Monday, June 6, 2011

Maryland Death Fest Friday 5-27-11

Through the window of my Chinatown bus, I saw a man with holding up a sign that said "REPENT." There's been a spot in hell with my name on it since Slayer's Seasons in the Abyss caused the 15-year-old me to draw pentagrams and upside down crosses on everything that I owned, but I can't think a better start as I began my trip South of Heaven for a weekend packed with the devil's favourite music.

This was my first time attending the Maryland Death Fest; I missed previous years because of Grad school and lack of funds, but with neither of those things being an issue (at least during the week I purchased tickets) I committed to making the trek down to the Baltimore (hometown of both Wino and the Wire) for the 9th installment of the East Coast's best metal fest.

In truth, the major selling point for MDF was Death Breath and Lock Up, both of whom were originally scheduled to play on Sunday. The fact that both those bands dropped off was a huge blow to me, but even so, there were enough acts left that were on my "must see" list; and what better way to cross them off that list than one after another over a single week-end?

I had to skip Thursday due to work commitments, which conspired to keep me in NY an extra day. This was especially harsh as I got offered a free ticket by none other than Jason Hundee of the Requiem Podcast. Not only did I miss out on Cathedral and BuzzOv*en, but I also missed out on hanging out with the two best commentators on metal out there. Fuck.

I got to start my MDF experience with style, as I arrived on Friday afternoon just in time to catch Nails tear through their set, to a larger audience than I've ever seen them play. This was my third time in front of the Californian trio, and recently became a devoted fan after seeing them quell a near riot at Union Pool when overeager stage divers and overzealous security staff went head to head (power violence with peaceful hearts - quick, somebody stick that on a t-shirt!). At MDF, though, there was no quelling for them to do; though the room was still half empty, those present gave them a roaring response. It was good to see Nails on a big stage - hopefully in a few years, this will be the norm for them.

[Here's a fun drinking game: take a shot whenever I mention how many times I've seen a band before. You'll be fucked up in no time].

I've been pretty vocal about my feelings on thrash revivalism: I'm sick of it. But one thing I'm not sick of yet is pretty girls. And Nocturnal has by far the prettiest singer of any thrash band (and I can remember when they were all sort of pretty). As the first band to play outdoors that day, they were a magnet for everyone with a sleeveless denim jacket covered in patches. In truth, there wasn't much to them musically that sticks with me, though they did bring pleasant memories of early Kreator and Bathory. And theirs may be one of the few singers in all of metal who can wear tights without me complaining.

After taking an (in?)appropriate number of Nocturnal pictures, I headed inside to see Pulling Teeth, whose slow chunky hardcore quickly created a big empty hole for a handful of dedicated circle pit enthusiasts. Hometown crowd aside, I was surprised to see a hardcore band get this much love from heshers, but their real achievement was introducing a song as "realizing that eating and wearing animals is wrong" and still getting the deathfest crowd to love them.

I skipped Funebrarum, since I used to see them almost monthly back in the early 00's. I had no real reason to check them out except to see if their bassist was still rocking that skullet. Which is the only thing that they can claim to be ahead of the curve on. Their retro Bolt Thrower/Grave style of death metal may be somewhat in vogue these days, but it still wasn't all that enticing.

Instead I decided to claim a spot up front for Aura Noir, who were making their first Stateside appearance. Great minds must think alike, as I saw Dan Lilker hanging out behind the stage. Though he was there with Nuclear Assault (who were playing Sunday), he could probably fill a whole metalfest line-up with all the bands he's been in. Call it Lilkerfest; in these days of unfiltered nostalgia, someone better jump on that idea fast.

What is it about Norwegian bands and one-liners? Aura Noir's Apollyon has the best onstage banter this side of Abbath (no surprise, as he serves as Immortal's touring bassist). "We are Aura Noir...the ugliest band in the world. How's it sounding? Like shit? All right!" Later on in the set: "This song, like half our songs, is about hell!"

Truth is, I don't know why I was so excited to see Aura Noir, besides a vague hope that Mayhem's Blasphemer would be playing with them (he wasn't). Aura Noir were part of the original wave of retro thrash that filtered through the Norwegian black metal scene in the mid-to-late 90's. Perhaps my tolerance for their version of thrash nostalgia stems from the fact that they don't romanticize the old days - their warts-and-all version of thrash is clearly based on the fact that Sodom and Destruction were NOT the greatest of musicians or songwriters. Even so, Aura Noir put on a hell of a show, and powered by the drummer from Obliteration (one of the few bands making the retro thing interesting) they put on one of the best sets at Death Fest.

Credit to the sound indoor at the Sonar, even grind bands sounded crisp. I stopped by to see Machetazo tear it up with their primitive brutal grind. A nice throwback to the early days of grind - if only Lee Dorrian could have made an appearance to see himself outdone by the only singing drummer more evil than Phil Collins. Though I suppose, if Lee were around that day, he would have bailed like me to get a good spot for Corrosion of Conformity.

How many Corrosion of Conformity fans were wondering, "What happened to Pepper Keenan? Did Reed Mullin eat him?" Of course, Pepper is missing from the current version of C.O.C., explaining the notable lack of any of the Deliverance/Wiseblood material. Which is a shame, as my favourite songs came from that period - the fact that I finally got to see C.O.C. but was deprived of "Clean My Wounds," "Albatross," and "Pearls Before Swine" was a huge disappointment. Still, there's no denying that even before Keenan was in the band, they were on their way to being legendary. They did everything before practically anyone else - played hardcore, discovered metal, slowed down, got seduced by major label greenbacks, wandered lost through the dregs of the music industry, before finding their way back to their roots.

But the old Animosity-era material lacked the punch and fury it once had. Whereas the recorded versions of "Mad World" and "Holier" are of a young band thrashing as if their lives depended on it, on that Friday afternoon in Baltimore, C.O.C. were a band divorced from the era that created them, playing old standards the way any classic rock band would. And though I can't deny feeling a twinge of nostalgia at finally seeing a band I spent so many nights in high school listening to, it was a none-too-subtle reminder that for all these attempts to package and re-sell our past, most of us really can't go back again.

I ducked inside the Sonar again to catch Italian grind veterans Cripple Bastards, who I once was supposed to see at ABC No Rio back in 2002, before the promoter Ned pulled them off the bill over a completely NSFW piece of album artwork. I remember the reasoning at the time was that the club was that the artwork was "promoting rape" and that was something ABC No Rio couldn't condone. Frankly, I'm actually on the side of Ned on this one - I think it's bullshit for an artist to do something provocative and then whine when people get provoked. But I wonder what the ABC folks would have made of the numerous young girls who were dancing with abandon to Cripple Bastards. One of them told me that Cripple Bastards was the reason she came to MDF. I wish I could have interviewed her in depth and gotten her opinions on the album cover, but I was paranoid about getting to the front of Outdoor Stage Two to see Neurosis, and left midway through the Bastard's set.

As it turns out, I needn't have worried. Rain delayed Neurosis set (leading to numerous jokes about being "In the Eye of Every Storm"). Given their frustration, the crowd was remarkably patient, though one girl in front of me took to repeatedly screaming "JUST PLAY ALREADY!" ("No more bourbon for you, sweetie," was her friend's response).

But once the rain stopped and their tent was no longer in danger of falling on top of them,they starting off with "A Sun That Never Sets", which sent the entire crowd pulsing forward in one huge surging wave.

That night was Neurosis at their apocalyptic best - with lightning tearing up the sky throughout their set, it really was like hearing the soundtrack to the end of the world. The last time I saw Neurosis was 11 years ago, shortly after Times of Grace was released. I had previously seen them at a Relapse-sponsored CMJ show, where they played that same (then unreleased) album from beginning to end. What started off that night as a raucous metal show ended up with a couple hundred people shuffling out forlornly, beaten down through the oppressive weight that Neurosis cast upon them. It wasn't that way at Maryland Deathfest, though: the crowd was probably the most enervated they'd been all week-end. Even the drum circle at the end of the set started a moshpit. I had a hard time getting shots while being jostled back and forth; I probably would have had a better chance if I used the flash on my camera, but watching Scott Kelly roar at a photographer in the front row "NO FUCKING FLASH!" made me reconsider. I'm fairly certain this is a guy who'd throw his guitar down to smash my camera and/or face.

Kylesa started immediately after Neurosis; though it had only been about 6 months since I'd seen them when they played NY, they sounded significantly more impressive. "Running Red" got the fists in the air of nearly everyone at the front of the stage (including the security guys!), and Laura Pleasants' vocals on "Forsaken" and "Tired Climb" have never sounded more haunting. Credit to the sound at the Sonar, I'm sure. Having to play right after Neurosis and ending their set with a round tribal drumming was kind of unfortunate, as it underscored that amazing performance aside, Kylesa still followed the Oakland collective too closely, in more ways than one.

Exhumed took to the stage next and played their first show in 6 years like they owned the festival. After their first song they held their guitars up high to let all before them know what their mission was: GORE! FUCKIN! METAL! It was especially great to see Murder Construct/ex-Impaled guitarist Leon Del Muerte on stage with them. I hadn't seen him live since Impaled toured with Origin back in 2000. Like Impaled, Exhumed are the epitome of a good time grindcore band. It was a headliner-worthy performance, filled with chainsaws, thrashy grind, and the confidence of a veteran band taking back their throne. It ended as it should have: the stage covered in blood, and band leader Matt Harvey's arms raised in triumph, severed head in hand. "This Axe Was Made to Grind", indeed.

Marduk was left with the daunting tasks of following Exhumed and closing out MDF's Friday night. Truth be told, the only Marduk albums I really make time for are Nightwing and Panzer Division Marduk, neither of which featured prominently in the setlist. Not that their set was particularly long: Due to the time it took them to get their corpsepaint on, Marduk was left with about half of what they expected to play ("I don't want to be that guy, but this venue has a strict 1:45 AM curfew," the soundguy deadpanned while the band was still getting ready). This may have been to the band's benefit, as their style of unrelenting black metal is most effective in small doses. At this point I was pretty exhausted, and spent most of the set leaning on the people in front of me to keep upright. Though somewhat anti-climactic after Exhumed's triumphant return, it was an appropriately blasphemous end to a day of death, gore, and doom.

Next: Sweden saves Sunday with Repugnant and Ghost.