In the months leading up to the end of the summer, one hard-working team of metalheads put together the end-all Heavy Metal event of the summer for West Michigan.
On Saturday, Aug 26, the very first installment of Michigan Metal Fest took place at the Leila Arboretum in Battle Creek, providing close to 2,000 metal fanatics one last party to cap off the season. Featuring some of the best local metal bands in Michigan, and a cream-of-the-crop selection of national touring bands, the festival was a success both in execution and in making a name for itself as a serious contender on the festival circuit.
“The original inspiration for Michigan Metal Fest came from a need for this to happen around here,” Steve Maple, vocalist of Delton-based band Nuskin and MMF co-owner said. “This has needed to happen for a while now, and what it came down to was that it needed a team of people to figure out how to do it right.”
Conceived by Maple, Jeff Harris of Ardent Entertainment and Battle Creek venue the Music Factory, as well as Andrew Holiday and Spencer Robinson of Battle Creek-based band Dead Eyes Always Dreaming, the festival was the result of some of the best minds in local music entertainment.
“Steve asked Spencer and I if we wanted to help, and then it got serious from there,” DEAD guitarist and MMF co-owner Andrew Holiday said. “The fact that we are bringing something that benefits national and local acts, and helping our community grow as a whole was what kept me on board with such a great idea.”
For starters, there is much to be said about the venue itself. The gorgeous Leila Arboretum is nestled in its own little pocket of nature, making one feel far away from the city. The landscape is dotted with beautiful intricate wood carvings by local artists featuring sculptures of fantasy creatures and pop culture icons.
“I thought it was great,” Drink Their Blood drummer Greg Foresi said of the venue. “The scenery is beautiful, and it's easy to escape the metal to rest and relax. Ten hours is a lot of metal.”
Not usually the host of heavy metal events, the venue was very open to the idea.
“When I first called the Arboretum and spoke with Brett Meyer, I really wasn't expecting him to be as receptive to the idea as he was,” Maple said. “He was very professional, concise, informative and productive all within our first conversation. I knew right then that I wanted to have the festival take place there. Leila Arboretum is a perfect place to have a festival, and was absolutely the best decision that could have been made for this. The painted wood carvings were artful and inspiring.”
The heavyweight lineup included Alaska-born 36 Crazyfists, Illinois-based Beyond Threshold, and California-based DevilDriver, the grooving metal band of frontman Dez Fafara, originally of nu-metal band Coal Chamber, who closed out the festival.
The lineup also boasted a well-rounded selection of some of the best local talents in Michigan and the surrounding areas.
“We had over 400 bands submit to play the festival,” Maple said. “We had to painstakingly go through all of their videos and pages to find out who were the hard workers and those who had taken time to progress their band in a professional manner. We wanted these positions to go to people who have earned them.”
Among these hard-working bands were Nagazi, Mount Pleasant’s own speed metal band.
“We thought MMF was a blast,” Nagazi drummer and backing vocalist Jeff Hafer said. “I think everyone was there to support metal as a whole, which is awesome to see. The support I saw from and for all the bands was probably the best part. It’s good to see metal is alive and bringing that many people together.”
Throughout the day, minor schedule changes were handled smoothly, and there were two large stages, both divided in half. While one band would be playing one side, the next would be setting up on the other, making transitions easy.
“For a first year, it honestly was way better than I expected,” Holiday said. “Obviously, we caught certain hiccups and problems within as we went, but that comes with anything new to your realm or comfort zone. Overall, I'm super proud of how the first annual MMF was presented.”
One of the best parts of this festival was seeing the staff having just as much fun as the patrons were, if not even more so. Everywhere, security guards were moshing, headbanging, laughing and having fun. It was plain to see that the volunteers were just as passionate about their favorite bands as the attendees, while still keeping everyone safe and under control.
“We had 80 volunteers and an amazing staff, so it went off pretty much without a hitch,” Maple said. “I feel like we all came together to make something amazing happen.”
Locally-wise, one of the most interesting performances came from Kalamazoo’s own self-described beastcore/experi-metal band Drink Their Blood, who always put on a show as entertaining as it is unique, not many other bands can chug their way through death metal riffs before switching to a live saxophone solo as effortlessly as DTB can.
“I was so floored by how well everything was run,” Drink Their Blood vocalist/saxophonist Ben Boggs said. “There was no hassle, no drama, and once everything started rolling, it was pretty rad to be there. It was super awesome to see how much thought Spencer, Steve, Andrew and all of the DEAD crew put into pulling this off.”
Other highlights of the day included a slamming performance by New York-based deathcore outfit Footage of a Yeti, who gave one of the more sinister performances of the day. Frontman Mike Pellegrino walked out in a hooded robe and blackout contact lenses, making the performance feel like more of a demonic incantation, but a stellar one at that.
Some of the best sets you’ll ever see are the ones that give you a second wind after running around watching bands all day. When DevilDriver came on to close out the festival, it was as if they had completely revived the crowd, giving the burnt-out attendees the stamina to throw down for one last set. And indeed, they did - as far as modern metal goes, there are few frontmen who are as adrenalizing as Dez Fafara, and the crowd responded with almost non-stop moshing and crowd surfing.
If MMF continues to be as good as it’s inaugural installment, it will be exciting to see what happens next. There are already plans in the works to make MMF bigger and better next year.
“MMF 2018 will be twice the event this was,” Maple said. “Most of all, I just hope everyone realizes what we did here. This was not just a successful show, but a huge step in the right direction for our scene, community, and economy. We’re looking to do more events to bring more music and economy to our small towns around here. Here's to more good things soon.”