One of the largest and fastest-growing cities in the southeastern United States, Charlotte, North Carolina is a prime example of the New South. The city is primarily known as the financial hub for the east coast just behind New York, headquartering Bank of America and the eastern operations for Wells Fargo. The emergence from the economic recession has been good to the city, boasting a 13.2% growth in population in the last year alone, ranking it as the fifth-fastest growing city in the United States.
However, with growth and economic prosperity comes the issue plaguing any city on the upswing. Once thriving artistic communities, the North Davidson (or NoDa to locals) and Plaza Midwood neighborhoods have experienced a revamp as big shiny condos, fancy breweries, boutique grocers, and other universal symbols of rising housing costs came seemingly out of nowhere. Spreading to the SouthEnd in more recent years, clubs such as the Double Door Inn and Tremont Music Hall have been forced to close their doors after forty-three years and twenty years of service respectively.
For the time being, the West Side remains relatively untouched, though looking up at Charlotte’s expanding skyline from Freedom Drive it is, with a bit of context, impossible not to see the shadow of change creeping its way west. Still a majority working-class neighborhood, the West Side is home to one of the oldest music venues in the country. The otherwise nondescript white block of a building sits alongside Tuckaseegee Road, nestled between vacant lots across from a tire shop, and would probably go unnoticed to the casual passerby save for the large block letters spelling MILESTONE across its worn bricks. Founded in 1969 (that’s five years before CBGB for those keeping score at home), The Milestone Club has become a symbol of the resilience of the underground, surviving through multiple owners, threats of closing, A.L.E. shutdowns, structural issues, and the general problems that plague most small clubs. Walking in, bits of patchwork construction are covered by layers of historical graffiti and stickers from the thousands upon thousands of touring acts working their way up and down the coast and across the country, notably including Minor Threat, Bad Brains, Nirvana (pre-Nevermind), and that one time G.G. Allin “played” by passing out in the parking lot. Though hosting an extremely wide variety of talent, it’s the DIY punk spirit that resonates most throughout the structure, an attitude of “if you want it done, you gotta get your hands dirty.”
What a perfect place for three days of heavy metal mayhem. Consider the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal. Born from a working class facing the struggles of an economic depression, the NWOBHM grew out of small clubs and DIY bands searching for an escape from the hardship of daily struggle in small establishments like The Bandwagon in London, where Neal Kay transformed the back room venue into the legendary Heavy Metal Soundhouse that proved instrumental in providing a fertile ground for young bands to be heard and connect with fans. In the face of the everyday struggles of modern life like an ever-increasing wage gap, overwork, clinical depression, and a well-deserved yearning for escape, Rapid Fire curator Tommy Parnelle has been constructing a much-needed haven for heavy metal fans.
“The primary goal started as a way to work together with all my regional thrash buds to bring a big headliner to The Milestone Club to play with us all,” explains Parnelle. “We also thought it would just be cool to book all the local and regional thrash bands on one big show so we could ALL hang out, as opposed to having to travel for smaller shows and hanging with three or four bands at a time. In the end, we never actually got that big headliner, so it ended up just being a whole day of good thrash buds hanging out.” He continues: “My goal with Rapid Fire now, and going forward, is to invite all of my friends’ thrash, speed, heavy, and power metal bands to one killer weekend of true heavy metal in a small, intimate setting. It’s grown way bigger than I expected it to, but I don’t foresee too much growth going forward. I would like it to stay fiercely DIY, underground, and feature primarily local and regional bands with a few exceptions to add some flavor.”
Donning his signature leather hat and ridiculous chainmail sunglasses, for three nights in November Parnelle himself transforms into the nefarious Commissioner T. Iron, serving as some sort of an MC/mascot-meets-WWE-villain, scrapping with bands and fueling the fun with a bit of over-the-top absurdity. T. Iron’s passion behind Rapid Fire is infectious, and for the last three years that desire to create a weekend escape of fun and community under the banner of heavy metal has been spreading. While the first year’s lineup consisted of mostly local and regional acts, bands from further and further have been reaching out to get a spot on the bill. Throne Of Iron, ShadowStrike, Nuclear Tomb, and Paralysis all hail from well outside the Southeastern U.S. regional scene, with Crisix coming from as far away as Spain.
The first night centered exclusively around the main stage, essentially a heavy-loaded Friday night lineup on any other weekend. But this isn’t just any other weekend, there was an electricity buzzing in the bar as band members and fans alike began trickling in, ordering drinks as they laughed and congregated with one another in anticipation of the oncoming weekend of fast and heavy rock and roll.
Throne of Iron: Unfortunately, Throne Of Iron’s second guitarist came down with illness right before the band began their trek to Charlotte from Bloomington, Indiana. However, sickness wasn’t about to stop these defenders of epic heavy metal. In a beautiful display of comradery, guitarists from Children Of The Reptile, Mega Colossus, and even T. Iron himself stepped up to learn a song or two the night before. The show went on, with Throne Of Iron calling upon their Dungeons & Dragons muse and “rolling a D20” to select the next guitarist. The execution of the set was fantastic, consisting of mighty, riff-centric American heavy metal. The band has been gaining momentum after their self-titled demo was released in 2018, followed up earlier this year with a split with dungeon synth act Hillsfar. Their debut album, Adventure One, is slated for a February release on No Remorse Records, and Throne Of Iron are definitely a band to keep an eye on for any defender of true heavy metal.
Children of the Reptile: “We make music we’d want to hear ourselves,” says Children Of The Reptile guitarist Chris Millard. And it shows. It’s hard to put Children Of The Reptile into a particular style or subgenre as their sound is informed from across the metal spectrum, from proto-metal acts like Thin Lizzy to US thrash and power metal and beyond in a cocktail that’s unique and invigorating. (I mean, no other band on Rapid Fire could dream of pulling off a Load-era Metallica cover). And while the band played last year to a smaller matinee crowd on Sunday, it was good to see them receive the welcome they truly deserved as the crowd sang along with set closer “Sieg Zeon.”
ShadowStrike: It’s very odd seeing Long Island’s symphonic power metal act ShadowStrike on such a small stage, their sound and setup is much more suited for playing sold out big stages in a power metal mecca like Italy, Japan, or Germany. But they made it work, blasting through cuts off their debut album, The Legends Of Human Spirit and carrying the audience away in an impressive display of power metal shredding fury, transforming the atmosphere of the room to a larger-than-life arena of billowy synths and high-speed guitar work, with the vocals soaring out from the stage as singer Matt Krais sang his heart out, genuinely having a blast and generally looking stoked as hell to be performing.
Paladin: Atlanta’s Paladin have come a long way since proving to be crowd favorites on the bar room stage at last year’s Rapid Fire. Releasing their acclaimed debut album, Ascension, on Prosthetic Records earlier this year and fresh off a tour with Allegaeon and Inferni, as well as a well-received set at the legendary ProgPower fest in Atlanta, it was good to see them come back and celebrate their victories with a ripping set of power-infused thrash metal. Lead vocalist/guitarist Taylor Washington came down with a nasty virus en route from Atlanta and in a true show of dedication powered through the entire set, though it’s not like anyone in attendance would have been the wiser. Washington’s iron lungs weren’t going to be stopped by measly bug as his voice rang true over the shredding of lead guitarist Alex Parra. If you want to know what to expect at a Paladin show, just listen to the record. These guys nail it every time, true professionals and a credit to the region.
Twisted Tower Dire: Easily the most veteran band on the bill, Twisted Tower Dire have been bringing their alloy of heavy and power metal to the people since the mid-nineties. Their first time to The Milestone in over ten years and coming fresh off their Wars In The Unknown album released back in March on No Remorse Records, it was a real treat to see them in such a small setting. With the set list stacked with plenty of classic material (“Battle Cry,” “Some Other Time, Some Other Place,” “The Witch’s Eyes”) and new rippers (“True North,” “Light The Swords On Fire,” “Snow Leopard”), it served as a career retrospective of sorts as the seasoned warriors of US power metal turned up the heat in the forge formerly known as The Milestone Club. It was the perfect cap to a night of blistering power and heavy metal might.
Saturday is the main event. Designed to be a “rapid fire” back and forth between the main stage and the bar room, it’s clear the festival interprets its namesake in more ways than one. One of the best things about having a small festival in a single venue is its almost impossible to miss a band, no having to leave one set early or sacrifice missing the opening half of another band – all you have to do is casually work your way from one room to the next.
Pre-show, Parnelle’s father had the grill fired up, serving hot dogs on the back patio with the singular stipulation that he be able to take a break to catch Knightmare, his favorite regional act. It was a home-grown touch that painted a clearer picture of just what Rapid Fire is about: having a good time and enjoying the best metal bands the area has to offer.
Nuclear Tomb: Self-described by guitarist/vocalist Michael Brown as “the weirdest band on Rapid Fire,” Baltimore’s Nuclear Tomb play a form of mutated thrash, taking cues from progressive thrash acts like Voivod and Vektor to create a monstrosity of radioactive oddness that shifts, warps, and changes like a twisted horror of nature, sprouting new limbs and riffing structures at every turn as the abomination they create rapidly disintegrates towards an untimely dimise. The band jumped into the spirit of the fest with a cover of Judas Priest’s “Rapid Fire,” marking an official start to the Saturday onslaught ahead. Playing with razor-sharp accuracy and plenty of energy, Nuclear Tomb got the blood pumping for the rest of the day, and revealed a few newer tracks that show a continual drive for the band to evolve. If you like your thrash weird, spacey, dark, and heavy, keep an eye on Nuclear Tomb.
Morganton: The last few times Nuclear Tomb have come through Charlotte, they’ve played alongside local enigma Morganton, and its apparent why. If Nuclear Tomb were striving to be the weirdest band on the bill, then Morganton were certainly giving them a run for their money. Drawing from crossover thrash, punk, crust, and noise, Morganton stand as a massive, twisted middle finger to convention. Blending dissonance and discord with raw energy, Morganton WANT to piss you off. Opening up the bar stage, the band set the tone for the room for the rest of the night: wild, raw attitude.
Knightmare: On the main stage, Raleigh, NC power metal natives Knightmare lightened the mood weaving infectious vocal guitar harmonies, melodic power with a heavy metal backbone, and a fun-filled spirit that traces lineage to the hard rock side of things. Coming off the recent release of their fourth full-length, Space Nights, as well approaching their tenth year as a band, Knightmare were one of the more seasoned bands on the bill, though with the amount of fun they were having onstage you’d think they were still in the starry-eyed days of infancy. Bassist Anthony Micale didn’t even try to hide his smile through the entire set as the crowd was transported to far away fantasy lands set to the band’s uplighting style of rock and roll heavy metal.
Völtage: Back over at the barroom stage, Atlanta’s Völtage cranked up the sleaze, teleporting the bar to an early 80’s L.A. dive packed wall to wall with those ready to get a taste of what the contemporary NWOTHM movement is all about. Pounding their way through tracks from their debut EP released back in May, it’s apparent that the band just gets it. From the triumphant anthems of “Dragonborn” and “Dust Devil” to the rubber burning “Speed Demon,” the band combined hard-hitting heavy metal with stage show antics for one of the most entertaining sets to catch. “We hate work, we sweat party!” declared vocalist Dolly Spotswood to a cheer of agreement from the audience. Closing out their set with a cover of W.A.S.P.’s “L.O.V.E. Machine” was the perfect touch to keep the momentum going as the crowd gleefully sang along with the chorus. Keep an eye out for their debut full-length coming in 2020!
All Hell: Asheville’s All Hell proved to be a crowd favorite for the second year running, absolutely leveling the main stage in a wash of red light and fog over their black’n’roll speed metal assault. The mosh pit became a total war zone, the floor coated in the slick of spilled beer as the bass hurled sonic mortars beneath the ominous fury of high speed black metal riffs. The vampyric overlords ruled mercilessly over the chaos they created from the stage, never missing a beat and packing the set with “oh shit!” moments that sent The Milestone into a bloodthirsty frenzy.
Stunner: “We don’t play filler,” says Stunner guitarist Peter Applebee. And he’s not kidding. Despite a few technical difficulties before their set, Stunner launched into full-on all-killer-no-filler speed metal overdrive. The true beauty of this band comes from just how catchy every single one of their songs are, as fans on the front row sang along at the top of their lungs to tracks from their Turbo City debut from last year, including “Nightfigher,” “Adamantium Armada,” and “Off The Rails,” as well as two new numbers from their upcoming sophomore record, slated for release in 2020. The band have gotten faster and sharper, calling to mind comparisons with early Razor material: anthemic speed metal with infectious aggression that’s a hell of a blast to experience live.
Mega Colossus: Up next were the mighty Mega Colossus, and they wasted no time, embracing the Rapid Fire namesake and jumping almost immediately into their set after Stunner ended. The band’s epic power metal vibes shook the main stage as they galloped forth through numbers from their full length and more recent EP, simply entitled V. Lead vocalist Sean “The Train” Buchanan embraced his role as a frontman, moving across the stage and highlighting the standout moments from his bandmates, getting the crowd going and even sharing vocal duties with T. Iron himself and Children Of The Reptile vocalist Ozzie Darden. The Mega Colossus set embraced everything great about Rapid Fire: friendship, comradery, and a love of uplifting, empowering epic U.S. power metal.
Axattack: Back on the bar stage, Rapid Fire veterans Axattack were already setting up their axes for attack. And the attack went straight for the throat. From the first chords the bar erupted into an all-out brawl at the nonstop assault of crustyass thrash and speed. Drummer Chris Crass drove home an electric, pounding d-beat pulse, holding the band together as they blitzed through a vicious set of violence in the small room. Bodies were flying from one end of the room to the other with little to no regard as to the surroundings, with vocalist/guitarist Alec Edelson feeding off the crowd’s energy, turning every maniac in the joint into an uncredited fourth member equally responsible for tearing the place to the ground in a cataclysmic whirlwind of mind-melting speed and hyperviolent aggression.
Sadistic Ritual: By the end of the night, the crowd was worn out, beaten down, and ready for death. Luckily, Atlanta’s Sadistic Ritual were pleased to deliver with their blackened thrash onslaught. Sounding something like Exodus charred over a BBQ of hellfire, the band riffed and wailed their way through songs from their album, Visionaire Of Death to an audience welcoming the adrenaline surge of death. As our very own Zach Duvall mentioned in his review, Sadistic Ritual are “meant for a live setting.” Drunken, half-dead bodies were hurled across the battlefield in front of the main stage as the headliner delivered the final blow, wrapping up Saturday night with a vicious charge to the depths of fest hell.
Sunday was billed as a “Pay-Per-View” event, consisting of a full on thrash assault to drive fans hungover from two days of heavy metal partying to an early grave so they wouldn’t have to think about returning to work and the real world the following day. Sundays at Rapid Fire are always bittersweet, but with a solid four-band lineup, the festivities were far from over.
Krvsade: Charlotte locals Krvsade opened Sunday up with their first return to the stage since last year’s Rapid Fire, warming up the audience for the final evening of heavy metal mayhem. Packing as many riffs as they could into their set, it was good to see Krvsade take the stage again for their blend of death thrashing metal, violently yanking everyone out of their bangovers and back into full-on fest mode for a day of thrash metal madness.
Paralysis: Up next were the New Jersey thrashers in Paralysis. Coming off a tour with Crisix, the band were primed and ready to deliver over-the-top aggressive thrash fully informed by crossover classics and thrash revival alike. Tearing their way through their set, Paralysis proved to be one of the angriest bands on the bill, with vocalist/guitarist Jon Plemenik spewing pure hostility from the stage as the rest of the band brought the sauce, proving that the crossover revival is far from dead, surviving on pure passion for the music as it struck from its natural habitat of a live setting. One of the hardest working thrash bands on the east coast, Paralysis are constantly touring and playing fests, so be sure not to sleep on them when they come through.
Crisix: By far the ones making the biggest trek to Charlotte for the weekend were Spain’s Crisix. Wrapping up their US tour with a special one hour set, the band’s brand of crossover thrash got the party into full swing as though it were still Saturday. Packed with riffs and a few well-placed breakdowns, Crisix know how to get a crowd going, with frontman Julián Baz bantering with the crowd between songs. The band swapped instruments for a cover medley, highlighting their most recent release of covers that inspired the band, titled Sessions #1 – American Thrash. It’s a tactic bands often joke about doing but rarely pull off with such sincerity, and, experienced in a live setting, brought a new dynamic to the Rapid Fire legacy.
Nemesis: Fitting that Charlotte’s own Nemesis were selected to close out the fest. Not only are they the longest running thrash band in the city and three-time Rapid Fire vets, having played all three iterations of the festival, but the sheer speed and intensity with which they approach their craft is a sight to behold. Guitarist/vocalist Corey Hedrick plays like a man possessed, looking like a coke-addled mad scientist teetering on the edge of sanity as the band dutifully and skillfully keep the music grounded, creating a cocktail of chaos that sent all the thrashers into a rapid frenzy. While their debut album was a solid slice of Vio-lence and Nuclear Assault style thrash, these guys have been upping their game even more in the last few months, with a new EP hopefully arriving sometime in 2020.
The end of the fest was the only true downer of the weekend, as people began to come to the realization that they have to return to their jobs and the real world they left behind, if only for a few days. “I keep thinking this isn’t happening, it’s hard to believe it’s real, you know?” says Stunner drummer/vocalist Daniel Schexnadre. “I’m afraid I’ll just wake up and just have to go peel shrimp for ten hours.”
While smaller fests are no new invention, they seem to be gaining appeal across the country. Rapid Fire is far from a mega fest, but it’s the homegrown real deal: look next to you and you’ll see the dude who was just shredding face on stage singing along and acting like another fan, equally as stoked to be in the crowd as anyone else. “This is what it’s all about: community. It’s not about the money,” explains Ty Christian, vocalist for Lords Of The Trident and promoter behind Madison, Wisconsin’s Mad With Power Fest, who flew into North Carolina to experience Rapid Fire as a fan. And he’s not wrong. The energy that radiated throughout the club over the weekend was undeniable, with good tunes and good vibes aplenty. Old friends reunited, new friends were made. Bands connected with one another, networking and swapping contacts from their respective hometowns. Fans mingled and talked about highlights of the fest, with one fan even attempting to get every person in attendance to sign his copy of the show flyer.
With its increasing attendance, it does beg the question: what does the future look like for Rapid Fire?
“If Rapid Fire gets big enough for me to book Riot and afford their guarantee, that will be the final Rapid Fire Fest,” says Parnelle with a chuckle. “I joke around about that a lot, but if it ever did get that big, it would be beyond the scope I’ve got in my head for it. My end game is truly just to keep having my friends come hang out with me once a year, and to make new friends along the way.” When asked if he would ever consider moving to a larger venue, Parnelle is adamant: “No. It is not Rapid Fire without The Milestone Club,” he states firmly.
Luckily, Charlotte is taking steps to preserve its local music and culture. Recently, a musician’s council was formed to communicate the needs of local artists to the city to help nurture and perpetuate all genres of music in the growing southeastern metropolis. New club owners have stepped up to keep a foothold in other Charlotte neighborhoods, and a few diehards refuse to be driven out of town, instead relocating their establishments to keep live music thriving in the city. It’s good to know that the underground will always find a way to survive, and as a local resident, I am proud to call Charlotte home to the fastest fest in the southeast.
Special thanks to: Tommy Parnelle, Spencer Hughes (photos), M. Stormy Storms (photos, Instagram: @stormy__storms), Morgan Talley (photos, Instagram: thesweetestcurse) Jonah Juarez (photos), Trav Hart (flyer artwork, Instagram: @travhartart)