I expected to get this second installment of Maryland Deathfest 2017 impressions finished before now, but have been caught up in other commitments since posting Part 1 (here), which is part of the price paid for being spirited away for five wonderful days in Baltimore.
In the first installment of these reminiscences I sort of cut to the chase, naming what I thought were the best sets of an event that (by my lights) was a rousing success overall. But those five days in Baltimore were filled with other memorable moments, both on-stage and off, and I’ve collected more of them in this concluding segment. I’ve also selected more of my not-professional photos to go along with the batch in Part 1.
PRE-FEST WAS PRETTY FINE
Consistent with the general down-sizing of this year’s event, the Wednesday night MDF pre-fest was moved from Ottobar to the cozier Metro Gallery venue, which turned out to be the perfect size. Though it has a published capacity of 240 and attendance was a healthy percentage of that, it still felt intimate. And the range of music on offer was both diverse and very enjoyable.
The night began with the bleak and bitter sludge/doom of Baltimore’s Destroyer of Man. After they finished, I remarked to DGR that it was some “heavy sad-bastard metal”, and he replied: “Yeah, but some bands wallow in their misery. Those guys sound like they’re angry about being sad.” And indeed they did.
Another Baltimore band came next, and man, Extermination Angel were heaping shitloads of evil fun. Through gritted teeth the vocalist grunted and barked, sounding like he was chanting demon names and exhortations to kill everyone, while he and the rest of the band ranged from vicious black/death slashing and thrashing to leaving an ooze of decay and degradation behind them (and a bunch of other stuff in the middle).
They can hit some damned catchy licks, and the songs veered and vaulted in unexpected and dynamic ways. They looked like they were having tongue-in-cheek fun behind their murderous miens, and the bassist was one of the most animated of the whole fest despite his (relatively) advanced age. I picked up their new demo tape after the set, which I plan (finally) to explore this weekend. (The drummer also gets the award for the best hat worn by a drummer at MDF 2017.)
I’ve been a big fan of the recordings of Delaware’s Scorched, and was very happy to discover that they’re just as scorching and primally appealing live. Their regular drummer Matt Izzi had a conflict due to the demands of his other band Homewrecker, but his fill-in, Jesse Beahler (Black Crown Initiate, ex-Jungle Rot and Rings of Saturn), absolutely killed it, the first of many eye-popping drummers that MDF served up this year. We also had a great conversation later on with lead guitarist Steve Fuchs, who is humble (and funny) despite his precocious talents.
Detroit’s Temple of Void are another band whose recordings I’ve thoroughly enjoyed, and they perpetrated some monstrous death and doom on stage too. And Ruinous closed the evening in fine, slaughtering fashion. It was a treat seeing such death metal luminaries as Alex Bouks, Shawn Eldridge, and Matt Medeiros all on the same stage at the same time.
TEMPLE OF VOID
My friends and I had one final explosive moment as we waited outside in the drizzle for a Lyft after the show, as our ears were shocked by the detonation of a 3-car accident just around the corner, the force of which was enough to snap one car’s front axle in half. Turned out that specific car was our Lyft ride. Amazingly, it didn’t appear there were any serious injuries.
MORBID ANGEL WAS NOT AS FINE
The chance to see a Steve Tucker-fronted Morbid Angel was appealing enough that I positioned myself up near one side of the stage well before the set began… and waited… and waited… and waited some more.
Despite the length of the soundcheck (in which none of the actual band members was involved, that I could see), the kick drum and bass guitar were so painfully dominating that they almost drowned out everything else. I heard some squeals from the far side of the stage, which I took as a sign that Trey Azagthoth was soloing, but couldn’t make out much else that he did.
After three songs I moved back and more toward the center, hoping for better sound, and it wasn’t enough better for me to hang in there — so I didn’t. My fatigue plus the memories of Grave’s better-sounding set, which immediately preceded, may have had something to do with that decision. I know other people thought Morbid Angel sounded fine.
THAT TIME WHEN THE METALHEADS HIJACKED AN ACOUSTIC SET AT LEINENKUGEL’S
Most of the time when I wasn’t inside a venue getting pounded by sound I was inside the woefully understaffed Leinenkugel’s in the Power Plant Live complex with friends, drinking and/or having a burger. On one such occasion they had a guy in the corner playing acoustic guitar and singing, and a second guy thumping on some kind of box-drum contraption.
Though I’m not sure how it started, at one point the guitarist began strumming thrash riffs and a couple of the black-clad patrons growled and shrieked into the mic while another one played blast-beats on the drum-box. There was also a one-man circle pit.
SARGEIST’S SINGING BOWL
I put Sargeist’s set in my Top 10. The warm buzz of their cold melodies penetrated my cranium like a winter chill, but I should also note that they began each solemn and savage luciferian devotional with their frontman Profundus running an implement around the rim of a singing bowl and then finishing the ceremony with a “Ping!” This seemed to draw almost as boisterous a crowd response as the songs.
THE SLAUGHTERING AT SOUNDSTAGE
For the longest time, punk and metal did not mix. I’m older than basalt and I remember. I was on the punk side of the equation as a kid (relatively speaking) and metal seemed like faux art with no heart. Wrong then, and wrong now, but there’s still a divide.
I spent less time at Soundstage this year than I have in any of my four trips to MDF, but it still seems true that Soundstage is where you go to lose your mind and risk life and limb. Every time I was there this year, I wondered how the place held itself together. I’ve wondered the same thing every other year I’ve been there. It hosts the most berserker pits, the most stage-diving (which is verboten at Rams Head), and the most mind-blown fans, and generally seems to function as the event horizon between your head and a fine kind of oblivion.
The only full sets I witnessed this year were the closing performances by Decrepit Birth and Cryptopsy on Thursday night, both of whom ignited the crowd into an explosive frenzy. I also saw parts of the sets by Captain Cleanoff (featuring Bryan Fajardo killing it on drums), the resurrected Siege in one of a group of farewell appearances this year by that seminal hardcore band (the set included a harrowingly bleak rendition of “Grim Reaper”, led by a local saxophonist whose name I haven’t yet found), and the legendary Terrorizer (whose festival-closing set on Sunday night ended with an outro and drum solo by Pete Sandoval that seemed longer than 3 or 4 entire Terrorizer songs).
Other people in my MDF crew this year raved about the Soundstage performances by Agoraphobic Nosebleed, Insect Warfare, P.L.F., and what sounds like one of the fest’s biggest surprises — a Nepalese grind band named Chepang that includes two drummers, two screamers (who performed on the floor instead of the stage), a guitarist, and no bass. But I missed all of that, having favored other options at Rams Head.
THE TRVE CAVEMAN BATTLE DOOM
I don’t think anyone else in my crew stuck around Rams Head for Conan’s set on Thursday night, instead opting for Goregasm at Soundstage. I acknowledge that Conan’s music is primitive, primal, punishing, and the leading cause of deafness in the United Kingdom. I further acknowledge that my knuckles were dragging the floor after the set and I had an urge to gnaw on a haunch of meat. I still loved every minute, as I have every other time I’ve seen the band… the pleasures of gut liquefaction and acute sore neck syndrome.
Standing near the stage in front of Chris Fielding, I can confirm that he rarely made it past the top string on his bass, and never past the second one, and it nevertheless sounded like the end of the world.
OTHER OPENING NIGHT HIGHLIGHTS
I mentioned the closing sets by Decrepit Birth and Cryptopsy at Soundstage on Thursday night, but for us the main festival began earlier in the evening with two powerful performances by Samothrace and SubRosa.
The Samothrace line-up included drummer Joe Axler, new bassist Monte Mccleery (Un), original guitarist/vocalist Bryan Spinks, and live second guitarist Brian McClelland (He Whose Ox Is Gored). Together they cast spells of the apocalypse, both pulverizing and hypnotic. As noted in Part 1, theirs was one of my Top 10 performances of MDF this year. The sound quality was great, they were fun to watch (especially Brian McClelland’s gravity-defying back-bends), and the music had staggering emotional power.
I was enraptured by SubRosa’s performance as well, though I’ll confess that it’s hard for me to separate the influence of the music from the influence of watching Sarah Pendleton and Kim Pack headbang while coaxing fire from their violins. The music was like the sound of angels and banshees in some final conflict.
Easily one of the biggest and best surprises of the fest for me was the performance by the Czech band Root, whose proto-black-metal roots go back into the late ’80s. While their current music is better characterized as “dark metal” than black metal, and includes amazing clean vocals by the charismatic frontman “Big Boss” (whose harsh voice is also capable of cutting glass), it still revolves around a satanic core — and their music was quirky, distinctive, epic, and completely wonderful.
I still haven’t offered thanks and praise to all the bands whose sets wowed me at MDF this year, but I need to bring this post to a close, and before doing that I must mention Uada.
As good as their debut album Devoid of Light is, I still wasn’t prepared for the impact of watching and listening to these four hooded menaces practice their black magic from the stage. I thought of rain-forest gloom, rampant wildfire, and a bit of back-alley murder. When I saw them on Saturday night, I thought theirs was either the second best MDF set I had seen so far (after Vader) or the best. Trying to pick “the best set” of MDF got a lot more complicated between then and the end of the festival the next night, but Uada’s performance remains one that will stick in my memory for a long time.
THE OTHER HALF OF THE FUN
As has been true for me since my first foray to MDF, at least half the fun of this year’s festival came from the company I kept, which included not only some dear friends from Seattle but also my NCS compatriots (and equally prized friends) Andy Synn and DGR. And of course MDF brought the opportunity for reunions with lots of people I rarely get to see other than at this festival, as well as first-time meetings with people I’ve only known through the internet or had never previously encountered at all. Thanks to all of them for making MDF 2017 so fucking fantastic for this old man.
Goodbye Mr. Trash Wheel… until next year…