DEVORE, California — Cool: Parents who still dig heavy metal. Not cool: Parents who still dig heavy metal encouraging their kids to stoke an illegal fire by tossing in cardboard hot-dog cartons and loose socks.
Cool: A horde of Finnish zombies encircled by sparks and flames shredding their way through songs like "Who's Your Daddy?" and "Bringing Back the Balls to Rock" — all while the sun sets in a gorgeous Inland Empire valley. Not cool: Styrofoam bonfires creating a toxic cloud of smoke that sweeps over the audience, causing everyone to cough as if the Great Outbreak just hit.
Cool: People who camp out all day to see a fun show. Not cool: A dude who wakes up on the ground after passing out and, as he comes to, coughs into the face of a security guard, who darts away hacking.
Cool: Lamb of God. Not cool: Static-X.
That's your basic summary of Saturday's Ozzfest installment in Southern California — though you'd probably want to include terms like "sweltering," "poorly organized" and "maybe-this-'Freefest'-concept-isn't-such-a-great-idea" for good measure.
It seems like the perfect hook: Ozzfest brings 15 bands, and bigger crowds turn up because they don't have to pay a dime. Except, while the audience seemed large enough Saturday, the crowds generally haven't been showing up — maybe because preferred seating costs money, parking costs money (and a pretty penny at that: upward of $30 at the Devore show), and the bill could use another heavyweight or two.
On the flipside, many of the bands involved this year are exciting, frothy-mouthed up-and-comers giving it all they've got. Daath and 3 Inches of Blood brought the heat, bludgeoning the crowd with their respective armaments: a six-piece death-metal assault screaming its way out of Atlanta (better not mess with them), and a Canadian neo-NWOBHM entourage that dreams about "impaling the soldiers of God" and humankind being consumed by a flesh-eating forest. (3IOB lacked their howling death-metal singer Jamie Hooper, but guitarist Justin Hagberg held his own filling in during the five-song set.)
Also on the second stage, Chthonic and Behemoth repped the black-metal set (or, rather, sect), while Queens of the Stone Age alum Nick Oliveri and the Mondo Generator injected a dose of hard-rock humor into the fest and Hatebreed placated old-school vets with an hour-long blitzkrieg. By the time the second stage wrapped and the action shifted to the main one, the lines outside the gates were atrocious — evidence that the early bands were just too anonymous on the whole and not able to drive in the masses.
But by that point, the bands were only half the entertainment: Ozzfest proved once again that, if nothing else, it succeeds in coaxing some really slimy specimens out from hiding. Scattered fights with the fuzz, tired shouts of "Show me your t--s!" and passed-out sunburned people (shout out to Bonnaroo!) were all part of the deal. Adding even more variety to the mix, one dad-for-a-weekend carried his kid on his shoulders despite the chaos — in the mosh pit.
Lordi truly let the sparks fly with what was essentially a George Romero tribute done to metal music, with monster-in-charge Mr. Lordi drenching the crowd with fake, bloody body parts (sound familiar?) and chainsaws spouting fireworks. But as much as the show needed a theatrical element, Lordi haven't translated too well Stateside, at least not yet.
The fires really started going once Static-X hit the stage — but they had nothing to do with the band's performance. While Static-X reminded everyone that their skuzzy brand of industrial metal lost its "nu-ness" around the time Coal Chamber petered out, restless thugs started lighting noxious bonfires that suffocated the crowd.
Attention turned back to the main stage when Lamb of God took over. The band responsible for last year's best-selling new metal release, Sacrament, found themselves essentially opening for Ozzy, and they served their duty. The thunderous, menacing death-metal masters — who were playing second-stage fiddle three short years ago — slayed with a skin-peeling one-hour set that hemorrhaged everything from "Black Label" and "Ruin" to "Blackened the Cursed Sun" and "Pathetic." Frontman Randy Blythe's remarks about the greatness of "Freefest" drew a few jeers, but by and large, the metal masses were sold.
Bringing the unholy mass to a close was the Prince of Darkness himself, Ozzy Osbourne (were you expecting someone else?), and he haunted the stage with immortal hits like "Mr. Crowley" and "Crazy Train" and obligatory new selections "Not Going Away" and "Here for You." He was definitely creaky — after all, he only delivered brief sets on the second stage last year and is anchoring this time — but by the end of it, most of the people in the tattered (and heavily tatted) crowd seemed to be thinking one thing: "Hey, at least we got to see Ozzy for free." Oh, and, "Amen."