Fire in the Mountains 2022
It took Jeremy Walker, Founder & Owner of Fire in the Mountains, less than five hours to answer the questions I emailed just days before his third festival kicked off at the Heart 6 Ranch in Moran, Wyoming. I had five questions, but Jeremy’s answer to the third inquiry was the gamechanger. When I read “4-year-olds are encouraged,” I decided my wife, daughter, and I would tow our Scamp trailer up to Wyoming for a weekend of music, camping, and exploring Grand Teton National Park.
I attended Copenhell in Denmark with friends in June and was impressed with the number of parents who brought kids. It made me wonder if people would equally welcome children at a “metal” festival in the United States. Fire in the Mountains was the perfect opportunity to find out.
Fire in the Mountains is not your typical music festival. It takes place on one of the oldest dude ranches in America, and the main stage frames the picturesque Teton mountain range. The entrance to the National Park is minutes from the festivities. With less than 1500 attendees (most of whom camp on site or stay in cabins, tepees, or covered wagons on the ranch), the experience is more like a small gathering than a big European metal festival. It is common to see artists who already played standing in the crowd, enjoying the performances as much as the paying customers.
“Fire in the Mountains was originally created to highlight the symbiotic relationship between heavy music and mountain landscapes. It is the deliberate curation of music, art, education, food, and adventure with the intention to cultivate our intrinsic nature through the act of rewilding; that is, to reconnect and immerse oneself with the natural world in order to cultivate our intrinsic nature.”
These days, many festivals try to be more than what they are (a place to get drunk, sunburned, and be seen), but Fire in the Mountains lived up to the vision quoted above. Sure, some people forgot sunscreen, there was alcohol (and a few consumed more than they could handle), and there were those who were “seen.” Still, it was one of the most laid-back, friendliest, and stress-free festivals I have ever attended, which is not something I would have expected from a gathering in bear country headlined by Enslaved and Wolves in the Throne Room.
Fire in the Mountains is a destination festival. People drive in from all over the country (and Canada), while others fly into Jackson Hole for a more immediate experience. We drove the 480 miles from Denver on Thursday. What should have taken eight hours took closer to ten because we were towing a camper and had extras gas and restroom stops, so we drove the last few hours in pitch darkness, keeping an eye out for suicidal animals before they bolted onto the highway. We reached the ranch before midnight and found a key and a map in an envelope for our late arrival (we decided to stay in a cabin the first night). It was not until we woke up and walked outside that we realized how beautiful our surroundings were.
The ranch facilities are on a small hill above the festival site, the Buffalo Fork River crawls through the field below like a giant snake, and the mountains tower on the horizon. It is the Wyoming wilderness at its finest. And right there, in the middle of it, were a couple of stages, white vendor tents, and a colorful sprawl of early birds who had already set up camp.
After getting over the spectacle of the locale, we stashed the Scamp (check-out was at 10:00 am, but attendee camping did not open until 2:00 pm) and left the ranch to explore the surrounding area. After stopping at a gas station to wash the evidence of insect genocide off the grill and windshield of our 4Runner, we took the obligatory family photos in front of the granite peaks, saw a herd of buffalo, drove past the barns on Mormon Row, and took the overpriced gondola up to the famous wafflehouse at 10,450 ft. We returned to Moran, hitched up the Scamp, and pulled it down to the field just in time to hear Sean Perry’s Celtic chants while we set up camp.
Once settled, we walked the few minutes from camp to the Buffalo Stage to watch Mike Scheidt perform a solo set that included the YOB epics “Marrow” and “Beauty in Falling Leaves.” The falling sun set the sky on fire, turning the jagged mountains into silhouettes in the distance. There was something surreal about the whole scene. It felt like we were all a part of a secret society. Our daughter was a part of it as well. The music did not matter to her (or my wife) as much as to me, but I swear she made more friends before dark than I made during my five days in Copenhagen. Jeremy was not lying when he said kids were encouraged.
Steve Von Till was up next, and he performed the perfect set to welcome the night. Following Mike’s selections about nature (something of a theme for the weekend), Steve’s “Dreams of Trees,” “Night of the Moon,” and the poem “VI-XII” all seemed to be written for the exact point in space and time we found ourselves as the darkness exposed the light reaching Earth from the long-dead stars above.
We walked a few minutes back to our camp with Odell IPAs (only $6 if you brought your own cup, $9 if you did not) and bear spray in hand around 10:00 pm. The temperature had been sliced in half, and it felt nice after living through a heatwave in Colorado. We crashed around midnight and were surprised by a peaceful night’s sleep. There were voices in the distance, but we experienced a level of respect for other campers uncommon at “regular” music festivals.
Helen Money and Nechochwen also performed the opening ceremony, but we missed their sets and the bear safety course because we were still exploring the area. Luckily, we saw Helen Money perform at other times during the festival.
My wife was convinced to come on this trip by the “hippie” element more than the “metalhead” element. Qi Gong with Colleen Fletcher each morning at 8:00 am, followed by “metaltations,” ethnobotanical plant walks with Carl Schreirer, Ph.D., teachings on climate change and ancient human values, microanimism: these extracurricular activities appeal to her senses much more than the musical line-up. So, I expected her to be up with the sun the following day. As it turned out, she had a much better time at the opening ceremony than expected and decided to sleep late. It probably didn’t help that our daughter crawled into bed with us during the night and proceeded to occupy more space than seemed possible for her size.
Once we were all up, we decided it was too hot to partake in the panels and teachings, so we drove into Jackson. We had a delicious breakfast, and my wife made up for missing qi gong by purchasing some crystals. We cooled off (and cleaned up) in Jenny Lake before heading back to the ranch for another day of music.
I saw Dreadnought in Denver a couple of weeks ago and have seen DBUK several times, so the epic, Austin-based, heavy metal band Eternal Champion was my first set of the day. I was unfamiliar with them, so they were a fantastic surprise. Quite the kick in the gut compared to the acoustic performances the night before. The Texans took us through the interdimensional adventures of their namesake hero with material from 2020’s “Ravening Iron” and 2016’s “The Armor of Ire,” and I forgot the heat for forty-five minutes while their hardcore fans kicked up dust in the small, satisfying pit.
The people behind Fire in the Mountains have been adamant the festival is not purely metal. Ivar Bjørnson curated much of the fest this year (titled “On Wings Over Utgard,” his picks included Wolves in the Throne Room, YOB, Wayfarer, Steve Von Till, Sean Parry, and Mike Scheidt), but there was also DBUK, Wovenhand, and Snakes, all who lean more toward gothic country than metal.
David Eugene Edwards is one of the most enigmatic musicians to come out of Colorado. He grew up traveling around with his preacher grandfather before forming one of the most influential alt-country bands of all time, 16 Horsepower, then taking a more Avant-folk direction with Wovenhand. It is a shame he didn’t draw the largest crowd for his solo Saturday afternoon set because it was a highlight of the fest. David does not talk much, and many of his lyrics are as mysterious as the man himself. Still, there is something otherworldly about him as he performs some of Wovenhand’s best songs, 16 Horsepower’s “Hutterite Mile” and “Horse Head,” and a cover of Dylan’s “As I Went Out One Morning” in a cloud of faux fog with the mountains as witnesses. If there was one artist who seemed truly at home on a ranch in the Wyoming wilderness, it was David Eugene Edwards.
The Wovenhand set was a warning of the impending storm building on the horizon. Wayfarer was the tornado ripping across the plains, decimating anyone who didn’t heed David’s prophecy. Also hailing from Colorado, Wayfarer are to the wild west what Wolves in the Throne room are to the Cascadian mountains. They tell tales of gunfighters, blood, and death riding in on the dusty wind, with a punishing backdrop of black metal. Wayfarer formed a couple of years after I moved to Denver, but I did not discover them until they signed with Profound Lore and released “World’s Blood” in 2018. Their performance on the Buffalo Stage was my first time experiencing their live assault, and it was something to behold. The set started with the first three tracks from “A Romance with Violence,” before bringing Kelly Schilling from Dreadnought out for “Vaudeville,” and ended with “Animal Crown” while the red-eyed skull stared them down from above the stage. Like many other bands on the bill, Wayfarer was born to be performing at this location.
Ivar Bjørnson and Grutle Kjellson have been performing as Enslaved for over thirty years, and (with Ivar curating much of the festival) I knew the Norwegians would scorch the earth with their headlining set. I was not disappointed. Kicking things off with “Jettegryta” from their latest full-length while the sky lit up with flames from the setting sun, they went back in time for “Return to Yggdrasil.” As the colors in the sky began fading, torches on the stage lit the black night as the band took us back to 2003 for a double feature from “Below the Lights.” The title track for “Isa” was prefaced (like so many other songs) as “this is the first time we’ve played this, in Wyoming.” Kjellson might not be quite as funny as Abbath or Åkerfeldt, but his sense of humor proves that while the music is heavy as fuck, the guys in the band don’t take themselves too seriously. In other words, they like to have a good time. The audience was having a good time as well. There were quite a few more intoxicated stumbles than the night before, the pit was rowdier than ever, and the giant bonfire sparked the inner wilding in everyone. Even the kids were running around playing a game that looked like Duck Duck Goose mixed with slam dancing. The sole encore of the festival came in the form of “Ruun,” leaving the amped crowd hungry for more.
The plan was to dedicate day three to experience all the festival had to offer. I awoke early, went up to the ranch, and watched (but did not partake) in Colleen’s qi gong session. We had breakfast at the Buffalo Valley Café and attended a panel discussion titled “Mirrors, Revolving Doors and Wormholes: Music’s (fuzzy) Connections to Cultural Pasts,” where Ivar Bjørnson and Steve Von Till joined Elena Radford (an Inca Shaman) and others to discuss why they make music, where their inspiration comes from, and how it all ties into this crazy world we call home. Then we hiked up the hill to visit Crazy Tom, where our 4-year-old practiced archery while I threw some axes. We had every intention of attending the ethnobotanical plant walk and learning more about Viking tattoos, but we needed to cool off, so we drove to Jackson Lake and took a dip in Colter Bay before returning to the fest in time for Austin Lunn’s acoustic set.
What Austin does as Panopticon has always blown me away, so I was so stoked to see him perform at the Gothic Theatre for TRVE Brewing’s 10th Anniversary Bacchanal in June. I was also looking forward to his closing ceremony on Sunday night. When BardSpec canceled their set so Ivar could focus on his other responsibilities during the fest, I was only disappointed for a hot second because Austin was given the opportunity to fill that slot. Joined by a small string section, I was expecting a set of “Scars” songs but was surprised when tracks like “Beast Rider,” “Not Much Will Change When I’m Gone,” and the appropriate closer, “At the Foot of the Mountain,” were augmented by “…and Again into the Light”, “The Pit,” and a couple of tracks from two upcoming albums. Ever the nice guy, Austin was hilariously apologetic about the depressing themes on display (the new tracks were called “The Poetry of Roadkill” and “Flowers in the Ditch”), but no apology was necessary. He might be known for ‘blacker than a coal mine’ metal, but the man can hold his own as an Americana singer, something he took to another level around the bonfire later that night.
As another example of how there was no metal bias in booking and that Colorado was shown much love, Snakes filled the 4:15 pm slot on the Buffalo Stage. Led by the son of Slim Cessna (who performed earlier with DBUK and watched from the audience with his wife), the Denver-based band brought an old-timey feel to a spirited rock set. They are what Cessna’s Auto Club would sound like if the apocalypse were averted. Slim definitely had an impact on his son.
Obsequiae’s brand of black metal is melodic, but that does not mean their fans stand around swaying back and forth while nodding their heads gently to the music. Their fans pit! The Bostonians won the award for causing the heaviest dust storm of the festival as they ripped through selections from “Aria of Vernal Tombs” and “The Palms of Sorrowed Kings.” I listened to most of their set while watching the crowd. Sometimes the people in front of the stage are just as interesting as those on it.
After a quick break at camp (in which I missed Portland-based Tchornobog) came the heaviest hour of the festival. At the discussion earlier in the day, the panelists spoke about why they make “extreme” music. The consensus was that writing and performing music was a way of communicating ideas and feelings that no language could convey. That is how I feel about seeing YOB perform live. Yes, it is heavy. Yes, it is visceral. But those words cannot describe the way the music moves me. I’ve seen YOB many times, but this was one of the best performances ever. The sound was perfect. The sunset slot could not have been reserved for a more appropriate band. And Mike Scheidt was zoned out in a world of his own. His catharsis only broke when he snapped a couple of guitar strings during a tectonic shifting rendition of “Adrift in the Ocean.” I could have gone home when the song finished, and it alone would have been worth the drive to Wyoming.
Salt Lake City’s Visigoth almost had to cancel because their drummer tested positive for COVID. Andy Patterson from The Ololith saved the day by stepping in at the last minute. I have to give him props for filling in on songs he had never performed before. The D&D-inspired power metal felt slightly out of place sandwiched between YOB and Wolves in the Throne Room, but the band’s energy was infectious. Even the kids playing Ring Around the Rosie upped their game during songs like “Dungeon Master” and “Warrior Queen.” This was when I followed a day’s worth of IPAs with a bourbon cocktail from Jackson Hole Still Works, so I felt pretty good when Wolves were getting ready to take the stage for the night’s headlining set.
A photo of Nathan Weaver on stage at the 2019 incarnation of Fire in the Mountains inspired me to attend the fest. COVID postponed those plans for a few years, but I was finally here. I situated myself at the gate, stage left, as Aaron and Nathan’s wives and kids set up for the ceremony. Wolves in the Throne Room do not do concerts. They do ceremonies. Flora and fauna are as important as the instruments and lights. Skulls, leaves, and branches were meticulously placed on and around the stage. Incense was burned. Everything had to be perfect before the band brought the “Mountain Magick.” The visual aspect of the performance was exactly what I held in my head from that photo I saw a few years ago, but the experience was above and beyond anything I could have imagined. I’ve seen WITTR many times but never outside in the wild. Now I never want to see them any other way. Knowing the setlist for a Wolves show is hardly essential, but ending the (amplified part) of this unique gathering in ‘one of the last remaining large, nearly intact ecosystems in the northern temperate zone of the Earth’ with “I Will Lay Down My Bones Among the Rocks and Roots” was nothing less than extraordinary.
The sound of over a thousand people (our daughter included) howling when the band left the stage just added to the inconceivability of the moment. And as much as I would have liked another song, the trance had been broken, so I couldn’t help but laugh when Nathan came back on stage to inform the crowd, “those are all the songs we know.” The revelers cheered in surrender and moved to the fire where the closing ceremony was about to begin.
Austin Lunn and his friends did their best to overcome the large crowd around the enormous bonfire, but after three days of drinking in the sun, a handful of people couldn’t comprehend the special campfire session they were witnessing. In other words, they could not keep their damn mouths shut. These people became a problem when Austin sang the songs of Townes Van Zandt, Blaze Foley, Guy Clark, Waylon, and Willie around a crackling fire with nothing but the wind to carry his voice. I only lasted a handful of songs before the chatter got on my nerves, the bourbon and IPAs started to weigh heavy on my head, and cold reality started to creep in. I had a Scamp to pack up in the morning and a long drive back to Denver, so I walked back to camp to meet my wife and daughter (who left after Wolves) and called it a night. Dawn came too soon. We packed everything we came with, along with a few extra mugs and t-shirts from the merch booth. Then we hit the road, leaving no trace we had ever been there, already looking forward to making the journey back in 2024.