Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Maryland Deathfest 2013, Saturday May 25

Fighting a cold and a sore throat wasn't a great start to my second day of MDF. Between Baltimore being unusually chilly that weekend and my natural predilection to get sick at the worst possible time, I wanted nothing more than to stay in bed all day. But since I had missed half of the previous day's line-up, I had to make up for it; and while dragging my feet to the venue hoped coffee and orange juice would keep me upright throughout the day.

With their singer performing behind a podium and the rest of the band in gas masks and pseuodo-SS uniforms, Kommandant goose step right up to the line of taboo. Their schtick is designed to be provocative, especially to Rachel Maddow watching progressive douchebags; as one of those, consider me provoked. At the end of the day, though, the theatrics are little more than smoke and mirrors that draw attention away from their music. Which is a pity, because their music is actually good. USBM is a pretty mixed bag, but Kommandant are one of the few I'd put in the same league as Marduk or Dark Funeral. It's hard to say how seriously the rest of the audience takes any of this 3rd Reich Lite, but my uneasiness didn't let up. I took a few photos and got out of there just as they had the plug pulled on them for running past their set time and the band awkwardly shuffled off the stage. I don't think Himmler had days like this.

Say this about Weedeater: If one of your stage crew is a member of Down, then your band must be pretty good. When Dixie Dave's bass strap came undone, it was none other than the Pepper Keenan who swooped in to reattach it. With some black belt-level gurning and drinking from two whiskey bottles simultaneously, Dixie Dave played up his dirtbag hick schtick (I met him back in 2000 or so, and he's a surprisingly chill and sweet dude). Weedeater's sludgy doom was the proper way to kick off Saturday and a top tier lesson in slow and heavy, even with the Obsessed and the Melvins around the corner.
For an event with "death" in its title, it has to be said that MDF 2013 was sadly lacking in pure death metal (not in the Kommandant sense). Iniquity weren't a band that I was overly familiar with, and though I prefer my death metal fast and blasting, their midpaced grooves and laidback presence were perfect for an afternoon set where most in attendance were probably still recovering from the night before. Pity that this was both the first and last time I'll see them, though if this year's MDF line up proved anything, it's that "breaking up" is largely temporary.

As the opening riff of "To Protect and To Serve" came in waves over the parking lot, I realized I was missing The Obsessed and broke into a sprint to get back into the compound. I've seen Wino play several times over the years in various acts (Shine, Spirit Caravan, and under his own name) but he never fails to blow my mind. With his long gray hair and wooden Indian features, he's somehow ancient and timeless at the same time, the Lemmy of doom metal. In truth, there's little that separates the Obsessed from any of the other projects that he's had over the years, but hearing him do songs from The Church Within was like a religious experience. Along with Repulsion the previous night,

MDF didn't get much better for me than this.
With death metal's big guns notably absent this year, the reunited Broken Hope were welcomed like heroes by anyone with a hankering for guttural vocals and sick breakdowns. They played their set with genuine delight, and it wasn't long before kids started flying over the barricade. It's up in the air if Broken Hope will ever escape their status as substitute teachers in Cannibal Corpse's classroom, but when it came to bringing the death to Deathfest, they more than delivered.

For as much disdain as the Melvins have for metal, they sure play a lot of metalfests - Ozzfest a decade ago, Hellfest a few years back and now MDF (they were due to play Scion a week later with Testament - I guess our dirty hesher money's too good to turn down). I can see why they've influenced everyone from Nirvana to Isis, but I pretty much got everything I needed to hear out of this band when they played "Joan of Arc."

I've been a fan of Ihsahn since his days as an S&M panda, so his current guitar teacher persona is a little jarring. I'd be tempted to describe the difference as "simplified," except his backing band (in matching black button down shirts) included two additional guitarists and a keyboardist whose soaring vocals were in danger of overshadowing his boss. I'd written off his solo work as too convoluted and cerebral for me, but that night it proved surprisingly engaging; "black metal King Crimson" doesn't sound like it should work, and yet it does. And when the progged-out funk came in, even the MDF security started grooving. Odd as it sounds, Ihsahn got soul. 

I wonder how much of Down's set time was allocated to Phil Anselmo's stage banter and clowning around. As a stoned, foul-mouthed zen philosopher, Phil's stream of conscious rambling is thoroughly enjoyable. I have to say, I prefer this Anselmo over his tough guy or nihilistic black metal groupie phases. It's odd to see a legitimate rock star play a fest that's meant for up-and-coming kvlt acts and quasi-forgotten legends, but Anselmo's love for the underground seems sincere, even going so far as to pick up a CD that some kid threw on stage. And there's no disputing his place as one of metal's elder statesmen; even snobs like me are coming around to Pantera's importance (or at least admitting their place in our formative years).

Meanwhile, Pepper Keenan, Kirk Windstein and Jimmy Bower have as much doom cred as anyone, and gave Anselmo a solid base to stand on. They drew out "Bury Me in Smoke" into an epic finish, with the stage crew picking up the instruments to extend the last riff into infinity while the band basked in the crowd's adulation; and Phil closed the whole thing by leading the audience in a chorus of "Stairway to Heaven." That's how you end a fucking festival.

Most of the crowd decided to call it a night after Down, leading to a severe bottleneck at the exit. Therefore a choice between waiting in line for 15 minutes or catching a few songs of Antaeus seemed like a no-brainer. The Parisian band do great things with their Euronymous worship, but my back and knees hurt something fierce and it was soon time to leave. I'm an old man, and when bedtime calls, there's no putting it on hold.

Stray Bullets

• I didn't see any African American security during Kommandant's set. Hmmm.

• Speaking of the security... the cleanest indie looking kid I saw at MDF was pulled out of line in front of me and patted down vigorously. I raised my eyebrows at this, and one of the security guards told me quietly, "We just fuckin' with him."

• I realized long after the fact that the dude who said hi to me as I made my way through the merch tents was Jason from Misery Index. Fuckin' A. I'm a spectator to my own life, apparently.

• As I was passing through West Baltimore to and from the Sonar compound, a local entrepreneur threw out one of the best and most concise sales pitches I've ever heard: "Grass and pussy, grass and pussy." I guess he heard Weedeater was in town.

• Melvins/Big Business bassist Jared Warren on truth in advertising: "I've not seen one dead person at this Deathfest. Not one. Bullshit."

• I saw a scramble for a guitar pick turn into an all out grappling match. I know we're all excited that Broken Hope reformed, but come the fuck on.

Chicken guy has a pal, apparently. I never thought I'd be excitedly taking pictures of a giant crowdsurfing banana in a Scream Bloody Gore shirt, but here we are.

• What I like most about Ihsahn's fans is that they actually seem to be listening to the music, as opposed to just waiting for their chance to crowdsurf. It was nice to nod thoughtfully for an hour and not have to worry about some kid landing on my head. Also, they tend to smell better.

• I spotted Jason Keyser from the mighty Origin milling around. I was about to run up and talk to him before I realized that I had nothing to say except scream the name of his band at the top of my lungs. Which I'm sure would be annoying. Ah, fuck it: OOOORRRRRIIIIIIIIGIIIIIIIINNNNNNN!!!!!!!!!!!

 • More stargazing: I passed by Bill Steer from Carcass, holding court with a bunch of metalheads. We locked eyes, he saw my hooded sweatshirt with the words "NAPALM DEATH" writ huge across it, and gave me a smirk and a little nod before looking away. That's okay Bill, I know what you were thinking: This hoodie is freaking awesome. Score another victory for the hoodie!

Next: Lay down your souls for the gods rock and roll...