Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Maryland Deathfest XI: A Weekend Narrative.

Living in the Washington DC metro area comes with many positives.  Ethnic diversity means lots of good eats.  It has franchises competing in all four major sports, and the Capitals are even competitive most of the time.  It has 3 major airports, decent public transportation, and since it’s along the I-95 corridor, it’s in close proximity to the other population centers in the Northeast.

Another one of those positives is that the Maryland Deathfest takes place about 40 miles from where I’m sitting typing this.  I’ve actually been to at least a day of every year of the festival, so I’ve literally experienced the evolution of the festival from one that catered to NYDM and goregrind for a select audience to one that covers the entire metal underground for an audience that in 2013 was rumored to hit 6,000 per day.  This year was another positive experience, but I’m not sure that bigger was necessarily better…

The layout of the festival was kinda goofy this year; bands were booked to play in 2 different locations.  The main area was still outside of Sonar, which no longer exists as a club since the old owner got busted for trafficking marijuana.  The space is now called “The Paparazzi Room”, which is currently half-way remodeled from its previous existence.  What this meant was that there is no stage inside of the Paparazzi Room/Sonar, since the Paparazzi Room plans to be a “Las Vegas Styled Dance Club”.  Nevertheless, the building was opened so festival attendees could access the restrooms, the bars, and half of the vendors set up shop in the main room.

Because of this, the hardcore/grindcore bands seemed to be relegated to performing a 15 minute walk away at the Baltimore Soundstage.  There were even separate (and much cheaper) tickets for this stage, which sold out very quickly.  Rotten Sound was the only band I had any interest in seeing that performed there, so I wasn’t particularly depressed about this.  But all accounts suggested that everything at the Baltimore Soundstage ran very smoothly.  This would be in contrast to what took place at the main grounds.

I picked up M from work around 3pm on Friday, and made the painful crawl against Memorial Day traffic to Baltimore in about 3 hours, which sucked since it meant I missed all of Convulse and the largest portion of Ingrowing, who were playing inside at the “tent stage”.  Yeah, the “tent stage.”  I found this rather annoying since after Thursday tickets sold out in about a day, Bolt Thrower was uncooperative towards playing on one of the festivals 2 outdoor stages; rumor was that they only agreed to play MDF if they could play indoors.  So they headlined Thursday night inside a fucking tent.  I took solace in the fact that apparently because the tent is obviously outdoors, the Baltimore noise ordinances resulted their set being cut quite short at 11pm.  At any rate, the outdoor stages covered much more ground, as MDF closed not just Saratoga Street, but Holiday Street next to it.  There were still some outdoor vendors, and a lot more food stands that weren’t staffed by crusties.  Some of the offerings actually smelled pretty good, but aside from a mediocre basket of undercooked fries with a small glop of processed cheese flavored food product and a single can of coke (which cost us $9 fucking bucks!!!) M and I stuck to the usual Inner Harbor go-to’s (Chipotle, Panera Bread, etc.) during the weekend.

The first band we saw was Benediction, who benefited from playing on stage #1 (closest to the entrance to the Paparazzi Club.)  The guy working the soundboard for this stage did a great job all weekend; every band that played there would sound outstanding.  Benediction drew from their entire catalog including the albums I’m most familiar with (“Transcend the Rubicon”, “The Grand Leveller”, and “Grind Bastard”.)  Absolutely ferocious and intense, their primitive style of death metal went over very, very well.

I skipped out on seeing Pig Destroyer on stage #2 because I’m just not a huge fan of theirs.  Instead, M and I opted to watch Evoken perform at the tent stage, who were phenomenal.  Funeral doom/death is not a style that’s easy to make interesting live, but Evoken managed to break up their walls of downtuned distortion with flourishes of aggression; think Winter or even really early My Dying Bride.  I’ve been a fan since “Embrace the Emptiness” came out way back, so it was cool to finally see them.


M and I took a dinner break during the sets of Repulsion and Righteous Pigs, so I only managed to see maybe 3 songs by each band (Repulsion kinda sucked, Righteous Pigs were, um, righteous!) which meant that Friday’s headliner, Carcass, already were hitting the stage by 9:45pm or so.  I found myself disappointed by their set; I like “Necroticism” and “Heartwork” both plenty, but I didn’t recognize very much at all from “Symphonies of Sickness” or “Reek of Putrefaction.”  The two new guys performed quite capably alongside Steer and Walker, and the band sounded quite polished and professional.  It was good enough to make up for the bad luck M and I had trying to see them in 2008 I guess.  Pelican finished the night off at the tent with an impressive set; they were far more “in your face” and heavy than I expected for a band from the same sort of post-metal realm as Isis or Red Sparrowes.  It was actually really cool to go to a festival and for there to not be a single weak band performing from the time we arrived until the time we left.  This would actually continue throughout the weekend.


Saturday’s lineup was also very solid, but unfortunately the atmosphere and mood of the festival would change for the worse.  When we arrived back in Baltimore around 3pm (traffic was much more cooperative during the weekend) there were a whole new set of security measures in place that hadn’t really ever been in place at past MDF’s, much less on Friday.  There was a huge line to enter the festival which moved mostly at a snail’s pace.  The security staff themselves appeared to have multiplied dramatically in number and they were not in a good mood towards festival goers.  I found myself subjected to a full pat-down, and M found herself subjected to even worse; in addition to the usual bag check (entirely reasonable) and pat-down, the women at the gate took unusual scrutiny in looking through her wallet, thumbing through her money.  Later in the day we would hear rumors that members of security were mugging inebriated attendees, selling set lists, roughing people up, and attempting to sell drugs or stolen goods (beer, merch, etc.)  You can read about a lot of it here.

Let me be clear; the dumbasses who thought they should be allowed in with their pocket knives deserved to be treated like shit.  Same also goes to the idiots who couldn’t leave their weed and other drugs back at the hotel room.  M and I witnessed one douchebag attendee give the business to a parking lot attendant because he felt he shouldn’t have to pay full price to park his motorcycle.  There were a lot of shitheads who brought trouble on themselves.  The problem with the security staff at MDF this year (and to a lesser extent some past years) is that a lot of innocent bystanders seem to be victimized as well.  At least one person told me that his friend was prohibited from entering the main festival grounds on Sunday because she simply dared to ask why entry lines were so inefficient at getting people in.  It looked like the people Evan and Ryan (the festival promoters) entrusted to handle security outsourced a lot of dubious individuals to work the gates at the festival; people who lacked experience but carried serious bad attitudes.  And at the risk of pissing off any politically correct reader, there was obviously a problem with having ALL of the security crew being black and from Baltimore.  It’s unfortunate to have to acknowledge this racial component, but online comments have made it clear that for some festival goers (mostly the same people who were trouble makers to begin with) the ethnicity of the security was an issue, and it was clear that some of the security were in fact behaving in a manner that supports uncomfortable and negative stereotypes.  At any rate, the worst that M or myself directly experienced were the long lines, the frisking, and the obsessive searches of M’s bag and counting of her money.  

Aside from that the weather continued to be extremely cooperative, which was great because it kept M from bitching about how uncomfortable the weather made her.  We did get to see Iniquity, which was the first band I saw fully from stage #2.  As good as the sound guy was from stage #1, the guy working stage #2 sucked.  It sounded like he basically turned up all of the levels on the soundboard to their maximum, resulting in sound that was physically disorienting to experience and a lot of unintended distortion.  Iniquity themselves were good, not as good as I was hoping but solid.  Weedeater and The Obsessed both followed, and it was great to see both bands.  I’m actually a bigger fan of The Obsessed than I am Saint Vitus because Wino is a riff master.  

We came back from a food run in time to catch Broken Hope, who by the nature of their style of brutal death metal were less affected by stage #2’s sound issues.  I guess they’ve got a new album coming out this year.  I wish MDF still booked more bands like this, really.  If they can have a stage for hardcore/grindcore bands, why not one for brutal death/goregrind?  Maybe that’s a way to grow the festival without having to book a Slayer/Anthrax level band? 

The Melvins were really fucking loud; I didn’t realize that they had 2 drummers in the band now.  Lots of stuff from “Houdini” and “Stoner Witch”, which made me a very happy camper.  Ihsahn played stage #2 after that; no Emperor covers but nevertheless his band sounded great, considering the ineptitude of the soundguy.  Lot of stuff from “Emerita”, which makes sense since that’s his most recent album.  I was really happy that the band wasn’t as boring as I had heard, and I’d love to see these guys again.  

Down was the headlining band on Saturday.  Contrary to some of my friends, I actually really like Down.  There were rumors that Down requested that no members of the audience be allowed to wear spikes or studded clothing into the venue, which seemed asinine.  Given that Phil Anselmo is still paying for the sins of his drug induced douchebaggery of years past, these rumors took some legs quickly.  I personally think they’re bunk; Phil openly walked around the festival shopping for merch and taking pictures and chatting up anyone who’d talk to him.  That’s not something a nervous guy would do.  I think that the rumor was the product of Saturday’s security making the decree on their own, and saying that “one of the bands” requested it.  Since Down is by far the biggest band to ever play MDF, and Phil’s rumored issues with regard to Dimebag’s on-stage murder, someone made the assumption and it took off from there.

Edit: On 5/30/13; Evan Harting, one of the MDF organizers, specially addressed the issue regarding studs, spikes, belts, and Down, stating that:

"It was basically a misunderstanding. It does have something to do with Down because they had a security rider that does enforce those things but I think that’s more for different types of concerts they’ve done. I have talked to their agent about it a while back and he said, “Don’t worry about it. We’re not going to enforce that at the fest it’ll be fine.” And then they get there and their security guy said that we need to enforce all of that and he didn’t know anything that I’ve worked out with the agent previously. So that’s why that was going on and we had to really talk to him about it and he eventually was like “It’s fine, at your discretion just do what you want” so we lifted that. But Phil himself didn’t seem to care about enforcing that at all so I’m not really sure exactly where that started."

Evan also addressed many of the festival's shortcomings in an interview with DCHeavyMetal, which can be found here.

So basically, I was half-right. /End Edit.

Down was every bit as good as I expected.  I thought some of Phil’s stage banter was funny, and some of it was borderline asskissing, but clearly he is a fan of the festival and a fan of several of the bands playing (he was giving shout-outs to Cobalt and Righteous Pigs, among others.)  What I will say is that the man commands a presence on stage, as do the rest of the members of Down.  I didn’t recall many songs played from the third Down album (a shame since that’s actually my favorite) but they played their “hits” and closed with an absurdly long version of “Bury Me in Smoke”.  The worst part of Down’s set was that I also had no problem hearing Vinterland, who were playing in the tent about 50 yards away.  For what it’s worth, Vinterland sounded great!   Neither M or I were particularly enthusiastic about staying for Saturday’s closing band (Antaeus) so we called it a night.

The next morning Facebook was loaded with comments regarding the nightmare situations getting into the club and fear that the security staff had inspired amongst the festival attendees.  The MDF staff even posted statements saying that they had “resolved” the issues but unfortunately this was not true.  M and I arrived on Sunday at  around 3pm (too late to see Cruciamentum, ugh) again to see massive lines at the entrance; some festival goers complained of waiting 90 minutes and missing bands while in line.  The security’s tactics that Ryan and/or Evan said had been stopped were back in full force, and even stepped up a bit in terms of intensity and bad attitude. 

Photo: To those who say there are no problems getting in an out at MDF; you're full of shit. Nothing has changed.
After our eventual entry, I took advantage of the opportunity to knock out my CD shopping, picking up the following:

Abdicate Transcend Through Sacrifice 
Abdicate Framgented Atrocities 
Abraxas Damnation
Blood Red Throne Blood Red Throne
Cianide The Dying Truth
Cystic Dysentery Culture of Death
Execration The Acceptance of Zero Existance
Fumes of Decay Devouring the Excavated
Goreinhaled The Art of Sickness
Jasad Rebirth of Jatisunda
Necrotic Disgorgement Documentaries of Dementia
Waco Jesus Mayhem Doctrine
Wormed Exodromos 

(Awful lot of record buying for a confessed downloader, yes?)


  After doing that expediently as to not annoy M (who always complains about boredom when I’m CD browsing, grrr…) we managed to catch Midnight on stage #1.  Fucking awesome, of course; they’re one of those types of bands that old schoolers and hipsters alike oughta be able to agree on; when the band sounds like a blend of Motorhead and Venom what can go wrong?  I guess a lot of people looked forward to Pagan Altar, but I don’t think it even mattered that they were playing on stage #2, the vocals were all powermetally and gay and not my thing at all.  M agreed so we went and stared at Gride instead, who sounded loud, fast, and ugly…and completely indistinguishable for 90% of other grindcore bands.

Sacred Reich probably ended up playing my favorite set of the weekend on stage #1.  I remembered liking this band since I found “Independent” on the used rack at a Plan 9 records in high school, and of course they were yet another band that I knew of that nobody else in my hometown seemed to know or give a shit about.  They had perfect sound, and their hyperactive drumming and groovy thrash was way better than the band they replaced on the bill (Exodus).  Covered all of their albums, played “American Way” and their version of “War Pigs”.  I was very happy after seeing this set.

Manilla Road was sooooo fucking good; they deserved stage #1’s sound.  I only ever heard one of their albums, and they just sound so distinct from other bands…at once classic and power metal-ish but also kind of proto-thrash.  Great vocalist.  I really hope these guys come back, and get better sound.  I think I also caught a piece of Integrity’s set; I liked them more than I expected to considering I’m not really a hardcore kind of guy.

They were followed by Sleep, who I am a fan of.  And they were good, but they played too long of a set.  They weren’t as good as The Obsessed or Weedeater or The Melvins, and on top of that they played almost 20 minutes past their scheduled time.  Their style of doom, which is minimalist in riffing, and dreadfully slow in tempo, just isn’t something I can take in more than 30 minute doses.  That’s why “Jerusalem” sits on my shelf collecting dust.

Pentagram suffered from Manilla Road’s bad sound.  They also started really late.  Bobby seemed to be in good spirits, and their sludgy, pained sound is a good fit for MDF as it exists in 2013.  Unfortunately, because they started late (probably to give Sleep time to finish, or because Bobby is a bit of a mess as a person…just watch “Last Days Here” if you think I’m talking smack) they got cut off before their last song. 

Halfway or so thru Pentagram’s set, because of their bad sound, I decided to check out Ascension at the tent stage.  Ascension suffered from bad sound as well, too much reverb on everything basically, but what I heard sounded like a pretty awesome sort of black metal with melody, atmosphere, and the ability to blast violently.  Probably something I should download or buy so I can evaluate properly. 

Venom was the headliner, and the last band to play the weekend as well.  They also started late, probably because Pentagram started late, etc.  Fuck you very much, Sleep.  Anyhow, they opened with “Black Metal” and ran thru their classics…between lineup changes and experience Venom actually have become good musicians, which makes them a lot more fun to see live than to listen to on CD.  Unfortunately, being the end of the festival, which by Sunday night had a palpable tension between audience and security (which was odd, considering that people didn’t appear to be as shitfaced drunk as previous years on Sunday night…) I figured it was better to leave 5 minutes early than late.  So M and I caught the last 2 songs from the Gay St. Parking Garage where we parked each day when at 11:03pm, Venom got cut off before the end of their set.  Baltimore city curfew.

Knowing a bad scene was about to break out, M and I hopped in the car and made our commute back to Arlington.  Mid-commute of course we get a text message from someone saying that the shit went down at the main festival grounds; security wasn’t letting anyone leave and started kicking the shit out of people who may or may not have had it coming via their own belligerent behavior.

I guess it was a fitting end to the weekend.  M and I never really dealt with more than some annoyances and inconvenience but the schedule of the bands and weather were both favorable to us having a fantastic time overall.  At the same time, the ominous presence of aggressive and sketchy people working security at the entrance and among the crowd wasn’t comfortable, and my instinct to leave early was astute.  Especially after the retarded mace incident between security and a group of drunk fans 2 years ago that resulted in a lot of bystanders getting caught in the aftermath, I do not think that the promoters of MDF XI took the audience’s security concerns seriously enough.  They kept posting on Facebook that the situation was resolved, only to delete the postings as though nothing ever happened and nothing was ever said acknowledging it happened.  I’m willing to forgive bands being cut off because of curfews because that kind of thing happens at festivals all of the time, keeping everything on schedule is a hell of a challenge and MDF does a remarkably good job most years, including this year overall, of keeping to it.  I also thought that the security working the stages, and the Sonar/Paparazzi Club staff were all working very hard to make the experience for 6,000 attendees the best it could be, given the circumstances.  My heart goes out to the cleaning staff in particular for having to battle to keep the overworked restrooms at least somewhat working, if not as sanitary as everyone would have liked.  There was no waiting for beer, everyone was polite.

But knowing that there was a huge problem regarding security, particularly at the entrance to the venue, I can think of no excuse why either of the promoters did not stand out there and supervise matters, or at least send one of the security people they claim to trust and feel so confident about to do it.  My only guess can be that the hired extra security working the festival must have intimidated the promoters themselves, because there’s no excuse for them not being involved.  Which in itself is a problem.

The Sonar/Paparazzi Club location on Saratoga St has been a good one, but when the festival is now drawing 6,000 (by far the biggest incarnation of MDF I’ve ever seen) each day, it’s too big to keep hosting in that location.  Next year will have to be a new location, and that will mean some sort of sacrifice and logistical pain in the ass for both the promoters and the audience.  The big thing though that has to change is the security of the festival; both in terms of the professionalism and the composition of the security staff.  Post-MDF messages from the promoters say that there’s a core group of security that they trust, and that the incidents of violence are the result of a few bad seeds.  Well these bad seeds keep working the fest every year; at some point it’s time to consider if the “trusted core group” of security staff are the bad seeds.  If they aren’t, keep them around.  But the rest of the security needs to at least somewhat reflect the demographic of the festival attendees; there’s obviously a dangerous tension that exists between a security staff that is inner-city and black and an audience that’s basically everything BUT inner-city and black.  This doesn’t mean they shouldn’t hire any black security, but the security hired should come from other backgrounds as well to help prevent the “us against them” mentality.

Lastly, festival goers should stop being entitled little fucktards.  There isn’t a festival or concert venue anywhere in the Western World that allows you to wear 6 inch spikes and brandish a knife everywhere you go.  If you’re hell bent on consuming drugs in a place of public accommodation, then surely accept the consequences that you might get jacked up by another lawbreaker or actually arrested.  That’s your dumb fucking fault, not the promoters, not the venue.  Just because you’re from out of town and attending a music festival in a shithole town like Baltimore doesn’t mean that Baltimore’s laws don’t apply to you.  If you act irresponsibly, accept the fucking consequences.

All that said, this year’s hassles aside, I had a great time and look forward to going back next year.  It’s at least as safe as any larger festival such as Mayhem or Ozzfest, I love visiting the merch tables, and it’s great to see bands that perhaps I won’t get to see again (Iniquity, Venom, Manilla Road, etc).  I just hope that after this year that the MDF staff responds to audience concerns more proactively and more responsively.