Furnace Fest 2021 reflection

Ninety* bands, three days, three stages.

Twenty years of nostalgia.

Two years since my last music festival.

I couldn’t let a fourteen-hour drive keep me from what promised to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Nearly every band that formed my musical tastes throughout my life were on the line up (barring mewithoutYou, who sadly had to drop, and Thrice, whose tourmates Touché Amoré played, but they did not [mewithoutYou was however replaced with Deafheaven, who are also a formative band for me]).

So early Thursday morning, I set off in my 2002 Ford Econoline (with brand new tires for the trip) and headed south. I picked up a friend in Cincinnati that I hadn’t seen in several years (and returned a video game I had borrowed from him before he moved out of town), then rendezvoused at the Airbnb outside of Birmingham with a few other friends who I’ve been in a group chat with for the past four years or longer, but never met in person. After the first-time-meeting jitters subsided (and catching up on AEW Dynamite with the friend from California that I message while wrestling shows), I went to bed and tried to push aside the adrenaline and residual driving anxiety and fall asleep.

The next morning, we stopped at a Waffle House (when in Rome) before setting off on the thirty minute drive to the Sloss Furnaces. My pre-fest excitement was hampered by the absolute nightmare that was the Birmingham metropolitan area’s highway system: a poorly laid out system that seemed to confound even native drivers. Once we arrived though, it started to sink in. A policeman with the look and demeanor of an older Daman Wayans checked our parking pass with an amusing demeanor that we called back to several times throughout the weekend. Once through the gates, we made our way to Merch Row to meet up with our friends at the Friend Club Record booth, who were selling beautiful Fest-Exclusive cassette reissues of albums from Emery, Showbread, The Beautiful Mistake, Be Well, and other bands playing the fest. After connecting with some other friends from across various internet groups for a while, I headed off to start watching bands.

Any festival like this with multiple stages is going to have hard choices to make, and the first choice was maybe the hardest, when As Cities Burn, Silent Planet, and Astronoid were all playing at the same time. I chose Astronoid—an admittedly strange choice for the lineup given the genre and longevity of the group, because 1) I figured they wouldn’t have much of a crowd given the competing acts and 2) the Plug Your Holes stage, where As Cities Burn was playing, was almost impossible to get into (but more on that later). Astronoid’s set was absolutely sublime as they played their gorgeously heavy dream thrash with flawless precision—not an easy feat given the technical prowess of the blast beats and swept guitar riffs. When they finished I managed to catch the last few minutes of As Cities Burn’s set from the back steps of the old factory where they were playing. While I would have loved to hear the entirety of their live playthrough of Son, I Loved You At Your Darkest, just hearing “Of Want and Misery: The Nothing That Kills” was enough, which they followed with a few rounds of the chorus from “Gates” off of Hell or Highwater, itself a rework of “Love Jealous One, Love” off of Son.

As rumor tells, it was around this time that someone broke their arm in a mosh pit during the Silent Planet set. He was carried off to the emergency room, had surgery to set the bone, and then returned later that night. He was the hero of the fest, and the legend of his exploits will be told for Furnace Fests to come.

Before I go any further, I need to talk about the fatal flaw of Furnace Fest, and that is the Sloss Furnaces themselves. The Plug Your Holes stage, which functioned as the de facto “heavy” stage (besides Piebald oddly), was inside the old pig-iron factory at the site. While this makes for a great aesthetic for hardcore and metal shows, it puts a hard and fast cap on the number of people who can see each band. It was common to see people sitting along the concrete walls on the sides, their feet dangling above the packed crowd. There was a large doorway to the side of the stage that VIP attendees had access to (I managed to talk my way past the guard at one point to meet with a friend who had snuck past him during Converge’s set), but other than that, anyone who wanted a good spot for any later acts (see: Zao, Beloved, Glassjaw, From Autumn to Ashes, Stretch Arm Strong, Knocked Loose, Turnstile, etc) had to secure a good spot early in the day and stay put through the rest of the acts. That’s not a terrible prospect—the line up on that stage was incredible, and a few people fell in love with bands they didn’t know about because they were trying to catch a later band (specifically my friend Chris who had never heard of Deafheaven and had his mind melt out of his skull during their Ten Years Gone set, the first chance they had to play the set they intended to play on the ten-years-as-a-band tour they had to cancel last year. However, staying put in that stage meant subjecting yourself to one of the most insane mosh pits I’d ever heard of. Knocked Loose almost started a fight with a security guard who threw their manager onto the ground thinking he was a regular attender trying to rush the stage. Someone collapsed during Turnstile’s set and cracked their head on the concrete, leading them to end their set a song early so the medics could get to him. Someone climbed and then threw themselves off of the lighting truss during Zao’s set. A thread in the Unofficial Furnace Fest attendees group was started to chronicle injuries sustained at the fest—the thread now has hundreds of comments. The other detriment of this stage was that the factory acted as a megaphone, projecting the music toward the Heart Support stage, which was an issue for some of the quieter acts.

For my own part though, since there were so many other bands I wanted to see on the other stages, I largely resigned myself to missing almost anything on that stage. There are a few notable exceptions though: I caught Hopesfall’s blistering set from next to the sound booth. I caught the last half of Deafheaven’s set from a cherry picker in the back of the building. I was right near the mosh pit for posi-hardcore supergroup Be Well, which had a tragically thin crowd, but that didn’t stop Brian McTeirnan’s unabashedly life-affirming energy from lifting everyone in the room as he spoke about the power of music and breaking the stigmas of mental illness. Even as someone unfamiliar with their music, I had a smile plastered onto my face for their whole set. However, I wasn’t able to get anywhere near the building for Zao’s set, which saddened me greatly, as Where Blood and Fire Bring Rest was one of the albums that turned me into a music fan in the first place.

But even with an entire stage largely inaccessible to me, there was still plenty of music to see. Cave In played an absolutely incredible set that spanned their entire career, from their metalcore origins to their atmospheric space rock to their lone major-label release Antenna. I’ve not been a big fan of the early material or their return to metalcore on White Silence, but this set gave me reason to revisit that. In the same way, Thursday’s set—which I watched as a consolation for having to miss Zao—blew me away. I saw them once in 2006 and was not impressed, but this set was a welcome surprise. Geoff Rickly peppered the set with jokes about their ages (“This year we’re celebrating an album that came out one hundred years ago. You might hear that and think, ‘that sounds like a lot,’ but then you see us and you say, ‘okay, that seems right’”), shots at ongoing political issues (he mentioned that their label told them that “Signals Over the Air” wouldn’t be relevant for long because it talks about how women don’t get paid the same as men and no one would care about that in twenty years), and a message of hope for anyone battling addiction, imploring them to get help and admitting that this was the first time he had played in Alabama since getting clean from heroin. Most of the set was culled from Full Collapse and War All the Time, but there were a few songs I was unfamiliar with that this set made me realize I should revisit. They also played a Texas Is the Reason cover, which was fitting since Norm from TITR has been playing guitar for their tour. It was also a sobering thought to hear the song “War All the Time,” a track that I’ve loved since high school, and realize that we withdrew troops from the war he was singing about during this current news cycle. On the other hand, I was next to a couple guys during the Appleseed Cast set who hadn’t heard any of their newer albums who had their minds blown by the synth-heavy post rock tracks from The Fleeting Light of Impermanence from 2019 and implored them to listen at their earliest convenience. They were convinced and said they would definitely check it out. Similarly, The Casket Lottery played a mind blowing set that pulled largely from last years’ Short Songs For End Times, which might be my favorite, but also played the hits you’d expect from Moving Mountains. Also, Stacy Hilt may have given the bass performance of the entire fest.

Obviously though, the most moving moments of the fest were the sets by those bands whose work had a sentimental stranglehold on my life—songs and albums that transport me back to specific points in time and interactions with people whose names and faces still burn brightly in my memory, whether I still talk to them or not. I was constantly texting old friends who weren’t at the fest to let them know I wished they could be there in that moment with me. Luckily, I did manage to watch Astronoid’s set next to my friend Rhys, who recommended them to me in a Facebook group, kickstarting our friendship. But those older and absent friends were just as present: I was back in my high school best friend and bassist Travis’s car during “War All the Time.” I was transported back to my grandparents’ house during both Appleseed Cast and Stavesacre’s set—both bands I discovered in compilations that I listened to on repeat while trying to fall asleep on the itchy upholstery of their basement couch. I was back with my long distance girlfriend while Mineral played “Unfinished,” and for a moment the naïve (and unexecuted) plan of getting married at nineteen and eighteen didn’t feel as foolish as it does in my thirties. I was back at youth group with Derek, Tony, and Tex while Showbread played a selection of songs off of No Sir, Nihilism Is Not Practical (and “Naked Lunch”). That nostalgia was not lost on the bands either, many of whom took time to express how things have changed since they wrote the songs, or how they haven’t—before “Stabbing Art to Death,” Josh Dies explained that Showbread was born out of the merging of punk rock and Southern Christian Fundamentalism (which he did not mean as a compliment, despite the cheers), and how he now holds even tighter to “the ancient, historic, orthodox Jesus Christ,” and went on to say “I mean these songs more now than I did when I wrote them.” On the other hand, Bret Detar of The Juliana Theory prefaced “Something Isn’t Right” with an apology, joking that it was the song that got them labeled an “emo boy band,” which he agreed with, before saying, “This is our Backstreet Boys cover. It goes out to…Zao,” his former band, with whom tensions have always been high.

Speaking of high tensions, it seemed like Get Up Kids drummer Ryan Pope was about to bust through his kit to punch guitarist Jim Suptic in the face a couple times, especially after Jim explained, “if he flips me off during our set, that’s just because he hates my guts.” If it was a joke, I’m not sure if Ryan was in on it.

As far as the best sets of the fest, at this point in time, exhausted as I am from a fourteen hour drive that brought me home at midnight after three days of intense music festivals, I would have to give them to The Juliana Theory, Further Seems Forever, and Jeremy Enigk.

When I was first getting into emo in the first place, it seemed like everyone named three bands as influences: Jawbox, Fugazi, and Sunny Day Real Estate. Sunny Day became one of my favorite bands my sophomore year in high school when I bought a copy of LP2 at a music store in Philly. I devoured it, and over the next few years, I would do the same thing with the rest of their albums, as well as his solo material, and the SDRE side project The Fire Theft. While Jeremy performed by himself this weekend, his set spanned songs from all of those projects, including two of my favorite songs from How It Feels To Be Something On, which might be the album I call my favorite the most often (everyone knows the best SDRE album is the one you’re listening to). With just an acoustic guitar (or piano) and his voice, beset by Deafheaven’s set blasting from the factory, Enigk gave a performance that moved me to tears on multiple occasions (and again when I watched the video I took of “Guitar and Video Games.” His set made it hard to lament missing Deafheaven, but after I forced myself to leave his set halfway through, Deafheaven’s set made it hard to regret the move.

When Dashboard Confessional was blowing up, I told everyone who would listen (and even some of those who wouldn’t) that Chris’s old band, Further Seems Forever, was way better—even though I myself had gotten into them through DBCF. While this set was billed as a How To Start a Fire playthrough set with Jason Gleason returning, it veered pretty quickly, playing “Monachetti,” “New Year’s Project,” and “The Moon is Down” off of the first record. At one point, bassist Chad Neptune talked at length about how much late vocalist Jon Bunch would have loved the event, after which they played a tear-inducing rendition of “Light Up Ahead.” I sang along with every word of the set and cried often, and laughed far too loud for the dudes in front of me when Neptune joked that “this song was named after beating Halo on legendary mode.” At the end of the set, they played a Strongarm “cover” with Joe Musten from Beloved. Neptune explained before the song that Strongarm was always first and foremost a ministry, and clarified to them that Christianity wasn’t some Trump thing (he then said “Nice shirt,” to someone who, according to the rumor mill, was wearing a shirt that said “Fuck Trump”), but it was about compassion and love and taking care of those around you. I’ve never been much of a Strongarm fan myself (I was a bit too young), but the passion of the performance only reinforced the nostalgia bomb of the FSF set.

The summer before my freshman year, the aforementioned Travis and I had an older friend from church named Kelly who had a car. That summer was filled with random rides around town while listening to music. One of the CDs she had was the Songs from the Penalty Box 4 sampler (the same disc where I discovered Stavesacre), and on this disc was a song called “To the Tune of 5,000 Screaming Children” by The Juliana Theory, and it sounded like nothing I had ever heard before. Later, my friend Jonathan played a mix for me that had another song by them called, “If I Told You This Was Killing Me, Would You Stop?” On my fifteenth birthday, I dragged my family to a record store while on vacation in Sarasota, Florida, where I bought Dashboard’s The Places You Have Come to Fear the Most, Understand This is a Dream, and Emotion is Dead. While all of those CDs grabbed me, Emotion had the most staying power. When I heard they were planning to play the record, I was apprehensive that they might try some of the “Reimagined” tracks that have been released recently, but my fears were assuaged immediately as they launched into a faithful rendition of “Into the Dark.” They continued through, pausing to thank the fans and joke at their own expense (and given how ripe Bret has been for criticism recently, self-deprecation was the right move). Jay Forrest from Hopesfall joined for the screamed section of “Is Patience Still Waiting?” which was a collaboration I didn’t realize I needed. I had thought nothing could top the experience I had during the Further Seems Forever set, but I quickly realized how wrong I was. Hearing the album that introduced me to emo in the first place twenty years after the fact at a festival filled with bands that I only discovered because of that album was absolutely transcendent. Time did not exist. The last two decades folded in on each other, and I was fifteen again, eighteen again, twenty-five again. It was the perfect set to emblemize what the fest meant for me. There were several bands present that steered my music tastes over the years: Zao, Deafheaven, Mae, Thursday, Cave In…but hearing Emotion Is Dead played live and in full fulfilled the true meaning of the fest to me.

Furnace Fest wasn’t just a nostalgia trip though: for many of the attendees and bands alike, this was the first music festival—or even show period—since the pandemic brought everything to a halt. Astronoid mentioned that this was their first show in two years. Touché Amoré said it was their first set since releasing Lament last year. Many of the bands have been inactive for several years. And given this long gap, there was definitely some rust at all levels. Some of the acts were hampered by sound issues (Mae’s sound in particular was very rough, and The Appleseed Cast had a couple moments where they had to fight with their huge arsenal of equipment to get it to work. The mains popped off for a fraction of a second during the Get Up Kids’ set). All of the food trucks were unprepared for the demand of their first big crowd in two years. There were some obvious goofs in some of the bands’ sets. But for all of the frustrations this rust caused, it also did a lot to humanize organizers, tech crews, and even the bands themselves. There was no rock star posturing—the bands were just as happy to be playing to a crowd again as we were to be listening. Several band members were spotted watching other bands’ sets (Casket Lottery in particular had a large crowd of other musicians watching from backstage). Jeremy Enigk was spotted watching Unwed Sailor. Adam Lazzara of Taking Back Sunday watched The Appleseed Cast from backstage. The members of Unwed Sailor were then spotted at Hopesfall’s set. Geoff Rickly lamented that they were playing at the same time as Zao, then told everyone to see Jeremy Enigk’s set the next day. And in moments like that, it was made clear that this was more than just a music festival. The music that these bands have written and played and toured together over the years that has meant so much to so many of us wasn’t just a commodity to buy and consume and buy a ticket for. It created a community. During Be Well’s set, Brian McTiernan referenced how many of the bands at the fest he had had the pleasure to work with, saying, “you may love these bands’ music, but if you knew them as people, if you knew where their music came from, you would want to be buried with their records.”

Furnace Fest XXI was a music festival, but it was so much more than that. It was a much-needed release of two years of global pandemic and cultural division. It was an explosion of formative nostalgia and expertly written and performed music. It was a gathering of a community built on shared experiences and communal nostalgia. But most of all, it was a celebration—a declaration that life is good and a demonstration of the power of music for making it better.

And while it has been announced that Furnace Fest XXII will be happening next year, I’m not sure there’s any way it can bring the same release and celebration of this year’s. It was a generational experience that perfectly intersected with dozens of long-delayed reunions and the cultural trauma of the last two years. It was exactly what I needed, and judging by the reaction of the rest of the attendees, vendors, and even the talent, I wasn’t alone.

*90 acts were billed, but Andrew WK bizarrely canceled the day before his Sunday-night headlining slot and then deleted his social media profiles and website. Turnstile was moved to his slot, which is fitting giving the huge success of their modern masterpiece Glow On.

-Nathaniel Fitzgerald

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