(A long time has passed — two years and 11 months to be exact — since we last featured the writing of Kaptain Carbon at our site, but he has returned with this review of the first Shadow Woods Metal Festival, which took place on September 25-27, 2015, in White Hall, Maryland. All photographs in this post, most of which appear at the end of the review, were taken by Kaptain Carbon as well. Kaptain Carbon writes for Tape Wyrm (http://tapewyrmmetal.com/) and Hollywood Metal (http://hollywoodmetal.com/author/kaptaincarbon/) and also moderates Reddit’s metal subreddit r/metal.)
There were many things to be excited about at Shadow Woods Festival. First and foremost, it was a metal festival in a remote campground outside of Baltimore. While not the only outdoor metal festival, Shadow Woods offered an opportunity for America to mimic an event that Europe has done for decades. This was the inaugural event for a team of promoters and record labels who had little experience in hosting someting of this size and interest level. Second, the weather was supposed to be gorgeous and, for the cooling months of early autumn, in the low ’60s in temperature, a perfect time to feel the chill of heavy metal.
Upon arriving, the entrance to the camp was signaled by a printed flyer duct-taped to a cone, obscured by a bush. Another sign pointing in the direction of the festival was propped against a decorative bench in front of a remote house with a manicured lawn. Camp Hidden Valley usually plays host to numerous day camps for children, with its scariest events being schlocky haunted trails during Halloween. Other than that, Camp Hidden Valley offers educational programs for the Boys and Girls Club serving the greater Baltimore area. For the last weekend in September, however, more than 200 metal fans and adventurous spirits were sprawled throughout its 180 acres to celebrate darkness and fair weather chaos.
Black Table is a New Jersey-based band who is tagged as post black on their Metal Archives page. Though, like many of the bands at the festival, Black Table is part of the unsigned club, they were a band whose merch consisted of gorgeous vinyl with stellar design. The band took the stage while campers trickled in to set up their tents around the stage. The back lots, which snaked around various trails, were all full, and campers began to be told to just set up anywhere, as long as it wasn’t in the middle of the field stage.
The female shrieks of Mers Sumida were fitting to the music, which was grinding and emotionally exhausting. Each of the band’s songs ended with a pause in silence as if to muster up the courage to launch into the next one. At the end, the band members each meekly thanked the couple dozen people who were now drinking on the lawn after set-up. This was to be a wonderful weekend.
One thing everyone could agree on about the first Shadow Woods was that it would be unique. With the entire bill being more obscure than the two headlining bands, who themselves were underground gems, Shadow Woods offered a treasure trove of mystery in the fact that few people had heard each act. They ranged from local to unsigned workhorses, and the fans for the festival came not for one specific band but rather the chance to discover a litany of new musical acts.
Going into the festival, there was a palatable excitement that one could discover a new favorite band and possibly have a unique relationship in an intimate atmosphere. The word “intimate” cannot be overstated enough, as Shadow Woods offered something similar to a sleepaway camp for metalheads. The old-fashioned wooden sign that adorned the entrance of the camp also framed the noise emanating through the dark woods and gave each ticket-holder a tinge of excitement. You could either be murdered by a masked killer or have the time of your life.
DWELLER IN THE VALLEY
The wooded amphitheater stage on Saturday was filled up mostly with bands from the sponsoring/featured Baltimore label Grimoire Records. Dendritic Arbor, Snakefeast, and Dweller in the Valley all populated the amphitheater stage for a dark afternoon where animal bones adorned the stage.
Dweller in the Valley is a band who had already shown promise in their 2014 EP Younger Dryas. When I reviewed this EP for Tape Wyrm, I made mention of how they really fit anywhere on the spectrum of black, death, and doom. While the band nailed all of their songs from their earlier material, and they certainly sounded varied during older songs, it was their new material from an unnamed full-length that took the show.
Still made up of the same black/death template, the additions of singing bowls, folk-style instruments, and a hefty amount of structure made this show one of the best of the weekend. The intensity of vocalist Dane Olds was cathartic, as he not only was humbled by the number of people who appeared, but also grateful since the band apparently went through silent but trying times. He thanked everyone because real life was particularly hard this year for him, to which an audience member assured all that this, right now, was “real life.” I certainly agree since I want black metal coming from the woods to be real life forever.
If I sound at all romantic about this weekend experience, it should be noted that I fall into the category of people who were excited about the level of bands being showcased. With four bands from Baltimore-based Grimoire Records, Shadow Woods offered a chance to catch a handful of acts that have been scattered around the local area for years. While one of the headliners, Midnight, just played Maryland Deathfest on an afternoon slot a few years back, this was a chance to see them in the woods and by a campfire.
The atmosphere of Shadow Woods cannot be undersold, as the stages ranged from a small club-like inside stage, to a large field venue where space was a premium, to the near-occult-like amphitheater that lay down a trail surrounded by trees. Though I am just reporting on a few of bands, this article could be filled up with wonderful and unique accounts from all of the two-dozen bands who played over the weekend.
Midnight was one of the largest bands on the Shadow Woods bill and played on the second night. I was curious to see how many people would fill the enormous field in which the main stage was set up, and by Midnight’s second song, it certainly looked more filled, but not to capacity. In fact, a large group of people were by the fire to the side of the stage slowly drinking beer and flicking cigarettes into the flames.
Midnight is certainly for people who want to have fun, as their brand of black/speed worship is perfect for people who love old heavy metal with an extra kick of irreverence. The banter between each song from vocalist Jamie Walters was either funny or downright hilarious with its self-deprecating attitude. Even when his leather jacket failed to catch fire from the self-immolation stage show, he laughed it off and continued the show, which reached into a double encore and a feeling that this whole thing was hilariously worth it.
While it was easy to tag this as a black metal festival in the woods, Shadow Woods offered a surprisingly diverse cross-section of bands that ranged from the black speed Motörhead worship of Midnight, to the old school death metal disciples of Sentience, to even the zero-metal pagan folk of Ashagal. With both heavy stoner doom from Iron Man and hardcore hybrids from bands like Hivelords and Black Table, the diversity in bands at Shadow Woods became more apparent as the weekend progressed. If one wanted to experience fog-drenched, Sabbath-style doom from Occultation and then atmospheric black metal under a cloudy moon from Falls of Rauros, it was only a matter of a short walk.
Ashagal was the least metal band at the festival. I do not mean in spirit, but rather in the fact that it was a bagpipe, hand-drum, acoustic-guitar combo who devoted themselves to folk songs of pagan tales. Even though this band came particularly early on the opening day of the festival, their presence was both odd to behold as well as fitting while nestled within the wooded amphitheater stage.
Before they started each song, they would give a brief backstory on it, which most certainly had to do with trees, before launching into a medieval tavern sing-song. Even though some of my companions turned on their heels and went in search of coffee by the second song, I could not help but be enamored, not only by the diversity of this festival, but also by the gumption of this band to be the oddballs.
After the show, while the band was milling about talking to the crowd, the vocalist, Sierra Fox, mentioned that she was on her way to sing for the Pope’s visit to the United States. What a wonderful leap from pagan wooded rituals to sacred hymnals.
So much can be said about the highlights of the show, with its shortcomings merely cosmetic. The non-musical events felt sparse, with a yoga session and workshops on runes and DIY recording only filling up some of the afternoon. The limited number of tickets available made some of the stages, like the field, always feel thin, with even the amphitheater only at the capacity for underground clubs. I feel I must make mention of the shortcomings only because it would feel that I was unfairly praising this festival if I didn’t. I also did not get to play Dungeons and Dragons like I wanted to, so that was really the biggest upset of the weekend.
The relaxed attitude from the bands, patrons, and the staff was almost like a dream — one which I could see never waking up from. During the last night, a few of the security guards came by the fire and talked with the rest of us, regaling us with stories of working Maryland Deathfest and West Coast metal ritual festivals. They mentioned how metal festivals are the easiest to work since their fans seem to be of the more relaxed variety. I somehow like that notion that perhaps the darkest and most evilly tuned music makes for the most relaxing weekends, and that somewhere between lounging by a lake for the weekend and offering your soul to the void lies Shadow Woods.