Thursday, December 7, 2017

Best of 2017

It's that time of year again. Music nerds compile their lists of the records they think were the best; I've been posting mine on this dimly lit corner of the web for several years now. 2017 has been a good year, personally I've had some fun adventures in Texas, Kentucky, and Quebec with M. I got to see fucking Akercocke live at the Maryland Deathfest which was certainly a bucketlist sort of thing for me. I think I've survived year one of the Orange Goblin as my president, despite his attempts to draw our planet into a nuclear war. After using 2017 to take a deep breath and relax from the hellish marathon that was earning my degrees, I think 2018 will once again be a year for self improvement, mostly because I'm restless otherwise.

It's also a year that I heard a LOT of really good records. Between old guard bands and the new kids, there's a very vibrant if deeply underground metal scene right now. Festivals might not be drawing as large of turnouts, and sales are mostly in the shitter now that we're deep into the age of Spotify and YouTube, but artistically there's a ton of killer shit to get excited about. It's a good time to be alive as a fan of metal music.

At least until the new FCC rules kill Net Neutrality and it becomes much harder to scour the web to discover obscure bands. 

Biggest Disappointment

Pathology Pathology

Over the last 10 years, Pathology has been known to deliver the caveman slam death goods. Sick ultraguttural vocals, headbanging groves and slams, ferocious percussion. This time around, they just halfassed it. Matti Way is just gurgling...there's not even an attempt to pronounce lyrics; I've heard his work in other bands like Disgorge and Abominable Putridity to know when he's putting effort into it. Musically it almost sounds like they just chopped up the less inspiring parts of their previous albums and put them together here and called it a new "album." I don't listen to this style expecting originality but it's a style that doesn't really spare room for mediocrity; either it's gonna be excellent or not so good and there's not gonna be much room in between. I'm surprised that this made it past the normally astute quality control of Comatose Music.

Honorable Mentions

All Pigs Must Die Hostage Animal
Arkaik Nementhia
Broken Hope Mutilated And Assimilated 
Cannibal Corpse Red Before Black
Converge The Dusk In Us
Cytotoxin Gammageddon
Dead Cross Dead Cross
Der Weg Einer Freiheit Finisterre
Desolate Shrine Deliverance From The Godless Void 
Dodecahedron Kwintessins 
Enslaved E 
Father Befouled Desolate Gods 
Hanging Garden I Am Become  
Hideous Divinity Adveniens 
Hour Of Penance Cast The First Stone 
Immolation Atonement 
Incantation Profane Nexus 
Necrot Blood Offerings 
Phrenelith Desolate Endscape
Ulsect Ulsect
Solstafir Berdreyminn

10.) Desecrate The Faith Unholy Infestation

This is the second album that I'm aware of by this relatively obscure Texas brutal death metal act, and Unholy Infestation delivers a really solid, listenable slab of infectiously catchy death metal. This record is everything that this year's Pathology album was not.

9.) Sunlight's Bane The Blackest Volume: Like All Of The Earth Was Buried

If I were to attempt use other bands as a frame of reference to describe Sunlight's Bane on this, their debut album, I'd be pulling from artists as varied as Converge and Rune. Maybe Nails meets Anaal Nathrakh? If I were writing for some metal 'zine I'd make up a bullshit subgenre like "apocalyptic blackened crustgrind"  or something. Here's what you need to know. This is massively pissed off, at times epic, at times just furious, and it straddles the line between extreme metal and hardcore. I bought this record on a whim while in Texas and was quite pleased by my discovery.

8.) Akercocke Renaissance In Extremis
This band's reformation was one of the best things to come out of 2017; Akercocke has always been one of the more creative and innovative bands in metal, taking elements of black metal, death metal, progressive rock, and electronica to forge their odes to the goatlord. This time around saw the band shed the tailored suits and over the top Satanic imagery for a more subdued, progressively influenced sound and while it may not have been the Akercocke I was expecting when they announced their new record, this album is excellent and satisfying all the same.

7.) Belphegor Totenritual

The last album by Belphegor, 2014's Conjuring the Dead, was a slight letdown compared to their usual standard of outstanding and sometimes grandiose combination of black and death metal. While I appreciated the more deathly orientation the band has taken, Conjuring... suffered from a awkward and distracting kick drum sound that hurt the songs. Hey, sometimes even Eric Rutan doesn't get it right. Just consider the new Morbid Angel record as an example. That said, Belphegor most certainly got it right on Totenritual, delivering several pulverizing little ditties about the devil, demons, and evil. Standard fare. Hell, dare I say that this sounded more like the record I wish Morbid Angel released at times than the one they actually did. When Belphegor is at their peak, they're damn near untouchable.

6.) The Obsessed Sacred

The last time I recalled Wino, he was with Saint Vitus, who were busted in Norway for possession of meth, cocaine, and a cocktail of other illicit self medications. Which is pretty fucking doom metal, I must say. Apparently he's all aboard the Infowars crazy train too, which I guess isn't surprising if you read the lyrics from his The Hidden Hand project. I could be wrong about that. I really hope I am wrong about that and that he's not all in with the Dave Mustaine/Alex Jones shit. That would be majorly disappointing if it's actually true. Regardless, he avoids that shit with The Obsessed, thematically focusing on more relatable personal tales of sorrow. This is really heavy, not in the same way that other bands on this list so far are, but in an earthy, bluesy sort of way. Lots of repeat listens from this one.


5.) Devangelic Phlegethon
There's been a ton of great death metal coming from Italy this year, and interestingly bands like Antropofagus and Logic of Denial downplayed their more technical leanings in favor of straight on brutality. That said, Devangelic celebrated full on American styled brutality from the beginning, and in 2017 they're the grand champions of Italian death metal. To these ears, Resurrection Denied was a bit groovier than Phlegethon, which is more aggressive but still has its head nodding chugs amongst the blasts and even a bit of trash can snare. Supersick low vocals. Okay, so maybe it's not the most "original" release and it's a style that many bands attempt, but there's some really exceptional stuff and lots of quality here for fans of say, Cannibal Corpse or Disavowed.

4.) Gods Forsaken In A Pitch Black Grave

Another one of those not so original acts; Gods Forsaken only formed in 2016 by a few fellows who had spent time in various Swedish death metal bands including Blood Mortized, Wombbath, a whole bunch of Rogga Johanson's bands, even a cup of coffee in Amon Amarth. Do you like Dismember or Entombed or Grave? You think that Entrails is perfectly serviceable but just lacks a little something extra? I can't recommend In A Pitch Black Grave enough to you. The vocals are pretty low but gritty, the guitars buzz and crush with the occasional haunting melody, the drums sound like they were recorded at Sunlight Studios. Above all else, these are really catchy well constructed SONGS. You hear this and it's familiar in a comforting sort of way, yet you want to reach for it again and again. This record has lived in my car ever since I took a chance on it.

3.) Full of Hell Trumpeting Ecstasy

I think this is one of those darlings of the nerd metal class who buy everything Profound Lore or Dark Descent releases in 3 different colors of vinyl, which in turn pisses off the elitists who disregard them completely. "They made a noise record with Merzbow once so they're fucking hipsters." Hell, Encylcopedia Metallum can't be bothered to review any of their releases. I say fuck them. Trumpeting Ecstasy is outstanding. This is utterly ferocious and relentless deathgrind done in the style of many releases on Willowtip Records. In fact, if you told me these guys took heavy influence from say, Commit Suicide or Circle of Dead Children, I wouldn't be surprised in the least. After decades of listening to extreme music, I think it's fucking fantastic that I can still hear bands that play with energy, passion, and who just fucking go for it. Do they reinvent the wheel or break any ground with Trumpeting Ecstasy? Absolutely not. But bands like Full of Hell who convey a sense of conviction in their malice are why I still get excited by this genre of cookie monster nonsense. 

2.) Paradise Lost Medusa

It's kinda weird yet entirely welcome to see this band come full circle. Yet over the last several years, as they've returned to playing miserable doom metal it's clear they benefited from their time experimenting with electronics and otherwise exploring other ways to be dreary. I can't escape the thought that if they hadn't gone thru that period between One Second and Symbol of Life and went straight from Draconian Times to their self titled, maybe it's just not as good. Maybe it's a bit stale by now. Instead, songs like "The Longest Winter" sound vibrant and exciting and gripping. This was another record that stayed in my car for a long time this year, though oddly it was one of the bonus tracks, "Shrines", that's my favorite from Medusa

1.) Pallbearer Heartless

Bleak, dreary, defeated. Humbled, crushed, hopeless. These are the sorts of words I think of when I hear Pallbearer, who have in very short order over 3 albums become one of my absolute favorite bands in the world. Like the record by The Obsessed, this isn't the same type of heavy, but the despair conveyed by the harmonized vocals and the sludgy riffs hit harder than blastbeats and gutturals. Let me be clear, I love all kinds of heavy, and some of the riffs contained on Heartless make me think of Rwake or even Morgion. In a year with a lot of great releases by a lot of great bands, this album from back in February(?) is the one that stood out the most all year long for me. I think the first track, "I Saw The End", with it's melodic leads and classic rock sensibility, hints at an intriguing and exciting future for Pallbearer.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Portrait of a Shitty Band?

Over the last couple of months there's been a lot of articles that have crossed my eyes on social media regarding nu-metal. I thought this one posted on Invisible Oranges was really interesting as the author attempted to articulate the environment and social landscape of the 1990's that led to the emergence of nu metal as a genre.

He's in there, somewhere.
 Also in the news sphere online was reporting that former Marilyn Manson guitarist Scott Putesky aka "Daisy Berkowitz" died from a 4 year battle with colon cancer. Though Marilyn Manson wasn't really mentioned in the Invisible Oranges article, they certainly had a significant appeal to the nu-metal demographic. So when M and I were talking about exactly what Marilyn Manson was and how it fit into the musical landscape of the 1990's and perhaps even today, I felt compelled to try to articulate my relationship with Manson's music.

The first time I heard Marilyn Manson was on Beavis and Butthead so internet usage wasn't widespread, it was mostly limited to message boards and IRC and if you didn't know people who were into the extreme underground metal of the time, what you were exposed to was pretty limited, especially as a teenager living in bumfuck redneck Central Virginia. Which is to say that while bands like Cannibal Corpse or more likely Pantera were much heavier and much more likely to feature on a mixtape cassette that I'd be listening to at the time, Marilyn Manson was intriguing for a pair of reasons.

The first and most obvious was that their first album followed in the wake of Nine Inch Nails' "The Downward Spiral", which for most younger rock fans at the time was the first real exposure to industrial influenced music with heavy doses of samples, drum treatments, and just awkward unconventional music that was a challenge to listen to. (This is still a great record, btw.) Hearing Manson's first album "Portrait of an American Family", its not really surprising that NIN mastermind Trent Reznor was quite involved in the band's music from a purely aural aspect.

The other reason was that in terms of aesthetic and lyrical content there was no other commercially viable artist who was so transgressive or anti-establishment. In retrospect, its very easy to see how the band had an image cobbled together from Alice Cooper, Ziggy Stardust, and Gwar. At the same time, thinking back to the Invisible Oranges article, it's not hard to see how the content of the band in those early years was very much a product of their environment, which just happened to be Florida. Land of retirees living in cookie cutter suburbs, Disney World, and untold numbers of creepy evangelicals.

You know, you are a product of your environment.
 So upon first exposure, a rock band that engages in simulated sex acts on stage, burns bibles, and literally threatens every aspect of the accepted social norms in the United States during the 1990's would clearly have an appeal to disaffected teenagers. Especially disaffected teenagers who had in their recent memory saw Kurt Cobain kill himself. I'm not gonna front otherwise, the first 2 Marilyn Manson records caught my attention too. Especially when they ripped off the chord progression to Ozzy Osbourne's "Crazy Train" for their breakout single, a cover of the Eurythmics' "Sweet Dreams."

(Interesting observation; At The Gates basically ripped off the same chord progression as performed by Marilyn Manson for the main guitar harmony for "Blinded by Fear" and nobody hardly says a word.)

So why did it lose appeal to me and why do I think he generally fell off?

For starters, Marilyn Manson musically suffered greatly after those first 2 albums when they disassociated with Trent Reznor. The band tried to go for a more creepy, kitschy industrial aesthetic. It simply sucked if your musical inclination was metal rather than "alternative." From a shock rock perspective, given how extreme Manson's imagery and theatrics were, it didn't really leave many boundaries left to cross. Well, unless you were GG Allin and willing to mutilate yourself and defecate on stage. At that point I'm not sure it's shocking or just kinda gross for most fans. Manson's act, so dependent on shock value, basically played all of their cards at the beginning. Once it wasn't shocking anymore, what's left?

Way more extreme than basically anyone who ever live could hope to be.

At the same time, in 2 short years my own musical experiences had expanded greatly as I discovered internet forums, met upperclassmen, and discovered black metal. Like Manson, 2nd wave black metal was highly theatrical and demonstrative. It challenged social norms. More importantly, for many of the musicians involved, black metal was no act. Churches were burned. People were murdered. No fucks were given. Musically, though the bands had similar aural elements, there were many of them releasing new and exciting albums on a regular basis. Going to the local Plan 9 Records and buying Rotting Christ's "Thy Might Contract" one month, then Emperor's "Anthems To The Welkin At Dusk" the next, before discovering Satyricon's "Nemesis Divina" a week later...reading about the mythology behind Mayhem and Dissection. It felt more serious, more "real." Some dude in a thong groaning to a programmed beat just wasn't nearly as interesting.

That wss actually how Norwegian black metal bands did their photo shoots. Their vocalists blow their brains out. Sorry for the mess.

So where does Marilyn Manson fit into metal history and into the scene today? I think that despite the band's commercial success, they are a relatively minor footnote most remembered for the fact that the two dorks that shot up Columbine High School in 1999 were perceived to be fans of the band. Perhaps also remembered for breaking down the last taboos in theatrical musical performance. I don't think anything from "Mechanical Animals" onward is really remembered; perhaps for Manson's androgynous appearance but not for the music. The band continues to release music that's mostly forgotten after it comes out, and tours large clubs to perform to 30 somethings that want to reconnect with a part of their teenage years by hearing songs from the first 2 albums.

Marilyn Manson has basically become like Tom Petty (except for the being dead part); soulless bland dad rock for adults who grew up as poorly adjusted teenagers in the 1990's.

While typing this up, I went on YouTube and revisited some of Marilyn Manson's music to see if any of it at all still had a hook or caught my ear. Truth is, very little of it does. But the song "Lunchbox" is kinda revealing in retrospect. It's refrain "I want to be a rock n' roll star so nobody fucks with me" pretty much says what it was all about. It was never about creating music. It was always about rock stardom for Marilyn Manson, so while the band certainly consumed a lot of drugs and engaged in debacherous sexual behavior and made a pile of money off of their antics, when you pick at the corpse of the music they left behind, there's not a lot of meat there. There never was.

A Pre-mature Post-Mortem for Century Media?

There was a time when Century Media Records was the beating heart of the metal underground. Between bands that were on their early roster (such as Grave and Asphyx) and bands they distributed in North America (think of those Candlelight bands like Emperor and Opeth which got released under the Century Black imprint) the label was basically in the center of what was going on in the 1990's; especially during the 'dark' days when metal was supposedly "dead" yet CM was releasing landmark albums by Strapping Young Lad and Nevermore. Yes, they released crap like Stuck Mojo and Mucky Pup as well, but this was offset by offerings by bands like Morgoth and Arch Enemy, among others. It was a label with a diverse and compelling roster of bands.

So what happened and how did we get to a point where not only has the label been bought by Sony Music, but its back catalog is effectively been peddled to a third party two years later (most likely for pennies on the dollar)?

In my opinion, Metalcore was the downfall of the label. Specifically the signing of Shadow's Fall. Century Media had always dabbled in the old school Metalcore of the 1990's such as Turmoil and 454 Big Block but I think it was the unexpected success of Shadow's Fall and then the even greater success of Lacuna Coil (on the ironic coattails of Evanescence) that followed which shifted the label's priorities. They became a victim of their own success. The elevation of these bands, as well as the respective successes of artists like Arch Enemy (following the addition of Angela Gossow; the music may not have been as good but commercially it was a huge success), SYL, and God Forbid meant that CM had reached the level of the now defunct Roadrunner Records and were no longer the obscure label that released "Something Wicked This Way Comes" by Iced Earth or "Wildhoney" by Tiamat. With the Metalcore wave, the label went all in. Their bands were getting booked on Ozzfest and headlining the New England Metal and Hardcore Fest. They didn't really sign other new or up and coming bands unless they were part of the Metalcore wave. Sure, "legacy" acts like Immolation and Napalm Death were releasing fantastic albums on the Century Media imprint, but they weren't treated like the focus of the label.

That all died around 2010 or so, when the Metalcore wave ended. Instead of returning to what had worked for the label before, they seemed only interested in either signing established bands (such as the signing of Insomnium) or desperately trying to discover the "next" new thing. Unfortunately for the label's commercial aspirations, neither Deathcore, Djent, nor "Occult Rock" managed to find the same lucrative success in the current decade that Metalcore did in the 2000's. Of course, this happened in the backdrop of the music industry at large being savaged by downloading and the inability to date of artists and labels to monetize streaming or YouTube clicks. Perhaps seeing the future, founder Robert Kampf sold his creation to major label Sony in 2015, presumably for the rights to the back catalog and roster of established bands that wouldn't require an enormous investment to get a return on (how hard is it to promote a Body Count or At The Gates album really?)

Let's be real, Ice T basically promotes himself.

As a fan and observer of the genre, I find it fascinating and perhaps informative. I wouldn't have guessed that Relapse or Metal Blade would outlast Century Media; yet here we are. While Metal Blade is definitely most famous for it's legacy acts like Cannibal Corpse and Amon Amarth, there's no shortage of young, up and coming artists getting their albums released (albeit with little promotion) thru the label. Somehow, I think that label will continue as long as Brian Slagel has the heart and energy to keep it going. (If it goes the way Peaceville did after Hammy gave it up is another matter...)

Meanwhile, the labels that seem to have the energy and spirit of what Century Media was, such as Profound Lore, Dark Descent, and Hell's Headbangers, seem to be thriving if on a smaller scale. The death metal underground remains as it always has been, with labels like Comatose, Sevared, Unique Leader, and Willowtip still serving their subgenres faithfully. Hell, there's now even the emergence of smaller international labels like Everlasting Spew in Italy, Transcending Obscurity from India, and Disembowl Records from Indonesia which are releasing top notch, top quality artists that, in the age of Facebook and social media are receiving acclaim.and deserving notice.

Perhaps the label that needs to pay attention next is Nuclear Blast. The label shares a similar origin with Century Media (late 80's, Germany) and even at one point had a partnership together. They have become essentially the new Roadrunner in recent years (not mere coincidence, as the former label boss Monte Conner now works for them) as they seek to focus primarily on legacy acts such as Slayer, Testament, and Machine Head or whatever the latest metal "trend" is.

Same number of original members as KISS.

The thing with trends it that they're hard to predict and rarely have much staying power (see: deathcore, djent) and some of the legacy acts that tours and labels depend on to draw are getting long in the tooth. Suffocation's vocalist doesn't tour with the band anymore because of real life. And none of this considers that the majority of the people that are or were fans of these legacy artists are themselves getting up in age. I'm 37; I've got student loans, car payments, and a plethora of real life responsibilities and life ambitions that dip into the amount of money and attention that even I, as a devoted fan, can spend keeping up with the artists in this scene (for example, I update this blog exactly what? 2 or 3 times a year?) The kids themselves? They're the ones keeping the niche labels alive or they're not even into metal at all; instead they listen to Imagine Dragons or Taylor Swift or that "Cash Me Outside How Bout Dah" girl.

I guess to try to wrap a bow around this and to give my "hot take", I think that niche labels run by passionate fans who are lucky to break even and feel compelled to promote heavy music as a labor of love are going to be okay. Between Facebook, YouTube, and Bandcamp it's cheaper than ever to promote good bands (as well as a whole lot of bad ones...) On the other hand, I see the disintegration of Century Media as a sign of what will be to come for the larger metal labels that overextend themselves. I don't see Metal Blade surviving Brian Slagel's retirement. Relapse has always kinda been a gateway between the bigger labels and the niche and I think they'll do okay. But Earache will eventually run out of ways to monetize their back catalog (how many times can you reissue Entombed's "Left Hand Path" anyhow?) and I think Nuclear Blast may eventually go the way of Century Media.

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.