Reader alert: This article contains copious redacted profanities. — Ed.
Lightning struck the Leidy Highlands as a cloud of dust rose from the mosh pit.
A swirl of black, leather and flying hair dripping with rain, sweat and bug spray pulsated to the pounding rhythm of the German extreme metal band The Ruins of Beverast as the crowd in the pit linked arms and ran in circles.
Deeds Gorman stood on the edge of it all, watching, when a double rainbow burst through the Buffalo Valley sky.
“Happy birthday to me,” the now 34-year-old shouted, dust- and mascara-tinted tears streaming down her face. “This is the best day of my life, ever. F---ing rainbows and Ruins of Beverast and f---ing mountains.
“It’s too much,” she said.
More than 800 metalheads from across the country and world descended on a quiet, cell service-less valley in Teton County last weekend for a joyful (and loud) celebration of metal music: the second Fire in the Mountains festival at Moran’s Heart Six Guest Ranch.
Between the screaming, growling, headbanging, studs, moshing and patch-covered “battle jacket” vests, metal is about more than music.
“It’s a mentality, man,” explained Alex Feher, a co-organizer and co-founder of the festival.
Metal is a thousand things and is not a thousand others. The Ruins of Beverast playing through a storm while their gear gets soaked onstage? Metal. Thunder? Metal. Lightning? Metal. Rainbows? Also metal. Picking up your friends after they fall in the mosh pit? Definitely metal. Leaving your friend on the ground to get trampled in the pit? Not metal at all, at least at Fire in the Mountains.
The festival attracted a heterogeneous mix of people, music and mentalities, start to finish. Clad in a spectrum of black, cosplay, street clothes, with some in barely any clothes at all, festivalgoers banged their heads while moshing and sat in folding chairs to enjoy the music from the back of the crowd with their kids. They ate fried chicken, devoured vegan quinoa bowls, drank beer, sipped sloshies, camped and sprayed a mechanical bear with faux bear spray in a lesson from Wyoming Game and Fish Department.
“I think that’s one of the most beautiful things about metal as a whole,” Feher said. “It’s a lifestyle in a sense that you don’t conform. You are who you are, you are self-aware and you express that. It’s an expression through music or what you do.”
Fintroll the good boy
By day, Feher (metal name: Liability. His golden retriever’s metal name: Finntroll the Dragon Slayer) is a farmer at Huidekoper Ranch. The other organizers and founders, Jeremy Walker (metal name: Bone Crusher) and Oliver Tripp (metal name: Father Carnage) are a sommelier at Bin22 and a massage therapist. They’re three locals who don’t invest hours of free time into planning the festival to make money. In fact, they’re in debt.
“I am driven by passion,” Walker said. “For me to be able to get [bands] to play ... in my home, in front of the most beautiful mountains in the world, is the best feeling I’ve ever had. I want to create something unique for not only our community, but also the world of music.”
It all started with a metal radio show on community radio station KHOL before evolving into a birthday party campout on Shadow Mountain in 2015 and 2016, featuring a live band, Wayfarer. After paying a fine to the U.S. Forest Service for those “clandestine” shows (very metal), the festival then moved to the Pink Garter Theatre in 2017, Walker said. Fire in the Mountains debuted at the Heart Six Guest Ranch in 2018 with 357 attendees.
At the 2018 festival the three organizers started the weekend swearing they’d never do it again: The pre-show anxiety was too much. Still, a moment at last year’s headlining Panopticon set brought them back for year five.
Tripp put his arm around Walker as they raged and rocked out.
“We’re definitely doing this again next year,” Tripp said.
“Yeah, I know,” Walker replied.
This year festival attendance more than doubled, with what organizers estimated to be between 800 and 850 attendees.
The Heart Six Guest Ranch, one of America’s oldest dude ranches, nestled in a bend of the Buffalo Fork River with a breathtaking view of the Tetons’ jagged peaks, was selected intentionally for the festival’s expansion. Metal music, Feher said, is inextricably linked to nature.
“We’re trying to get people to get back to the simple roots of what it means to be human,” he said. Metal is “very inspired by the natural world and esoteric mysteries that exist, you know, without it being hippie or preachy or religious in any way. It’s very human, very basic.”
A little ways up the road from Heart Six are a couple subdivisions whose residents were not especially eager to trade their views of grazing elk and sandhill cranes for men in leather vests and loincloths, even for a weekend.
Metal roared from below as Andrea Riniker, whose home overlooks the concert site, ate dinner with her husband and watched the Wimbledon finals. She and her neighbors worry about the impact of campers, traffic and amplified music on wildlife, and feel large public events belong in other, less sensitive locations. (For related story see A section.)
“While heavy metal takes it to the extreme, I don’t think that your key wildlife habitat ought to be a place where you are thinking of fairly large public events,” Riniker said. “Do I think a classical music concert might be less intrusive? Of course, but that isn’t the fundamental question.”
The neighbors have fought the concert for the past two years.
Frank Chapman, owner of Heart Six, feels making 800 people happy is worth the neighbors’ inconvenience. He doesn’t listen to metal and would have Van Morrison perform if it were up to him. But two years of hosting the festival has upended his opinion of the genre.
“Everybody as a whole has this preconception of everybody dressed in black and being goofy,” Chapman said. “It’s not that at all. They’re professionals in their careers who have the ability to travel all the way out here and hang out and listen to music they love, which isn’t anything like anybody thinks. It’s almost embarrassing for me that I thought that.”
Breaking down walls
Metalheads know what you think about them.
“First off, they think we sacrifice babies to Satan,” said Sabrina Smith, who hosts a metal podcast, “Bitchin Metal.”
Misconceptions, they say, range from people thinking they’re devil worshippers to conflating mainstream metal heads with fringe white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups. That’s all rooted in a little bit of truth. Norwegian black metal bands like Mayhem are known for their association with church burnings and murders committed in the 1990s. There certainly is still some singing about Satan and a subgenre called National Socialist black metal espouses neo-Nazism.
But if you ask anyone at Fire in the Mountains, Nazism falls firmly into the “not metal” category. They disavow any Nazis who may have co-opted their music in a hateful way.
And while the music may be angry the people are friendly and warm and kind of, well, nerdy, in a “Lord of The Rings,” “Magic: The Gathering” type of way. They dismiss the satanic elements and roots of metal music as antiquated, a relic of the past or as “tongue in cheek” or “a schtick.” It’s like they’re all in on a joke that’s gone over your head. It’s exaggerated, not literal.
“You break up with your boyfriend, and if he did it in a bad way and cheated on you, you’re gonna have intense feelings about that — hurt, sadness, anger,” Feher said. “So what’s so great about metal is you can take that to an extreme and express it, but do it in a way that’s so extreme, it’s like it’s comical, almost.”
The heaviness of it provides a catharsis, channeling aggression and negative feelings. The black clothes, the piercings, the tats, the “Christ Ripping Blackened F---ing Thrash” and “Hail Satan Worship Doom” T-shirts: they’re all about self-expression and camaraderie.
“Being here, you don’t care about the walls you put up the rest of your life,” said Charles Salvo, a fan.
Sure, there’s probably some sense of camaraderie among fans of any type of music. But metal seems to brings together people with shared experiences, like skateboarding or teenage rebellion.
“It’s about feeling empowered,” Oregon fan Sean Minor said. “I think it’s about finding your place in a society that may have rejected you or what your musical tastes are or how you like to dress. It’s kind of, the outcasts. Like even in high school, the kids who wore black, they always hung out together. We’ve all experienced something similar to that.”
Following the festival’s Sunday morning session of “headbanger yoga,” a class geared toward relieving whiplashed necks, Mathias Nordvig, a professor at the University of Colorado-Boulder, gave a well-attended presentation about Nordic mythology before musical sets.
But Nordvig isn’t just an expert on northern European myths. He’s also a metal professor of sorts, having researched the role of extreme metal in Scandinavia, where it’s commonplace.
Nordvig said that, similar to the hippie movement of the 1960s, metal is about individual liberation from established religion, as well as other constraints, like the expectations of a parent or job.
“It’s an ideology that tells you you’re OK the way you are,” Nordvig said. “It’s OK that you choose to live your life like this way and that you choose to engage with these particular things that you find interesting without having a dogmatic book telling you, ‘You have to do these particular things and this is what good means and this is bad.’”
Non-metalhead attendees were impressed by the crowd. Local food and drink vendors said they were polite and tipped well. Teton County sheriff’s Master Deputy Bret Bommer leaned against his truck at the festival’s entrance, where he viewed the festival as “fairly mundane.” There weren’t any incidents, other than a noise complaint. A few attendees even approached Bommer and another deputy for a hug.
“It’s an easy crowd,” Bommer said. “Can’t beat it.”
Heavier and heavier
Metalheads usually get started on the tame stuff: Guns N’ Roses, Led Zeppelin. That taste leads some to crave something heavier. And heavier. And heavier.
“I just needed it to be harder, and more f---ed up as time goes on,” said Liz Ruggles, a 40-year-old fan from Texas.
Believe it or not, the Beatles are often credited with getting the ball rolling on metal and hard rock in 1968, when the band released “Helter Skelter.” Black Sabbath followed that with a charge into metal, finding commercial success exploring satanism.
The bands that followed intensified that sound, as household names like Iron Maiden and Metallica emerged. When that wasn’t heavy enough, Slayer and Venom delivered more violent lyrical themes and increasingly technical music. Metal’s reputation for brutality, Satan worship and corpse paint (think Kiss, but scarier) developed with European bands like Mayhem and Burzum.
These offshoots continued to splinter until the metal scene fractured into its current seemingly infinite subgenres: thrash, hair, doom, black, death, and many others. Black metal dominated this year’s Fire in the Mountains, though many fans struggled to put it in a box.
“Black metal is the grimmest and the bleakest of all forms of metal,” Stormkeep band member Jason Langfield said. “It’s all about death and hatred and evil, it’s f---ing dark and it’s atmospheric. But it’s equally grim as it is beautiful.”
A different place
Most fans had never been to Wyoming and never been immersed in a mountain landscape. They were awestruck and that was the intended effect: to blend the beauty of nature and music.
“We’re not f---ing celebrating death, we’re f---ing celebrating life,” said Torrey Guruth-Nathron, a fan who goes by Deathweaver. “We’re celebrating the life of the f---ing Earth around us, we’re celebrating our f---ing lives and the lives of all our f---ing friends.”
(“We curse like sailors, but we’re very friendly,” fan Chelcia Dunn said.)
Atmospheric black metal band Wolves in the Throne Room was a major draw for festivalgoers. The core members of the Olympia, Washington, band are brothers Aaron and Nathan Weaver. Their Saturday night headlining set was the first Aaron Weaver had played in about five years, after taking time off to raise his kid, work in the studio and tend to his farm.
“I was beginning to get disconnected from the sources of the music for me, which is the salt water and mountains and the plants and the animals where we live,” Weaver said.
Nature is central to the brothers’ music.
“It’s about love of earth and love of each other and love of community, love of family, love of tradition, love of ancestors,” Weaver said. “There’s a lot of good ways of being in the world, you know, and that’s a different perspective than a nihilistic or satanic metal band.”
That idea of differing perspectives seemed to permeate the whole festival. It wasn’t that Weaver and his brother didn’t scream on stage, blast the double bass drum, or pump distorted guitar through their amplifiers — they did.
It was more that the bands represented a wide swath of worldviews, metal and otherwise. While Wolves in the Throne Room espoused the sort of naturalistic focus Weaver described, The Ruins of Beverast and Munly and the Lupercalians, a gothic folk band from Denver, used their lyrics and performances as an opportunity to play with fictional worlds they’d created.
The members of Blood Incantation, a death metal band from Denver, and the members of Osi and the Jupiter, an orchestral folk band that had never played live before Fire in the Mountains, fostered introspection. Chris Brown, a cellist and composer in the latter group who goes by Kakophonix, said he was focused on creating a “live ritual” rather than a concert experience.
“The music is supposed to affect the audience members in a way that helps them to see beyond their normal perspective,” Kakophonix said.
Munly of the Lupercalians agreed.
“I want to take people to another place,” he said, “Let them get out of this — some might say — terrible real world.”
Will Todd, a fan from Austin, Texas, said the music “brings you places.”
“It’s more like a journey rather than just music,” he said. “It transports you to faraway lands and fantasy worlds and sorrow and dread, and all these emotions that come with it.”
Warm moshy feeling
In the weekend’s moshes, the pit went where the people wanted it to go. When they felt inclined to run in circles, the pit spun. When they felt like getting together, locking shoulders in a massive line and banging their heads, the pit did. And, when somebody tripped, fell over, or got knocked down, three or four hands pulled them to their feet.
Deathweaver and Monehra Mari, who goes by both Moon as well as her stage name Datura, were locked arm in arm, equal parts skipping and throwing one another into the mosh pit. They ran in circles, pushed each other around, tripped, fell, got up and generally had a good time, moving their bodies in something vaguely resembling an aggressive synchronicity. The pit spun, stopped, collapsed in on itself and exploded outwards, sometimes all at the same time.
When Moon tripped and hit the ground, Deathweaver and two others grabbed her and pulled her to her feet, all four rejoining the throng, shoulder-length hair bouncing through the dust.
“The brightest lights cast the darkest shadows,” Moon said. “I feel like a lot of people in the metal community are super f---ing loving and so, you know, the pain they’ve experienced in life, I feel like it’s the reason they gravitate toward metal music.”
Nordvig, a pit veteran, said moshing — and metal as a whole — creates a space for people to express emotions they can’t otherwise, whether that’s anger, rage or exhilaration.
“I think that’s probably the most important lesson people could learn from this kind of scene even if they’re not interested in the music,” Nordvig said: “Give yourself an outlet.”
Standing around the fire later that night, Jon Soresensen, from Saskatchewan, said moshing is intended to be cathartic.
“People don’t go into pit to hurt people,” Sorensen said. “That’s more of a release of energy. Get your anger out. It’s all in good fun.”
When Dakota LeClair, from Denver, sustained one of the festival’s only injuries in the pit — a hyperextended knee — a man asked him how many fingers he was holding up and tested his hearing. Another woman, a nurse, walked over and asked about his pain level. When he was sitting in the back of the festival by the first-aid tent, festivalgoers came over to check on him.
“Everyone showed up knowing that everything is a community,” LeClair said.
Self-proclaimed as “metal to the core,” Matt Farides is a member of a select group of people who can pull off the loincloth-with-cowboy-hat look. He said despite the outfit, he’s introverted, but being among fellow metalheads is a comfort space where he’s at home.
“It creates enough of a common theme for people to just relax,” he said. “Everyone’s here for the same reason. There’s no strangers, it’s just friends you haven’t met yet.”
An anticipated return
As the dust settled after the Ruins of Beverast’s set, Feher and Walker emerged from the crowd, dusty and wet from sweat and rain. Tripp joined them from the back of the festival where he’d been working with volunteers to keep the first-aid tent from blowing away in the storm.
Backstage they relived the show. It wasn’t the first time they had been in the crowd for a performance at this year’s festival but the rainbow, the storm and the crowd’s reaction set it apart.
In 2020 Walker, Feher and Tripp hope to bring the festival back.
“This is where my heart is, Tripp said. “When I grew up metal was my escape and my home and that’s what this is. It’s bringing that to other people.”
“It’s a way of life,” Feher said.
“A way of life,” Walker agreed.
“It’s my sanctuary,” Tripp said.
It was fitting that, as Tripp spoke those words, the bass drum kicked behind him, the lights lit up the stage and the crowd roared as the Scottish metal band Saor dove into its first song, starting off the final, closing set of the festival.