With the abundance of music festivals cropping up in recent years, there has been a growing necessity for interesting themes which entice concertgoers to attend. Perhaps none are quite so distinctive as that which has been taking place near one of America’s most famous former prisons, a festival known for its laser focus on body art. The aptly named Inkcarcertation Festival has become a coveted honor for a growing number of American rock and metal bands, as its dual themes of aggressive music and tattooing play well to the intense and visually extravagant acts that have dominated the continental U.S. market over the past few decades.
Likewise, there is the added auspiciousness of playing amid the Ohio State Reformatory, a closed prison and subsequent tourist attraction that has provided a set for such notable films as Tango & Cash, The Shawshank Redemption and Air Force One. This is to say nothing for its association with paranormal investigation shows and notable modern rock acts like Godsmack and Marilyn Manson. To put it simply, it’s the sort of venue where magic tends to happen, and the throngs that would assemble in the summer heat for the first day of festivities on July 14, 2023, were in for quite a spectacle.
Naturally, both human limitation and the massive number of acts that would rock the three stages made covering every single band impossible. But between the major acts that would rock the primary Inkmates stage and the secondary Inked stage, the extravaganza that unfolded could stand for the entire event. Among the earlier attractions would be electropop meets emo/punk upstart outfit Mothica, led by the somber yet alluring voice and creative prowess of Oklahoma City-born artist McKenzie Ellis. Ellis herself is an aficionado, her character accented by body paint and the high intensity factor that often goes with it. Though her synthesizer-driven and creative approach to the art of rock would be among the least aggressive presentations from a sonic perspective, the combination of witty lyricism and dramatic vocals would provide a feminine foil to what would mostly be a cacophony of unfettered masculine fury. Mothica also featured a concise and consonant musical alternative to the succession of pummeling riffs and beats typical to most of the New Wave of American Heavy Metal. Stand out moments included the short yet sweet balladry of breakout hit “VICES”, the rocking grooves with a carnival-like demeanor of “SENSITIVE”. No matter how these held the crowd rapt, the riveting confessional anthem “Forever Fifteen” that recounts a past suicide attempt by Ellis would steal the set.
The atmosphere would take a very extreme turn with the entry of Ohio natives and relative newcomer nu-metal revivalist act A Killer’s Confession, bringing the sort of exaggerated heaviness and outlandish stage presentation that would make the likes of Slipknot proud. Granted, this Cleveland-based outfit brought a more stripped down brand of nu-metal to the equation than the aforementioned troupe from Iowa, sticking to a 4-piece arrangement. This quartet is led by the ferocious bark of black-cloak toting alternative metal monk Waylon Reavis (and yes, that’s the best way to describe his attire), who proceeded to shout his lungs out of his mouth with a level of fervor comparable to Max Cavalera circa 1995, a fitting eventuality given that one of the staples of their set was an amped up reinterpretation of Sepultura‘s “Roots Bloody Roots”. The rest of the fold, rounded out by guitarist Tommy Church, bassist JP Cross and drummer Morgan Bauer, would do their best to explore the stage while punishing the airwaves, but it was near impossible to take one’s eyes off the costume and gesticulations sported by Reavis as one mid-paced pile-driver of an anthem followed the next, with entries like “Be My Witness” and “Numb” being among the standouts.
The flavor of the sonic cuisine offered up at the threshold of punishing mid-July heat would take on a decidedly smoother and more accessible mold of auditory carnage with the arrival of Michigander metalcore mainstays We Came As Romans. This spectacle offered time-warping to all in attendance, taking the crowd back to the style’s late 2000s heyday with a few subsequent twists in the process. One would be remiss to neglect the heavy influence of electronically geared predecessors outfits like Linkin Park in the influence of this outfit’s sound, be it through the keyboard interplay behind the game of riffs put forth by guitarists Joshua Moore and Lou Cotton, or the Chester Bennington-like tinge that lead vocalist Dave Stephens often sports alongside his signature post-hardcore shout. Though fist-raising anthems like “Darkbloom,” “Daggers,” and “Black Hole” would raise the invisible roof with a less ferocious level of rage than A Killer’s Confession, the audience’s response suggested the exact opposite. The sea of crowd-surfing enthusiasts would have been the envy of any heavy hitter.
Words would struggle to truly do justice to what was in store next for the masses of tattooed onlookers with the entry of Salt Lake City-born deathcore colossus Chelsea Grin, but suffice to say, the aggression dial was turned somewhere past 10 (though just shy of infinity). The corresponding tidal wave of rhythmically precise, occasionally djenting guitar lines from Stephen Rutishauser, pummeling bass input by David Flinn, and ear-shattering crashes of session drummer Nathan Pearson‘s kit would send the crowd of spectators into a full blown frenzy. At the center of it all was the inhuman vocalizations put forth by relative newcomer and frontman Tom Barber, whose insanely brutal vocal display could be best described as a de facto summoning of every demon from the darkest pits of hell. The band would hit their zenith point with noted skull-crushing deathcore fodder “Playing With Fire” and “Hostage,” but those in attendance would have been hard-pressed to reference a single moment of their set when the sonic violence relented to even the slightest degree.
Though intensity was not in deficit at any point up until mid-afternoon, a sizable degree of experience and gravitas would be brought to the event with the arrival of Bridgeport, Connecticut metalcore pioneers Hatebreed. Mike Muir may well have trademarked the name Infectious Grooves, but this fold of beatdown hardcore trustees delivered a massive helping of it, reminiscing back to a time when the metalcore style was not as influenced by the melodic underpinnings of the Gothenburg sound and treaded closer to the bottom-heavy and thrashing quality of the old school hardcore sound. Nevertheless, the dual guitar assault of Frank Novinec and Wayne Lozinak, alongside the meaty rhythm section of bassist Chris Beattie and drummer Matt Byrne had a decidedly metal sense of poise and impact. This was tempered by the more rustic brand of brutish force put forth by Jamey Jasta‘s throaty, punk-infused shouts – all performed while sporting a Hell Awaits t-shirt. Classic anthems flowed one after the next, with standouts performances of “Smash Your Enemies”, “Proven,” and the show-closing kill-fest “I Will Be Heard” showcasing this quintet doing what they do best: turning Inkarceration into a madhouse with crowd-surfing as far as they eye could see.
The auditory pendulum would swing back towards a more measured and melodic brand of aggression with the arrival of Texan metalcore outfit Fit For A King, although the slight reduction in pulsating aggression was hard to notice amid the stage show that soon commenced. Though it was pretty well established that lead vocalist Ryan Kirby was directing traffic throughout the set, it was difficult to take one’s eyes off guitarist Bobby Lynge and bassist Ryan “Tuck” O’Leary, who both spent so much time in the air that it was a wonder that they didn’t fly off into the horizon. Musically speaking, the tone that was struck was quite heavy even when measured against the titan-level fury of Chelsea Grin and Hatebreed. Pummeling anthems like “Reaper” came dangerously close to trading blows with the aggression of both aforementioned bands, while the melodically-tinged thrashing drive of “The Price Of Agony” and the fist-pumping stomp of “When Everything Means Nothing” became lasting highlights of a memorable show.
An air of eccentricity, quirkiness and the outright bizarre would adorn the succession of ultra-heaviness with the arrival of Los Angeles nu-metal icons and de facto circus troupe Coal Chamber. Arguably one of the beneficiaries of a recent revival of the old 90s style, this old school blend of Korn-inspired grooving rage with a side-order of Marilyn Manson-inspired craziness has been riding fairly high since reforming yet again last year, and it showed throughout their performance. From the opening chords of classic 90s entry “Loco,” the crowd was in a state of sheer elation, reciprocating the outlandish theatrics that ruled the stage with a correspondingly unique response that was topped off with a father crowd-surfing with his young daughter strapped to his chest. The kinetic movements of the band were perpetually off the hook as vocalist Dez Fafara repeatedly attempted to launch his long braids into the sky when not filling the mic with explosive fits of rage. Bassist Nadja Peulen occasionally pulled everyone’s eyes towards her with the ferocity with which she slapped her four-string, injecting a fire into noted anthems like “Fiend”, “Big Truck” and “Oddity” that fell just shy of melting the entire venue.
The weirdness factor would be tapered off in favor of a more straightforward brand of aggression with California’s own deathcore pioneers and tatted impresarios Suicide Silence, and no punches would be pulled during their time in the ring. Reprising their textbook tutorial on how to destroy an audience, lead vocalist Hernan “Eddie” Hermida directed the crowd to form an impossibly wide chasm before the third track commenced. In the midst of this resulting space was a husky fellow wearing a vest that read “The Pit Doctor,” meant to mark the spot of a typical European wall of death event, a sacrament which commenced once Eddie shouted the order from the stage. This was the tip of a massive ice berg of crowd participation that rivaled all of the other acts that would rock the stage that day, with blistering renditions of noted crushers with an earth-shaking bottom end like “You Only Live Once” and “No Pity For A Coward” being the standouts of a consistent soundtrack to a capacity crowd running riot in all directions.
The intensity factor would take on a more subdued and melodramatic tone (and a less metallic one) with the entry of Cape Cod alternative rock upstarts Highly Suspect, led by the smoky baritone of charismatic heartthrob Johnny Stevens. Given the far less aggressive tone that would be struck, there was a corresponding downturn in the amount of moshing and crowd-surfing taking place, though the level of enthusiasm and noise being brought to bear by their core audience of predominantly women did much to compensate for the lack of physical movement. The tone set by the succession of songs that were handpicked from their 8 year body of work had a curious blend of grungy, blues-driven, and occasionally hip hop-influenced swagger to it that definitely stood out from the pack, and the lovelorn to occasionally misanthropic lyrics conveyed by Stevens‘ impassioned yet occasionally nonchalant voice definitely turned a few heads, with crowd favorites like “Lydia,” “Serotonia,” and “Pink Lullabye” garnering the greatest number of decibels in response. The band’s quirky antics – which included passing around a joint on stage and introducing themselves using famous film star names – were just as noteworthy as the more aural elements of their set.
The entry of San Diego nu-metal icons P.O.D. (an initialism for Payable On Death for those who’ve been living under a rock since the early 2000s) would bring the energy level back to a respectable roar for those who were seeking impact over nuance, and they did just about everything during their set except show their age. Being among the few bands on the roster to still enjoy the continued membership of most of its founding members, there was a certain level of polish and poise that shone brighter than any of the preceding acts as they jumped and frolicked about the stage, guided by the rhythmically precise, quasi-rapped vocalizations of front man Sonny Sandoval. Naturally, the audience response was at a fever pitch, particularly when the resounding refrains of such noted radio hits from decades past “Southtown,” “Drop,” and “Alive” filled the air. It was difficult to pick an outright climax point in their set when accounting for the passion and enthusiasm that they brought to other noted bangers like “Rock the Party (Off The Hook)” and “Youth Of The Nation”.
Metal bona fides would share the stage with a more eclectic blend of rock influences with the triumphant entry of one of the festival’s few non-North American acts – Danish metallers Volbeat. Though they were changed by the recent exodus of longtime lead guitarist Rob Caggiano, the remaining trio of core members in front man and rhythm guitarist Michael Poulsen, drummer Jon Larsen and bassist Kaspar Boye Larsen would light the stage ablaze. These dedicated musicians were aided by a worthy showing by touring lead guitarist Flemming C. Lund, who performed more than aptly while filling Caggiano‘s shoes. The conjunction of classic heavy and thrash metal tropes, particularly those imported from such legendary acts as Black Sabbath, Motörhead, Metallica, and Anthrax, proved a boon in getting the audience into a state of pandemonium. This coalescence of rock, metal, and blues ignited with such instant classics as the thrashing grooves of “Shotgun Blues,” the doomy Sabbath-like swagger of “The Devil’s Bleeding Crown,” and the fast-paced, classic heavy metal thunder of “Seal the Deal” functioning as standouts amid a highly consistent set of riveting bangers that had every head banging and body moving.
The responsibility of closing the proceedings fell on the shoulders of nu-metal stalwarts Limp Bizkit, who found themselves performing in front of scores of thousands, for as long as the eye could see. Wes Borland – known for his stage wardrobe – was dressed in black, with a piece of gladiator armor covering his right shoulder and corpse paint all over his face, and he moved around relentlessly punishing his guitar (he’s been lauded as very respectable guitar player, but it takes a different dimension when you actually see him play). Sam Rivers and John Otto left no doubt about being an undeniably powerhouse rhythm section, and charismatic front-man Fred Durst – donning a white jersey with the number 3 in the front, and a pair of old-school glasses – sort of stole the spotlight with his usual stage antics, bouncing around his band-mates at the rhythm of repertoire’s classics like “My Generation”, “Break Stuff”, “Rollin’ (Air Raid Vehicle)” and their rendition of George Michael’s “Faith”, while security sweated literal bullets to capture the never-ending sea of crowd-surfers coming to the front barricade from every possible direction. It was a chaotic yet beautiful scene to behold, one that stamped the seal on the first day and left the air charged with the electricity of a memorable ending.