Friday, July 6, 2018

Fire in the Mountains - A Review, Photo Journal, and Thought Piece

Metal festivals are all alike; each metal festival is metal in it's own way.  Tolstoy said that (or something quite similar), and this quote found its way into my head during my two days at Fire in the Mountains, a metal fest situated about thirty miles outside Jackson, Wyoming.  This year's edition of Fire in the Mountains marked my sixth ever music festival, and third metal specific fest after the twelfth and fourteenth editions of Maryland Deathfest.  Fire in the Mountains was appealing to me for its lineup (Panopticon, Falls of Rauros, Wayfarer, Krallice, and more), its location (the Grand Tetons are RIGHT there), and its proximity to my home (six and a half hours, give or take).  So with my trusty sidekick (my buddy Bryce) in tow, I headed toward the mountains to see whether a new festival was establishing itself or coming in DOA.

A few logistics first.  Fire in the Mountains was being held at Heart Six Ranch, a working, all-inclusive dude ranch just outside Moran, WY.  While there are cabins and cottages at Heart Six, attendees at FITM camped on patches of grass on the outskirts of the ranch.  As an Eagle Scout and avid camper, this situation suited me just fine, even if the parking was about a mile away from the campground.  There was a loading/unloading area closer to the campgrounds though, so it was easy to drive up, unload, drive back to parking, walk back to camp, and set up.  Bryce and I arrived around 10am on Saturday morning.  The first band of the day (Aerial Ruin) wasn't slated to go on until 4, so we set up camp and got to know our fellow campers.

For two Eagle Scouts, we were awfully proud of ourselves

If you've ever been to a metal festival, hopefully you have the same takeaway I do and feel that metal fans are a great group, and the more of them you meet and interact with at a fest, the happier you'll be.  This was certainly the case at FITM.  We met people from all over the USA, from New Jersey to California and everywhere in between.  We also happened to be sharing a campground with many of the bands performing, which meant we got to chat with Austin Lunn from Panopticon, Ray Capizzo from Falls of Rauros/Panopticon, and many other band members.  It was a super cool experience, and I felt super lucky to be where I was, but I do also want to mention that all of the bands at Fire in the Mountain were super accessible anytime they weren't onstage; I continually saw bands talking to fans and festival goers, which definitely added to the intimate nature of the fest.

After hanging out at camp for a bit, we headed down to the festival venue, which was a large field located right next to the Buffalo Fork River.  The fest had a few merch tents set up, as well as two drink tents (one from Roadhouse Brewing, the other some sort of frozen liquor concoctions) and a food truck from Sagebrush Grill.  On Saturday we ate the festival's barbecue, which was potato salad, a mixed greens salad, and pulled pork that had been slaughtered the previous day at a local farm.  Fire in the Mountains was very big on going local, and that attention to the local businesses definitely showed.  I don't remember what farm the pulled pork came from, but it was very good.  Sunday I got food from Sagebrush Grill, and while the bacon jam and mixed greens grilled cheese was delightful, the star was undoubtedly the elotes, little corn fritters fried with cheese and chili.  Bryce and I went through three orders of them in about a half hour.  I stayed away from the liquor, but sampled all of Roadhouse's four beers; the Mountain Metal Hazy IPA quickly became my go to for the weekend.  We also discovered that sustainability was the name of the game, and the drink vendors were happy to fill any cup so long as it was plastic and recyclable, which soon lead to the 32oz draft pour...

Sweet, sweet nectar

Aerial Ruin lead off Saturday's music.  The one-man project of Erik Moggridge, Aerial Ruin featured Moggridge alone on stage with an acoustic guitar and a looping effects pedal.  The music was folky, inspired, and passionate, and it definitely fit a sunny afternoon in the mountains with a cool breeze blowing.  I tend to have a hard time with bands that depend on loop pedals for their live performances, and Aerial Ruin was no exception, but that's my problem, not his, and overall I very much enjoyed the set.  Velnias, a band I was not familiar with, played next; I remember enjoying them, but the notes I took at the time just say "YES! Check out band more!" so I'm definitely looking forward to doing so and Memento-ing why I enjoyed them so much.

Maine's Falls of Rauros played what I would consider my favorite set of the weekend.  Their atmospheric, melodic take on black metal scratches every one of my itches, and seeing it live has been something I've looked forward to for awhile.  The sound, after a few hiccups, was crystal clear, and the band did not lack energy.  This is when the crowd, myself included, really started getting into the music of the fest, and the energy became palpable. They even played "Waxen Voices," my favorite song of theirs, which was super cool to see.  Colorado's Wayfarer followed with aplomb, matching the energy of Falls of Rauros and contributing their black metal to the masses.  Wayfarer has been involved with Fire in the Mountains from the beginning, so it was great to see them onstage as the festival made its leap from underground local sensation to national festival.  The sun was starting to head for the mountains during their set, and the two bonfires were lit next to the stage, officially bringing the fire to the mountains.  I hazily remember thinking it was a perfect moment.

Falls of Rauros, killin' it

Wayfarer.  Maybe the coolest pic I've ever taken

Wovenhand headlined Saturday night, and it was beautiful.  They were the first band to get lights, and by this time it was dark enough that the effect of the lights and the fires were quite stunning.  I've seen Wovenhand once before, and it wasn't really my thing; I'd hoped the atmosphere in the mountains would change that... but to no avail.  The atmosphere was terrific, but I just don't think I'm fond of the band or their music.  After Wovenhand played, the bonfires kept burning, allowing everyone to keep chatting and hanging out.  As I got to know more of my fellow festival-goers, one of the constants I kept running into was how much everyone I spoke with loved Wovenhand.  So maybe it's just me.  After a few hours at the campfires, running on three hours of sleep, Bryce and I packed it in, because we had a big morning planned.

I may not dig it, but the dude can vibe

If you're not turned on right now, I don't want you reading our blog

The highlight of the weekend arrived on Sunday, as Bryce and I drove about a half hour to Grand Teton National Park, where we embarked on a hike up the majestic Tetons.  All told, we hiked a little under five miles up the mountain, ascending close to 3000 feet in the process.  It was tough going at times, but the experience was absolutely worth it.  The views were breathtaking, seeing deep snow on the first day of July was incredible, and just being there, surrounded by the birds and animals and the sky, was as powerful and impactful as any of the bands that played.  Maybe more so.  The opportunities to experience this nature afforded to guest by Fire in the Mountain were a big part of its allure; Grand Teton National Park is about a half hour away from Heart Six ranch, and Yellowstone is about forty minutes in the other direction.  When contrasted with the typical urban environments of a lot of (most) metal festivals, it's a stark comparison, and one that gives the edge to FITM.

This was halfway up, when we were only half-covered in sweat feeling fat

On our way down, we briefly considered hunting him for sustenance 

After the hike, we made it back to the ranch for Sunday's music, which was to be just as great as Saturday's.  Boise's own Infernal Coil opened things up with their raw, driving black metal, before giving way to Saddle of Southern Darkness, as twangy country outfit complete with an upright bass.  As I sipped my Mountain Metal Hazy IPA (so good), I contemplated that these two bands really represented the bookends of the festival in some ways, that they were the two large circles of the venn diagram, with the rest of the lineup filling in the overlap.  I then contemplated that perhaps I should eat more food before I start drinking hoppy beers after hiking nine and a half miles up and down a mountain.

How cool is this motherfucker?! Ice cold

Woman is the Earth played next, and they were my surprise of the festival.  I had never heard of the band before Fire in the Mountains, but they blew me away.  Their melodic, atmospheric black metal was expansive and powerful enough to seemingly fill the entirety of the valley we were in, while also being serene enough to bring the intimate crowd even closer together.  I bought their second LP, Torch of Our Final Night from their merch tent, and I've been listening to it all week.  Definitely a band to keep an eye on.

Majestic AF, am I right?

From there on, we were into the heavyweights.  Denver's Dreadnought, maker of Mick's favorite album from last year, came on and slayed, blending their proggy influences with dynamic waves and harsh metal.  I owe vocalist/guitarist/floutist Kelly Schilling an apology; I didn't think there was any way she would be able to replicate her incredible range from Bridging Realms and A Wake in Sacred Waves live, but HOLY FUCK was I wrong.  She was absolutely incredible, and as the band played "Vacant Sea," the first track from A Wake..., I was instantly transfixed, a state in which I continued to operate for the remainder of their set.

I don't want to do a snarky caption for this, because it was way, way too good

Krallice were next, and man, they did not disappoint.  My first Krallice album was 2009's seminal Diotima, and seeing them live for the first time was just like hearing that record for the first time all those years ago.  Blistering, technical, and powerful, Krallice was a force to behold.  I randomly checked Encyclopedia Metallum to refresh myself on the pedigrees of Krallice's members, and godDAMN.  They are absolutely the sum of their parts and then some.

JJ Abrams borrowed my phone for this; sorry for the lens flare

And then the big fire in the sky went below the tree line...

Finally, it was time for Panopticon.  I've wanted to see this band for so long, and to finally get the chance was something very, very special.  Much like the pictures I posted of my hike, I do not see how my words can do what I saw justice.  Austin Lunn and the rest of the band are mesmerizing in their performance.  A lot of times when bands play, especially at festivals with abbreviated set times, there can be a tendency to moan "I wish they'd played [song] instead..." Panopticon didn't play a single one of my absolute favorite songs, and it couldn't have mattered less.  This is a band that gets it, that deserves every single accolade they receive, and that is well worth traveling hours to see.  Playing with the same light and fire set up that Wovenhand had the night before, Panopticon delivered in spades, closing down Fire in the Mountains memorably.

If you play a Panopticon song while looking at this picture, you'll get chills

For as much as I enjoyed Fire in the Mountains, there was one issue I hope festival organizers take the time to address.  Most importantly, there were myriad, continuous issues with sound, forcing a number of bands to abruptly abandon songs and restart them (Panopticon eventually decided "Fuck it; we'll do it without monitors).  For being in an open field with absolutely no acoustics to speak of, the sound was generally very good, but I wonder if taking an additional five to ten minutes between bands to nail it down would have been a better option than having bands start and stop.  It's a small thing, to be sure, and it certainly had very little bearing on my enjoyment of the festival, but when everything else ran so smoothly and was so enjoyable, the tiny things that nag tend to stick out.

I've been to two Maryland Deathfests, two Lollapaloozas, and one Bonnaroo.  Recency bias is a very real thing that I have found myself very guilty of; my year end lists are populated by albums that I rarely visit anymore, replaced by other records from those years.  That being said, Fire in the Mountains is unlike any other music festival I've ever attended, special and deeper and somehow more profound.  I've never felt a sense of centering and peace like I felt departing Heart Six Ranch on Sunday morning.  Maybe it was the mountains and fresh air, maybe it was finally seeing a handful of bands I've waited to see for awhile, maybe it was constantly having to be bear aware.  Whatever it is, Fire in the Mountains is the best, most special music festival I've ever attended.  The expanse of the wide open venue field, coupled with the intimate crowd, with the mountains in the background, among the friendly metalheads... all of it came together to create something perfect.  And I didn't even talk about the friendly staff.  I understand that not everyone can access the middle of nowhere; I also understand that camping is not everyone's cup of tea.  But should they hold Fire in the Mountains again next year, I strongly encourage everyone to make their way to the wilderness, set up camp, climb some mountains, and rock the fuck out.  You'll go back to the world better for it, I promise.

After we set up camp, Bryce may or may not have napped the entire festival, like a goddamn boss

- Durf

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