Monday, May 30, 2016

LET THEM EAT CAKE! A rant about Maryland Deathfest XIV

The tone of the title of this post probably indicates where I’m heading here, so let me try to ramble on about some context first. I’ve been to more than a handful of festivals besides MDF, which I’ve attended each year since 2003 when it was held at a dump called the Thunderdome and the headliners were Devourment, Suffocation, and Sublime Cadaver Decomposition. I remember the year where they tried to have the fest in White Marsh at the House of Rock and how that venue wasn’t very good. I remember watching Baltimore City Curfew cutting off Dismember the first year at Sonar. I also remember the headaches that resulted from the fest growing to two venues, then outside stages, years of “security” that was more dangerous than drunk festival attendees, including the near riot that happened when Venom had their set cut by city curfew. I’ve also been to each edition that has taken place at the Edison Lot (literally, a parking lot just beyond the Inner Harbor of Baltimore) as well as the two other venues a solid hike away.

Other festivals I’ve gone to include those large and corporate (Ozzfest, Mayhem) and those smaller and more DIY (Ohio Deathfest, New England Metal and Hardcore Festival, etc.) It’s basically a guarantee that when organizing a festival, with so many moving parts and expenses that concert goers don’t even consider (imagine hiring a lawyer to process visas so your favorite international bands can come play or having to pay for liability insurance in case something crazy happens at your festival; that’s just tip of the iceberg!) you can pretty much expect Murphy’s Law (not the punk band…) to manifest itself. Someone you wanted to see will cancel at the last minute. A band you really looked forward to will just have a terrible sound mix and you’ll be completely let down. Beer vendors will charge too fucking much for a can of fermented piss drippings and you’ll discover that nearby parking options cost an arm and a leg (festivals usually do happen in a city, after all.)

Underground metal festivals have a way of seducing fans. They promise lots of great bands, often obscure bands you’ll never see on tour or otherwise see unless you attend. You get lured in, forgetting all of the headaches that come with attending a festival; once you’re there you bitch the entire time about the assorted first world inconveniences like port-a-johns and unanticipated expenses and Mother Nature. Yet if the lineup of bands mostly delivers, and you get to run into enough friends, you tend to forget that and when it’s all over you’re all too excited to do it again next year.

At least that’s how it’s supposed to work.

Of course, sometimes promoters have a habit of using social media irresponsibly and showing fans what they really think:

The neat thing about the internet is that with a simple screen shot, stupid yet enlightening comments publicly made on social media live forever even after the comment thread is deleted by the poster who a few hours later realized it was a bad idea and makes them look bad.

Important note: that wasn’t directed at me personally but at group of festival goers who were initially just complaining about beer prices. I have worked my way thru university as a manager for a company where I engage in sales and customer service. I have felt frustrations with complaining customers countless times. You don’t condescend them publicly. That usually gets you fired, or at least tells people who are buying your product or service that you don’t give a fuck about them or their experience with said product or service. As someone sells stuff for a living, I can tell you if you let people know you don’t give a fuck, they will look someplace else for that product or service. If you need to vent, at least do it behind closed doors to a coworker or friend… or if you’re going to use social media at least use a personal account and keep it private and vague.

If you really care about the product or service you produce, you present a good face to the public no matter how pissed off you are at them sometimes.

The organizers of MDF can set whatever price they deem to be fair for the festival they’re providing the public. Though M and I often grumble at the fact a 3 day weekend will set us back as much as a grand (tickets, beer, merch, parking, food, gas…remember it’s for 2 people) it’s more of an annoyance than an actual hardship and we end up begrudgingly paying for all of it. After that comment from the promoters, M decided she’d only buy a ticket off of someone who was selling theirs to prevent MDF from getting additional ticket sales. I can’t say that I blame her; I ended up attending 2 days solo. Which was fine; my ticket was already previously paid for so I was going to make the most of it.

So about that...

Disgorge (from California, not Mexico or whereever else, though they are fronted by the most swole hispanic dude ever.)

Thursday I decided to see the caveman death metal show at the Baltimore Soundstage. Highlights were basically every band that played (Infernal Revulsion dropped, then Malignancy cancelled at the last minute) but Visceral Disgorge, Waco Jesus, Dehumanized, Disgorge (USA) and Severe Torture all delivered great sets. I skipped on Putrid Pile (aka one lonely man and his drum machine) for dinner, but I did have the misfortune of coming back in time to see Jungle Rot, who complained about the backline they were provided by the organizers and the festival itself…it came across as they thought they were rockstars that should be praised for playing “old school” death metal. Fact: Jungle Rot sucks. Not because they’re “old school”, but because they play boring-as-fuck music. You wanna hear good “old school” death metal; I picked up records by Blood Freak and Embalmer while at the fest. That’s good “old school” death metal. Jungle Rot is just a bunch of boring lunkheaded garbage performed by entitled old men. Overall though, it was my first time at Soundstage, and I thought it was an enjoyable experience.

Friday was the day M was interested in, so we managed to get to the Edison Lot in time for the very end of Centinex’s set. November’s Doom was an odd choice for a 4pm slot, but they sounded pretty solid. Unfortunately Sinister cancelled because of flight/immigration issues, and Gruesome filled in their set. Highlights this day included everything about Wormed, hearing Paradise Lost play an old school (re: mostly death/doom) set (they played “Pity the Sadness”, holy shit!) and catching The Haunted with Marco back on vocals. Truth is, nothing about any of the bands that played this day disappointed.

The unfortunate social media post by the organizers came Friday night, so M was adamant she would only buy a ticket second hand for dirt cheap because she rightfully decided the organizers didn’t deserve her hard earned money. Something about it not being worth the asking price relative to the marginal rate of substitution or meeting her personal utility function or blah…I dunno. That’s what happens when you cohabitate with an Economics major =D

Deranged being all brutal and shit.

Anyhow, that meant that since I wasn’t being forced to operate on Brazilian time, I was able to arrive early enough to catch Demonical, a second set by Gruesome, and most importantly, Deranged. I’ve been a fan since some chick I used to hang out with told me to buy their “Plainfield Cemetery” album from the old Tower Records in Tyson’s Corner, Virginia. Yeah, that long ago. Anyhow, those guys put on an astoundingly brutal set of raw Swedish death metal that made standing outside roasting under a 90 degree sun in a black asphalt covered parking lot entirely worthwhile. Atrophy and Tulus I could give or take; Hirax was pretty good energetic thrash, but the highlight of the day was witnessing Hail of Bullets with their new vocalist, the legendary Dave Ingram. With all due respect to Martin Van Druen, their previous vocalist, Ingram takes that band to another level. His growl is a tremendous fit for the Hail of Bullets sound and his stage presence is off the charts.
Yet another band where Dave Ingram replaces the original vocalist.

After witnessing Impaled Nazarene’s set, I decided that since I didn’t give a shit about Exciter and I honestly never listen to Nuclear Assault (I have a copy of “Handle With Care” sitting on my shelf…collecting dust…); I ventured over to the Baltimore Soundstage to see General Surgery and Haemorrhage instead.

That walk sucks; the walk between Soundstage and Edison Lot is just about 20 minutes, which means you have to miss part a band’s set in order to traverse between venues. So in order to see the headliner at Edison Lot, Testament, I was obliged to walk out of Haemorrhage’s set a few songs early. Which was a huge mistake; Haemorrhage was brilliant in their goregrinding glory. By contrast, Testament suffered from an awful mix that sounded thin and “tinny.” Chuck Billy, the fat man with skinny bird legs, sounded okay but his generic, rehearsed stage banter was annoying to me in the same David Vincent of Morbid Angel was a few years earlier. When I realized I could’ve just walked to Rams Head Live and saw Grave Miasma instead; I felt like a total fucking tool. The craziest thing about Testament being such a letdown beyond their awful sound is that the sheer amount of talent on that stage…Gene Hoglan, Steve DiGorgio, and Alex Skolnick are all in that band in 2016. Those are ace fucking players. What the hell?

Wombbath. I don't really have anything clever to say about them but their vocalist liked to go on LOOOOOONNNNGGG rants in between songs.

The guitarist from Desaster might have had the most impressive skullet at MDF.

M found “someone willing to sell his ticket cheap in exchange for crack money” so on Sunday she returned with me. Sunday featured Wombbath (great when they just played instead of the on-stage chitchat), Desaster (dirty blackened thrash; my first time hearing them…good stuff) and Bongzilla (replace Eyehategod’s heroin and I guess that’s what you get?) I could have done without Interment…they suffered from just being a bit boring live. Incantation played a unique set as a three piece for most of it; one of their guitar players had a family emergency. In a cool moment, old vocalist Mike Saez (played on The Infernal Storm) joined them on stage for a few songs, which all sounded awesome as fuck. Incantation took lemons and made lemonade on a miserable, rainy day. The reunited Demolition Hammer followed with a brutal, ferocious set.

Incantation and friends!
Demolition Hammer wasn't a band I ever thought I'd get to see live, and to think MDF only booked them after Destroyer 666 cancelled....probably should have headlined instead of Testament!
I didn’t hate Satan or Venom, but presented with the alternative of seeing two bands I like a lot more in Phobocosm and Mitochondrion, the decision was obvious so I went to Rams Head Live (at this point, M decided she’d rather buy a ribeye and a margarita at Cheesecake Factory than buy a $40 dollar ticket for 2 bands…) Phobocosm played an intense set of doom/death that fans of Disembowlment and Incantation could get into. Mitochondrion followed that with the best set that I witnessed all weekend. Just absolutely vicious and breathtakingly brutal yet atmospheric death metal. If Mitochondrion comes to your town, you stop what you’re doing, donate blood if you have to so you can buy your ticket, and you go.

You could go see a cartoon band like Venom who sings about being in league with satan, or you could see Mitochondrion, the band that wrote the actual soundtrack to hell. The choice was obvious.

With nothing else that could follow that, I tracked down M and called it a weekend.

My final observations were that I managed to see almost nothing but great bands all weekend (Jungle Rot and Testament excluded.) The merch tables, particularly Sevared and Deepsend Records, had quality items for purchase. The beer in the cooler in the trunk of my car stayed sufficiently cold enough that the excessive beer prices and poor selection inside of the Edison Lot complex were a nonfactor for me personally. The rain on Sunday was a welcome respite from the scorching heat of Friday and Saturday, which left me a bit red. That was the good part. 

The bad part was the sheer expense of attending so many days of the festival, and the price/value calculation of what I was seeing for what I got. Truth said, only a handful of the bands I saw were bands I hadn’t seen before (Mitochondrion, Phobocosm, Demolition Hammer, Deranged, Desaster.) Between tickets, parking fees, beer, and food, the festival has grown to a ridiculous scale in its cost. To suggest that the organizers are doing what they can to control costs ($68 bucks a day plus $20 bucks to park your car got you into just the Edison Lot; the 4 day all venues pass I was fortunate to acquire from a friend who couldn’t go retailed at a whopping $302 bucks) is laughable. Even after accounting for the exchange rate, tickets for the gold standard of metal festivals, Wacken Open Air, are cheaper. Of course, European festivals have advantages in logistics and border controls; international bands playing the United States have to deal with expensive airfares and USCIS. Still, the point is that MDF is charging a lot for their product relative to other festivals that also compete to attract attendees. Other US festivals may lack the sheer number of high profile bands of the level of Mayhem and Venom; but festivals like the Las Vegas Deathfest are delivering bands like Disavowed that are significant within their niche genre (which incidentally, is the subgenre of metal I spend the most time listening to in 2016.) That’s what MDF is competing against. What MDF has had to its advantage for me personally was geography; it’s about an hour drive from my door step to the fest. 

However, when the promotors appear to have such a cavalier “take it or leave it” attitude towards fans who WANT to support their festival and who WANT it to succeed each year….maybe it’s not surprising that at least to my eyes, this was the least attended MDF in several years, even going back to when they held the fest at the old Sonar complex. It seems certain that just like in previous years, next year’s tickets will increase again another 5-10% for a lineup that’s more or less the same as this year in terms of profile and name recognition. That’s faster than the rate of inflation. If the promotors don’t respect their patrons any more than that, and can’t discipline themselves on controlling their ticket prices, then this will be the last time I make the effort to take the weekend off or drop the coin. I’m not going to say I’ll never, ever go again, or anything like that. But unless I see a “holy shit” band like say, a reformed Acid Bath, on the bill, I’m not going to make an effort to be there either. There’s just too many other festivals that want my money too