An Easy Cure to Mayhem Fest's Woes: More Bands Like Slayer

Rockstar Energy Drink Mayhem Festival
Feat. Slayer, Hellyeah, King Diamond, etc.
Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion
August 1, 2015

Mayhem fest’s struggle to sell tickets is not news. Woes over ticket sales have been reportedly blamed on Metal being, “grey, bald and fat” by promoter, Kevin Lyman, who has since apologized. While hundreds of fans in eyeliner, leather and spikes did show up to Houston’s own chapter in the metal drama last Saturday, it was obvious from the lack of filled seats that hundreds didn’t, or at least didn’t show up until the last act.

Even during the headlining acts of Hellyeah and King Diamond, the back rows were only dotted with fans and lawn seats were completely empty. If empty seats bothered performing acts, they certainly didn’t show it. King Diamond sang in his signature dynamic, soprano style amid a theatrical hell-house of spooky dolls, leviathan crosses and an Alice Cooper-inspired witch who predictably served him poisoned tea. King Diamond is a performer who clearly understands a good metal show is 50 percent theater. The witch later returned as a sexy, goat-skull-toting dancer with candles and other ritualistic objects. to which the crowd applauded in response.

No one can deny the metal community is dedicated. Just ask Hellyeah’s front man, Chad Gray, who took at least five minutes from his band's set to address the crowd directly. Gray reminded the crowd they were “family," of the need to “support each other” and how therapy for a group like this is not needed because “we know how to release our anger” and other well-meaning phrases that, unfortunately, sounded like he was nearly asking for a personal loan.

Thank goodness that request never came and the music continued. Hellyeah’s set ripped through songs they’re famous for: "Hush," "Alcohaulin’ Ass" and "Blood for Blood," to which Gray then covered himself in stage blood only to sweat it off completely as his band had the unfortunate time slot of sundown in the Pavilion. Yet, adoring fans were unnerved by the heat, crowds easily remained on their feet screaming along to lyrics in unison with Gray. Vinnie Paul, an old Pantera crowd-pleaser looked well-fed and happy. Crowds cheered as the screen settled on his smiling face and he threw sticks into the hands of screaming spectators.

Hot and tired fans moved from the main stage to the Victory Records Stage when the headliners did set changes…or did they? The Victory stage drew few spectators even after the sun was setting and better-known bands such as Feed Her to the Sharks took the stage. In fact, the Victory Stage seemed to draw few people at all. It seemed the beer stands and merch tables drew more people than the Victory Stage.

So, what is the problem with selling tickets? Simple. Old metal vs. new.

Compare the crowd draw at the Victory Records stage (which mostly hosted new and upcoming "-core" bands) to the main stage of established metal acts. A scattering of people remained remotely interested in what was onstage, about 30 to 40 teenagers in a loose mosh pit and some groupies fresh from a Hot Topic clearance sale, while a lot of people stood around looking bored.

Metalcore, at least what was offered at the Victory Stage, is uniform in its music, presence and look. The differences between bands like, Thy Art is Murder, Whitechapel and Code Orange are so slight they’re almost undetectable. Code Orange at least changes up the things with a vocalist drummer, Jami Morgan, who shares singing/screaming duties with female guitarist Reba Meyers. Certainly a welcome change but not enough. Even the signings and meet-and-greets with the bands just did not have the draw they really should.

The turning point in attendance, although unsurprising, was in fact, Slayer. When the grizzled thrash veterans took the stage, the vista of seats changed from a few, heat-weary spectators to an almost packed house. With nearly every seat filled, it was clear that even if metal is old and grey, metal still gets its old ass out of the house to see a show. And true to form, a live Slayer show is a spectacle indeed. One of the founding thrash fathers, Slayer’s performance was nothing short of incredible. Making full use of the Pavilion’s two screens flanking the stage, a complete light show and film was changed up for every song. Not to be outdone in dark and disturbing themes, pictures of all things unnerving flashed at epilepsy-inducing speed: skulls in Nazi uniforms, autopsy photos, axes and other death-themed montages.

As for the set, the crowd had already been teased when Kerry King joined King Diamond onstage for a Mercyful Fate cover, and his return onstage with Slayer was no less celebrated. The band opened with a few heavy-hitting tracks from their soon-to-be-released Repentless, then moved into familiar territory with "God Hates Us All" and then older songs such as "War Ensemble," "Angel of Death" and "Reign In Blood," to which every audience member was on their feet, horns up, shouting lyrics.

Slayer, who now features guitarist Gary Holt of Exodus fame, completes the picture perfectly. Holt has most recently been seen wearing his signature, “Kill The Kardashians” shirt, perhaps in response to both Kendall and Kylie Jenner making public appearances in Slayer shirts. However, on this night he furthered the T-shirt wearing war by sporting a “FUCK KANYE WEST” shirt. Audience members applauded when his presence appeared onscreen, and the words “Did you see that shirt, man?" Awesome.” were overheard more than once.

But Holt is not just a witty, albeit profane, dresser, he’s an incredible guitarist who should not only be welcomed by Slayer in his own right, but can be an honored asset to the group. Saturday, Holt was shredded the parts once played by the late Jeff Hanneman as if he had written them himself. Honestly, can anyone follow Holt’s fingering on guitar? His hands move faster than anyone’s eyes can keep up and this must be something the Slayer camp understands, as cameras focused on the blur of fingertips and Holt's guitar literally glowing in the smoke of the stage.

It’s no wonder with talent like that, seats were filled at capacity. Slayer’s set was the best metal performance witnessed at the festival. Easy.

It’s difficult to rake a band over the proverbial critical coals but when those bands are exhausting a genre, criticism does its job. At its best, it weeds out the weak by exposing the frauds. Just because you can emulate your influences, doesn’t mean you should. When a band has borrowed everything from another source and that source has already done it well, then you’ve reduced your voice to mimicry. You’re better off as a cover band.

Take Kissing Candace, for example. Even their name echoes Asking Alexandria, their costumes are reminiscent of Slipknot and the music is the same predictable "-core" recipe we’ve heard from like-minded bands for several years. The formula is the same: low double bass drum, growling vocals that change to singing in the chorus, slow breakdowns during staple death-growl screams. New dogs, old tricks.

What sells music is fresh originality. This genre of metal is slowly killing itself with band after band of the same sound, look and gimmickry. It’s what fueled the alternative movement of the '90s — the boredom with glam-metal and the plethora of similarly predictable sounds. People tire of homogeneity. Who can blame them?

So Mayhem, want to sell tickets? Book more bands like Slayer and you’ll fill your festival. 
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Kristy Loye is a writer living in Houston and has been writing for the Houston Press since July 2015. A recent Rice University graduate, when not teaching writing craft or reciting poetry, she's upsetting alt-rights on Reddit.