Courtesy the subject
Scorched Tundra organizer Alexi Front. His T-shirt is from Swedish doom trio Monolord, who played the festival's Chicago debut in 2016.
Most people don't necessarily think "Chicago" as soon as you mention "Gothenburg, Sweden." Alexi Front does, though. Gothenburg and Chicago, he explains, are both second cities. "They're both cities that were built on the transport industry," he says. "They're both historically beer-drinking cities. And the people who are from second cities have a special mentality." As Front sees it, that mentality involves (among other things) metal music.
Front launched his metal festival, Scorched Tundra, in Gothenburg in 2011. For the past two years, though, he's worked to turn it into a twice-yearly event, with one festival in Gothenburg and another in Chicago. Last year at the Empty Bottle, he presented the first edition of the Chicago festival
, and it was so successful that he's expanding it from two days to three for 2017—Friday, September 1, through Sunday, September 3. The ten bands performing draw on an eclectic variety of subgenres, among them sludge, stoner metal, and postrock. Highlights include Olympia blackened swaggerers Wolvhammer, instrumental local postrock group RLYR
(a Pelican offshoot), and two San Francisco groups—baroquely experimental heavy veterans Oxbow, playing their first Chicago show in almost ten years, and psychedelic doom trippers Acid King
Oxbow play Scorched Tundra on Sunday, September 3.
Front founded Scorched Tundra to celebrate the metal scene in Gothenburg, where he'd developed lots of connections—in part through his writing in venues such as Hails & Horns
magazine, but mostly via his record label, Pivotal Rockordings, which focused on bands from the south of Sweden. (He'd later book tours for or manage some of those groups.) Front got started too late to book the standard-bearers of Gothenburg's famous 90s "melodeath" sound, In Flames and At the Gates
, so the festival debuted with smaller bands still operating in that tradition, including Marionette and Zombiekrig. The latter's singer, Axel Widén, continues to make artwork for Scorched Tundra posters and T-shirts.
Front started out scheduling the fest for between Christmas and New Year's, when nothing much was happening in Gothenburg. "It was a great time for people to come out and see music if they were sick of their family," he says. As Scorched Tundra expanded, he began to get more ambitious, bringing over Chicago bands such as Bongripper
, who'd never been to Scandinavia, and Pelican
, who hadn't travelled there in more than a decade.
This year's Chicago lineup is a departure for Scorched Tundra in a number of ways. It's the first time since the festival's debut that it hasn't booked a returning band from a previous year. And because of scheduling conflicts, it's also the first bill without any Swedes on it. Front is a little disappointed that the Gothenburg/Chicago connection couldn't quite happen this time, but he's also excited that the festival is moving in new directions. "It's really cool to break that lock of continuity that I've had historically and to showcase a lot of new stuff—and possibly reach some new audiences," he says.
Courtesy the artist
Acid King play Scorched Tundra on Saturday, September 2.
One of the ways Front tries to reach new audiences, if not outright create them, is by paying close attention to each day's bookings—he says he tries to put together acts that complement one another without necessarily being in the same genre. "What happens to a lot of festivals is that they become pigeonholed very quickly," he says. "You could have a lineup where all the bands that sound like Electric Hawk are on the same day—say Pelican were on that bill, or RLYR, just as an example. It's not that these bands are exactly the same, but there are a lot of overlaps."
But instead of grouping other instrumental postrocky bands with Electric Hawk
on Friday's lineup, Front is having the Chicagoans open for headache-inducing Ohio punk-sludge weirdos Fistula and hair-metalesque New Jersey stoner rockers Atomic Bitchwax. There's always a chance, of course, that people who come to have their ears drilled out by Fistula won't stick around for the hooky follow-up, but Front figures his audience is adventurous. "What I try to do is to have bands that can have the maximum impact together, and also to put together bands that one may not expect to see at the same time or on the same bill," he says. "When there's fewer overlaps [in the sound], people who are attending get to notice different things about these bands. I think that's one of the most rewarding aspects of music."
Front worked for years as brand ambassador for Chicago beer bar and contract brewer Local Option, which has collaborated with the festival on a couple Scorched Tundra beers. Now that he's no longer with the Option, he's teamed up with Pipeworks Brewing
to create the 2017 beer—a dry-hopped India pale ale that uses American and Australian hop varieties. It's available around Chicago on draft and in bottles, and of course it'll be pouring at the festival—and at a Scorched Tundra party at Delilah's the night of Thursday, August 24, which also features ticket giveaways, rarities from Pipeworks and Three Floyds, and DJ sets from Front and Gregg Elzinga of Metal Vinyl Weekend.
For the first time, there's also a Scorched Tundra burger, which all Kuma's Corner locations will sell throughout August (a version will also be served during the festival, courtesy the Bottle's neighboring Bite Cafe). Front is also moving forward with plans to find a larger venue for Scorched Tundra in Gothenburg for 2018. Whether in Sweden or Chicago, the footprint of Scorched Tundra looks to be getting bigger and heavier every year.