Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Right-sized: A Maryland Deathfest XV Summary

It seems that in recent years the Maryland Deathfest has been a bit like communism: great in theory but not when executed. Tremendous band lineups conflicted with poor logistics, or aggressively violent security, or oppressively hot temperatures, and with rapidly escalating ticket prices as the festival expanded and gotten bigger. The 2016 edition, MDF XIV, seemed to represent a breaking point in that sky high prices, frustrating distances between venues, and what appeared to be promoter apathy towards the concerns of their remarkably loyal attendees resulted in a significantly lower turn out than in years previous. The promoters probably didn't help themselves out by basically organizing two other festivals in California and Holland with very similarly curated lineups, which effectively killed MDF as an international destination festival that it briefly was around 2009 when Bolt Thrower headlined.

Something had to give, and when discussing my experience last year, I made a bunch of suggestions that frankly were not well received by a lot of my peers. I most certainly am not arrogant enough to believe that a pair of well traveled dudes promoting multiple shows and festivals each year and hobnobbing with legendary bands are going to follow the poorly edited and rarely updated blog of some curmudgeonly fan but I'll be damned if basically every single one of my preferred changes did not come to pass exactly as I envisioned them. They scrapped the outdoor Edison Parking Lot for a smaller, more compact set up by Ram's Head Live and Baltimore Soundstage; ticket prices came down significantly and while there were somewhat fewer bands, it wasn't really a drop in quality. They still had respectable headliners and even a few "holy shit" bands that motivated me and M to attend this year (particularly Akercocke, In The Woods..., and October Tide.)

With student loans that demand repayment I've taken on a promotion at work that on one hand has given me more disposable income, but on the other demands more of my time. So I was fortunate enough to have an accommodating boss that let me squeeze out early on Thursday so I could pick up M and make the brutal rush hour drive to Baltimore. M had decided at the last minute that she really wanted to see Tiamat and the stoner doom show at Rams Head, while I had already arranged to see the death metal lineup at Soundstage. Friday would be a no-go sadly, but I was able to twist a few arms and get the weekend off.

I arrived in time to see the end of Goratory's set; I guess they're back together. I remember having someone literally hand me a copy of their "Sexual Intercorpse" record that got thrown into the crowd when the band played the first MDF. Fun record. What I saw of their set indicates that nothing as changed, as they play a slam-heavy style of death metal. Following them was Malignancy, who delivered what Malignancy delivers- a jarring, turn on a dime sort of progressive metal if it was pushed thru a filter of NYDM. They sounded great and it's been too long since "Eugenics" dropped and they're way overdue for a new record.

Gorgasm followed by most likely performing the best set of the evening, playing from all of their albums. For the unfamiliar, their style of death metal is kind of that early 2000's Midwest interpretation of Suffocation's crunch; over the years they've really tightened up and become a very focused, razor sharp band; their last two records ("Orgy of Murder" and "Destined to Violate") get frequent rotation during my daily commutes.

Decrepit Birth followed them up after that, and they were about what was expected. I was a bit surprised that they performed as a 4 piece, but their mix of California-styled brutal DM with theatrical later-Death worship sounds great live. They closed with a cover of Death's "Crystal Mountain."

Decreipt Birth
Cryptopsy headlined at Soundstage, and though only drummer Flo Mounier actually played on the record, the band played "None So Vile" in it's entirety, and they did so viciously and convincingly. Truth; Matt McGachy is better than Lord Worm was. If "The Book of Suffering: Tome One" was a sincere indication of where the band plans to go, they might actually record from that boo-boo they released in 2008.

According to M, Conan put on an amazing set at Rams Head, SubRosa was limp, dull and boring, and Tiamat basically came across as rock stars in a near empty room while playing a set mostly focused on their Sisters of Mercy-inspired gothic cock-rock before performing a bizarre, half inspired "Wildhoney" medley at the end. Personally, if they weren't going to play "Sumerian Cry" in its entirety, I really don't give a shit about them.

M tried to get a shot of Conan, but she may have been drunk.
Saturday we made it after the end of Father Befouled's set but just in time for the gore filled shenanigans of Embalmer, who played a fantastic set of "old" death metal done right. They were followed by Necropsy from Finland, who were admittedly a tad bit boring and dull. Their style of old school DM would be best described as Incantation-ish with the slow dirges but without the truly aggressive parts that occur frequently enough to keep it interesting.

Embalmer, proof that not everything from Ohio sucks.
After them was one of the early festival highlights, Uada. I had just heard the band about a week earlier, and I was pretty excited to hear what these guys would deliver. The truth is that their shtick isn't original or reinventing the wheel; they've got a smoke machine and the dudes all wear hoods. Musically even, bands like Dissection, Unanimated, Sacramentum, and more recently Mgla have been doing the melodic black metal thing long before this band of quite recent vintage emerged. That said, Uada simply gets the formula done "right" and their overwhelming competence and confident delivery suggests this Portland, Oregon based band are going to be players in the scene for the next few years. Their merchandise quickly vanished after their set was completed.

Uada being grym and mysterious. I wonder if Sunn0)) gets royalties when other bands cop their hood gimmick.
I've never been that high on or enthused by Usurper or Exhumer, and I actively dislike Exhumed (I've always found them to sound like sloppy shit live; puking in a trashcan doesn't really change that...) so M and I took the opportunity to look at band merch and find food. Merch this year was a bit of a let down; far fewer vendors than in past years and besides the bootleg t-shirt vendors the majority of who was there had less assortment than in past years. I still managed to spend too much money on the offerings of Sevared Records and Dark Descent, but I absolutely missed the presence of Hells Headbangers, Deep Send Records, and Crucial Blast as I was hoping to fill several holes in my modest collection. And yes, I scored a bootleg Solitude Aeturnus shirt as well, but can you show me where I'd be able to find official merchandise from that band in 2017? They had enough space for more vendors from what I could tell (certainly inside Ram's Head if not outside for whatever reason) so I assume it was anticipated that there would be poor turnout and not worth the trouble of paying for space. A shame considering that the merch is one of the draws of the fest, at least for me.

As far as food went, M and I took a chance on a pizza spot just past Soundstage called "Blaze." I've had Frank Pepe's in New Haven and I've had Giordano's from Chicago and I'm not going to tell you that any pizza anywhere lives up to those places; but for a mere 8 bucks a pie "Blaze" hit the spot REALLY well. M usually dislikes "American" pizza, so when she's complimentary that means something.

We made it back to Rams Head in time for Root, and confession: I've never spent much time hearing these guys before. I knew who they were, and I knew their significance the history of black metal's first wave as well as the whole CoS deal with their frontman and main creative force, the uniquely named "Big Boss." What I didn't know is that they had essentially morphed into an "occult doom" sort of band or that Big Boss was in his mid-60's. Aside from lyrically, nothing about Root sounded 'black metal' in the 2017 sense of the word as the band played mostly a middle tempo and Big Boss's vocals were more operatic or even shamanistic than shrieked. That said, it was an interesting and worthwhile performance if not a band I'm likely to immediately rush to hear again.

Amist the horrible lighting is Root..who weren't as silly as they looked.
Grave followed that with being Grave. Grave is awesome and don't disappoint. They busted out a few older numbers in their set from "Into The Grave"; I was actually hoping to hear more from the last record because "Out of Respect For the Dead" was really fucking good.

iPhone 6 plus didn't really do a great job of capturing Grave here.
Morbid Angel was the headliner for Rams Head on Saturday. Since their last abomination back in 2011 or 2012 or whatever, everyone not named Trey Azagthoth got the boot and Steve Tucker rejoined the band alongside two much younger and previously unheard of dudes. Evil D and Tim Yeung are off somewhere touring as "I Am Morbid" covering their former band when their hired guns aren't getting arrested in Poland.

Really, you know you've hit rock bottom and reached peak "sell out" territory when you go 'country'

They borrowed from the King Diamond routine of taking way too fucking long to get on stage (because the longer you wait the more you want it, right?) and their sound was awful; everything sounded poorly mixed and muddy. New drummer guy was clearly cheating with his triggered kicks too. That said, Steve Tucker looked happy to be on stage after years in the wilderness (yes, I know he did the Nader Sadek thing and has his Warfather project...) but their set focused entirely on "Formulas Fatal To The Flesh" and "Gateways To Annihilation", with some rather ordinary new songs like "Warped" sprinkled in. The upside is that this incarnation is definitely a death metal band; the downside is that at least live they're a very ordinary one, especially following Grave. M and I didn't even bother to sit thru the whole set.

Sunday started with a visit to Chaps Pit Beef, one of Baltimore's best joints for food. We ordered way too much delicious food and rushed to the venue just in time for October Tide. This was probably M's highlight of the whole weekend, and I was rather excited to see them as well. They didn't play "Sightless", but they did play "12 Days of Rain" and "Grey Dawn." Their style of doom actually worked really well in a live setting, and I hope I'll get the chance to see them again someday.

October Tide
Seeing Nightbringer would have been cool, but they apparently had issues getting to the country from London so Angel Corpse played as a last second replacement. I hadn't seen Angel Corpse since I was 18, when they opened for Cannibal Corpse in Richmond, Va. So that was pretty cool. Didn't care that much of Acheron or Behexen. Oranzzi Pazuzu was as weird as their name; they were competent and certainly a bit psychedelic for a black metal band, but they weren't overwhelmingly interesting.

Nice view of Angel Corpse
In The Woods... was great, but didn't play anything from their new record that I could pick up. It seemed that their set focused mostly on early, older stuff when the band was a bit more blackened than they are in their current incarnation. They were also massively drunk and hammered and played over their allotted time but they were really good, so who cares?
Not really visible is the case of beer that In The Woods... brought with them on stage.

Akercocke followed that with an amazing set that focused on their last 3 albums. They didn't play in suits but they nevertheless delivered their beastly blackened death metal with all of the conviction of a band that is back and means business. They've got a new album coming out soon; perhaps set closer "Son of the Morning" is an indication of where they're going with that album's direction. I just hope it doesn't mean Voices is going to be put on hold...

Akercocke, sans suits.
Candlemass closed down the festival with a set in which they played "Nightfall" in its entirety. I swear that every time I see them, they have a different vocalist; the best being when I saw them with Robert Lowe from Solitude Aeturnus. This time around it was Mats Leven, a Swedish guy that's performed with Therion, At Vance, and Yngwie Malmsteen in the past. His voice was okay, but his mannerisms were more 80's glam rock and less doom metal. Facing a long shift at work at 7am the next day, M and I left after about half of their set.

The room was a bit crowded to get a good shot of Candlemass.
Overall, this was the smoothest running and most enjoyable MDF experience we had in several years. Having Rams Head and Soundstage host the fest meant professional staff working the event and clean bathrooms. Everything being centralized meant that had we chosen to buy tickets to both venues that the way set times were spaced we could have realistically seen most of the sets by all of the bands playing. Ticket prices were fair, and even the parking was cheaper. I don't suspect the turn out was near what it was in 2009, but it certainly was enough that the setup seems viable.

If I were to nitpick, I'd suggest booking more young up and coming bands like Uada and fewer old school and legacy acts like Necropsy (the balance was way too far towards old man bands this time around, and I'm saying this as an old dude...), encouraging bands that perform to bring merch (In The Woods... and Akercocke brought nothing...) and to do something about getting more vinyl and CD vendors instead of just bootlegged shirts. Having said that, this was still an overwhelmingly positive festival experience and given that others seem to have concluded it would be better than expected I'm optimistic about the fest's future.


Wednesday, March 22, 2017

More Stores You Can Still Buy Metal Records At: Texas Edition

I'm sitting in front of my computer listening to the new Pallbearer, I'm pretty damn excited to buy this one as they remain one of the best new bands in metal in quite some time. I've got the Memoriam record ready to go next; ex-Bolt Thrower guys delivering more of the same...solid expectations for that one...

That's not what this entry is about though. This is an update to my previous entry where I listed a few places around the country you can still buy metal. With M on Spring Break, and only a few states left for us to visit before we complete all 50, we used her week away from her studies to venture to Texas: the land of enormous highway overpasses, respectable BBQ, and the only hotels in America that have their TV sets in the lobby turned to Fox News.

There were a lot of these types in Texarkana. You'd think a state founded by fellow Virginians like Stephen F. Austin and Sam Houston wouldn't make me feel like such an outsider...
That said, Texas has a long and storied history in metal music that extends well beyond Pantera; it is a cauldron of sounds as diverse as Absu, Devourment, and Solitude Aeturnus. Shows and festivals there are known for high turnouts; there's even a distinct death metal sound known as TXDM (best way to describe it is as a sloppy sort of Suffocation worship.) It only stands to reason that such a state probably has several cities with multiple shops you can find metal CDs and vinyl. With consideration for M, I only checked out shops in Austin and San Antonio, but if you're passing through these are must stops and if you're from the area you're spoiled and should support these places; most of the country is not so blessed.

I was able to acquire a pretty decent stack of fresh tunes and harder to find classics, if not for my semi-adult-ish sensibilities it would've been much larger...

Encore Records
809 E 6th St
Austin, Texas 78702

So the unfortunate timing of M's Spring Break was that we passed through Austin during SXSW week, so this store looked pretty well shopped. That said, they've got a really solid variety of metal across multiple genres both on CD and on vinyl. Lots of shirts as well. The store is run by an older gentleman that has probably smoked a TON of weed in his day, and who likes to ramble on about feeding his dog peanut butter. I would assume that without SXSW that parking would be easier, but the prices are reasonable and I imagine he has more in stock during the rest of the year. I picked up records by Avulsed and Serial Butcher here.

Waterloo Records
600A N Lamar  
Austin, Texas 78703

This is the hipster shop in Austin where girls in thick framed glasses and those weird super high waisted pants go to buy their Mumford and Sons records or whatever Coachella approved bullshit the young and affluent artsy crowd is into today. That said, while they don't seem to have the decency to put their metal offerings separate from the rest of the pop/rock section, they do have a lot decent underground metal on their shelves. I was able to pick up records from a diverse array of artists ranging from out of print Agalloch to up and comers Sunlight's Bane (fucking great record, btw. Apocalyptic blackened hardcore that delivers!) It reminds me a lot of what Plan 9 Records in Virginia used to be years ago. 

End Of An Ear Records
4304 Clawson Rd
Austin, Texas 78704

From what I gathered, this is mostly a shop for the eclectic minded; particularly those into jazz or prog music. Mostly vinyl focused, but with a small and lovingly curated section of underground metal against the wall in a far corner. I was able to pick a pair of albums by Canadian black metal troop Weapon as well as the new Blood Incantation album from last year. I contemplated buying the back catalogue for Angel Corpse that I don't currently own, but after realizing that I don't actually listen to Angel Corpse all too often I decided to be responsible with my money. I probably lose tr00 points for that. Still, between this shop as well as the other aforementioned record stores, Austin has to rank as one of the best towns in America for a metal head to reside. 

Hogwild Records
1824 N Main Avenue
San Antonio, Texas 78212

The best for last. San Antonio is pretty cool city to visit, and given its reputation for metal (it has recently been the host for Phil Anselmo's Housecore Festival) I couldn't resist looking up online if there was a metal-centric record store there. Hogwild does not disappoint. There's actually a very solid selection jazz and hiphop to be found there, but the primary focus of the store is metal and punk. Good assortment of new releases on CD; I picked up the new Hour of Penance and Gatecreeper albums here. Lots of vinyl, and holy shit they've got a TON of metal shirts for sale. On street parking was easy to find and abundant. A great store and a must stop if you're in San Antonio.

On this trip I didn't really spend much time in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, but I'd imagine somewhere in that labyrinth of highways and dirty concrete structures there's a decent shop there. Likewise, while I enjoyed passing through Houston and especially it's food, I had already spent a fair amount of money and wasn't looking to bankrupt myself. Given Houston's diverse population and vibe, I'd say it's a certainty they've got some great shops but alas, those will have to wait until M and I hop in the car again for another long road adventure...we still haven't reached West Texas (or New Mexico, Arizona, or Oklahoma...)

Monday, December 19, 2016

Best of 2016.

It seems that a lot of people had a pretty fucking lousy go for 2016. I mean, holy shit we elected a reality TV buffoon as president here in the States. That is pretty goddamned awful. But while things may be going down the shitter for the country I reside in, 2016 actually has been a pretty kind year to me overall. I completed my post-graduate studies, got to spend nearly 3 weeks traveling the United States from coast to coast, and basically eliminated all non-student related debt from my life. I even found a little time to start learning Portuguese on the side, much to the pleasure of M. 

I haven't really been to many shows this year; in fact I don't think I attended any since MDF in May. Truth is, I'm an old bastard who has already seen "all of the cool bands" and often I'd rather just go have a steak and a beer in a quiet restaurant than battling DC/Baltimore traffic to see a band for the 8th time. That doesn't mean my fandom has become entirely casual; by my estimate I've purchased 62 albums released in 2016 alone, which is to say I've voraciously been listening to and supporting a lot of great bands. Since it's the end of the year and the appropriate time for "Best of" lists, here's mine.

Biggest Disappointment

Rotting Christ Rituals

Rotting Christ experienced a revival around 2007 when they released Theogonia with its ethnic Greek influences. To me, it was their best album since their very early days. Unfortunately, each successive album by the band has attempted to plunder this well of creativity with solid but declining results. On Rituals, it has become clear that there just isn't more juice in the path the band started with Theogonia. It's not that there aren't cool moments contained here, but just nothing in the way of memorable songcraft. It's more like this album was created as background music for a God of War video game than a stand alone work meant to captivate your undivided attention. When this record ends, you know you listened to something that sounds like Rotting Christ, but you don't remember much else. These guys are capable of more and given their history of reinvention, I suspect we'll get it soon enough.

Honorable Mentions

Blasphemer Ritual Theophagy
Blood Incantation Starspawn
Blood Red Throne Union Of Flesh And Machine
Darkthrone Arctic Thunder
Dark Tranquility Atoma
Dehumanized Beyond The Mind
Glorior Belli The Flock That Welcomes Sundown
In The Woods.. Pure
Inquisition Bloodshed Across The Empyrean Altar Beyond The Celestial Zenith
Injury Deepen Anthropophagous Realm
Inverloch Distance / Collapsed
Korpse Unethical
Neurogenic Ouroboric Stagnation
Pighead Until All Flesh Decays
Russian Circles Guidance 
Waldgefluster Ruinen
Wormrot Voices

10.) Anaal Nathrakh The Whole Of The Law

Anaal Nathrakh was a band I kinda came to lately, but when I heard Vanitas a few years ago it clicked perfectly. This is band is a desperate scream in a cacophonous fury. It's a sound that's dense and overwhelming yet grandoise, epic, and even a slight bit triumphant at the same time. That's a lot of adjectives. But in it's mix of black metal, grindcore, and industrial elements, they all fitting describe The Whole Of The Law.

9.) Anciients Voice Of The Void

I had kinda written these guys off as some sort of hipster nerd metal bullshit until this album came up on autoplay on my ipod recently. You could waste your time with Opeth's Sorceress and lament about how far that band has fallen...or you could check this out instead. It's an ambitious sort of blending of bombastic Opeth-y prog and stoner rock, complete with the clean vocal/growling dynamic. This one shouldn't take long to grow on you.

8.) Embalmer Emanations From The Crypt

Awash with grisly sounding vocals, old school riffs, trigger free blasts...this is an ugly sounding band, playing what may be loosely considered "music" but really is just an aural fist to the face by a band that treads close to the edge of any time this sounds like it could fall of the rails into noisy oblivion but never does. 

 7.) Ulcerate Shrines of Paralysis

Perhaps one of the most influential new bands in the scene, Ulcerate isn't the first band to play this sort of dischordant death metal; Gorguts and Immolation before them had elements of this sort of clangy, atmospheric sound. Certainly bands like Portal and Mitochondrion were intense and foreboding as well; but as a complete package it's Ulcerate who have really made a name for themselves with this style. This is less jarring perhaps than their previous efforts and slightly more orthodox in it's death metal, but as a non-musician who just wants to hear good riffs and be captured by dark atmospheres this might be their best effort to date in my opinion. 

 6.) Mithras On Strange Loops

Morbid Angel done Willowtip style might be the exact best way to describe this album. Vocals that remind me a bit of Behemoth, the riffs are largely from the Trey Azagthoth school of lava (or whatever he calls it.) with memorable leads and harmonies layered on top. Conceptually, this is a bit ambitious as moments of fierce brutality transition seamlessly into wandering melodic grandeur. If looking at the stars and wondering how human life came to be could be expressed thru early 1990's death metal...I suppose this is about what that should sound like.  

5.) Destroyer 666 Wildfire

The most controversial band of 2016? Earlier this year they were engaged in quite a pissing contest with the SJWs at Metalsucks over their past history of less than PC statements that hilariously ended when D666 released the personal information behind the aliases of Axl Rosenberg and co. Now let me be very clear that I probably don't have too much in common with these Aussies with regard to their political views but if we're going to hold bands to task for problematic content in their lyrics then holy shit we've got problems because basically EVERY METAL BAND HAS PROBLEMATIC CONTENT IN THEIR LYRICS OR PERSONAL VIEWS. Songs about murder, violence, politics and revolution, sexual perversions of a wide variety, intolerant anti-religious viewpoints, etc...if you can't take all of this subject matter with a grain of salt then the metal scene probably isn't for you. 

Back on topic, none of that is why Wildfire is one of the best albums of the year. It's one of the best albums because it's a rambunctious booze fueled good time. Blackened thrash delivered with irreverent attitude, this album has cross over appeal. And album closer "Tamam Shud" is one epic finale. 

4.) Khemmis Hunted

Thin Lizzy meets The Obsessed? Plenty of dirty, sludgy heft with a bit of southern rock swagger and an emphasis on guitar harmonies. Where a band like Pallbearer aspires for grandiose and majestic, this Colorado band aims for something a good deal more rock n roll. This was a late discovery in 2016 for me, so perhaps there's a tinge of recency effect going on, but it definitely hits the spot for me.

3.) Katatonia The Fall Of Hearts

The review here is simple. This is the best album they have done since Last Fair Deal Gone Down

2.) Zhrine Unortheta

So I left MDF right after Mitochonrion's set before a band I never heard of performed (M was waiting for me and it was kinda rainy outside, so I wasn't going to be a dick...)  That band was Iceland's Zhrine, and apparently they created a bit of a buzz from their performance. Based on said buzz, I made the effort to pick up Unortheta and I've regretted missing these guys ever since. Elements of post-metal mesh with somber doom and Incantation/Ulcerate inspired death metal. This isn't meant to be digested in pieces or by individual tracks, but as an entire listen. A few nights driving across the sparsly populated regions of the Western United States I put this on, and it effectively matched the feeling of discomforting solitude one feels journeying along an empty interstate in Montana, racing to avoid a super-cell thunderstorm. Sometimes you hear an album and just connect with it.

1.) Wormed Krighsu

The 2016 undisputed kings of death metal, IMO. Full of rapid fire stop and go transitions that would make Cryptopsy cream themselves, this is a mightily satisfactory slab of brutal riffing, ferocious drumming, gutteral vocals, and technical virtuosity. They do this while retaining a distinct sound, one that makes you imagine being sucked into a black hole. When an album has stayed in my car since February...not much else needs to be said.