July 22-23, 2023

BMI Event Center, Versailles, OH

by Chris Gatto

In the mid-summer’s heat, Christian metal bands and fans criss-crossed the country and descended upon the cornfields of rural Versailles, Ohio for Immortal Festival like an angry swarm of locusts. Immortal is the brainchild of business entrepreneur and concert promoter Steve Barhorst, whose dirt go-kart track turned rock stadium has hosted a who’s who of rock elites over the years. Steve had a call to reach the lost and started by promoting a Bloodgood/Whitecross show in Feb. 2022. That show led to the 1st Immortal Festival, a 3 day affair over Labor Day weekend in 2022. God moved mightily that weekend, and plans for Immortal 2023 commenced. This year’s fest is split into two parts over two weekends, Part 1- covering largely modern Christian metal- having just transpired, and Part 2- focusing on classic Christian metal- coming this Labor Day weekend. 

Once again, Pastor Bob Beeman emceed the event. Since 1985 (the same year Heaven’s Metal began), Pastor Bob and Sanctuary have come alongside the christian metal movement and pastored concertgoers who were reached with the gospel, especially in the days when recent longhaired converts found themselves unwelcome in traditional churches. A welcome addition to this year’s event was Sanctuary International’s Metal Family Conference, with teaching, fellowship, and worship led by Jim LaVerde and Ray Parris (of Barren Cross fame), and hosted by the Sanctuary staff. The conference was held Friday night and Saturday and Sunday mornings at the practice hall downtown, which meant that fans could attend without fear of missing out on the performances at BMI.

Saturday’s opening act at Immortal was DENY THE FALLEN, a gritty modern metal act founded by guitarist Jonathan Johnson (Sacred Warrior/ Zeal) and legendary vocalist Rey Parra (Sacred Warrior/ Worldview), rounded out by bassist Erik Kyr and drummer Josh Johnson. Guitarist Jeff Rankins was notably missing, but an announcement was made that Larry Worley (Fear Not) would be their new guitarist. The band opened their set with the rousing song “Razin’ Kane” with an energy matched only by the enthusiastic crowd. “Symptoms of Eternity,” “Oblivion,” quickly followed, from Deny the Fallen’ debut Symptoms of Eternity, followed by DTF’s anthemic “Hands for War,” a call to prayer. Next was “Live Again,” our first glimpse of new material from the band’s brand new EP Echo Chamber. The band returned to their debut album for “Burning the World” and “Predator,” before giving us their best Stryper impression with “Sing-A-Long Song” and King’s X cover “The Mission,” with Jonathan on vocals. “If It Costs Me My Life” is on the new ep, but was released as a new single last year. Sadly, the band had to omit “Murder Machine” due to time constraints and closed with “Resurrection Day,” which I believe is unreleased so far. Larry Worley played on the opener, as well as “Sing-A-Long Song.” We can expect to hear more of him as the band works on its next EP.

Next up and highly anticipated was ONE BAD PIG, who started in 1985 in Austin, TX, alongside our own magazine. OBP’s highly visual brand of punk was on full display. Made up of lead screamer Carey “Kosher” Womack, guitarists Paul Q-Pek and Lee “Razorback” Haley, bassist Daniel “Cash Cover” Tucek, and Phillip “Shakehound” Owens, the band tore through a set of fast paced hits from the 80’s and 90’s, as well as from 2016’s Love You 2 Death. OBP kicked off with “Take a Flying Leap,” from Smash, then “Take a Look at Yourself,” with mohawked stage hand bringing out mirrors so that the band and the fans could do just that. By “Hey Punk” the audience was eating right out of the piggies’ trough. Next up was “Love You to Death,” the title track of the band’s only post millenium output, before returning to Smash for “Let’s Be Frank” and Kosher’s description of the man who inspired the song. Newer tune “What Does the Fool Say” had Kosher frolicking around in a jester’s hat. “Judas’ Kiss” is the band’s speedy rendition of the Petra classic, from Swine Flew, ending with Kosher’s wet kiss into the mic. “Get Your Hands Dirty” is an excellent newer song from the Pig’s latest, entreating the listener to put their faith into action. The studio version features Les Carlsen sharing vocals, but live Paul Q-Pek ably shared the mic. Next up was the band’s classiest song ever “Red River,” which I commented could have easily been found in Billy Idol’s repertoire. Easily one of my favorite passages of Scripture: “Isaiah 6” appeared on both A Christian Banned and Smash and had Kosher wallowing around on stage in abject fear at the throne of a holy God. Now the next song “Ice Cream Sundae”, from I Scream Sunday had the promoters in a tizzy because anyone who’s seen One Bad Pig live knows that they jump into a kiddie pool full of ice cream. So, ice cream verboten from the stage, Kosher belly flopped into a kiddie pool of balloons that spilled out into the audience and came up eating a maraschino cherry while several audience members bounced across the stage on big bouncy balls. The band then donned roman candles mounted on baseball helmets for a fiery performance of “Looney Tunes” before concluding with the ever popular “Smash the Guitar,” where- you guessed it- Kosher smashed a guitar on the stage, followed by his daughter following her pastorly dad’s example.

Next up was thrash and metal legends DELIVERANCE, represented this time around by main man Jimmy Brown on vocals and a fire engine red guitar, Glenn Rogers (early Deliverance and Vengeance) on lead guitar, long-time bassist Manny Morales, and the legendary Jim Chaffin (The Crucified and many many others) on the skins.

The Big D kicked off with the popular “Stay of Execution,” and a slightly out of tune Jimmy Brown. (A note to the audience- if you expect a band to play a live show verbatim like their recorded music, you’re in for a rude shock! Relax and enjoy the music.) The band then went to their Weapons era for the speedy Frank Peretti-inspired “This Present Darkness” and then jumped to the opener from 2017’s Subversive Kind, “Bring ‘Em Down.” Next was the title track “Learn” from the band’s 1992 release, followed by thrash classic “The Call,” from the 1989 debut. Return to Subversive Kind for “The Black Hand,” and “Belltown” from River Disturbance. The band inspired a worshipful moment with “Jehovah Jireh” from their debut, before delving even farther back in their past for “Speckled Bird” from their Greeting of Death demo. Much to fans absolute delight, George Ochoa (Deliverance, Recon, Worldview, Human Code) guitarist joined the band onstage for rousing renditions of “Weapons of our Warfare” and “No Time.” Closer was the band’s metallized cover of Daniel Amos “Sanctuary.”

Closing out Saturday night was DISCIPLE, a band well known for their extensive touring and ministry over their three decades together. Although main man and vocalist Kevin Young is the only original member, the band has had a stable lineup for several years with Josiah Prince on guitar and bass, Andrew Stanton on lead guitar, and Joey West on drums. Fans excited to hear music from the band’s brand new album Skeleton Psalms got their fix with opener “The Executioner,” “Promise to Live,” “Bow Down,” and the title track, but the energetic band tapped many of their hits from their last few albums as well: “Dead Militia” and “Radical” from Attack, “Long Live the Rebels” and “Erase” from the excellent Long Live the Rebels, “Panic Room” from Love Letter Kill Shot, “Dear X” from Horseshoes and Hand Grenades, mixed in with two covers and Kevin’s preaching. Disciple then went way back to This Might Sting a Little for the concert staple “I Just Know” with everyone chanting  “I just know Jesus is the Way, I just know Jesus is the Truth, I just know Jesus is the Life.” The band performed “O God Save Us All” from the album of the same name for the encore. Whew! Day one down.

Sunday’s activities started with a message from Pastor Bob and the Sanctuary staff awarding him with a Lifetime Achievement Award. And then on to the music. First up to bat was OK’s CHAOTIC RESEMBLANCE. At first blush, the boys look like Poison from back in the day, but Travis McConell, Logan “LA” Lewis, and John Jakway are among the most devoted, selfless Jesus followers you will find. Chaotic, founded in 2006, make it hard to find out who the band members are, so determined are they to point attention away from themselves and towards the cross. The band’s set comes almost exclusively from their 2022 album Nazirites. The western themed “Quick and the Dead” opened the show, followed by “Passover Prophecy,” “The Nazirite,” “Driven,” “Unto the Lamb,” and “Fairest Jesus,” Travis leaving no doubt in the listeners’ minds about how they feel about their Saviour. The band then led the crowd into worship with “Jesus is King,” preaching, an altar call, and many coming to Christ. Gotta know your priorities, people! Chaotic closed with “Virtual Reality” from Covenant.

Next up was the highly anticipated debut of super group REIGN OF GLORY. Built around Firewolfe guitarist Nick Layton, Reign of Glory includes fireball bassist Roger Dale Martin (Vengeance, Die Happy), Jim Chaffin on drums (Yeah, this cat has played with everybody!), and featured the return of vocalist Robyn Kyle Basauri (Die Happy, Red Sea). I’m not sure if the band ever intended to play live, but after they were booked for Immortal, Basauri bowed out, and the band asked Tourniquet alum and recent solo artist Luke Easter to play the show with them. No pressure! Despite the band having never been in the same room before arriving at Immortal, their set was fantastic. Luke put his own spin on Basauri’s vocals, and the result was a professional and heartfelt performance all around. The band’s entire debut All Will Bow was performed, although perhaps not in the order of the cd, for you purists: “Forever and Ever,” “Welcome to Reality” (Yeah, we’re with you.), “Last Daze,” “Rise of Aslan,” “Love Came to Die,” and a word from Luke about the dangers of suicide before “The Edge of Night,” and then band intros/solos. Roger’s bass solo teased the famous bassline from Vengeance’s song “Burn,”  while Nick’s guitar solo was the hymn “Holy, Holy, Holy! Lord God Almighty.” Next up was fan fave “Samson’s Kryptonite,” another word from Luke about seeking God, “Writing on the Wall,” another word from Luke, “Calling Down Thunder,” and “1,000 Years.” Excellent show. Will be excited to see what these guys do next. Covering Vengeance’s “Burn” would be high on my wish list. Who knows?

HUMAN CODE could arguably be called a super group as well. George Ochoa (Recon, Deliverance) formed Worldview with Rey Parra (Sacred Warrior, Deny the Fallen). They released one album The Chosen Few in 2015 (George confided that there is more Worldview music in the works). A later version of Worldview had Michael (Lee) Drive (Barren Cross, Galeforce) as vocalist. This lineup seems to have morphed into Human Code with its own signature musical sound. Human Code is Michael (Lee) Drive on vocals, George Ochoa on guitars, Todd Libby (Worldview) on bass, and Terry “The Animal” Russell (Holy Soldier, Neon Cross, D.O.G.) on drums. Fans are familiar with the three songs or so that have been demoed, but the band’s debut release is still imminent. The band began their set with “Don’t Kill the Messenger,” followed by “Say What You Mean,” “Evermore,” and “40 Seconds.” It was no secret that Jim LaVerde and Ray Parris, Michael’s old bandmates were there at the festival, and rumors were flying about a Barren Cross reunion, fueled no less by Michael letting the secret out. Sure enough, and much to fans absolute delight, Jim and Ray joined Human Code onstage to play BC songs “Deadlock” and “Imaginary Music.” The band returned to Human Code music with Genetic Dysfunction” and then Todd Libby moved over to keys, while Terry Russell’s son Colton played bass on the song “Rain.” George gave a word about suicide as an intro to “Lying Whispers,” The band then began “Blame Me” and hit a road block when Michael Drive forgot the first verse and needed an assist from his phone to jog his memory. (I refer to my earlier comment about live music not being flawless- and neither are we. Yes, we razzed him first, but give grace.)It was actually a humorous moment that will not be forgotten quickly. The band closed with “Socially Incorrect,” a scathing retort to the political correctness creeping into every aspect of our world. Glad to hear truth being spoken unapologetically.

Sunday’s headliner was THEOCRACY. It’s hard for many to believe the band is from Georgia, as they masterfully craft a brand of prog/power metal that is very much European in sound and style, speedy, melodic, and infinitely intricate and powerful. The band was started by Matt Smith and their self-titled album from 2003 has Matt writing and playing all the instruments. The band is currently comprised of Matt on vocals, Jonathan Hinds on guitars, Jared Oldham on bass, Ernie Topran on drums, and newcomer Taylor Washington on guitars. Matt was very down to earth when I encountered him coming out of our hotel, but he certainly put on a world class performance later. The band’s first two songs of the night, “Nailed,” and “Master Storyteller” come from their third album As the World Bleeds. Next up was “The Wonder of It All” from their most recent (2016) release Ghost Ship. Yes, it’s been a while as the guys hone their craft. The band revealed that a new release is coming and debuted the song “Return to Dust” from their upcoming fifth album. “Icthus” returned to their first album and Matt talked about the song’s meaning. Next was “As the World Bleeds” from the album of the same title, then the excellent “Absolution Day” from Mirror of Souls. “Ghost Ship” is the title track of their last album and the inspiring “I Am” from album number three and the perfect encore with “Laying the Demon to Rest” from album two. Sore throats all around as band and fans sang their hearts out.

The mood on the way home from a festival is always a little melancholy, a bit of a letdown for musicians and fans alike as they return to their jobs and homes after the spiritual high of such a great festival and the friendship and camaraderie that we share, but it’s encouraging to know that we’ll be returning for Immortal part 2 over Labor Day weekend. Will you be joining our family of headbanging believers for the next fest? There is revival here, and not just in the musical sense of the word. Thanks again to Steve and Linda Barhorst, Angie, and the whole BMI staff, Dorn Reppert and Susan Elmer Smith of Darth Plumber Artist Management, and all the bands and fans who made this thing possible. Godspeed on you!

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2 thoughts on “IMMORTAL FESTIVAL, PART ONE: Review

  1. A solid recap. Thanks. I was there with my teenage boys for both nights. We arrived late on Sunday……speaking of which, the attendance was down compared to Saturday night. For a number of reasons, if this continues to be a 2 day event, I would prefer it to be Friday & Saturday.

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