Festivals mean summer to me. As a true concert addict, I haven’t gone a single summer without a festival in at least 6 or 7 years. This year, my options were limited as my travel budget has dwindled into a memory, at least, internationally. And it’s about time I stayed in my home province of British Columbia, so this year, I chose Armstrong Metalfest. One of the most specialized festivals I have been to in a long time (at least, one that was multiple days and included camping) and I had fully prepared myself for the discomfort of no showers, no electricity and the real possibility of my allergies trying to kill me. What I hadn’t expected, although I should have, was the brute force of the sun.
Myself and a few friends arrived a night early, just after sunset on Thursday night. A friend of a friend (aka the band XUL) had shown up early to guard the best spot on the campgrounds. In the morning, as an AMF virgin, I quickly learned why having shade in the early hours of the day was not only important, but integral to surviving this northern Okanogan July. Armstrong, BC, incorporated exactly 100 years prior, is in the beautiful Spallumcheen Valley, surrounded by a mix of mountains, farmland, wilderness and wildlife. The insects are astounding, not only in size, but in quantity and diversity. The weather, however, is much less to brag about in the Okanogan Valley. Although the sun was shining and it was nothing short of beautiful, for a girl from the city, it was intense. Early Friday, we decided that a pool of water was necessary. Since XUL, as well as a few of my friends, had been to AMF previously, they came prepared. And so, the Disney princess pool was blown up and we had to figure out how to get the pool from the nearest faucet back to the campsite to deem it the XUL POOL. Ultimately, pure manpower (and woman power) won with the aid of a few coolers and many kind folks.
Of which, there were many. Kind folks, I mean. It started on Thursday when my attempt at setting up my tent in the dark seemed to fail. A team of people quickly assembled and we erected my mammoth 10 person tent, nicknamed the Taj Mahal. We’ll come back to that in my day two review. Honestly, though, I couldn’t possibly put into words the amount of comfort I felt around this group of festival goers. Everyone was instantly friends with everyone. You could go up to anyone and say hello and get to talking about a certain band and suddenly, you’ve made a lifelong friend. I chose to wear my most prized article of clothing on the first day. To simplify, it’s a black and white striped dress with countless patches of band tee shirts. I quickly lost count of the number of times somebody recognized a band they listened to and a conversation began because of the patches. And truth be told, most of their names were lost on me, but the visceral love of human connection is something I’ve never felt more strongly with a group of hundreds of people. From the guy with the amazingly curly, long hair who was always standing at the edge of the mosh pit, giving me high fives and nods of approval; to the Calgarian friend I made in the parking lot over a fondness of cider; and to the musicians I was always too nervous to speak to, but instantly felt connected to… I have never met so many amazing people in such a short space of time who were, through and through, thoughtful, kind and genuine people who know their music and can have a hell of a time!
Let’s clarify a few things before I get too involved in the music of the day. So first off, I was wrong about the lack of showers. Can you say “hallelujah”? Because I sure did. I asked the guys at the gate if they cost anything and they laughed and asked me if I was “from New York?” I laughed and gleamed that the concept seemed so foreign to these gentlemen. And after hitting the bathrooms (that’s right, no port-a-potties necessary! Full bathrooms with enough stalls that I never once waited in line for anything except the shower), I realized I wouldn’t have to live without electricity either! With the opportunity to charge my camera, I definitely didn’t shy away from taking photos. And allergies were basically out because we camped in an area between the parking lot of Hassen Arena and a baseball diamond. I couldn’t even describe the camp itself, other than it’s name, “Camp Valhalla”. Just picture a grassy area with a road running through it with a mess of tents, portable gazebos and camping chairs, along with a bunch of long haired, tattooed and bearded music fans, guzzling beer. Add a few red-neck swimming pools (tarp in the back of a pick-up) and even a few boats with water inside them. The princesses at the XUL POOL called to me in the early afternoon heat, however, and I stuck my head in the water and then it was time to really warm up.
The performances at Armstrong Metalfest took place inside Hassen Arena. It is most commonly used as an ice rink, as well as a roller skating arena. The industrial ceilings accentuated by the sunlight made for a unique venue, while strangely fitting for a Canadian music festival, especially metal. It was also quite convenient with the quality air conditioning, as well as the protection from the sun. I can’t imagine it’s the most acoustically sound building in the world, but it got the job done effectively. I also quickly realized that I am way too short for hockey, after pulling up a spot on the bench in between bands.
First up to open the whole festival was Gomorrah from Kelowna, BC. Much as their name suggests, this band is not for the faint of heart. With their speed, their intensity and their technicality, they brought the first signs of life to the crowd. The number of people who has arisen from their campsite wasn’t quite overwhelming, but the people who were there to watch Gomorrah were engaged and ready for the festival to begin! The New Arcadia played next, hailing from the Okanogan; a new local talent. Finishymn brought their brand of brutal death metal next, melting the faces of anyone close enough and willing. Armed with a new drummer since the last time I saw them, Trollband took to the stage, proudly in war paint. They dazzled me once again and their hair makes their name that much more accurate. Local cats from Vernon, Cast Into Ashes were next on the docket to shred. Joined by friends on the stage shredding their air guitars, they put on quite the spectacle.
At this point, I was in for quite the surprise. A local Vancouver band had gone through a name change that I had been unaware of, due to a spell of travel for the months since. Originally The Almighty Excruciating Pain, later Excruciating Pain, was now known as Expain and they were on-stage thrashing my face off. This was the first time in the day where the mosh pit started being a place to be cautious. Don’t get me wrong, we will pick you up if you fall… But fall, you will. Unless, of course, you stay on your toes. Slagduster was up next with some down and dirty metal. Victoria-bred Scimitar were next. With a fueled crowd, Over The Coals took the stage and shook the house once again, as the first female fronted band of the day. As the tension continued the build, it came to a boil during XUL. These dudes lived 5 minutes down the road and the dedicated Armstrong crowd knew their music well. Their composition was precise and well-executed with a breath of heaviness hiding under all that hair. And honestly, these guys are among the kindest party animals you will ever meet.
Death Toll Rising took the stage next as the first band hailing from outside of BC. Edmonton residents, Death Toll Rising have elements of thrash, death and other untraceable metal(s). They seem to be a band that focuses heavily on technical accuracy and less on using the stage. Terrifier, on the other hand, soaked up everything the audience had to offer. As their set continued, the many faces of Chase Thibodeau (vocals / bass) evolved and seemed to be more and more engaging. Along with them, the crowd grew in intensity. They ended their set in a good old-fashioned guitar smashing, although it was Chase’s bass guitar. By the time Tyrant’s Blood brought a taste of Vancouver’s speed metal, the audience had been whipped into a frenzy. The outfit choice of studded armor seemed to match the music cohesively and the tempo reminded us that although we were due for a break, the metal was far from over.
It was, however, time for the 100 Man Shotgun. Remember Camp Valhalla, that mess of metal heads drinking outside of their tents? A good portion of those people showed up on that road and did a simultaneous shot-gunning of beer. Never having been much of a beer person, nor having the stomach for shot-gunning anything, I opted out of participating. I did, however, document the whole thing by taking photos.
Soon enough, we had killed the half hour in which it took to rebuild the stage as a single platform, instead of a dual stage with one band performing while another sets up. When we came back into Hassen Arena, Vancouver cross-over metal giants Nylithia took the stage. Commonly regarded throughout the rest of the festival as the best performance of the whole weekend, words are not enough to describe it. Their mascot, The Vein, shot out tee shirts from a tee shirt canon. They had massive props and through and through put on the best, most full performance. Excellently written songs with appeal to many sub-genres of metal, fantastic execution live, a theatrical performance and undeniable showmanship. People say that they should headline Friday next year… I say they should headline the whole festival, if not co-headline. They had the largest crowd, the most involvement and countless people knew all the lyrics to their songs. There’s very few negative things I could even think of about Nylithia, and even those are being nit-picky.
Not to be out-shadowed, however, was the brutal performance by Bison to cap off the night. Sometimes known as Bison B.C., their guitarist, James, was stripped to gut wrenching courage after he had sliced open his finger that day in an unfortunate cooking incident. With blood on the neck of his guitar and the vivid appearance of his pain on his face, it was impossible for me to look away. As a long time fan of Bison, the doom-style metal was exactly what I was looking forward to as a wind-down-band to end the night with. The brute honesty of a simple human feeling, such as pain, was much more intense than I anticipated. For his courage to commit so thoroughly, I am truly honoured to have seen them perform as many times as I have. As well, the positivity exuding from Bison’s new drummer is impossible to deny. A smile as wide as the ocean, he even encourages some smiles out of the other members of the band every so often. At the end of the set, he high fived everyone that he could in the front row after James had given his thanks to the audience for sticking around. Although it didn’t quite have the numbers of Nylithia, Bison was a slow, painful death and it put me in the perfect mood to end the evening.
After a venture in the dark of Full Metal Camping at Camp Valhalla, we bumped into numerous members of a few bands, but my brain was off. A venture inside my tent sealed the deal as I just couldn’t deny the comfort of my half of the Taj Mahal. After a few laughs and a smoke to help cap the night off, all I had to do was sleep before another day of the same amazing atmosphere was repeated.
Keep your eyes peeled for a review of day 2!