Necrofier, Night Cobra, and the new king of the Texas Metal Domain hits the site.
Words by Jake Sanders (@themetalscholar):
The wind whips a hot fury against the faces of a few patient metalheads, eagerly awaiting the start of the second day at White Oak Music Hall, in Houston, Texas. People burst through doors, and carry crates marked with easily-recognizable band logos back and forth, a stealthily buried setup for a well-organized music festival that starts bright and early, and goes until the candles burn low.
A door pops open behind us, the sound of an energetic warm-up taking place just below, as the man at the wheel, and behind the curtain, steps onto the balcony of his kingdom to meet with us. He's been up for hours, but he's fresh as a daisy; having just watched him casually soundcheck amidst joyous laughter, and the greetings of old friends, he still has time to wave warmly to us as we flood light into his darkened playground,
He's the one and only Christian ‘Bakka’ Larson, a workhorse of the underground metal scene for decades, the front man behind such notable acts as Night Cobra, Necrofier, Graven Rite, and a formidable presence in the ranks of both Venomous Maximus, and Eternal Champion. Today, though — his vision is once again coming to life in the form of a rapidly expanding metal microcosm in the north of Houston's sprawling center, a grey paneled cube boasting two indoor venues, and a massive outdoor amphitheater. His agenda for the day? Bring home the long awaited fourth iteration of Hell's Heroes, a festival that flourishes and revels in the war-torn battlefield of Trad Metal, a pillar to the ancient gods of the scene.
We're not talking a surface-level appreciation, either. Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, and Motörhead are merely ghosts of the past on this astral plane. Here, the heroes of the day are the ones who die-hard fans have clamored for, for years. Rowdy heathens that came up in the vicious back alleys of the Metal scene, out for blood, and glory, and anything else they can scrape off the pavement.
They go by names like Candlemass, Cirith Ungol, Dark Angel, Riot V, Exciter, and Helstar. They carry the torch of modern Trad Metal, and there are no better representatives. Humble, and honored, jacket-clad headbangers around the world recognize their power and gravitas, and gather in intimate outings regularly to experience the feeling of capturing victory in a bottle that flows with liquidity from the frets and kits of these veterans of the scene.
Knowing all too well that such occasions only arrive so often, I've come to mark the event with a face-to-face encounter with the man who wields a scepter as his vocal weapon. We came to discover his drive, his outlook, and the geometry of music management, What we received was so much more.
Jake: First off the top here — You're currently at the wheel of the biggest extreme music festival, that has gained the most meteoric loyal following — in Texas history, at least. But why? What brought you to the notion that Texas could become a metal capital, and has its growth surprised you as much as it excites?
Christian: Well first — thanks for the kind words. I just kind of went for it. I had been trying for a while, and the first year it finally came together, it was one of those, "no one else is gonna do this. I'll try to see if I can make it happen, and see if it works." The first year did better than I thought it was going to do. Everybody that came had an amazing time. There was a sense of community. I feel, especially the traditional heavy metal scene in America... is not huge. But if everybody is together, for something great like this? *nods*
As far as city to city, there's pockets that are bigger deals. But everybody comes together and it's one big party, basically. Everybody loved it. So next year, I said, "let's try this again," and people loved it more! I'm super surprised at how much it's grown. There's people here from Europe. I think — seventy percent of the people in the fest are not from Texas.
J: We met a Scottish guy in the elevator just now, and he's like "Oooh, yer gooin tah Hell's heeeyroes lahds?"
C: *laughs* Amazing.
J: Though it's all fun and games being an attendee like me, being responsible for the growing festival is still a daily challenge. It takes that critical problem solving, spur of the moment decision making, lots of patience. What are some of the biggest speedbumps when trying to make a festival like this happen? And how much of it just comes down to ensuring good customer service?
C: We have a super amazing staff, so I couldn't do any of this without 'em. I can put a lineup together — don't get me wrong — the lineup is the first hurdle. I'm already stressing for next year. I wanna make it so everyone isn't like, "last year was so much better," you know? I trust everything with the staff, *gestures towards person next to him* and Chris (Friedman) here.
Chris is in charge of everybody, and everybody else we work with makes everything happen. We talk about it, they snap, and they execute it so well. Even most of the problems that came up since we discussed everything, they're like, "Oh, this happened."
Instead of, "this happened. WHAT THE FUCK ARE WE GONNA DO?!" It's just like, "I'm just letting you know that this happened. We've already fixed it, and it's cool." That's the best thing you can ever say to me.
J: Benefits of having a fixer on-site.
C: On stuff like this, you know there will be problems. The biggest thing is just to work through them. There's some kind of solution.
J: I could look around here and sort of surmise why networking is so important for success in a community-based industry, and event. But I want to know HOW.
How, when you're busy touring, writing, setting up and breaking down, sound-checking, driving all over, shipping merchandise! How do you find time to network?
C: "Networking" as a term that people use to try and do things — is one thing. I've been doing shows, and playing in bands for twenty years, so it just collectively came together, where I'm like "oh shit!"
John Perez (Solitude Aeturnus) is Candlemass' tour manager. I've known John forever just because he's in Texas, and because he's John. But also — my old band went on a month long tour, and he was the tour manager for another band. Stuff like that. John was walking in to everything like, "this'll be an easy day for Candlemass. Everything will be cool."
J: I know John! I saw him yesterday out by the merch booth, and I squinted to make sure, and I was like "And there's the guy who sells me records." I bug him at ‘Born Late’ Records. *laughs*
C: I don't ever look at networking as something I'm doing. Usually, I just go to hang out with someone I know, or you meet somebody, and then you start shooting the shit about something. All of a sudden, you make new friends.
If you do it with the intention of "I'm going to hang out with these guys, because I'm gonna get this." It's not wrong, but most people I meet... just to see what happens. Other things can happen, but if they become your friend — that's when, I feel, you really have a relationship with someone.
You can say, "Oh what's up? You wanna do this?" and they say "YES." I love their band, or work with them on different levels. But they'll text me like, "check out this fuckin' dude!" or something.
J: It would feel disingenuous, otherwise.
C: Yeah! Cause you can tell when dudes are like, "heeey, this is my cassette," which is FINE — it's cool. You should push your band, out there. It's different when you just naturally end up up hanging out with some people, though.
J: Sometimes you just run into the same circles, by accident.
C: Yeah, you don't know it. Sometimes you're just randomly hanging out — and they say, "this is the dude from BLAH," and you're like "whaaaat?!"
J: You've been a resident evil of Tejas for a while now. It comes with the forbidden knowledge that the state is sort of big enough to accommodate its own micro-tour.
C: YES. Yeah.
J: You've done both now. You've drawn these crowds to this show with the promise of metal, and a fun time, in an affordable place. But you've also been out there, recently, with Necrofier. You're practicing what you preach. You're going to the small towns that aren't really part of the East or West coast — they're part of the rodeo circuit.
C: *laughs* Corpus Christi, honestly is fuckin' crazy.
J: Most bands overlook it when they come through.
C: The first time we played Corpus, we did a little run with Goatwhore. I was like "how is Corpus gonna be?"
Even Sammy (Duet) was kind of, "How do you think that Corpus show is gonna be, Christian?"
I said, "I feel like it's gonna be good," and he goes, "The whole time I've been playing music, it's been hit or miss."
IT WAS FUCKING INSANE! They walked in the door, and just started buying merch. This was three months after Necrofier started, so I was just sitting at the merch table going, "okay, well we must be doing something right. Motherfuckers haven't even heard us yet and they're buying this? OKAY."
Texas has enough cities, and they're not super close, but they're spread out where you can play Austin, San Antonio, Corpus, Dallas, and Houston. That's a decent run!
J: But there's sooo many more.
C: I mean, if you want to do San Angelo, the border, and there's millions of other places. I've played McAllen, and Brownsville. James Rivera (Helstar) was like, "we're playing Eagle Lake." I'm like "... I don 't know where the fuck that is."
C: He goes, "dude — it's cool." Randomly, we couldn't make it work with our schedules, but those are just places you can play!
J: Municipal Waste was just like, "You want to do a show in Denton?! WHY NOT?"
C: Denton is a cool place to play.
J: Why should big bands do small shows in small places?
C: I feel like playing markets that people don't come to — there's a whole different reaction.
Back to Goatwhore, but Goatwhore plays every fucking city ever — including the small ones. There's other bands that you'll see do smaller towns. They're not playing the usual cities everybody plays, and they come out, and go crazy. Those show might not be as playing a major city, but those shows are usually well-attended, and those people are hungry for the show.
They go completely crazy, and they're actually happy! In some major cities, people can be jaded, and they're just like, "Impress me. We just saw ten shows this month/Week?" Where those other people are like, "this is the first show in six months. We are fucking there, and it's gonna be fun."
J: The future is in the small towns, I think.
C: It really is. Especially with people moving out of the city, some of these small towns are going insane — but a lot of 'em, the population is going up a bit, where I feel like it'll actually make it more viable.
J: I think it'll help out in the future. So — I'm gonna force your hand right now, and catch you off-guard. This is the hardest decision you're going to have to make today:
Who holds claim to the album of 1984, in your opinion? Is it... ‘Don't Break The Oath’, ‘Defenders of the Faith’, ‘Powerslave’, ‘Ride The Lightning’, or is it ‘King of the Dead’?
C: Man... That's fucked up. *laughs*
J: *points at camera-man* I TOLD YOU!!! *laughs*
C: *thinks* ‘Don't Break the Oath’. No offense to anyone else on that list!! You can't fuck with it.
J: It's so hard to pick that year.
C: It's really insane; when you're looking at someone's Facebook post, and it says, "THESE RECORDS CAME OUT IN 1984!"
All those fucking records came out in '84?! FUCK MAN! There's like twenty-five records that came out that are super classic, amazing albums, and they all came out in one fucking month.
J: It's Sophie's Choice, how can you do it?
When we interviewed last September you were talking to Luis, and you explained to him that ‘a truly great piece of art can change the way you hear an artist’, and the evidence surrounds us here.
The great bands in the business have gathered here for a celebration of sound in a world that's dominated by imagery of swords and sorcery, demons and wizards, triumph and despair. Outside this building, there's a wall adorned with a fucking MASSIVE banner from Diego Garza. It depicts an undead wretch clutching a chain bolas of skulls, riding a dark horse.
So it's clearly an important part of the experience. What were the works of art from the world of music that changed how you heard an album?
C: *nods, shrugs* Iron Maiden is one of the first ones I remember being like, "What the fuck is this band?" when I was a kid.
Everything they had. "What's with this character that's on this thing?" Megadeth a lot, as well. Vic and Eddie.
When I was twelve years old, my dad had some friends from Norway come over. His whole family came. The shortest one in the family was a daughter who was like six foot, seven inches, so it was even more hilarious an experience. But things are expensive in Norway, so their son bought probably thirty CDs. It was everything in that era.
This had to be like, 1992. I just remember seeing Megadeth, because those stand out, and they're ridiculous. I remember thinking, "what in the fuuuuck is this? I need whatever this is." At the time, I think I only listened to say, Guns N' Roses, and maybe Metallica at that point? But that was really it. I didn't even know what any of it was, or what is sounded like.
J: It's so macabre, and appealing to the touch.
C: Yeah — I'm just like *illustrates mind blown gesture*
J: I'm trying to imagine going through a Norwegian airport, and them checking it at customs. You couldn't do that now. I got stopped in Allentown for carrying a Dawnbringer vinyl in my backpack. They flagged me and said, "Sir, you've selected for random additional screening!" I was upset, I was like, "It's just a vinyl duuuude, leave me alone!"
C: Half the trips I take, I come home and I feel like I get enough vinyl that pulls my suitcase over the limit, and then I have to take it out, and truck around this bag of vinyl at the airport like, "my arm hurts!"
J: To conclude here, you have a tour with Danzig, Cradle of Filth, and Crobot that's right around the corner. By the way, I'm so stoked for that.
C: I'M SO FUCKING STOKED.
J: Lucifuge in its entirety? Come on dude — I'm so horny for that album already.
I've been waiting for Danzig to come back. Even for metalheads, that's an eclectic crowd. With so many differences in the sound, and appeal, I'm personally expecting the show of the summer out of it. But I'm fortunate enough to be familiar with Necrofier, and what you come slinging.
So to all the unknowns to have yet to inhale the group — your music, so to speak — what can they expect from you to kickstart the tour the right way?
C: Necrofier is a 90's kind of Black Metal; you know — Dissection, Dawn, kind of era. If you like Black Metal, and Heavy Metal, and things in that vein, you've got a good shot of maybe liking us?
J: On behalf of Heaviest of Art, thanks for this. See you at the show!
C: Yeah man, thank you!
What a show it was.
As the gates are swarmed, and the halls fill with ecstatic fans, locked shoulder to shoulder in glee, it's clear that this festival had more at stake than just a good time. For many, this is their first outing in two years; the loneliness and isolation of a waning pandemic has made the scene a tentative place, with the threat of cancellations, and more postponed tours just a news report away from catastrophe.
But not this day.
In the pits of Houston, friends are reunited. The familiar songs of cherished albums reverberate from one end to the other, opening a portal through the middle of the crowd that houses moshing, crowd-surfing, dancing, and even some cosplay. It's a jovial display of the absurdity of our community — a sign that hope is on the horizon, and a chance for everyone to exhale the despair that has kept the live music scene in a vicegrip for more than twenty-five months. Crowned by a surprise appearance from Ohio natives, Midnight, the show features a bit of everything across the Metal spectrum, and it's a thrilling romp from upstairs to downstairs, as a smooth schedule ensures the riffs never stop.
Outside, fans chow down on an array of snacks and alcohol from local food trucks, that sedate the senses, and bring the warmth of spring to its epic conclusion. In the shade of a gargantuan tree, merch booths for more than a dozen bands play host to both the commerce of headbangers, and a chance to socialize with those who are celebrated. Stories are shared of concerts past, and tales are told of the fallen heroes.
Tents dot the far end of the pavilion, catering to the greatest vanity requests of anyone looking for the next big relic for their collection. A set of tables showcase a brilliant display of hundreds of woven patches, an intricately stitched orgy of glamor and grandeur that could wreck the wallet of any unfortunate soul who knows they should save money — but they just can't help themselves.
It's a feast for the senses, and the spirit. Surrounded by friends, new acquaintances, and the camaraderie of a European festival circuit, a new monster of performance is brought to life in the Texan South. Those in attendance take stock of their good fortune, their loot, and their shared experiences.
As the crickets chirped in chorus, and beer-soaked, sweat-drenched fans streamed out of the doors and into the Houston night, the only question left was:
"Next year — same time, same place?"
On behalf of Heaviest of Art, we'd like to thank Christian Larson, Chris Friedman, and the entire staff of White Oak Music Hall for a fun, and safe weekend in their corner of the Lone Star State. We're looking forward to next year, and so too should you!