East Coasters like me think of the south as tumbleweeds, big steaks, and Daisy Dukes. But Arkansas is more Bigfoot than Boss Hogg, its woods thick and its back roads narrow. As a city, Little Rock feels somewhere between stark and charming, with gorgeous Addams Family-ish houses only a few blocks away from abandoned industrial parks and sagging infrastructure. It makes sense that the city birthed Rwake, one of sludge’s most versatile and poetic acts – and, as such, it birthed Mutants of the Monster, a festival that brings together an odd and hungry assortment of bands and fans who don’t fall into any well-defined subcultural niche.

In classic New York fashion, I assume it’ll be a quick and easy walk to the festival from the Stone’s Throw Brewing (for the record, that burger’s a religious experience). Forty five minutes later, I arrive at White Water Tavern sweat-soaked and creaky, aching for a beer. Thankfully, the night doesn’t disappoint…

Thursday: Kick-Off Party – Rebelmatic, Stinking Livazeta, Colour Design, Second Life

If you were setting a movie in a classic honky tonk, the White Water Tavern would be the perfect location – aged wood walls, Christmas lights, a stage in one corner, Montucky Cold Snacks. That said, the crowd peppered isn’t as traditional; though the occasional straight-up death metal dude is in attendance, the majority of the people here are a mixture of subgenres, smearing punk, hardcore, and metal effortlessly together. Rwake frontman Chris “CT” Terry is a perfect example of this, rocking pigtails as he DJ’s the night with the first two Baroness EPs and Slayer’s Divine Intervention. No matter what they wear or how they look, though, everyone’s rocking a big smile. There’s good humor in the air, a sense that we’re all just stoked to be here.

Little Rock’s Second Life kick things off with a no-nonsense blast of metallic hardcore. Frontman Mat Thomson calls out the police for botching the Uvalde shooting with a deadpan glare before launching into a final tirade of spleen-fueled fury. After that, one might not expect sweeping watercolor music, but that’s exactly what Colour Design provide, bringing sunset-hued post-rock riffs to a fevered pitch before crashing them down expertly. The band’s powerful atmosphere is exciting; they’re hard to look away from, and though their Deftones-ish crescendos feel melancholy as hell, their enthusiasm and energy seem to up the crowd’s cheer.

Though their members look like got randomly picked from three different bands, Stinking Lizaveta are absolutely fucking wild, playing instrumental freak-rock that feels street-level even as it’s unhinged and experimental. Though one can taste hints of Spirit Carvan and Manilla Road in their music, the band’s high-octane energy make them something all their own. And yet somehow, after all that, New York’s Rebelmatic manage to be the night’s most bombastic band with the distinct funkiness of their spring-heeled old-school hardcore. If the Misfits and Black Flag joined forces to make you dance your ass off, they’d sound like these no-prisoners-taken entertainers; when frontman Creature launches into “Get It Off,” the whole fucking place goes apeshit in a free-for-all of sweaty dyed hair and overwhelmed grins.

The night ends dumbfounded, with attendees wandering White Horse in warm-hearted surprise. So this is what it’s gonna be like? Right the fuck on.

Friday: Rwake, Adam Faucett and the Spectral Class, Hexxus, Crankbait

The vibe at Stickyz Rock’n’Roll Chicken Shack is a little more straight-up metal-fest than that of the previous night, with plenty of older Little Rock heads showing up and getting stiff on brew. The venue is bigger, with a bit more of that gothic theater vibe and a raised stage. But the good mood is the same, even as it’s circulated that planned sets by Atomic Rooster and Weedeater fell victim to the ‘Rona. Does it matter? Tonight, there’s Little Rock’s patron saints of beautiful sadness. Tonight, there’s Rwake.

Playing their first show in three years, *Crankbait ***sound like having the boiling ingredients of meth poured directly into one’s eyes. While their acerbic noise-crust sound feels right at home in 2022, they’re legends around here, and watched with appropriate reverence. Alabama’s Hexxus, meanwhile, bring a healthy dose of scraped-knuckle sludge to the mix. They’re straightforward compared to the acts they’re sandwiched between, but their pounding riffs definitely hit the spot. Adam Faucett and the Spectral Class, meanwhile, woo the crowd into existential angst with their keening country tunes about dust and heartache. Even the pure metal dudes in attendance are soothed and shaken by Faucett’s crushing lyrics in all the right ways.

Before Rwake take the stage, the crowd bristles in anticipation like cult worshippers waiting for their downer god to appear. When CT and Co. finally stand before them and bathe them in groaning riff and anguished howl, it is a thing of unbridled joy. Over the course of some four to six songs – it’s hard to tell, through all the tears running down our cheeks, our hands raised in supplication – the Little Rock staples lead the audience in an out-of-body experience that drags one’s astral form over every stone in Mount Holly Cemetery. CT himself is an emotional madman, pouring his wretched heart out to the eager masses, who absolutely love him for it.

There’s not much to say afterwards – everyone shuffles off, wasted, chuckling. Tomorrow will be tough, but hey, best not to walk before you crawl.

Saturday: Black Cobra, Cloud Rat, Knoll, Deadbird, Burnt Up Bled Dry, Bråt

The preamble to Saturday’s absolute bruisefest of a metal line-up is actually pretty wonderful. An outdoor crafts market sells everything from locally-sourced food to custom toilet seats (I would’ve bought the Evel Kineval one, if shipping wasn’t a pain). Meanwhile, in the cool confines of White Water Tavern, a trio of metal authors speak about their craft. Laina Dawes gives awesome, relatable insight into growing up Black and female in Toronto’s metal scene, while J. J. Anselmi explains how the bleak poetry of bands like Harvey Milk could save a kid from no-good Wisconsin like himself. Between them, local horror hound Brad Carter discusses the inner beauty behind schlock and gore; were he not already insightful and funny, he would still look like a genius next to his discussion-mate, the moronic Emperor Rhombus.

After a bathroom and burrito break of a few hours, the night kicks off in earnest with NOLA’s **Brat, **who intersperse Britney and Cascada samples between their grind tracks. Anyone fooled by vocalist Liz Selfish’s bubbly demeanor is soon taught a thing or two as she vomits forth short, sharp blasts of pure venom. Local legends Burned Up Bled Dry are similarly brief in their song length and utterly terrifying in their intensity. Every second they play feels like a complete wringing out of the band members’ entire beings. Arkansas icons **Deadbird **are performing as a four-piece tonight, but the band still manage to enthrall the audience with their flowing doom. The house packs up for them, with local fans stoked to pay homage.

Maybe everyone else here is ready for Knoll, but this writer isn’t, and the Tennessee grind crew nearly make him swallow his tongue. Frontman Jaime Eubanks is an absolutely nightmare, twisting in agony as he shrieks like a jet fighter giving birth. See this band. Cloud Rat bring more rhythm to their incensed grind, but are no less rabid. The band’s quick switches between pummeling racket and churlish bounce make them awesome music to get both pissed-off and drunk to.

It’s hard to think that anyone could follow the two acts, but infectious sludge duo Black Cobra are up to the task, taking things a little slower and groovier, but somehow louder and more vital. They might be the audience’s favorite of this line-up, launching a pit that’s equal parts moshing and just straight-up dancing. It’s killer to watch frontman Jason Landrian have so many people moving along to his every riff (especially given that he was asking me about whether or not I played D&D earlier in the day).

Everyone’s polluted and thoroughly tenderized by the time we leave. And yet somehow, through all of it, that positive vibe still holds strong. With tomorrow being the country night, this was the joyous beatdown we all truly needed.

Sunday: Nick Shoulders and the Okay Crawdad, Two Runners, Adam Faucett and the Spectral Class, Tim Easton, Turquoise Tiger

If there’s one thing you learn from Mutants of the Monster, it’s that every music festival should have a southern breakfast on the last morning. Thankfully, Kevin Kerby has taken care of us with sweet-sausage mac-and-cheese, honey-roasted tomatoes, biscuits, and peach pudding. Meanwhile, Tree of Knowledge fill White Water’s upstairs with amazing indie literature, making educated weirdos out of the festival attendees.

Truth be told, the final night, I’m a wreck. My body is a junk heap at this point, and a second helping of Adam Faucett stirs the melancholy beauty in my soul like an brown tooth in an old can. More than anything, I am overwhelmed. Can it really be this cool? Can a festival really have this many awesome bands, this much good music, and this great a feeling throughout it? Is it really possible to spend four days immersed in violent, desperate, furious noise, and feel this completed by it?

I pay my tab, say so long to CT — a Fezziwig of the scene if there ever was one — and head out into the blue woodsy night. As I leave, a lyric from Tim Easton’s “Festival Song” echoes in my head.

I was wondering why it felt so good
Then I looked into a hundred pair of eyes
And I understood: When we all come together
It feels like the world is going to be alright.

Amen.