Saturday, El Birthday Metal Fest III Crushes Christmas

Looking for an eggnog-free outlet for your holiday frustrations? You're in luck! Local doomsayers Sanctus Bellum unwrap Houston's headbangin'-est birthday party tomorrow at the third annual El Birthday Metal Festival at Fitzgerald's, and you're invited!

But be warned: the now-traditional heavy-metal blowout won't be held in celebration of the birth of any Nazarenes. With seven bands crammed into Fitz's cozy downstairs room, there's sure to be an abundance of electrified volume that would only hurt the poor Christ child's ears. Call 'em selfish if you must, but the men of Sanctus Bellum ain't ashamed to throw a party strictly for themselves.

"My birthday is Christmas Day," says the band's large and friendly bassist, Ben Yaker. "Jan Kimmel, our guitar player, his birthday is December 21. Jan and I have known each other for a long time; we've always had joint birthday parties for a number of years. So once we got the band going, it sort of seemed kind of natural to start doing a big show on our birthday."

Natural, maybe. But never easy. The whole idea threatened to crash and burn like a cake with too many candles in its first year out, forcing Yaker and his bandmates to scramble and squirm when the gig's headliner pulled out at the very last minute.

"The first year we did it was 2011, and [Dallas'] Warbeast ended up having to cancel, like, the night before," the bassist says. "I was freaking out, like 'Oh man, our headliner just cancelled like 24 hours before the show!'

"So I started trying to throw up a flare to anyone we could," he continues. "That past August, we'd actually opened for Sabbath Judas Sabbath at one of their show. I got (SJS singer) James Rivera's number from a friend of mine and left a couple voicemails saying, 'Hey, if you wanna do a last minute show...'"

It ended up being a good move. Rivera's Sabbath Judas Sabbath, the Helstar vocalist's popular classic metal cover band, signed on to headline the fest at 1 p.m. the day of the show -- becoming fast friends with Yaker and crew in the process. They'll be back to headline Year 3 of the party on Saturday, alongside a couple of other Houston mainstays that are tight with Sanctus Bellum: Project Armageddon and Mr. Plow, who will reunite for the first time in two years.

"Their first reunion show was at the 2011 version of the festival," Yaker says. "Mr. Plow are a great stoner-rock band in the tradition of, like, Fu Manchu or the Suplecs from New Orleans. They were always the gold standard of that in Houston, for me.

"I actually briefly wound up playing with them," he continues. "In 2006, their bass player moved to Florida for a couple years to go to chiropractor school and I wound up filling in. We played a few shows and the drummer quit and the band fell apart. That's actually led into Sanctus Bellum being formed, because their guitar player/vocalist is Justin Waggoner, who's the singer for Sanctus Bellum.

"When we were getting the band together, I was sort of going through the list of people I'd played with, and I'd always liked his voice in Mr. Plow," Yaker says. "I thought it would work well in a different setting."

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Are you beginning to get a friends-and-family vibe from this festival, yet? Well, that's by design. But that's not to say Sanctus Bellum isn't looking to make a few new friends, however.

"We've got Cauldron from Louisiana coming over, too," Yaker says. "Their singer/guitar player is Varnam Ponville, who used to be in (Dallas') Gammacide, so that's a really cool thing. We played a show with them back in 2010 and had a great time; they're a really fantastic band."

Cauldron was actually signed up and ready to go for both the 2011 and 2012 versions of the El Birthday Metal Fest, only to cancel both times. Does that make Yaker nervous?

"Yeah, a little bit," says the bassist, chuckling. "But they're a really great band and I really want to get 'em into Houston, so we're going to make another go at it. The last two spots this year are Saxon King and the Scourge. I like every year to have a couple of spots for bands that have excited me during the year. Those are the bands to watch right now, in my opinion: You don't want to miss 'em."

Oh, and Sanctus Bellum is playing, too! Can't forget them. Yaker says the band will debut some new material they've been working on since their last gig all the way back in May. Unlike last year, however, Yaker says Sanctus is looking forward to playing their set early and then kicking back and catching the other acts on the bill.

After all, what good is throwing yourselves a boss birthday party if you can't relax and enjoy it?

"As long as it's a fun way to celebrate our birthdays, we might as well keep doing this," he says. "I like the idea of trying to bring in different bands every year. Maybe we'll grow it out and make it a two-day thing next year and people will go crazy with it.

"You never know!"

James Rivera's Sabbath Judas Sabbath headlines the El Birthday Metal Fest III on Saturday with Cauldron, Sanctus Bellum, Project Armageddon, Mr. Plow, the Scourge and Saxon King at Fitzgerald's, 2706 White Oak. Doors open at 5:30 p.m.


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