Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Three Days of Darkness: Maryland Deathfest 2015

I had been looking forward to this since I got home from last year's Deathfest. If I had to describe what exactly Maryland Deathfest is, I could say any number of things:

 It's where you go to see that one band that's never played America until now.

It's where you see bands that you thought were finished years ago.

It's where the underground surfaces.

It's where legends shine.

It's the metal party of the year! And it just happens to be right around my birthday so what better way to celebrate than by drinking and listening to a bunch of bands my parents disapprove of?

All this I realized after my visit last year, perusing through past line-ups, and preparing for this year. Last year I had the absolute privilege of seeing Tankard (how appropriate, as the next day I'd turn 21), Unleashed, Dark Angel, Soilent Green, Gorguts, Candlemass (the band that single-handedly made me want to go), and My Dying Bride. It was one of the most amazing times of my life-- met a bunch of cool people (a few of whom I'll see again this year), got some cool stuff, and saw a SHIT TON of cool bands.

Good stuff.

I was looking forward to this as soon as the line-up was announced; the whole thing looked spectacular. Got four tickets for three days (three at the Edison Lot and one at Rams Head Live). This was in the Fall... so the waiting commenced.

Over the months before the show, I was able to convince my brother-in-law Phil to join me one of the days. Now he isn't a metalhead by any stretch of the mind. He mostly digs on rap and rock. I think the heaviest thing I heard him listen to was Rage Against the Machine. Nonetheless I got him to buy a ticket for the Edison Lot on Sunday. Though I'd like to think he's going for the musical experience, I have a feeling he'd be spending a good deal of time drinking and making fun of people.

And now, without further ado, let's get into Maryland Deathfest, 2015!

 I'm the dweeb who's so excited for the show that I couldn't sleep, which was not a good thing. Immediately upon entering the Lot, I decided to eat chicken from Sm√∂kerhead-- which was last year called Zombie BBQ. I loved it then and still do. I then proceeded to go look at all the goodies people had laid out. Patches, shirts, hoodies, pins, CDs, vinyl galore! There were also some DVDs and books inside the main tent; the band Master was also selling skateboards. I was so busy perusing through the merch that I didn't notice when Artificial Brain was starting. Maybe it was the time lost looking at the goods, but their set felt way too short. They, as well as Funebrarum and Cianide, performed some pretty decent death metal.

The first band I was excited to catch that day was Vallenfyre. I had heard some good things from people and was curious to see what Gregor Mackintosh and Hamish Glencross would bring to the table... and they delivered some goddamn epic doom-tinged death. I was in awe as Mackintosh grunted his guts out; I remembered hearing how he had formed the band after the passing of his father and listening to Vallenfyre made the catharsis clear. Between songs, Mackintosh was in good humor, remarking how when the band started they had one dream: to play a parking lot in Baltimore. Dream achieved.

I remained at that stage but kept my ears open for Master across the way. While I couldn't as good a listen as I'd have liked, I could still make out some excellent riffs. Next up was Lock Up. Months beforehand, Tomas Lindberg had left the group to focus on At the Gates and was replaced by Brutal Truth's Kevin Sharp. According to him, this was only his second gig with the band but you wouldn't have known it except for a minor stop and restart during a messy intro of a song. Shane Embury had some technical difficulties at one point, so Sharp joked around with the crowd. A fan requested he sing "happy birthday" for his friend, and he obliged. Sharp's a funny and charming frontman, as well as absolutely vicious when he's screaming. Halfway through the set, I remembered Embury's set with Napalm Death was later on that night. This dude's pulling double-duty and I have no idea how he does it. His playing with Lock Up was intense and he'd have to go on again a few hours later. I tip my hat to the man.

Aura Noir, the so-called "ugliest band in the world", was damn impressive as well. I was compelled to get into the pit, but was saving my energy for the massive wave that would occur next. Friday's line-up was easily the most insane of the three days I went simply for the fact that three of death metal's giants were playing one right after another. Not only that, but each band is a little slice of musical anthropology: you have Suffocation repping New York's more technical brand of death metal, Obituary's straight up Tampa old school in-your-face shit, and Bloodbath making a claim for Sweden as the modern world's leader of death metal. I found myself (accidentally) in the pit for Suffocation; it was my first time actively participating and I couldn't handle it. When you're 5'3" and twig-thin, you only shove yourself back and not your comrades. I had to step out and just watch everyone freak the hell out. Frank Mullen was back in business for today and he was fuckin' on point. That's what not being on stage for nearly a year does to you: you get hungry for it. Obituary was just as intense as well, though maybe it's just me but it seems John Tardy's vocal approach was more thrashy than deathly. And then there was Bloodbath... now I had my doubts about whether or not Nick Holmes could pull off  songs made brutal by Akerfeldt or Tagtgren's vocal work. He's definitely a worthy singer for band, but he seemed very static throughout what I saw of their set, just standing in his spot and not really engaging with anyone. Even so, I was digging it.

Now I had to leave their set early so I could catch the band I was really interested to see that night: Darkened Nocturn Slaughtercult. I had no idea how to get to the Rams Head and overestimated how long it would take to get there. This turned out to be a happy accident as I got to catch Drawn and Quartered. Probably the scariest sounding death metal I had heard in a long time.

DNS, as I'll refer to the German black metallers from here on out, put on a show as if Satan himself was speaking through them. Onielar's vocal soundcheck alone was well worth the price of admission, as it nearly scared the crap out of me. Dressed in a white dress with a shredded cowl, she ripped up her guitar and screamed like all the souls of Hell in one person. Velnias, Adversarius, and Hornn too played ferociously. Now and then, Onielar would drink from a chalice and spew blood from her mouth, staining her dress and guitar and spitting up on the crowd. However, a problem arose when Velnias' guitar died on him. The quartet, now reduced to a trio, continued to pummel us with their rage; I dare say the tragedy caused them to go above-and-beyond and make those last few songs truly brutal. The only regret I have about this show was that more people could have borne witness to the epitome of hellish black metal.

I had expected this to be my dull day. The main draw for me, as I'm sure for many, was Sodom. Sadly they had to cancel due to visa troubles, though a few fans were speculating the band was actually being greedy and trying to hold out for more money. Supposedly they've done this before, but I don't really know the details. 

Kinda drifted off during the first couple sets, but was brought back to life when Twilight of the Gods got on. Here was a fresh change of pace from the death and doom usually at the Lot; it sounded a lot like classic Seventies or Eighties metal, which is something you don't really hear a lot at all from newer bands. Alan Averill's frontmanship is quite astounding. I wasn't too familiar with his work (which I'll hit again later) but I was enthralled. The rest of the band was just as impressive, moreso considering they usually play grindcore, death, and black metal.

Morpheus Descends afterward was damn good too. Banged my head a lot to them and had to go get myself a goodie to support those guys. Einherjer's viking metal was awesome as hell too. One of the dudes I met that day was a huge fan so I stood by him at the front to see what they were about and fell in love. Blood Red Throne, who I believe had been called up after Metal Church dropped, were freaking super brutal and kicking ass.

The two bands afterwards were Vulcano from Brazil and Bulldozer from Italy. Now I had given a listen to these guys' records, but I couldn't get into them. I don't know what it was, but they didn't really click to me. I respect these bands' places in history-- with Vulcano being possibly the very first South American metal band and Bulldozer acting a bit as southern Europe's Venom-- but I just couldn't get into what they were playing. The crowd seemed to be really into them-- I saw a ton of Bulldozer shirts-- so I wouldn't begrudge them. Good on them!

Triptykon was the band I was most excited to see that day. I've expressed before that Tom G Warrior IS Celtic Frost and he completely grounded that fact in the set. The band threw in three Celtic Frost covers and one Hellhammer song into their set and I was tickled pink. Celtic Frost was the band that basically defined extreme metal and I figured I'd never see them in my lifetime... and here the mastermind behind it all was playing that music for half of the set. It truly was magnificent. Dark riffs spawned from Warrior's mind and hands were just as devastating live as they have been on record for the last thirty years.

Solstice were came up next and were brutal as all hell. They paid tribute to the late Peter Steele by performing a Carnivore song as well as  a Demolition Hammer cover. I banged my head quite a bit for them. Arcturus is another band I have a hard time wrapping my mind around. I could find myself enjoying the instrumentals at times, but the vocals would take me out of it. It was all over the place, but people were loving it. Reminded me of my jazz history class the previous semester and listening to avant-garde jazz. Not my thing, but they certainly put on a colorful show. Lots of lights and epic costumes. Razor ended the show, beginning by dedicating their set to Sodom. I couldn't stay for the entire set, but as soon as I identified  "Nowhere Fast" as the first song, I was in love. They thrashed hard and the pit was moving. Everyone found a way to express themselves during this set; the woman standing behind me did some kind of interpretive dance. Awesomeness.

Now this was an interesting day.

I brought Phil out to this one and was quite eager to see what he'd think. He already had a bad first impression from the metalheads trying to form a mosh pit during the Mobb Deep show at the Baltimore Soundstage on Thursday. I was convinced I could convert him. He put on his Broncos jersey (easy to spot in case he got himself in trouble) and we ventured forth. He bought himself an Extreme Noise Terror hat to keep the sun off and chuckled at all the band names and merch. He stuck around for the first five sets and seemed to be getting the hang of it. He even said he was able to make out some of the lyrics from Prosanctus Inferi and Masacre's sets, so I applauded the newbie. He found it all "interesting" before he decided to head back to the hotel early to pack for our early flights. He also offered some suggestions for next year's MDF: tattoo and piercing booths in the vendor village and there should be a bat house so bats could be released during the night shows. Take note, MDF organizers.

Primordial took the stage with Alan Averill at the helm. In Twilight of the Gods he had simply sported a button-up shirt, jeans, headband, and glasses, but now here he was decked out in tattered clothing, a hood, and corpse paint. I'll confess I was only familiar with the band's lighter and earlier material, but I was blown away by the heavier new stuff of that set. Singing or screaming, AA killed it. The blend of Irish folk music and black metal riffs was damn near perfect. It seemed to me that both sets AA was part of sounded the best from a mixing standpoint as well.

I sat and waited during Winter's set because there was no way in hell I was going to miss out on Anaal Nathrakh. After Sodom quit on me, they became number one on my list of must-sees... and they sure as hell did not disappoint! It's chaos incarnate! Mick Kenney and James Walford's guitars, Drunk's bass, and St Evil's drums smash you in eardrums with a cacophony of ungodly noise while Dave Hunt screams bloody murder at the audience. Seeing the insanity live, I cannot believe his throat isn't just destroyed; miraculously, he can actually sing the clean bits pretty damn well. The only downsides during this set were that it seemed the vocals kept getting lost in the mix a bit; one minute you'd hear them, another you wouldn't, and it'd repeat a couple times during the first few songs. This was also the most painful set I ever experienced physically. So many crowd surfers falling on top of little old me! Everyone's energy was high as fuck. Apparently there was a fight or something in the pit. The stage security got on their stools and had to call someone out, so there was a pause between songs. Dave asked the "fuckin' bald man" if he was good. The affirmation brought on the continuation of the face-ripping.

Apparently this was night of the Finns. Skepticism's downright depressing doom dirges drudged on slowly and crushingly. Dressed in suits, the band somehow made the black aura surrounding Baltimore a little bit darker. Demilich was intense. Antti Boman is sort of biologically fascinating. I cannot say I've heard a man with vocals that deep. Hell, when I first heard him belch, I was convinced that was just the bass turned way up in the mix. Nope. Holy shit, that dude can bellow!

I wasn't a big fan of Neurosis, but they were a pretty cool band to listen to. They've been referred to as one of the most influential bands to arise in metal and I could understand why. It seems the trend this past decade has been post-metal and doom in general. It was clear to me why that was so. One word: Neurosis.

And finally, the big finisher for the Edison Lot was Amorphis. It was the twenty-first anniversary of the Tales from the Thousand Lakes album and so they played that in its entirety. I can't say I was familiar with them before that night, but they made me want to go and give everything a listen. Eso Holopainen and Tomi Koivusaari's guitars were some of the most beautiful things I had heard in my entire life; they weaved in between each other like mating serpents and gave birth to magical melodies. Tomi Joutsen's roars filled the Lot and turned heads. The whole performance is as epic as the Kalevala. This is when I saw a dude enjoying himself so much he decided to dance in just his boxers.

I definitely don't regret putting another Deathfest under my belt. Lots of awesome merch to look through and tons of bands to see. The only problems are that food is pricy and people take issue with the fact the Lot is so far from the Rams Head and Soundstage, which are like a block away from each other. Apparently the festival used to be all at one area with two stages, but that changed a couple years ago.

I saw a lot of people I recognized from last year. Some were people I knew, others just easy to remember faces. Shout out to the dudes in the animal costumes, the dude in the Death speedo, and the two dudes dressed as a taco and hotdog. The security personnel at the stages were awesome as well. They were freaking loving it! They'd spray people with water guns in the blistering heat, throw out water bottles to anyone who needed it, and occasionally joined in on the crowd surfing. Everyone's having a good time.

Weeks before the event, I figured the the elephant in the room (or on the Lot) would be the recent happenings in Baltimore. However, I didn't get any sense of that at all, almost like they never happened. The only time I heard any kind of mention was when Dave Hunt asked the crowd what they thought was evil and I heard someone say "the pigs". Though I wouldn't be able to see their sets, I had my fingers crossed the boys from Napalm Death or DRI might give a shout out to Baltimore's black community, or anyone pissed at the cops for that matter. (Anyone who saw them know if they did?)

Each band I saw was amazing and there were only a few technical difficulties. I regret not being able to see a few bands, namely Napalm Death, Agoraphobic Nosebleed, Tsjuder, and Portal, but I still had a kickass time and it was the perfect way to celebrate my birthday weekend. Didn't get any real sleep that night since I had a super early shuttle to the airport for my flight home to California. But wouldn't you know it, I shared a flight with Mick Kenney! Two exhausted metalheads headed back after the biggest metal party of the year.

I can only speculate who'll be playing next year, but all I can say is that whoever is playing, it's going to be a worthwhile trip. Fingers crossed I can make the money for next year.

Were you at this year's MDF? Who'd ya see? What did you experience? I'd love to hear it all! Hope to see you there again! And if you weren't there, do you wish you did? Think you'll go next year? Let's comment below!

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