Maryland Deathfest 2015: Classic Thrash, Norwegian Black Metal, and One Hell of a Bangover
Every year, Baltimore plays host to Maryland Deathfest's four days of extreme metal mayhem. Here are a few highlights from the abyss, including Skepticism, Obituary, Razor, and Knelt Rote.
Obituary / All photos by Josh Sisk
To be honest, it’s impossible for me to really “cover” Maryland Deathfest (MDF) with an unbiased eye anymore. I love it too much. I’ve been attending the multi-day festival since 2007; back then, it was still very much Maryland DEATHfest, with wall-to-wall blastbeats and gutturals (and nary a progressive Scandinavian band to be found). I’ve been personally involved with the fest for the past four years as the editor of the official MDF program, and have previously worked with a few of the bands playing this year, so I’ve got a big fat bias there, too. Finally, it’s the place where my sweeter half and I made things official three years ago, so it’ll always hold a special place in my withered black heart. With all that said and all my biases laid bare, I’m going to eschew any attempt to “review” the event itself—though it’s hard to deny that this year was the best organized and all-around smoothest MDF yet. Instead, here are few of the best performances I saw this weekend, and some dope photos from our man on the ground, photographer and Baltimore local Josh Sisk. We didn't get any shots of the chicken man (or the cow man, or the penis man, or the Death speedo/crab hat guy, or the crowd-surfing security guard, but rest assured, they were all there as well).
Thursday night’s lineup was heavy on death and heavier on doom—early birds had the option of either immersing themselves in brutal death at the Soundstage, or floating along on doom vibes at the Ram’s Head. I caught a few songs apiece from Conan and YOB, who both sounded positively massive, and in between, hit pause on the MDF metal overload to take in my very first hip-hop show. The organizers’ controversial decision to book legendary NYC hip-hop crew Mobb Deep was a gamble at best, but one that paid off in full as soon as Havoc and Prodigy hit the stage... and got an entire crowd of crusty, scruffy, patch jacketed metalheads to dance.
On Friday, the Soundstage was king. The grind- and punk-focused satellite venue hosted some of the best performances of the fest this year, from Homewrecker’s ultra-fun, crusty blasting hardcore to Napalm Death’s masterful closing salvo. Japan’s Flagitious Idiosyncrasy in the Dilapidation took the cake for me that day, though. I got to see these ladies shred the main stage at Sonar back in 2008, and they were even better this time around; tighter, more confident, and armed with choice material off their latest LP, 2013’s Wallow. The Soundstage was packed for their set, and while it might’ve been easy for the pessimistic to write off the four petite Japanese women onstage as a novelty, FID’s command over their short, savage songs (and Makiko’s hellish shrieks and guttural roars) would’ve been just as impressive if they’d issued forth from a quartet of standard-issue white dudes. Why am I bothering to mention their gender here? Gender obviously has absolutely negative fucking zero effect on one’s ability to play guitar or scream bloody gore, but given that only a smattering of women performed at MDF this year, it was especially cathartic seeing FID holding it down up there in front of a sea of dudes. Between them, Triptykon bassist Vanja Šlajh, Darkened Nocturn Slaughtercult vocalist Onielar, Jex Thoth, Kat from Agoraphobic Nosebleed, and Melt Banana’s Yasuko Onuki, there were less than a dozen women onstage at this year’s fest—and MDF’s diverse lineup means that this will probably mark the highest ratio to be found at any North American metal festival this year.
This is an issue that is depressingly prevalent in mainstream and indie-oriented festivals , and metal’s own pronounced gender imbalance means that, yeah, at this point, there are almost always going to be more men than women or nonbinary folk present. It is very possible to achieve a more realistic balance, though, even in metal, as last year’s Gilead Fest proved; twenty percent of the bands playing featured non-male members, and as label head Adam Bartlett noted, he “wasn’t even trying.” MDF is on the right track, but it’s something the entire community—especially festival organizers—need to work on. How do we fix this? Keep booking bands that deviate beyond the same old “four straight white dudes” formula, keep buying records and merch from said bands, keep encouraging more people outside that formula to start bands, and save up plenty of scorn for any dickhead who still says that talented and ferocious musicians like FID are a “girl band.”
Of the rest of the bands that played on Friday, Obituary was my hands-down favorite. They couldn’t have been further from FID in sound or aesthetic as they went stomping around the Edison Lot stage in all their redneck glory. The grinning death metal greats hauled out hoary old chestnuts like “Slowly We Rot” that we were all gagging to hear, and went easy on the new material (though they’re one of the precious few original Florida death metal bands whose recent albums are worth a shit). To me, loving Obituary seems like a no-brainer. Do you like slow, groovy death metal riffs? Do you like headbanging? Do you have little to no negative opinion on camo shorts or white crew socks? Congratulations, you’re an Obituary fan. On top of that, to my knowledge, none of the members have done or said anything particularly shitty (unlike many of their peers—looking at you, Malevolent Creation); in fact, drummer Donald Tardy is one of the chillest dudes in metal, as evidence by both his past tenure playing drums for Andrew W.K. and the Metal Meowlisha feral cat rescue organization he runs with his wife, Heather. His brother John Tardy’s pained yelp was the soundtrack to my earliest forays into death metal, and to see a band that officially started the year I was born still up there straight killing it was beyond satisfying—it was a fucking joy. The rest of the thousands-strong crowd seemed to feel the same, and throughout the rest of the weekend, Obituary’s the one band that everyone I ran into seemed the most stoked about. Fifteen-year-old me was right all along—Obituary is the best band in the world.
Saturday’s bill was tailor-made for thrashers—even with Sodom’s much bewailed cancellation, there was still Bulldozer, Vulcano, and Razor to look forward to. The first-ever Brazilian extreme metal band, Vulcano, brought their obscure but incredibly influential brand of South American hell to the Edison Lot stage while the sun was still blazing, delivering a blistering history lesson in the bargain. As soon as we’d recovered from their onslaught, it was whiskey time. Italian black/thrash speed demons Bulldozer hit the stage around 5:30pm and proceeded to whiz through a raw, raucous set that saw vampiric vocalist AC Wild don a cape and preach the gospel of booze’n’blasphemy from behind a blood-streaked podium. Canadian old-timers Razor’s appearance proved a soothing balm to those still smarting from Sodom’s absence, and undoubtedly won over a fair few new fans with their boisterous energy and infectious riffs.
Triptykon were another fan favorite, lumbering majestically through Tom G. Warrior’s storied discography (they even played “Messiah,” prompting everyone in the vicinity to thoroughly lose their shit), though the open air setting leached away some of the guitar tone’s usually ironclad heft. It barely hurt them, though, and the Celtic Frost numbers got head banging harder than anything else all weekend.
Despite another stellar lineup, I only made it to the Soundstage for Inter Arma and Martyrdöd; the latter ripped the hell out of the joint, and Inter Arma’s apocalyptic set made it very clear that, within the next decade, people will be referring to the Richmond five-piece in the same hushed tones currently reserved for Neurosis. As I stood rooted to the spot, a friend whisper-yelled into my ear, “The Edison Lot is empty right now!” Hangovers be damned, everyone was crowded into the dark neon recesses of the Soundstage for Inter Arma’s 3PM set, and our loyalty was richly rewarded.
By the end of the night, festival exhaustion had fully taken hold, but there was no way in hell or otherwise that I could let myself miss Demoncy. Despite their having preceded and influenced nearly every American black metal band ever, Demoncy remains bizarrely obscure, a cult band in every sense of the word. Smeared with corpsepaint and enveloped within voluminous black cloaks, the Seattle collective—who featured only one original member, Ixithra, who formed the band in 1989— overwhelmed the zombified patrons at the Ram’s Head with ominous, minimalist black metal. Punctuated by Ixithra’s animalistic growls and an all-encompassing atmosphere of evil, the whole spectacle lulled us into a stupor, and set the stage for Norway’s Tsjuder to strap on their spikes and close out the night. As great as the rest of the day’s performances has been, Tsjuder ended up stealing the show. Unlike many MDF bands, the Norwegian trio is used to playing on big stages, and have honed their set to make the most of that space. Classics like “Ghoul” and “Mouth of Madness” came across crisp, cold, and deadly, and sounded phenomenal through the Ram’s Head PA. They woke up everyone who’d fallen under Demoncy’s spell, and coaxed a rousing response from the ragged specimens (myself included) who couldn’t help but raise our fists and howl along.
Sunday’s lineup was packed with heavy-hitters, starting with Tombs, Goatsnake, Prosanctus Inferi, and Primordial. I’ve probably seen them more times than anyone else in North America (I toured with them several years ago), but I still get chills every time Alan Averill unleashes his formidable vocal chords on songs like “Empire Falls” and the chilling “The Coffin Ships,” which he dedicated to everyone in the audience who had “a little bit of Irish in them.” The crowd reaction was immense—Primordial is another band that’s used to playing huge European stages, and their bombastic sound and theatrical flourishes went down a storm with MDF’s legions. Death/doom stalwarts Winter darkened the mood, and Finland’s Skepticism dragged it down way, way further. Impeccably turned-out in a full Phantom of the Opera tux and backlit by the setting sun, vocalist Matti Tilaeus gracefully led his fellow Finns through flawless renditions of the band’s classic keyboard-soaked funeral doom odes, airing a promising (and utterly miserable) new song, “The Departure” and closing the proceedings with the soul-stirring “The March and the Stream.”
The final highlight (for me, at least—I know tons of people were pumped for Melt Banana and D.R.I.) was Knelt Rote’s set at the Ram’s Head. Sandwiched between a loincloth-clad Impetuous Ritual and a hooded and/or Victorian mourning veiled Portal, Knelt Rote’s approach was refreshingly spartan: four plainly-dressed men, two vocal mics, four instruments, and one oppressive wall of black tar-thick noise. It was absolute unbridled intensity from the moment the first note howled to life, a maelstrom of black, death, and grind that left no room for light or air. If you ever have the opportunity to see them play, DO IT. By the time they finished, I had no need for Portal, or for anything else. They’d drained what little energy and positivity I had left in me, and all I could do was collapse into the void… and wait for next year.
Kim Kelly is still pissed that she missed Primitive Man and Agoraphobic Nosebleed - she's on Twitter: @grimkim