To the delight of those jaded by the endless parade of indie rock upstarts and hip-hop swagjackers that usually populate the festival, the past few years have seen SXSW acquiring more of a metallic edge. Swelling numbers of headbangers have taken to the streets and stages of the Austin, TX institution. Though light on truly "underground" bands, SXSW's metal presence focuses on smaller up-and-coming outfits, tossing in a handful of marquee names and legacy acts (remember that time Metallica played?) to sweeten the pot for fence-sitters. Hoek’s Death Metal Pizza customarily lends a helping stage to the fest’s more obscure artists, but, as the much-loved venue/eatery was denied their customary permits, this year saw Red 7 emerge as the best place to catch a killer riff. 2013 featured some of the strongest, heaviest lineups yet, as official showcases, day parties, and last-minute warehouse shows brought out the big guns.
Wednesday kicked off early with Pitchfork’s Show No Mercy day party at Mohawk. By two o’clock, New Hampshire’s Vattnet Viskar were churning out cathartic, atmospheric black metal indoors while Atlanta rockers Royal Thunder captivated the crowd outside with bluesy chords and the soulful wails of powerhouse vocalist Mlny Parsons. Pinkish Black’s goth-influenced dirges bounced off Pallbearer’s soaring doom metal elegiacs (above) and set the stage for the more up-tempo onslaughts of hometown weedgrinders Wet Lungs and California hardcore maniacs Trash Talk. A one-off performance from Ohio’s gnarliest, Skeletonwitch, closed out the show with their signature beer-fueled, thrashing mayhem.
Thursday was a bit lighter on metal happenings. Hoek’s Death Metal Pizza curated a day’s worth of lesser-known bands at various venues across the city, but Metalsucks’ official showcase at the Dirty Dog Bar was ground zero for denim and leather. There were a fair number of bathroom break bands dragging down the bill, but sterling performances from Canadian noiseniks KEN Mode, sludgy beasts Howl and a particularly fiery Royal Thunder kept things rolling. Bloodthirsty headliners Goatwhore always kill it live, and tonight’s show was no different, as charismatic frontman Ben Falgoust whipped the audience into a frenzy with the NOLA black/death troupe’s blasphemous anthems. Gentler souls might have found themselves packed into The Hideout for a hushed, intimate performance from Finnish psychedelic neofolk oddities Hexvessel. Much-loved by metalheads and outsiders alike, their only American show featured plenty of tracks from the band’s latest LP, No Holier Temple, and left a lasting impression on the lucky few who managed to catch them.
Friday’s lineup was insane from noon onwards, as Brooklyn Vegan’s day party at The Jr. saw vicious onslaughts from Vancouver hardcore greenhorns Baptists and venerable noise-rock legends Today Is The Day alongside Inter Arma’s genre-defying, heartbreaking heaviness. Just down the road, the Yellow Jacket Social Club played host to a handful of noisier fare, like jagged, basement-tested hardcore from AmRep-worshippers Fight Amp and Savannah, GA power trio Black Tusk, who blend ballsy rock & roll grooves with hard-hitting thrash, downtuned doom and plenty of Southern swagger. Once the sun set, the 1808 Annex lit up with blasts of nasty Texas grind courtesy of Kill the Client and Red 7's Tone Deaf Showcase featured plenty of heavy vibes from whiskey-soaked, high-octane British biker doom kings Orange Goblin and Queens of the Stone Age alum Nick Oliveri’s stoner punk hybrid Mondo Generator. Down the street, Unblock the Rock presented a showcase of Cuban metal bands, including Havana’s truly excellent, spike-clad black/thrash metallers Ancestor.
Those of us who made it to Saturday with at least a few brain cells left knew to haul ass over to the Scoot Inn for the Converse/Thrasher Death Match. Ultra intense death metal/hardcore alchemists Black Breath and Clutch’s mighty doom-rock jams held it down beneath the relentless Texas sun while grind punks Mammoth Grinder and the wisecracking powerviolence duo Iron Lung sweated and screamed in the venue’s small, mercifully dark innards. Later, metal blog Invisible Oranges and Relapse Records went head to head with two brutally stacked lineups. The former boasted a special acoustic performance from Savannah rockers Baroness’ John Baizely, whose haunting compositions channeled Elliot Smith and past tourmate Scott Kelly in equal measure. Relapse rolled out its heaviest hitters, including Howl, who crackled with a newfound intensity as they debuted a few new tunes and a revamped lineup, and a hard-partying Black Tusk, who closed out the night with a taste of pure chaos.