On the 25th and 26th of September, something incredible happened. Something magickal and special with hints of sinister and Satanic; something that brought together kindred souls from all over and stirred many to their core. Something that allowed us all to shake off our troubles and be free, unguarded, and at one with nature and each other. Something that was so amazing an experience that I'm certainly not the only one who hopes to re-live it in future years.
That something was Shadow Woods Metal Fest.
A few miles away from one of the places where Pennsylvania and Maryland meet lay a hidden patch of black metal paradise. Lush with a legion of trees, plants and flowers scattered across rolling hills of rich forest floor, the "venue" was an idyllic accommodation for the myriad of talented metal ensembles spanning genres from black, doom, and death to folk. Even a few experimental acts were set to appear during this full weekend of metal, which resonated throughout the grounds from noon to around nine or ten in the evening on Friday and Saturday.
There were also several vendors, vegan-friendly eats, refreshments and a few interesting workshops including one centering around Elder Futhark runes (if you're a fellow witch then it's likely you're familiar with these) as well as morning yoga set to a metal soundtrack. As icing on the proverbial metal cake, hidden in the woods along the path to one of the stages was a small chapel that had been transfigured into a quite beautifully decorated and fully occult-ified altar space for those who wanted to capitalize on the rich energy that hung palpably in the air.
After having some technical difficulties involving a shortcut gone wrong and faulty GPS, I arrived a bit behind schedule at around 5 pm. Kicking myself for missing nearly the whole first round of impressive bands - among them were Slagstorm, Black Table and Heavy Temple - I fought through the pains of loss and took a moment to check out the sprawling acres of Shadow Woods.
The landscape was indeed beautiful and Mother Nature seemed to give Her blessing to us all by providing us with remarkably obliging weather and excellent acoustics (though I firmly believe there is no venue in all the world more acoustically perfect than a dense forest nestled in rolling hills or mountains).
One of the most remarkable aspects of this festival, however, was the people in attendance. Festival founder Mary Spiro's executive decision to limit the number of tickets available to roughly 350 or so was indeed a wise one; the grounds were populated and busy enough to exude an authentic festival feel, but not insomuch as to make it claustrophobic or impersonal in any way. Everyone walked about at their leisure with countenances of unspoken understanding between one another. Many of the attendees being musicians themselves, along with a mixed bag of people involved in local metal from all over the East Coast and some very devoted, seasoned festival-goers made for a supremely pleasant and almost ethereal atmosphere of mutual respect and love of metal.
It is at gatherings like these where real magick is bound to happen. And happen it did - not only among attendees, but on the three masterfully crafted stages and within every square inch of the camp. Metal heads and musicians sat by firesides, stood stoically, stumbled down paths after dark and stirred up pits together. There were those who consorted by the cabins, others who hopped among the many tents scattered around the perimeter or tucked away in the surrounding forest. To my knowledge, not a single unfortunate event occurred throughout the weekend. Not one fight, not one mishap, not one unpleasant incident. From what I was able to gather and observe, everyone there had an incredible time.
Yet more incontrovertible proof that metal heads are good people, despite what a few crazy "Christians" might say about us. (No offense intended to actual Christians who realize that you can be religious and a decent human being, of course.)
On Friday eve after settling in and checking out some of the last few bands of the day, I found myself totally drained and exhausted from the three-hour car trek to White Hall, slightly exacerbated by the weight of the pack I was carrying. Darkness had fallen, but I still had time to catch Occultation at the Woods stage, which was a long, winding dirt path away from the main traffic areas. Even though it was a blind, stumbling sort of walk with only the flashlights of more aptly prepared show-goers to see by, it was worth it once I reached the end of the trail. With no time to spare, the path's end revealed the stage enveloped in a blood red glow, hedged by trees and mountain plants with a hidden moon somewhere beyond the reaches of the canopy. That marvelous smell campfires produce hung thick in the air, amplified by the synthetic fog that also broadened the reach of the stage lighting. Hauntingly broody vocals swelled to the dark and doom-ish riffs that reverberated throughout the land and traveled from hill to hill.
In short, it was an extremely brutal setting and the experience was - without a shadow of a doubt - metal as fuck.
In truth, had I surveyed the lot myself before SWMF was even dreamed up, I doubt I would have been able to pull together a European-style open air metal festival as perfectly as Mary Spiro was able to. Everything, everything was thought of... down to the vendors, the transport, the schedules, the stages and decor. It must have been a monumental undertaking and once again I applaud her for those efforts and for making such an amazing event even possible.
Near to the end of that last set of the evening and kicking myself for not having worked out more (not to mention for possessing the speed and stamina of a box turtle), I holed up by the fire nearest the property's edge which afforded one the ability to hear (astonishingly clearly, in fact) the music from all three stages from a more secluded environment.
Even though each stage was intimate in its own way whilst also being spacious enough to fit a comfortable crowd, it was impressive how the sound resonated both through the depths of the earth beneath and how it filled it air surrounding the site. No matter where you walked during the afternoon/evening hours, you could not only hear metal.. you could feel it. Keenly. Here again was more evidence of the magick (or whatever you choose to call it) that was hard at work.
It was about that time that I met a few new friends. If only I had better memory - or even just the same amount of brain cells I had prior to procreating two years ago - I would have remembered all their names. An awesome and hilarious woman with bright red hair from way, way up north was one, two gents from NY (one with impressive dreads, the other with an impressive beard albeit impressive beards certainly weren't in short supply that weekend) that I wish I had exchanged info with to meet up at future festivals since were particularly good at making the most of it all. Even Occultation stopped by for a while that night and the next morning! I recall having some good conversations with at least two of the members and (hopefully) provided them with a satisfactory fireside band photo somewhere in there.
I bumbled into a cabin that could very honestly pass as a four-star accommodation around my neck of the woods. There were plenty of bunk beds in not-to-shabby condition, minimal bugs, adequate insulation and even nicely installed windows. Exhausted, awfully bummed about missing Slagstorm, Heavy Temple and Black Table, yet still having a hell of a great time, I drifted off a bit on the early side (if you consider 2:30am early) to try and get a head start the next day.
Despite sleeping somewhat rough due to being less than prepared with only a small throw blanket and a jacket to keep me warm and away from bugs, the morning was otherworldly... the rising sun always seems to cast its light in such a way that makes everything warmer, invigorated. Auras usually hidden can be seen plainly and clearly. There's a deep sense of peace in the air, especially when one is outdoors in the thick of bush, bramble and birdsong from the trees. Even the wildlife feels the inexplicable harmony, emboldening even the most skittish of bunnies or the most wary of frogs to venture out into the sunlight - in this case, a great many metal heads (some, I'm sure, with hangovers of epic proportion) were waking up among them.
I stoked the morning fires first thing in the company of a frog who happily warmed himself on a nearby rock. One by one, people began to stir and a few new friends found their way back to the fire where we spent the morning nibbling whatever we had at hand. Some took advantage of the breakfast sandwiches they were serving at the Hall; many wasted no time in cracking open the first beer of the day, courtesy of one of the incredible vendors who very generously supplied several complimentary drinks to attendees out of the pure goodness of their hearts.
The music didn't begin until 1pm after it was announced a band had to drop and the time was bumped up an hour, which left plenty of time for all to fully waken and shake off the comfortable sluggishness that I'm sure many felt that morning. A few of us sat around, talked and lazed in the fire's warmth. A handful of brave souls showered in bitter cold water on an already chilly morning.
As the time came for the bands to begin, I did my best to try and keep up. The odds were stacked against me if I wanted to catch every single set as many bands overlapped on this day at different stages. It kept you on your toes and made it so that no matter where you stood, you heard metal loud and clear. It bounced off the trees and shook the earth. It completely enveloped you, became you... if you weren't so already. You literally became more metal by being in the proximity of Shadow Woods.
I know of at least two babies, one who's yet to be born, that will be metal as fuck for the rest of their lives simply because they attended SWMF with their metal mommies. ;)
My phone was apparently in no condition for pictures as it lacked both memory and battery, however there was an extraordinarily dedicated and talented photographer there that managed to catch most of the bands both days. I will link to his gallery as soon as I can locate him and/or remember what his name was... I'm embarrasingly terrible with names!
What I do know is that as far as Saturday went, virtually every band was stone solid and each performed a good set. There were, however, a handful of bands that were particularly notable in my most humble opinion. The first of which being Snakefeast.
Typically, the mark of a good musician/band is when they think of everything. Not just everything in terms of how they write their songs, but everything from how they name or present themselves down to what they wear, what props they will use or how the stage will be lit and interweaving it all to enhance the impact of what's most important - the music and what it means to the creator and the listener.
Dweller in the Valley is another band that understands this concept and executes it quite well. This particular weekend, however, was my first Snakefeast experience and without a shadow of a doubt, they fully comprehend what it takes to make such an experience truly transcendent.
I arrived to the Woods stage (the perfect setting for a band like this, as Mary no doubt must have known) to find it adorned in a vast and varied collection of animal bones, edging around the stage floor and dressing elements of the instruments (drums, mic stands) along with a staff embellished in a similar manner leaning against a speaker. Evilly lit and perfectly set, the band took their places and the vocalist appeared in full ritual regalia - hooded cloak, bone circlet and belt, barefoot with staff in hand.
It was the perfect embodiment of an ancient pagan ritual. The drums acted as the cauldron, the center from which the swells swirled forth, driving the deep, despairing notes being harmoniously yet also with an ominously pleasing discord brought forth from the other equally powerful ritual elements (the vocals, guitar, et cetera). Each person performed with passion delivered straight from the depths out of which they summoned their inspiration. I daresay it was one of the most artistically beautiful performances of the weekend.
As aforementioned, Dweller in the Valley was an equal pleasure for much of the same reasons, albeit theirs was a more enthused and energetic set that compelled several to start a pit despite the difficulty presented by the position of the benches to the stage. They managed somehow to maintain a high level of energy to their sound while losing none of the darkness or the heavy, and they were one of the few bands there that I thoroughly enjoyed from start to finish. They never once lost momentum and it was clear just by listening and watching that the sheer amount of thought and soul poured into their creations was immeasurable. From my perspective, I heard not a single flaw in their entire performance.
The next band, Unsacred, I remember as being one of the most impressive of the weekend also makes me a little sad to think back on. Nothing bad happened to them during their set, and in my opinion they were extremely talented and their technical execution was without fault. However, when it was over, they didn't exactly get the reception they deserved... hardly anyone applauded them. Myself and my new photographer friend were positively dumbfounded as to why.
They put on a good set, but what was truly remarkable about them was the drummer. I couldn't take my eyes off him - and no, it wasn't because I was attracted to him (although he was certainly very attractive, I just happen to be quite happily married to a hot drummer of my own). It was because he was fucking brilliant on that kit.
This man behind the drums was relentlessly barreling those babies at breakneck pace for nearly an hour and hardly broke a sweat. He made it look like blast beats were the easiest fucking thing in the world; time/tempo changes were nothing at all. He looked about as casual and carefree as if he were sitting at home on a day off, yet his arms and legs seemed to almost exist in another dimension at the rate of which they pummeled onward. He was unbelievably incredible.
Then again, the fact that I don't remember much of the other musicians might be an indicator of why there wasn't more applause. In all honesty though, I recall it being an enjoyable set. I also recall there being a wave of exhaustion overcoming several fest-goers around that same time. It's entirely possible that they just wrapped at a bad time.
Whatever the case, they were absolutely underrated and I hope they go on to experience the kind of reception they really deserve. Perhaps even at next year's festival, should there be one (which I am certainly hoping is the case)!
Sangharsha, who took the stage on Friday, was another great performance that everyone at the Hall stage had a blast experiencing. Iron Man was a really fun band, and a welcome little shift into classic metal territory during the mostly black/death metal lineup. I only wish their set had been a little longer! Out of all the bands there, they were the most adept in engaging the crowd. Any musician can learn a lot from watching them do their thing, for they have clearly read the book on how to do the whole "stage presence" thing proper.
Wrath of Typhon, Existentium, Sentience, and The Osedax were all brilliant as well.
There was something to love about nearly every band that played that weekend. There was one, however, that left me feeling a slight bit disappointed.. as much as it pains me to say so. That band was Wormreich. Mind you, it could have been faulty equipment or a flawed sound setup, but theirs seemed a somewhat sloppy and incoherent set from my vantage point. They played the Hall stage which up to that point had proved to be an acoustically friendly spot for other bands before them, but during their set it was near impossible for me to make anything out. Perhaps they were turned up a bit too high or something, or perhaps my ears were already too battered from standing too close to the Field stage speakers.
I can't say with certainty that they performed badly, especially since they did do well at least in handling themselves in front of the crowd. In terms of the sound, for that set in particular, I didn't perceive anything remarkable out of it. It baffles me since I have heard their recorded work and enjoyed it... I simply didn't have the same experience live.
I also regret not seeing Midnight, which was the second to last act of the festival and a band that almost everyone I spoke to was looking forward to catching. Thanks to some pretty severe pain brought on by an arthritis flare-up (mixed with not being used to toting 80-some pounds around on my back and walking around for an entire day nonstop), I could stay no longer despite wanting never to leave.
It would be a long, grueling three hour drive home... but it was worth every moment of it.
Since then, I was compelled to unplug for a few days and just take in all there was to process about the experience... which itself was rich, full, and fulfilling in every possible aspect. It was all it had promised to be and more, and I fervently hope that it'll be possible again next year. I've every intent on doing my part to ensure the ones that run SWMF have the help and resources they need to pull it all off for a second time... and I know I'm not alone in those feelings.
I apologize for the lateness of this. Rightfully this should have been posted immediately after I returned, but life happened and apparently it felt like slapping me around these past couple of weeks. I hope it is better late than never.
Overall, Shadow Woods Metal Fest was the experience of a lifetime. Over the years if it continues, it will surely grow larger and larger.. but if the ones in charge remain there, they'll manage a way to maintain that close-knit feel for at least the first, oh, decade or so if we're fortunate! If those of us that enjoyed that historic weekend all pull something together to ensure they have what they need to make it happen again, it will... and I have a feeling they're on to something big.
Thank you, Mary Spiro, for giving us so much more than a metal festival. It'll live on in the memories of all who attended, and we'll all be anxiously awaiting to hear when our next opportunity is to relive it.
*Bear with me... having a great deal of technical difficulties and was unable to extract pictures from my phone taken at the event. I'm hunting around for photos of the event and/or my photographer friend I met there. If you have any pictures from Shadow Woods, please send them along and I'll feature them here and credit you.
**This feature is still in progress due to an insanely busier-than-normal schedule, keep checking back for updates!