Although MACRoCk‘s been happening in Harrisonburg for nearly two decades, its 2014 edition, which took place on Friday, April 4 and Saturday, April 5, was the first one I ever managed to attend.
Although MACRoCk‘s been happening in Harrisonburg for nearly two decades, its 2014 edition, which took place on Friday, April 4 and Saturday, April 5, was the first one I ever managed to attend. What finally lured me to take the two-hour trip up I-64 and I-81 was an opportunity to participate in a panel discussion about music journalism, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit the musical aspect was the most persuasive inducement. While MACRoCk doesn’t necessarily attract the heavy hitters it used to bring in when JMU was still bankrolling the whole thing, the bill was more than respectable, with a lot of up-and-coming indie, emo, hardcore, and metal acts I wanted to see. In fact, with a lot of overlapping set times happening throughout the weekend, there were too many bands playing–I couldn’t possibly catch them all. Fortunately, RVA contributor and JMU graduate Emilie Von Unwerth was in attendance as well, and she’ll be filling in a few gaps in this account.
I finished work as early as I could on Friday, April 4, but by the time I’d completed the drive up and checked into my hotel, it was already 7 PM. I had missed a bunch of the bands I hoped to see early in the afternoon at Court Square Theater and Artful Dodger, which was a shame. (sorry, Clair Morgan and Snowy Owls! I’ll catch you guys again soon!) I should explain that MACRoCk functions more on a SXSW-type model than the usual music festival. Instead of there being several stages on a single large grounds, MACRoCk happens at five different Harrisonburg clubs, all of which are within a four-block radius or so–except Little Grill, which is 12 or so blocks away. Not-so-coincidentally, I didn’t make it to any of the Little Grill shows.
By the time I arrived on Friday, the best option was looking like the Blue Nile, where a bunch of metal bands were playing. The environment in the basement performance space of the Blue Nile was the perfect environment for metal–dark, low-ceilinged, bathed in red light. It was like a rock club in hell. I loved it. I arrived at the club in time to catch DC grindcore trio Disciples of Christ. They played at the sort of punishing volume that immediately reminded me to figure out some sort of hearing protection (I plugged my ears with my fingers during their set, then grabbed a bar napkin to wad up and shove into my ears). Their guitarist has the strange habit of sinking down to one knee for his vocal parts, even though he normally plays standing upright. But what about the music, I hear you asking? Short, fast, noisy epics of blastbeats and breakdowns, generally lasting about 90 seconds each. The gap between songs was bridged by feedback. The set contained as many songs as any average band’s 45 minute set but lasted less than 15 minutes. That’s OK, though–this kind of blistering attack is best enjoyed in short bursts.
Yautja were next. While I hadn’t heard this band previously, I was definitely looking forward to seeing them due to their drummer being Gnarwhal’s Tyler Coburn, whose technical virtuosity has amazed me on several prior occasions when Gnarwhal played in Richmond. Sure enough, Tyler impressed just as much during Yautja’s set, even though their musical style was completely different from that of Gnarwhal. Yautja crank out the sort of dramatic epics of unparalleled heavyosity that made Neurosis legends in the field, but switch up their tempos, structures, and song lengths enough to keep from falling into the cliche pitfalls left behind by numerous Neurosis imitators over the past two decades. Yautja’s approach is very different from Gnarwhal’s Hella-style flashy speed, so Coburn’s drumming is more subtle in this band, but he still did a lot of incredibly complex technical stuff behind the kit, which made focusing on him during the set quite rewarding. The other two members of the band rose to the challenge of his drumming too, though, and the entire set was brutal and impossible to look away from. The set’s penultimate song, which I later learned is called “Faith Resigned” (from the band’s brand new album, Songs Of Descent), ended with a crushing, repetitive 6/8 riff that seemed to go on for at least five minutes. Far from getting obnoxious, it only drew me further and further in. It felt like the appropriate way for the song and the set to end would have been the music weakening the foundations of the building until it collapsed inward on us all. Fortunately, the Blue Nile was still standing when Yautja finished playing–but it felt like a near thing.
Next up were RVA’s own Occultist. It was my fourth or fifth time seeing them, so I knew what to expect, which didn’t make any of it any less awesome. This band’s fiery thrash attack has a lot of crust-punk darkness embedded within it, as well as first-wave black metal rage (think Bathory or Celtic Frost, not Emperor or Immortal). Singer Kerry Zylstra is the most distinctive element–between her tough-as-nails screaming and her propensity for crowd interaction, she is the inevitable cynosure of any Occultist live performance. She lived up to her usual role during their set at MACRoCk too, charging into the crowd at several points to scream into the faces of surprised headbangers. But of course, Kerry wouldn’t have the ability to command a crowd’s attention if she was backed by a bunch of slackers, and the rest of Occultist laid down a scorched-earth bed of raw, fearsome riffs that was bedrock-solid and granite-heavy. How any Richmond metalhead worth their salt might have missed out on Occultist before now is beyond me, so none of this should be news to you, but I’m here to report that even several hours away from home, Occultist remain a can’t-miss live prospect.
Next up was the full-on 80s-crossover revival quintet Iron Reagan, and as they are also hometown RVA boys, I was once again in for a repeat viewing. However, I certainly wasn’t complaining. In fact, in recent months, I’ve begun to realize that I just might like Iron Reagan even better than the bands they’re a “side project” of. Combining members of Darkest Hour, Municipal Waste, Cannabis Corpse, and Hellbear, among others, Iron Reagan dish out fast, riff-oriented metallic hardcore of top quality, in a manner that never fails to make me smile. At this show, they busted out a bunch of the micro-songs they recently composed for a 13-song, 7-minute EP they released in conjunction with Decibel Magazine, and it was fun to watch the mosh pit just barely get going before the songs ended. Speaking of which, Iron Reagan was the first band of the evening to generate a mosh pit of any significance, which was slightly surprising considering the universally high quality of the evening’s musical fare. If someone were to say they took the show to the next level, though, I certainly wouldn’t argue. I’ve loved them every time I’ve seen them, but this was the best so far.
After Iron Reagan, I dipped out on the Blue Nile to head over to Clementine. I was a bit worried when I arrived at Clementine to find the show sold out and a long line snaking, Studio 54-style, down the sidewalk from the club. However, with no other prospects for entertainment (Blue Nile had been sold out when I left), I decided to wait around and see if I could get in. 45 minutes later, after missing the entirety of Amanda X’s set, enough people had left Clementine that I finally made it inside. Emilie managed to pull some strings and get into the show in time to catch Amanda X, though, so here’s her report on their set.
Photo by James Chung
Twee/bedroom pop from Phill-ay! Amanda X fucking satisfy my sweet tooth better than vanilla cake than white icing. But they’re also rockin’ bitches. They played at Clementine right before Ex Hex (!!!), so the vibe was pretty alcohol-soaked and stoked. Lots of crowd bouncing and lots of excellent crooning by singer Cat Park. You could tell the girls were having fun, which just made the set even more fun. Harrisonburg and JMU have a small enough music community so that when a band catches on, it catches on. The crowd were singing along with the band and it was so goddamn heartwarming. According to an article in Jump Philly, the girls got together simply because they wanted to learn to play instruments and jam together–and they ended up forming a freakin’ sweet band that stole MACRoCk’s huge heart. God, I have such a big girl crush on Amanda X. I just wanna have pillow fights and talk shit on boys with them and half-seriously send them ~*TeXtS LiKe ThIs**~~~
I’d come to Clementine after leaving the Blue Nile in hopes of seeing the evening’s final band, Ex Hex. Featuring the legendary Mary Timony (Wild Flag, Helium) on guitar, and Betsy Wright, formerly of Charlottesville’s The Fire Tapes, on bass, this brand new group had enough star power to draw me in even though I’d only heard one of their songs before the show. Once I finally made it inside, there was somehow enough space in the filled-to-capacity club that I still walked right to the front row, arriving as Ex Hex were setting up. I love it when a plan comes together.
Mary Timony, Betsy Wright, and drummer Laura Harris (The Aquarium) all have backgrounds in pretty cerebral indie rock sounds, so it’s both surprising and refreshing to see what they do when coming together as Ex Hex. That is to say, they rock the fuck out. Their three-chord rock n’ roll songs were the kind of thing I’d almost call cock-rock if I heard a bunch of boys playing it. Between the big riffs and the amazing foot-on-monitor rockstar stage moves Mary and Betsy engaged in throughout the set, I found myself thinking of bands like Kiss and Cheap Trick, though a more apt comparison if we’re gonna be gender-specific about it might be the Runaways. The crowd ate it right up, too, going more nuts during Ex Hex’s set than anyone at the Blue Nile had during the metal/hardcore sets I’d been watching throughout the night. It was kind of amazing. Even more amazing was when Ex Hex were inevitably begged for an encore at the end of their set, and they responded with a blazing version of Slant 6’s “What Kind Of Monster Are You?” Since Mary and Slant 6’s Christina Billotte played together once upon a time in the band Autoclave, it seemed like a very natural choice; yet I wouldn’t have predicted it in a million years. It made the perfect capper to the first of two full days of music.
After the show at Clementine ended, people were headed to a variety of late-night house shows, apparently a beer-soaked MACRoCk tradition. Oh, college. I chose to head back to my hotel room and hit the sack, though–not only did I have a panel discussion in the morning, I was hoping to get some work done before bedtime. Why yes, I am a workaholic.
Anyway, after beginning my Saturday with the aforementioned panel discussion (which was a lot of fun–my thanks to everyone involved), I headed over to the Artful Dodger in time to catch the day’s second band, You’re Jovian. This young Norfolk trio were bringing back a very familiar sound from my high school days, going for that whole post-Dinosaur Jr guitar-driven indie-rock sound that combines noisy, hazy guitar distortion with quiet, crooning vocals and uptempo rockin’ rhythms. While everyone remembers My Bloody Valentine, the sound You’re Jovian recalled was generated most successfully by The Lilys and the Drop Nineteens. It was also a much more common version of the whole “shoegaze” thing back in the early 90s–at least in America. I used to hear local bands that sounded like this when I was going to high school in Charlottesville 20 years ago. To hear a band bust out this style during a trip to a Harrisonburg college campus two decades later seemed rather apt. And while it wasn’t anything I hadn’t heard before, You’re Jovian’s set was quite enjoyable on the whole.
I didn’t feel that way about Fluffer, though. The sound they were reviving was one I have much less pleasant feelings about in hindsight. Keyboardy hipster Williamsburg indie that just sounds like the ghost of Pitchfork 2004 or something. The singer kept singing through a vocoder, too. I don’t know if this counts as a too-early revival of a not-that-great trend or merely the dying throes of that trend’s first iteration, but either way, I’m not too into it. There was one guy there who was really into it, though–his dance moves were a thing of beauty, especially since he was taking frequent breaks to eat lunch from a plate he’d set down near his dancing spot. That guy’s antics aside, Fluffer bored me enough that I eventually wandered outside, at which time I ran into some friends, which led to two hours or so of hanging out, catching up with people, and generally ignoring the music. At one point, an immigrant’s rights protest march came down the street and passed in front of the local court building across the street from Artful Dodger. My Harrisonburg friends explained to me that there is a lot of action around the issue in that area due to the high rate of deportations that occur in Harrisonburg (read more about it here). This is an issue we should all probably be paying more attention to.
Photo by Andy Dunlap
While I was hanging out, Emilie was over at Court Square Theater catching PC Worship. Here’s what she thought of them:
PC Worship are noisy weirdo psych punk from the big apple. This was one of my favorite sets because it was just so weird. First of all: they had a guy (who I happen to know, who is not in PC Worship) playin’ a big ol’ bongo with them. “This is Danny, we found him on the street,” said guitarist/singer Justin Frye. Dude’s name isn’t Danny. Second, Terry from Buck Gooter was sitting cross-legged behind one of their amps the whole time, supposedly doing some weird distortion. PC Worship’s set was too short for me (but, then again, I’d probably want to watch them play for 2+ hours.). The only downside was this fucking heckler. He kept screaming “Your drummer’s hot! Is your drummer single? She’s hot!” At one point Frye told him to “go awaaaayyy,” and the crowd cheered. Go away hecklers, no one wants to give you attention, especially people at a PC Worship show.
By the time I wandered back inside, LVL UP were onstage. I was stuck in the back of the room during their set, and so it doesn’t stick as well in my memory as most of what I heard that weekend. I remember I liked them a good bit at the time, though, and I kept thinking of some of Weezer’s better, harder-hitting early material. But there was more complexity to what LVL UP were doing than that comparison would make you think. Their guitarist was quite talented as well.
I made it to the front of the room before Swiss band Disco Doom started their set, which was a good move, as this band turned out to have a lot going for them. Their walls of distortion and hazily catchy riffs were also a throwback to 90s alt-rock sounds, but I really can’t get enough of that style, so the last thing I wanted to do was fault them for gracing us with more of it. They had distinctive tunes that were strongly assembled and catchy, and the noise breaks sometimes made me think of Bailter Space, which is always a pleasant association in my mind. I had never heard of this band before seeing them play, but once they were done, I definitely wanted to get their record.
I knew exactly what to expect from Ovlov, though. Indeed, out of the entire MACRoCk lineup, they were the band I was most excited to see. This power trio consists of three young men, two of whom (the guitarist and the drummer) are brothers. While I’ve already made comparisons to post-Dinosaur early-90s loud-guitar alt-rock elsewhere in this writeup, I’ll be more explicit when discussing Ovlov: they sound like early Dinosaur Jr. Loud guitars, distorted yet melodic riffs, crooning vocals, angst-ridden lyrics… yeah, they’ve got it all. And they do it so well that even the most soundalike elements are not enough to detract one iota from their overall quality. I knew all this before I ever saw them play, but their inspired, high-energy performance only drove it home that much more. They not only blew me away but seemed to knock the entire crowd on their asses. A bunch of silly kids even started a push-pit at one point. I’ve heard a lot about the emo revival over the past year or so… is this the beginning of the grunge revival? Hell, I wouldn’t complain.
I decided to head over to Clementine after things wrapped up at Artful Dodger. I knew I’d arrive at least half an hour before the first band started, but I figured what the hell, it’d leave me time to get dinner. While I was doing that, Emilie headed over to the Blue Nile, where she caught Skating Polly.
Photo by Todd Scott
Skating Polly: This 14-and-17-year-old sister duo play straight riot grrrl. Mmmhmm. You read me right. And they’re good. Actually, they kill it. The duo switch it up on drums. Kelli Mayo, the younger sister, plays bass. Peyton Bighorse plays guitar. They sound like Babes in Toyland. They are kids. Everything about them is sweet, at least to a lady who grew up worshipping Kathleen Hanna, Carrie Brownstein, Molly Neuman, and Mary Timony. In true riot grrrl fashion, Mayo asked for the ladies to come to the front. Point for Skating Polly. She then explained that their first song was about being ugly and how it sucks that people judge others based on looks. Before beginning she goes, “yeah I’m ugly, what does that matter?!” Point two for Skating Polly. Close to the end of the show, Mayo jumped up on the drumkit and fucking shredded her bass (or maybe it’s a bassitar). Game, set, match.
Back at Clementine, I was still sitting at the bar finishing my burger when Psychic Teens hit the stage. This black-clad goth-punk trio from Philadelphia left me underwhelmed at first. With a Jesus And Mary Chain-inspired sound and stage presence, I felt like they were doing something that was a bit played out, and it wasn’t until their fourth or fifth song, after I’d stopped paying that much attention, that I realized I was really digging some of their riffs. I’d finished my food by then, so I wandered up front out of curiosity and paid closer attention to their last few songs, all of which I ended up liking quite a bit. So did they get better as their set went on, or was I just being a curmudgeon at first? The jury’s still out on that one, but I would recommend giving these guys some time before you dismiss them. They might surprise you.
Ex-Breathers didn’t just surprise me, they knocked me on my ass. Another power trio, they stepped away from the 90s alt-rock guitar template that a lot of bands at this year’s MACRoCk seemed to favor (that’s not a complaint). Instead, they bashed out some raging, uptempo hardcore. While the drummer didn’t plunge into outright speed more than once every three songs or so, the band as a whole displayed a level of intensity and intensity I hadn’t seen at any other point during the festival. They seemed powered by some internal source of energy that made them jitter and bounce across the stage–and they communicated this energy to the crowd in a big way, to the point where it became a bit problematic.
I don’t know if it was that people had been drinking all day, or if the looming end of the fest was bringing out the worst in everybody, or whether the problem may even be that Harrisonburg kids just don’t fuckin’ know how to dance, but I was seeing some pretty malicious-looking violence happen all around me. The kids engaging in it often looked belligerently gleeful as they hurled anyone dancing near them to the ground, or tackled people who’d been looking in the opposite direction, which only strengthened my impression that, like Dark Helmet in Spaceballs, I was surrounded by assholes. At one point, one of those kids knocked over the guitarist’s mic stand, and the guitarist damn near hit him with his guitar in response. I found myself perversely hoping for swift retribution, but it didn’t ever happen–which was for the best, in hindsight.
The idiotic, violent crowd shenanigans continued throughout Big Ups‘ set, and damn near ruined my ability to enjoy one of the two bands I’d been most excited about seeing. I tried to power through, but the truth is, I didn’t have much fun while they played. That had nothing to do with the band, though–their raging noise-rock came off quite well under the circumstances. I could hear the bass much better than the guitar, which may have been a bad sound mix or just me making an unfortunate choice about which side of the stage to stand on, but the music still sounded great, and Big Ups’ maniacal ranting frontman was just as intense and impossible to ignore as he sounds on record. Wrapping himself in his mic cord as he delivered his verses (which were often more like spoken litanies of complaints), he put across the impression of a usually-repressed fellow who’d finally been given an opportunity to air all of his grievances. He didn’t waste that opportunity, either, thrashing and twitching like some kind of less-flamboyantly-misanthropic Steve Albini, roaming the stage like a real-life nerd revenge. It was awesome. Too bad I spent the whole damn set worried that some leather-jacketed moron would tackle me from behind.
Memphis garage-rock quintet Ex-Cult were the perfect band to dispel the tension and frustration. Before they started playing, the guitarist standing near me asked me about the sturdiness of the table I was sitting on at that moment. As soon as I told him the line of tables along that wall were much stronger than they looked, a plan was set into motion. Once Ex-Cult started playing, he spent about half of every song striding out onto the line of tables and tearing off wild guitar solos while dangling his guitar out over the pit. Sometimes he’d even forgo the table route and just step right off the stage into the swirling crowd, who collapsed onto him once or twice but never disrupted the music. The rest of Ex-Cult were equally fearless and wild, and the singer plunged into the crowd with mic stand still in hand at least a half-dozen times himself. By meeting the out-of-control audience on their terms, Ex-Cult exerted a weirdly civilizing effect on the entire room, and things came together into the perfect level of audience engagement, without the previous undercurrent of pugnacious violence. As for the music, Ex-Cult’s dark, gothic take on garage-punk mixed Blood Visions-era Jay Reatard with a gothic edge lifted from The Cramps, The Wipers, and maybe even The Birthday Party. Their reverbed-out riffs had a thrilling spookiness to them, even as they buffetted the crowd with waves of energetic 60s-style punk energy. Ex-Cult pulled the entire evening back together, saving my mood and ending the entire festival on a high note.
Of course, the festival wasn’t really over–rumors of house shows were flying everywhere, and I got invited to two different ones myself. But I had checked out of my hotel already, and driving back to Richmond at 1 AM sounded bad enough without partying in Harrisonburg til 4 and then still having a two-hour drive ahead of me. Next time, though, maybe I’ll get a hotel for two nights and see just how crazy the whole thing can get. One thing’s for sure–I waited way too long to finally attend my first MACRoCk. This festival may not have the high profile of a Bonnaroo or SXSW, but it’s a lot of fun, and a great place to hear new bands you’ll soon be obsessed with. I’m coming back next year, and I expect to see all of you there.