Rockstar Energy Drink Mayhem Festival
Jiffy Lube Live, Bristow, Va., July 24, 2015
Text and photos by Peter Atkinson
By the time the Rockstar Energy Drink Mayhem Festival limped its way into Northern Virginia there wasn’t anything terribly festive about it. Indeed it felt more like epic fail than anything else, especially when one looked around the grounds of the unfortunately named Jiffy Lube Live and saw not only an empty lawn, but an empty third tier of “shed” seats, a mostly empty second tier and a front section that was maybe two-thirds full.
I felt bad for the main acts, Slayer and King Diamond, both of whom killed it. They certainly would have been better served by playing full theaters instead of desolate amphitheaters on this tour, especially given the rag-tag support cast that made up much of the rest of the bill.
The tour got off on the wrong foot from its outset, when co-founder Kevin Lyman basically admitted in an interview that this year’s lineup was something of a shit heap – though, of course, he later backpedaled – but the marketing damage was done and things predictably went downhill from there. His blaming “metal” for not being “punk rock” enough for star attractions to take a smaller pay check to top the bill certainly didn’t help – and this after organizers apparently looked into the possibility of tempting Pantera to reunite and headline. Talk about grasping at straws.
Once ever-opinionated Slayer guitarist Kerry King inevitably shot back about not only the quality of this year’s Mayhem lineup but the quantity – there was only one side stage instead of the usual three, with Whitechapel being the featured act there as opposed to Machine Head, Anthrax or Behemoth from years past – and blamed the tour organizers for not getting their shit together before better bands got booked on other tours or European festivals, the piling on began. Since then there has been plenty of finger-pointing and second-guessing but, if the turnout at “The Lube” was any indication, a lot less attendance than in the prior seven years when the likes of Marilyn Manson, Slipknot or Avenged Sevenfold headlined.
Thanks to a combination of bad traffic and the irksome rush-hour logistics of Interstate 66 heading out of D.C. into “red state” Virginia, I got to The Lube as Whitechapel’s set was rumbling to a close and the main stage acts were readying to go on to a crowd that probably ended up in the 4,000 range at a venue that can accommodate 25,000. Ouch!
The melodic metalcore sextet The Devil Wears Prada opened things with a tolerable half-hour set that offered a lot more melody and a lot less belligerence and breakdowns than one might expect from their ilk. It certainly was better than the bro-core histrionics of Feed Her To The Sharks or the costumed buffoonery of Kissing Candice, who wrapped things up on the adjacent Victory Records Stage.
Metal/butt-rock supergroup Hellyeah – aka Pantera drummer Vinnie Paul’s ‘new’ band – were up next and proved to be a much more compelling live act than they are “on vinyl.” Led by formidable frontman Chad Gray, the band had plenty of power and volume to accentuate their often pedestrian grooves. The ringing guitars of Tom Maxwell, who played in a walking cast, and Christian Brady hit pretty damn hard and got what crowd there was good and riled.
I hadn’t seen King Diamond since his Abigail tour in like 1987 – if you don’t count the Mercyful Fate reunion show I saw 1993-ish. It was great to see him again, especially since I missed his comeback tour late last year. His voice was spot-on sling-shotting from growls to falsettos, the band were heavy and tight – the guitar tandem of longtime partner Andy LaRocque and Mike Wead was sensational – and the show featured all the camp and theatrics one has come to expect, though on a grander scale.
As he had done at a few earlier dates, Kerry King joined the band for a rousing performance of Mercyful Fate’s “Evil,” which was pared with the classic “Come To The Sabbath.” The rest of the set was heavy on Diamond’s early albums, with visits from “Grandma” and “Abigail” lending perhaps a more comic air than were intended. Still, it was a riveting hour.
After doing their own trip-down-memory-lane tour following the death of guitarist Jeff Hanneman in 2013, Slayer performed like a band with their eyes on the future at The Lube. They opened with the furious title track to their upcoming Repentless album, and offered two other new tunes – the brood-and-blast “When The Stillness Comes” and the straight-up thrash of the now familiar “Implode” – during the first half of their 16-song set that leaned more heavily on King’s compositions.
Poor attendance or no, Slayer brought an amphitheater-quality show on this tour – much like they did on their two previous Mayhem stints – with nearly non-stop pyro and cool rapid-cut graphic projections that captured the theme of every song, from the carpet bombing of “War Ensemble” to the zombie army of “Ghosts of War” and the visage of corpse-defiling ghoul Ed Gein from “Dead Skin Mask.” It was a blast to watch – even if the band’s performance was a bit spotty.
Araya’s voice was ragged at times, long-time fill-in guitarist Gary Holt seemed distracted by all the visuals and fire and spent an inordinate amount of time staring past the backline, and the power cut briefly during “Ghosts of War.” The band were ferocious as ever, just not as precise. Perhaps they just wanted to get this tour over with and move on.
Still, Slayer on an offish night can trample most bands on their “A games.” And when they brought things to a close with the crushing tandem of “Raining Blood” and “Angel of Death” it sent everyone home sated.
As a Slayer headlining tour, this was a decent evening that got exponentially better as things went along – especially if you skipped the early stuff. As a shed-worthy event? Not so much.
The Mayhem organizers will likely have some serious soul-searching to do about the festival going forward – once this one mercifully ends. Ozzfest didn’t last forever – despite its built-in headliner and his ruthless wife/manager. Perhaps Mayhem’s time has come as well. I guess we shall see.