It’s Friday afternoon on a sunny, dry weekend, and a bleak, slate-grey sky looms forebodingly above as we creep along a windy stretch of road that burrows deep into the Santa Ana mountains. Splayed an hour southeast of LA, these dusty hills are one of California’s most haunted sites, plagued by decades of ghost sightings and other sphincter-loosening paranormal activity dating back to the early 1800s. Urban legends fix the area as a hotspot of Satanic rituals, witch covens and cannibalism. Pulling into a blind turn, we see a lone figure plodding up the road, shrouded all in black. As we get closer, we see he’s wearing a Suicide Silence t-shirt. Yay! We made it!
Glenn Danzig couldn’t have selected a more appropriate spot for this year’s Blackest Of The Black. In years past, he’s presented it as a tour, but this year he’s gone all-out, presenting it as an ambitious two-day extravaganza of live music and horror-themed attractions. We went along for the ride…
4.00pm We head towards the entrance to the grounds, passing a dour-faced group of security guards surrounding a table that looks like something out of our dad’s workshop. “What’s all that?” we ask a guard. “This is the stuff we’ve confiscated so far,” he replies.
4.10pm We inspect the contraband. It includes numerous screwdrivers, barbed wire, some hammers, a rubber mallet, a baseball bat and a goddamn axe. But most troubling is the giant jar of pickles in the middle of the table. Mind you, the festival only opened 10 minutes ago.
4.15pm Passing through the steel turnstiles, a ginormous tree stands before us from which dangles an impressive array of bloody prosthetic body parts and mutilated corpses. Beneath this disquieting backdrop, a dad joyfully snaps a photo of his young daughter, who’s throwing the horns in front of a naked, disembowelled woman hanging from the tree by a noose.
4.20pm At the far end of a sprawling pitch, two stages sit side-by-side, abutted by a shady grove of tables and chairs, with the perimeter marked by beer shacks, food trucks and clothing stands. Next to the beer guys, the American fast food institution Weinerschnitzel commands the most popular tent as they’re giving away free food and baseball hats that say, ‘I Love Weiners’.
4.30pm On the opposite side of the ground, we see a gaggle of performers in paint, piercings and bondage gear luring passers-by to the festival’s freakshow, where a girl with purple hair sits on a large box, shooting red paint out of a long cylindrical cannon. Rest assured, we’ll circle back here later.
5.00pm 3teeth kick off the music with a swarm of industrialised riffs and gothy bravado that, while delighting the early wave of festival- goers, strongly suggests they are not unfamiliar with the works of Marilyn Manson.
5.25pm We’d be happy standing next to the vaping booth all day, drinking in the aromatic scents of chemicals flavoured like ‘Pineapple Upside-Down Cake’ and ‘Unicorn Blood’.
5.46pm The Butcher Babies are in full swing. A pit opens up and in the ensuing squall we nearly miss the shirtless bloke with a giant steel hook inserted through his nose and out of his mouth. The hook is connected to a chain that he gleefully pulls while wildly leaping up and down.
6.15pm Suicide Silence draw the loudest greeting of the day so far, and their set includes several tracks from their new, much-criticised album. The vocals on Run are well off, but the crowd doesn’t seem to notice, or at least mind.
6.22pm It’s time for the day’s first wall of death, which ultimately turns out to be 20 people clumsily bumping into each other at half speed. No injuries reported.
7.00pm As if trying to push any stray beams of sunshine back behind the clouds, post-black metallers Deafheaven pile into a fiercely brooding set that includes Brought To The Water and fan-favourite Sunbather.
7.30pm The queue of fans for Danzig’s meet- and-greet began an hour before the appointed time, and now stretches back 100 metres. These deals often morph into a blur of impersonal handshakes and rapid-fire autographs, but Danzig sticks around for two hours to chat with all of them. A very cool testament to the mutual respect between the man and his fans.
7.40pm Stoke-on-Trent’s Discharge unleash a shirt- ripping, mosh-swarming, bare-knuckled punch-up of old- school punk as they celebrate 40 years of flipping a middle finger at the Establishment. “This one’s going out to the police backstage, eating all the bands’ food,” sneers frontman Jeff ‘JJ’ Janiak, before launching into State Violence State Control.
7.55pm Blame it on the ghosts or, better yet, the surrounding mountains, but there’s virtually zero mobile reception out here. While annoying at first, this quickly becomes a welcome development. Scanning the crowd, we hardly see anybody with their faces glued to their phones. People are paying attention to the music, enjoying the attractions and actually talking to each other. They should hold more festivals here.
8.30pm Corrosion Of Conformity are absolutely killing it. Two visibly intoxicated people sloppily make out during Who’s Got The Fire.
8.42pm We’ve got to believe that all of the animals living in the hills around us are loving CoC as much as we are. Especially the coyotes. They seem like CoC types.
9.30pm The day closes with Suicidal Tendencies, whose pugnacious frontman Mike Muir leads them through frenetic skate-thrash anthems such as You Can’t Bring Me Down, Possessed To Skate and I Saw Your Mommy.
9.32pm We gaze up at the spotlight above the ground and behold a gigantic bat cruise by. Apparently everybody around here knows this is the place to be.
1pmDay Two brings sun, more freaks and nearly double the attendance. Milling about backstage, we spy Burton C. Bell and Dino Cazares from Fear Factory, as well as Testament frontman Chuck Billy and Volbeat shredder Rob Caggiano.
1.30pm Ritual, Ghoul and Combichrist start off the day with a triple dose of urgent, neck- taxing performances that leave us loose, sweaty and ready for a break. It’s time for the freakshow.
3pm As one goes through life, they will inevitably experience things that they desperately wish they could un-see. This feeling overtakes us as we roll up to the festival’s outlandish exhibition.
3.10pm A noisy crowd has amassed behind the fence to see a man with meat hooks through the skin of his back being suspended high above a sacrificial altar. Punters cheer, grimace and squirm, but the spectacle is positively mesmerising. Sensing that he has the crowd’s full attention, the bloke on the hooks begins flopping about like a tuna on the deck of a boat. It is both horrifying and glorious to behold.
3.15pm Other oddities are unfolding around us, including a bondage queen whipping the bare red arse of a hulking bald man bent over an electric chair, another young woman riding a guy in a gimp mask like a horse, and a gangly dude dropping three-foot swords down his throat.
3.20pm The only thing that can balance us out is the sight of the Butcher Babies’ Heidi Shepherd and Henry Flury spinning happily above us on the enormous, twirling swing ride.
3.30pm Underscoring the cavernous distances between genres this weekend, Devildriver unleash a thick and gooey set of groove metal…
4.10pm … followed by a pummelling onslaught of grimy, bulletbelt-friendly black metal from Marduk.
4.36pm If we thought things had reached a tipping point of weirdness, we’d be dead wrong. Halfway through Marduk’s set, the Wienerschnitzel mascot – a guy wearing an eight-foot hot dog costume – storms into the photo pit and begins dancing about in front of the band. The corpsepainted veterans try their damndest to ignore the giant hot dog gyrating in front of them, until frontman Mortuus finally growls, “Somebody kill that fucking guy!”
4.49pm Fortunately, the wiener got out safely. And for everybody who read that and said to themselves, “That’s what she said,” you’re welcome.
5.40pm UFC fighter Josh Barnett hops onstage with local heroes Atreyu and jubilantly hoists guitarist Dan Jacobs into the air as he continues shredding.
6.30pm We pass an enthusiastic girl with black Xs taped over her nipples, banging a nail into her nose. Standard.
6.40pm Japan’s Vamps follow that with a seething industrial-tinged set, under the steely-eyed command of their stupidly charismatic frontman, Hyde.
7.40pm Age-defying Al Jourgensen takes the stage with Ministry, looking every bit as menacing and unpredictable as he did 25 years ago. They unleash a typically ear-pummelling set that sees them joined by Burton C. Bell and debuting a new song, Antifa, that’s expected to appear on their upcoming new album.
8.55pm Finally, with a half-moon hanging high over the mountains and a spectral chill in the air, it’s time for the man behind the blackness. Yesterday, Danzig released his latest album, Black Laden Crown, and tonight his set includes both new songs and classics, including Godless, Black Mass, Mother and encores She Rides and Am I Demon. For 90 minutes, the fans lose their collective minds, singing, dancing and caterwauling Danzig’s name between songs with almost religious fervour.
10.30pm As the festival eventually reaches its sweat-drenched, horn-throwing conclusion, there is nothing left of either artist or audience. Exceedingly well-organised, stacked with a mind-expanding array of artists and offering plenty of weird and entertaining diversions, Blackest Of The Black has kicked off the summer festival season with a roar. We’re already gearing up for next year. But a word to the wise: leave the giant pickle jar at home.
Danzig’s 11th album, Black Laden Crown, is out now via AFM Records
Photos: Stephanie Cabral
Glenn Danzig explains why he created this twisted carnival of the bizarre
This was a pretty wild weekend! How do you think it went?
Danzig: “Well, it was the first year we did a two- day festival, and I think we did pretty good. The attendance surprised me – it was a lot more than I expected – so I’m happy. The bands loved it. The guys from Venom came up to me and told me how much they liked it, and how much it was like a European festival, as opposed to an American festival, which made me happy.”
What did you want to deliver that you felt other US festivals lacked?
“Look at the line-up. You’d never see those bands on a US festival. They’re not corporate, big-label bands. A lot of these bands aren’t getting the recognition that they deserve because they may not be the Top 10 or Top 20 darlings of the day. So hopefully I can change that, because there are so many bands that deserve to be on a big stage.”
What about these particular bands made them right for the festival?
“You have to have a certain amount of cred. And for me, I have to feel like a band is saying something. Like, Deafheaven are controversial, but I think they have something to say, and it may not be everybody’s cup of tea, but I think it’s obviously a lot of people’s cup of tea.”
Did you have any idea of the area’s haunted history, like the ghosts, massacres and pagan rituals?
“You know, someone had mentioned it to me, but it didn’t really stick in my head, because so many places in California are haunted. But that wasn’t a reason that I picked that location; we just felt it was the best. That other stuff is just an added perk. Ha ha!”
How involved were you with the freakshow attractions?
“The promoter used to be one of my co-managers a long time ago in the 90s. I wanted to have a freakshow, and he said, ‘What about a roaming freakshow?’ I said, ‘That would be great!’ Ha ha! I wanted it to be like a dark carnival. It turned out pretty cool and people dug it.”
At the confiscated items table, we saw a jar of pickles. Any idea what that was about?
“I have no idea! Why not just ask someone, ‘Can I bring these pickles in?’ Why try to smuggle them in? Unless they’re filled with poison…”