Although few would dispute metal's steady resurgence in the early 2000s (gradually filling the void left by the exiting nu-metal -- dreadful hair metal of the '90s), actual visual sightings of the genre's underground powers remain preciously scarce. But then, if time and musical history have taught anyone anything, it is that metal is arguably best-served when left standing on the fringes of commercial acceptance -- where angry and disillusioned teens can revel in the cathartic release of trend-thwarting energy and anger. As if to confirm this very philosophy, Relapse Records offers a welcome glimpse into metal's seething underground with the very impressive Contamination Festival 2003 -- two DVDs showcasing 13 bands performing at the Trocadero Theatre in the label's hometown of Philadelphia. And a meticulous package it is, too, featuring a 5.1 stereo surround mix, bonus interviews, and behind-the-scenes footage to go with its nearly four hours of live music. It also shows just how far Relapse has come from its humble origins as a one-dimensional grindcore label to include all manner of extreme music: from pure heavy metal, to stoner, doom, and avant-garde. In fact, the only obvious deficiency here is that audience response is virtually inaudible in the mix; tending at times to, as Spinal Tap once said, "understate the hugeness of the object."
But moving on to the show itself: doom-death über-stoners Bongzilla start the ball rolling and set heads a-nodding (but never really banging) with four songs, and it's up to Southern rockers Alabama Thunder Pussy to substantially kick up the energy level with their dependably intense performance. Cephalic Carnage's old-school grind hearkens back to Relapse's days of old, and their on-stage freaking out quickly sets the theater's at first conspicuously static watchers into a flailing mosh-pit -- the better to properly welcome modern metal's conquering heroes, the mighty Mastodon. Although in the flesh the group looks nowhere near as intimidating as its wall of sound suggests, the quartet (featuring one of the best drummers in the universe in Bränn Dailor) clearly has full control of the audience, and only the hypnotic and terrifying spectacle that is Neurosis -- a band that single-handedly justifies the DVD format's existence -- could possibly top such a show of force and wrap up disc one with a bang. This they do, seamlessly integrating four colossal submissions with the psycho visuals they have become known for to compose a unique and spellbinding performance (credit to the filmmakers here for making it all work, too).
Understandably, DVD number two struggles to get the ball rolling in this aftermath. Metallic oddballs Pig Destroyer are always guaranteed to provide a head-banging good time, but after watching the kids slamdance away to Burnt by the Sun's dull stage presence and same-old metalcore style only graced with sillier names, it's surprising to see them standing stock-still when the maniacal Today Is the Day takes to the stage. Maybe they're in shock as Steve Austin's (looking like Eric Clapton's evil twin) art-metal trio deploys its lunatic aural Armageddon upon them, but there's simply no excuse (except for final proof that this was a predominantly hardcore audience) for the rather apathetic reaction to pure metal machine High on Fire. Sure enough, Neanderthal-esque screamer/guitarist Matt Pike gets no love for previewing a new song, but at least the crowd responds to a teeth-gnashing cover of Venom's "Witching Hour." But the hardcore kids are primed and ready for those loony tunes in the Dillinger Escape Plan, who explode (literally, fireworks and all) into their inscrutable sonic constructions to the mosh-pit glee of all. After that, all that's left to do is sample the DVD extras, including brief performances by up-and-comers Daylight Dies, 27, Dysrhythmia, and the End, as well as behind the scenes interviews with many of the participants.