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On paper, heavy metal is one of the most rigidly defined of all rock ‘n’ roll’s bastard progeny, especially within the sonic cesspool of extreme metal. Death metal is this; doom metal is that. It’s all very black and white, befitting a realm whose entire aesthetic is based on the negative.

However, once one starts digging a layer or two deeper beneath the metallic mainstream, the dizzying array of sounds that rest comfortably under the banner of “METAL” becomes apparent. The same genre that houses heavy metal gods Judas Priest also lays claim to American black metallers Judas Iscariot. There’s Motorhead and Mgla, Slayer and Sanguis Imperem, Bathory and Black Sabbath, Pantera and Putrid Pile. The form’s bloody roots support a sprawling, surprising beast.

Unless you’re the sort of metaller who’d rather pretend that anything after 1987 doesn’t exist, it’s all a lot more fluid than it seems. (To be fair, 1987 was a good year; there’s no topping I.N.R.I.) Progression and regression are two of metal’s most pervasive themes. The choice to pay tribute to the old gods and worship the riffs of years gone by or to forge ahead into uncharted waters is open to every kid who picks up a copy of Paranoid and a Walmart special and decides, “Fuck it. I can do that.”

The progressive camp seems to grow with the passing of every album cycle, yielding an astonishing number of young bands who take the blueprints offered by Tony Iommi’s mangled paws two score and a couple years ago and turned them upside down and inside out to suit their own vision. The meeting of beauty with brutality inspires bands like Alcest, YOB, Woe, Torche, Panopticon, Samothrace, Twilight, Evoken and Baroness to reach new heights and newfound appreciation both inside and beyond the metal scene. Consider The Atlas Moth, a band who’ve shared stages with Down and Wold, released a covers EP that features a mesmerizing take on The Mamas & the Papas’ “California Dreamin’,” and are about to hit the road with Irish atmospheric black metallers Altar of Plagues.

The Deftones are their collective favorite band, but a listen to this Chicago outfit’s records, like 2011’s An Ache for the Distance, conjures visions of bad acid trips, lonesome nights along the open road and crushing Southern discomfort. They start with doom metal, only to weave together sludge, black metal, hardcore, progressive rock and post-Isis atmospherics. It’s a far cry from Saint Vitus or Trouble, but as a certain insufferable mommy-porn novel has made clear, there are many shades of gray.

“I don’t consider us anything more than a band at this point,” muses vocalist and guitarist Stavros Giannopoulos. “Obviously we started out in one place, but constantly evolving is what keeps it interesting for not only us but for people who enjoy our music and twist on things. I don’t ever try to write in a certain vein. I just try to mimic what I’m hearing in my head.”

Altar of Plagues tread a similar path, eschewing conventions in favor of self-expression and sonic exploration. “I think our overall execution is very far removed from black metal, both in terms of the traditional sound and image,” says vocalist and guitarist James Kelly. “Mood or emotional content is the only way that I tend to categorize music.”

It’s obvious enough that metal is a much different creature than it was 20, or even five, years ago. There are still plenty of diehards keeping it true, but in other circles, the patrons have cut their hair, gotten more tattoos, and ditched the stained jeans and ripped Anthrax shirt. Beyond the uniform, the parameters of the genre have expanded into something nearly unrecognizableor very familiar, depending on how much you paid attention in the Black Sabbath school of songwriting.

Giannopoulos is fine with that: “KEN mode, Torche, Horseback, Royal Thunder, PallbearerI think they all really push some boundaries and add something really fresh. We all sort of fall into this weird niche in the scene.”

One can almost hear Giannopoulos smirking as he adds: “I enjoy being a little left of center genre-wise, and I think that ideal runs through all of them as well. I’m sure the fact we don’t wear all black or don’t look metal enough turns some people off, but I could honestly care less. If you don’t like how we sound, that’s fine, but judging me by what shirt I’m wearing seems pretty silly.”

To be fair, The Atlas Moth’s world is a bit more colorful than most. In a lightless subgenre like black metal, wherein the aesthetic and emotion behind the music is just as important as the tremolo picking or chromatic riffs, it can be more difficult to flout stylistic conventions in the name of evolution.

As far as Altar of Plagues are concerned, though, it’s all irrelevant. The music is everything, whether its messengers come clad in pig’s blood and spikes or in plain black T-shirts. Their sprawling, post-rock-informed compositions play with dynamics and expression in a way that the genre’s founding fathers couldn’t have imagined. It’s very much intentional.

“From my point of view, I think some of the more interesting and engaging music coming out in recent times is that which is breaking away from long-running trends,” Kelly opines. “Exciting and engaging new music will always inspire people, so once a few notable acts set the seeds, it’s quite easy to birth a scene of some description. I would ultimately like for Altar of Plagues to exist simply as an act with a diverse and eclectic audience, and I feel we are slowly achieving that.”

This article appeared in print with the headline “Denim, leather and looking forward.”