers to the surprising amount of Beavis and Butt-Head paired off look-alikes to the older couples slow dancing to Halestorm ballads. Cheap Trick on Friday night had a surprising array of younger fans, and teenage girls were even screaming from the front row. Black Veil Brides brought their typical asshole attitude, and I can't help but think that vocalist Andy Biersack is the heavy metal Justin Bieber -- I have never seen so many young chicks screaming at a metal show from the front row and crying.
Lamb of God put on a hell of a show, with Randy having a kick-ass taste for life on stage (possibly due to his scary run-in with overseas jail time?) There was, surprisingly, an even larger crowd for In This Moment, which sparked debates in my own mind about women's sexuality on stage and the question as to why they weren't on a main stage -- in fact, crowd-surfing was so abundant that the media photographers were kicked out of the front after the first song. After listening to Steel Panther, I felt like my ears might have just been raped, which is maybe what lead singer Michael Starr was going for when he asked, "Who's seen us before? . . . And who is planning on never seeing us again?"
And as a metalhead, I could appreciate the headliners' incredible sets. Soundgarden (reunited in 2010 after a 13-year hiatus) and Bush had set lists that ranged through some of their biggest hits to date. And I can honestly say that listening to Smashing Pumpkins play in the creepy shadows, highlighted by a half-moon, and watching the sunset during the warbling guitar riffs of Alice in Chains' '"Rooster," are moments I'll never forget.
But the majority of my favorite metal acts of the weekend peppered the side stages. Three of them -- Gemini Syndrome, Heaven's Basement and Red Line Chemistry -- will be in Phoenix within the next two weeks. Most have been around for years but are just now gaining ground.
So here's a handful for you to watch out for.
Ghost (B.C.): Swedish metallers that are known for their eccentric stage presence (five members wear hooded robes, known as "Nameless Ghouls" and lead vocalist Papa Emeritus II wears a Cardinal outfit and elaborate skull makeup) and music that merges classical, monastery and extreme influences. They've been compared to Black Sabbath and Mercyful Fate, and just released their 2013 album Infestissumam.
At first glance, some may think that they come off as gimmicky, but they make it work. Their dark presence and the singer's intense stature, daintily walking around on stage to conduct the different guitar solos, resembling a puppeteer pulling the strings of musician marionettes, is genius in my opinion. They somehow converge black metal and a polite performance while still coming off as goosebump-inducing creepy.
Device: Vocalist David Draiman from Disturbed started this side project with Geno Lenardo, the former guitarist of Filter, in 2012. While you can't deny that Draiman's vocals tend to only remind of Disturbed, their first album Device was released in 2013, and hones in on an industrial electronic sound (nixing dubstep), sort of like Ministry. Guest appearances include M. Shadows (Avenged Sevenfold), Geezer Butler (Black Sabbath) Serj Tankian (System of a Down), and many more. The album also has some slower songs that tested Draiman's style, including a cover of Lita Ford's "Close My Eyes Forever" with Lzzy Hale. On stage, their powerful presence can't be denied, but I will be interested to see how their musical sound develops and what type of fans Device will attract.
Gemini Syndrome: These guys formed in 2010 and have been packing the Roxy Theatre in L.A. ever since with a focus on contemporary metal that reminds me of a blend of Sevendust, Mudvayne and Tool. The lead singer, Aaron Nordstrom, was the former guitarist for OTEP. In person he seems fragile and soft-spoken, but on stage he is a force to be reckoned with. In fact, when I saw Gemini Syndrome at Joe's Grotto last year, I thought that he was the most badass 60-year-old on the planet -- white hair and beard, covered in tattoos. But he's actually in his 20s, and has albinism. Which makes his intriguing lyrical themes of mysticism and hardship, even more . . . beguiling. They've played shows with Murderdolls, Nonpoint and Wayne Static, and will be at Pub Rock in Scottsdale with Red Line Chemistry on May 31.
Red Line Chemistry: I have always loved these guys just because they rep the metal scene of my hometown, Kansas City. But at the same time, their talent and ability to connect with the crowd is undeniable, and all of the musicians make use of every square inch of the stage. They've performed with Stone Temple Pilots, Sevendust, and Godsmack, and just released their album Tug of War this year. It puts on display their booming hooks, vocalist Brett Ditgen's melodic to screaming range, and intricate guitar work. They even topped it off with a cover of Pink Floyd's "What Do You Want From Me." They will be in Scottsdale with Gemini Syndrome at Pub Rock on May 31.
The Sword: At ROTR, these guys covered ZZ Top's "Cheap Sunglasses" and the guitarist reminded me of a mini Zakk Wylde, so I stuck around to watch them for a while. Plus I know a broad range of hardcore metal heads who always rave about this band.
The Sword was heavy but fun; intense but somehow mellow on stage -- which is interesting since it was the same way I felt about Zakk Wylde's live performance. They're constantly classified as doom metal, are heavily influenced by Black Sabbath and Sleep, and have toured with . . . And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead and even Metallica. But these guys have also been around since 2003, and have put out quite the collection of diverse albums.
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Red: These Nashville rockers came together in 2004 and are known for their Christian rock/post-grunge/heavy metal sound. They've earned Grammy nominations for best rock gospel album and their most recent release is 2013's Release the Panic, but the prior three albums have sold nearly a million units. Red's drummer is one of my favorites with his killer double-bass skills, and their music is categorized by aggressive guitars, deep grooving riffs, and most recently even some pop elements. Red's toured with Godsmack, Sevendust, Seether, and Drowning Pool, and they're super-crazy on stage.
Love and Death: This is the Christian-centered band of Brian "Head" Welch from Korn, formed in 2012 as a re-branding of Head's solo project, so it's a pretty safe bet to say wherever Korn is touring, this will be the opener. Love and Death formed in Phoenix when Head had a studio here and also features native drummer Dan Johnson. The band's 2012 album Between Here & Lost was a sound I personally really liked; it's super-raw, honest and catchy in a unique way. But it's natural that Korn fans are critical about it, since Head's departure was such a touchy subject.
Heaven's Basement: These guys opened for Bon Jovi before they even had an EP out, and as a photographer friend mentioned while snapping shots from the photo pit, call to mind a High and Dry-era Def Leppard. The British rockers played somewhat early in the day on Saturday, but had the crowd fist pumping, and even started a chant of "U.S.A.! U.S.A!" before ending their raucous set. They've toured with Theory of a Deadman, Buckcherry, Halestorm and Tesla, and they're debut full-length album, Filthy Empire, was just released in February. Check them out at Pub Rock on June 6.