Stoned to Death II – June 3, 2017 – Hawks and Reed Arts Performing Center, Greenfield, MA

Thursday, 8th June 2017

New England has a thriving and vibrant metal scene that stretches from Vermont to Rhode Island, but one area of the region I had yet to experience was western Massachusetts. That all changed on June 3, when I made the two-hour trip from Smithfield, R.I., to attend the second edition of the Stoned to Death Festival, which was held at the Hawks and Reed Performing Arts Center in Greenfield, Mass.

I’ve been aware of the burgeoning scene out there, being familiar with a number of bands that hail from the area, but I had not made a trip out that way for a show until Stoned to Death. Shame on me for waiting so long. I can tell you the scene out there mirrors much of what I’ve experienced throughout New England, which is characterized by seriously talented bands, supportive fans, accomplished promoters and unique venues that often have a character all their own.

That was the case with the Hawks and Reed Performing Arts Center, a small- to medium-sized venue located in the center of town, on the corner of an intersection. Similar to Firehouse 13 in Providence, R.I., various paintings and works of art adorn the walls of the venue. The stage area is quite large, providing ample room for six-member bands to set up, spread across it without having to worry about bumping into one another. Just as with the stage, there was plenty of space throughout the venue as well for all bands to set up merch tables and for more than 200 fans to take in the performances, catch up with old friends or make new ones over tasty beverages and a shared love of metal.

Speaking of drinks, the venue features two bars, one upstairs, just to your left upon walking in the door and a second one downstairs. At the back of the venue (to the left of the stage), is a grill and counter/eating area for a between-set snack. The burgers are top-notch, as is the venue staff.

Western Massachusetts is ground zero for Promotorhead Entertainment, which has been hosting and promoting shows in the area (and beyond) since 2011. Founded by John Gulow, Promotorhead is one of the many New England promoters I referenced earlier putting on successful, varied shows and festivals, including Stoned to Death, which was a professional operating through and through. Things ran smoothly all day, at least from a fan’s perspective, and I only heard good things said about the fest throughout the day. No complaints, no fights, no drunken rowdiness, things ran on time and everyone was there to enjoy some black, death, sludge, stoner and doom metal.

Vacant Eyes kicked things off at 3:30 p.m. The six-piece from Easthampton, Mass., plays depressive, melancholic doom metal that reminds this scribe of Ghost Brigade. With songs clocking in around 12 to 15 minutes in length, the band could only fit two songs in their 30-minute set, but the music contained enough twists and turns to keep the audience engaged, which filled the floor even at 3:30 p.m.

From slow, sorrowful melodies drenched with emotion, to heavier, more up-tempo movements, heads banged and swayed in unison with the music. Featuring three guitarists (one announced as a fill-in), and a keyboardist along with bass and drums, plus vocals akin to Jukka Pelkonen of Omnium Gatherum, the group’s dark, drowning melodies were a great way to get things started. Both songs played were new songs, but I was sure to pick the band’s 4-song EP, “The Dim Light of Introversion,” as theirs was one of my favorite sets of the fest.

Following Vacant Eyes was stoner doom trio, Peasants, from Brattleboro, Vt. If you weren’t getting lost in the thick, fuzzy haze of the extended instrumental sections, occasionally brought back to reality by the gruff bark of the guttural, near-grind-like vocals, it was easy to focus in on the tight, locked-in playing of drummer Braeden Quinn, who bashed his kit with intensity. With ferocious riffs and sledgehammer drumming permeating the air, there was no doubt Stoned to Death was in full swing.

Next to take the stage was another three-piece by the name of Toke. Hailing from the South Shore of Boston, Toke provided the first dose of the day’s death metal. Straight-ahead-to-the-point brutal death metal was on tap, and with song titles such as “The Roach Collector” and “Eternally Stoned,” it’s not hard to guess the subject matter of the songs. With plenty of heft and groove, Toke definitely set necks snapping with their Cannibal Corpse meets Cannabis Corpse sound. And with songs considerably shorter than the first two bands, the crowd was treated to the majority of the band’s debut, “Fifty Ton Nug.”

Continuing the parade of band trios, Problem With Dragons were up next, another Easthampton native. If you like swagger-filled swingin’ rock rhythms along with your groove-laden sludge and doom, these guys will hit your sweet spot. Being located close to home for Greenfield, the crowd was more than familiar with PWD and stepped up its game in terms of participation and interaction. Bodies were moving, heads banging and voices singing along to the band’s sci-fi-infused stoner fuzz that leans much more in the heavy rock direction, with loads of hooks and cleaner-sounding vocals. “Sideways” was the highlight of the set, which can be found on the band’s “Starquake” release, which also did not escape my grasp.

Up next? You guessed it, another Boston three-piece, this one by the name of Cazador, who were added last minute to replace Pilgrim after cancelling all their scheduled shows in 2017. One of the cool things about this festival is the variety of bands booked. Despite there being four trios in a row, each was distinct from one another, be it sludge, brutal death, stoner rock or the slamming post-hardcore doom of Cazador.

Cazador’s set was an interesting one to take in. On stage right you had the over-the-top, animated vocalist/bassist Joe Haryanto screaming into the mic and jumping all over the stage, as if he himself were at a hardcore matinee, while on stage left you had the stoic, calm and collected guitarist Jake Quinn peeling out riffs and solos, with drummer Cliff Cazeau at the center of it all pounding away with abandon. The band melded the counter-balance of doom and hardcore well, so if you’re a fan of either genre, check these guys out.

Following Cazador’s set, I took a walk around the venue and ordered a burger while waiting for Upheaval to take the stage. This also gave me a chance to chat with the drummer and bassist of Toke, who were waiting for their food to arrive. Maybe it was because I had my earplugs out for the first half of their set while enjoying a most excellent lunch, but Upheaval’s abrasive blackend death-doom blasted out of the speakers and took no prisoners. I quickly finished eating and made my way back to the stage to catch the rest of this intense, wild bunch who recently made it to the finals of the U.S. Wacken Metal Battle.

Upheaval turned in another of my favorite performances of the day with their hard-hitting set. With just enough doom and sludge added to the blast beats, tremolo picking and gravely black metal shrieks, Upheaval definitely stood out and warrant further listening.

Another element I enjoyed so much about this festival was discovering many talented bands I’d never seen, or heard of, before. Leather Lung falls firmly into that category, but as soon as I checked them out following their announcement to the lineup, they were one of the most anticipated bands I was looking forward to, and boy did they deliver in spades.

With a sound rooted in the stoner sludge of Down and Eyehategood but with considerably more swing, a la Queens of the Stone Age, Leather Lung attacked the stage with venom and fervor. Lead vocalist Mike was a ball of energy dancing across the stage throughout the set and getting the audience to do the same. Midway through their set, the band stepped away from original material to pay tribute to the late, great Chris Cornell by unleashing a ripping cover of Audioslave’s “Cochise.” Thick riffs, high energy and attitude sums up this excellent Boston four-piece. Leather Lung was my second-favorite performance of the fest, behind headliners Acid Witch. Also go the chance to chat with Zach and Jesse, guitar and bass, respectively, after their set. Chill dudes, who promised a vinyl release is on the way, so keep an eye out.

After grooving to the smoke-filled, fuzzy licks of Leather Lung, it was time to get decimated by the blackened melodic death buzz-saw that is Solium Fatalis. Making the trek from Newmarket, N.H. to be at Stoned to Death, Solium Fatalis is a quartet of insanely talented musicians who took Stoned to Death by storm. Bludgeoning riffs, brutal vocals, shredding solos and pulverizing double-bass filled the air as the band whipped through a pulse-pounding 30-minute set of relentless fury. Guitarists Jim Gregory and Ryan Beevers were like spirits possessed, churning out punishing riffs, bolstered by Jeff DeMarco’s pounding bass, and impressive fretboard acrobatics, while Kevin Talley obliterated his drum kit. The pit action was in full swing for Solium Fatalis, whose participants I’m sure left with a few black and blue marks as proof.

The final trio of the lineup were next on the bill, Boston’s Rozamov. If powerful, droning sludge is what you ordered, then Rozamov delivered. Similar to Joe from Cazador, Rozamov vocalist/bassist Tom Corino energetically moved about the stage, stomping and thrashing amid screams into the mic. Different from Cazador, however, Rozamov’s guitarist, Matt Iacovelli, also provided vocals in addition to meaty riffs. At one point, Jeff Landry broke a stick from his vigorous drumming. The band delivered a loud and powerful set of fuzz-filled sludge, one heaping song after the next. It was a nice touch to see Iacovelli pull out a drum of his own to join Landry for some tandem percussive work to close out the set.

Black Tomb were the only local band left to pummel the crowd before Acid Witch took the stage. The New England doom quartet, which features Graviton guitarist Cameron Tidman among their ranks, unleashed a harsh doom attack on the audience, highlighted by the tortured screams of the vocalist/guitarist and brash riffing. The unending wall of noise was persistent throughout the set, battering the crowd with concentrated, sonic bursts of dirty, heavy sludge-soaked doom with the amps turned up to 11. A rock-solid rhythm section accompanied the weighty riffs, with thudding bass grooves and furious drumming.

The break in the action following Black Tomb provided the audience just enough time to catch its breath before a near-75-minute headlining set from Detroit “Halloween metallers” Acid Witch. Who better to headline a festival focused on black, death, stoner, sludge and doom than a band that embodies elements of each in its sound.

Acid Witch’s set was not perfect, in that the band had to deal with technical difficulties throughout, including Slasher Dave’s mic completely going out at one point and Mike repeatedly disconnecting his guitar. That being said, the band and fans took it in stride, neither letting it deter an otherwise outstanding performance.

Swamp spells and witchtanic hellucinations were doled out by the dozens as the band tore through a 16-song set that spanned their discography and even included a new song, “Mutilation Mansion,” from the upcoming album and the 45 Grave cover of “Partytime,” from the Midnight Movies EP. For “Trick or Treat,” Slasher Dave donned an old man mask and waved a pumpkin around, bringing the song to life.

Although it was June 3, it really did feel like Oct. 31 for an hour-plus as Acid Witch delivered a wicked set, featuring “Stoned to the Grave,” “Witchfynder Finder,” “Witchblood Cult” (dedicated to the audience), “Metal Movie Marijuana Massacre Meltdown” (dedicated to the 1990s B-movie “Winterbeast,” filmed in Massachusetts) and “The Black Witch.”

The campy, schlock-filled tales of sorcery, sex, death and horror characteristic of Acid Witch was the perfect way to close out Stoned to Death II. Although Acid Witch’s performance was not the best show I’ve ever seen, it was one of my favorite performances I’ve experienced in the 15 years I’ve been taking in live shows. I had been waiting years to see the Witch, and can’t thank John and Promotorhead enough for bringing them to New England. Another bucket list band crossed off the list for this scribe.

My feelings of Acid Witch’s performance extend to the entire festival and everything that went into it. From the killer lineup, to the awesome, unique venue, to the friendly staff and tight-knit, supportive fans. Nothing illustrates this better than the fact I saw members of Lich King, Goblet and Graviton not only in attendance supporting the fest, but also contributing to it whether by serving drinks behind the bar, running sound for each of the bands throughout the day or assisting with setup and takedown by moving equipment, and even rushing to clean up the occasional spilled beer on stage during a performance.

The western Massachusetts metal scene has much to offer in the way of bands, fans and promoters, all of which was on display throughout Stoned to Death. I don’t know how Promotorhead tops Stoned to Death II, but I’m sure John and his cohorts are already hard at work trying to figure that out and no doubt will come up with something special for round 3.