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.


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