"Murderfest is something people have been asking me to bring back for so long," local underground metal promoter Daniel Dismal says during our conversation outside a recent show at Union Nightclub. "Every year we get further and further away from it. I'm not saying that it's never coming back, but I'm just over it. It's like dating and breaking up with the same girl six times in a row."
From 2003 through 2009, Dismal and his Church of the 8th Day promotions group put on Los Angeles Murderfest, an annual weekend-long extreme metal festival focusing on the heaviest, ugliest and grimiest bands in the genre. The event had an equal focus on import acts that rarely made it to Los Angeles, reunion shows from long-dormant seminal bands, and cult favorites in the local scene. The festival ended in 2009 after the closing of its home venue, the Knitting Factory, where both rooms overflowed with extreme-metal fans the last few years of the festival.
Local metal fans felt the loss of the annual event, even as similar festivals in other regions such as Maryland Deathfest and California Deathfest (held in Oakland) gained notoriety. Los Angeles, home to one of the most devoted metal followings in the country, remained dormant for larger-scale metal fests. Dismal made several attempts to revive scaled-back versions of Murderfest but decided to switch gears when presented with the idea of a more narrowly focused festival centered on traditional-style thrash and speed metal.
In 2010, Taylor Dread was a teenage thrash-metal singer living in Albuquerque, slogging it out in his local scene with his own band, Dread, unable to get booked for shows. He'd been looking for inspiration from the then-burgeoning retro-thrash movement that was birthed from the Los Angeles metal scene of that time period. In the early '80s, L.A. was home to the fast-paced thrash-metal explosion, spearheaded by future legendary names such as Slayer and Metallica, as well as the pivotal Metal Massacre compilations. It only made sense that once a generation had passed, Los Angeles would birth a new thrash movement in the late '00s, this time propelled by acts such as Warbringer, Merciless Death and Fueled By Fire.
Being forced to book his own show in order to play in his hometown, Dread brought Fueled By Fire over from Los Angeles to headline.
"Fueled By Fire had told me that Dread should come play L.A.," says Taylor Dread, standing side by side with Dismal during our conversation. "We got here, and it was mind-blowing to me that there were hundreds and hundreds of kids that were into the same music we were. I couldn't believe how big thrash was here, but it should be big here. You have homegrown heroes like Slayer, Metallica and Dark Angel all from L.A."
Taylor Dread relocated to Los Angeles several years ago to be with family based here, but the fervor with which younger L.A. metal fans responded to the old-school thrash-metal sounds left an impression on him. Though the origins of that specific strain of heavy metal date back to the early '80s, the crowds that generate wall-to-wall pits at modern shows have a majority of younger fans, even as the bands that kick-started the sound approach the collection of their first Social Security checks.
Dread planted the seed of an old-school metal festival with Dismal during a meeting in 2017. That conversation has resulted in the debut of Los Angeles Strikefest, a three-day metal festival taking place June 22-24 at the Regent Theater. While there is representation from the death-metal and black-metal genres on the lineup, the majority of the weekend will be a celebration of whiplash-inducing thrash that is a throwback to the early days of Metal Blade Records and the warmer, melodic sounds of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, which birthed acts such as Iron Maiden and Diamond Head.
The headliners each night are cult icons dating back to the genre's formative days. Friday night is headlined by Florida shock metallers Nasty Savage, one of the cornerstones of the mid-'80s Metal Blade Records roster. A one-two punch of Canadian thrash royalty headlines Saturday night, as Razor and Exciter will sling their classics back-to-back. Wisconsin's Morbid Saint came in toward the end of the first thrash-metal wave, but cuts from their 1990 cult classic, Spectrum of Death, will still inspire a vicious pit from those still standing at the end of the day Sunday.
But what makes attendance at the festival a mandatory weekend-long affair — and offers promise for the future of metal itself — is that the majority of the weekend will be rounded out by younger acts that have taken inspiration from the genre pioneers to put a fresh coat of paint on the classic headbanging sounds. Undercard acts such as Ventura's Night Demon, Detroit's Demon Bitch and Cleveland's Outline are acts that, judging from their promo photos, album art and production aesthetics, could have been frozen in ice three decades ago and thawed within the last few years.
L.A.'s most notable contribution to the newer wave of retro-metal acts is potentially Blade Killer. The group's sole recorded output so far was a self-titled EP released in 2015, but the band's live chemistry, honed through prolific live shows, has made them a local favorite despite the relative dearth of output so far. Blade Killer perform on Friday night, debuting music from their upcoming full-length, High Risk.
Blade Killer frontman/guitarist Carlos Gutierrez had a bird's-eye view for the first wave of L.A.'s retro-thrash revival a decade ago as a teenage drummer for local thrashers Fueled By Fire. As more pop-friendly heavy music acts such as metalcore giants Killswitch Engage and Bullet For My Valentine gained popularity during the mid-'00s, then-teenage Gutierrez and his friends were more entranced by the darker, faster, more otherworldly sounds of older metal icons.
"I think it's just when you are at that age, you're craving the energy of the music," says Gutierrez during a conversation over beers at the Redwood Bar & Grill, several days before Blade Killer departed for Sweden to play at the Muskelrock Festival. "It's an outlet to get away with tearing shit up, drinking beer, listening to loud music and partying. No matter what heavy music is popular at the exact moment, the real shit will still always and Iron Maiden."
Fueled By Fire went dormant after releasing three albums. Gutierrez stepped out from behind the drum kit and linked up with members of fellow local thrashers Armory plus bassist Kelsey Wilson to pursue an act that was inspired by more melodic, throwback metal sounds. Gutierrez's vocal histrionics and Wilson's galloping bass lines are definitely a nod to the tradeoffs between Iron Maiden vocalist Bruce Dickinson and bassist Steve Harris, but on record and in the live setting, the material is delivered with an energetic vigor and songcraft that makes this music feel current, as opposed to a retread.
For Wilson, a few years younger than Gutierrez, the experience of Blade Killer's ascent is a satisfaction of her own formative years as a fan of the first wave of L.A. retro-thrash, as well as a testament to the current support that old-school metal sounds has among L.A. metal fans.
"It was seeing bands like Fueled By Fire and Merciless Death that inspired me to want to play more thrash metal," Wilson says. "Traditional heavy metal is a lot bigger now in L.A. than it's been in a long time. [Despite the gap between the EP and new music], we've been very fortunate to be a part of a killer scene where all of the bands and fans are supporting each other, and being able to score killer shows and still have support."
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The renewed resurgence of younger L.A. metal fans increasingly supporting the traditional metal sounds is not lost on Gutierrez. "I remember that during my Fueled By Fire days I hated playing 21+ shows," he says. "The crowd then was mostly older and would just stand there waiting for the headliner. The [audience] is definitely a lot more cross-generational now, and I think a lot of that is just due to younger bands playing this music."
As both a fan and a promoter in his early 40s, Dismal has seen every wave of metal over the last three decades become trendy, die, become trendy again, and die again.
"I think it's just the same thing when music genres — even in the mainstream — comes around in circles," Dismal says. "If you look at mainstream pop music, there's nods and rehashes of '80s dance music, synth-pop and disco. It makes sense that when something comes around again in the mainstream, the underground mirrors it. People want the dirty, stinky, tape-trading aesthetic in metal right now."
Los Angeles Strikefest runs Friday, June 22, through Sunday, June 24, at the Regent Theater. Info at churchofthe8thday.com/2018/02/13/the-los-angeles-strikefest-version-1-0.