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The softer side of metal music’s Death Fest

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Death Fest is a great place for metal diehards and neophytes to commune and get their inner ears blown out.
Photo: Bill Hughes
Leslie Ventura

Approaching the doors of the Cheyenne Saloon, I’m confident I’ll be the least-metal person at Las Vegas’ third annual Death Fest. “Don’t get beat up in there,” the door guy tells me as he hands me a Saturday wristband. Then he assures me that if I scream and wave for help, someone will rescue me.

Ian Andrew of Deadly Remains puts Willow Smith to shame in the hair-whipping category.

Ian Andrew of Deadly Remains puts Willow Smith to shame in the hair-whipping category.

Looking at the flier, it’s clear these Death Fest people have death metal down to a science. Printed on the sheet are 40 band names, in a variety of illegible metal fonts. The names themselves mostly stick to a pattern: Scattered Remains, Deadly Remains, Cerebral Bore, Cerebral Incubation, To Violently Vomit, Vomit God ... You get the idea.

But Las Vegas’ death-metal community isn’t just blood and gore. It’s also a family, and Big Mike (Mike Gordon) is head of the household. The 45-year-old Death Fest co-organizer with bright silver hair that touches the middle of his back says going to extreme metal shows keeps him young. His thanks for putting together the two-day festival? A circle pit of body slams and hugs.

Of course, what would a death-metal discussion be without some mention of the deep, guttural vocals better known as “the death growl.” When Houston, Texas, band Viral Load takes the stage, singer Shawn Whitaker’s eyes widen, rolling to the back of his head. His Cheshire Cat smile reveals a giant set of teeth as he growls the lyrics to “Raped With a Rake,” then dedicates the song “Crack Whore” to our grandmas.

With “jun jun” guitars ringing in my ears, I step back out into the light, having survived my crash course in all things gory, sick and metallic. If you ever encounter this scene for yourself, just remember Big Mike’s words: “The more horrible and brutal, the better.”

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