MARYLAND DEATHFEST XI: "To Hell And Back"
Former SONAR Compound, Baltimore, Maryland
May 24-26, 2013
By Dr. Abner Mality
The old saying is that you have to go through Hell before you get to Heaven. It's true, I know, I experienced it this year on my way to Maryland Deathfest XI. Now I will share my tale with you humanoids...
Anybody who knows me knows that I enjoy nothing better than an extreme metal get-together where I can hang out with my fellow freaks with no fear of ostracism and enjoy loud bombastic music. That really is my idea of Heaven. I cultivated that idea in the 1990's at the once unchallenged king of American metal festivals, Milwaukee Metalfest. Many of my reviews of those shows are still here in the Wormwood Archives. Sure, the Milwaukee Metalfest ended with some miserable wet farts of a festival in 2003-2005, but when this thing was thundering along in the 90's, there was nothing like it.
Until Maryland Deathfest arose, shortly before Milwaukee bit the dust. It didn't take long before Maryland grew into a phenomenon every bit as impressive as Milwaukee and eventually more so. Where Milwaukee Metalfest was run into the ground by a greedy promoter and endless pay to play bands, it was pretty obvious that the masterminds of Maryland Deathfest knew what they were doing. They knew the underground and they knew how to keep things running smoothly, a task which many a big business multi-tasker would be thumped by.
But Milwaukee was less than two hours drive from my lab, whereas Baltimore was across the country. Nowhere near as easy to get to. So I made a pledge one day to walk the storied streets of Baltimore and experience Deathfest for myself. And because I ain't getting any younger, I seized upon 2013 as the year I would go. When I heard my long time heroes Venom would be headlining one night, that was the clincher. This was my chance.
Except to get to this mega-decibel "Heaven", I would have to go through "Hell"...and for me, that is any airport and any of those flying coffins they call an airplane. Let me make it extra clear to everybody reading this...I detest flying. I think it is one of the most miserable, inconvenient, soul-deadening forms of travel ever conceived by the mind of man. If I didn't hate it enough before, I hate it twice as much after the experience I had reaching Deathfest.
Scheduled to leave for Baltimore on from Chicago's O'hare Airport on May 23. Got on the bus to O'hare with plenty of time to spare. Got to O'hare with plenty of time to spare. Found out there was a "slight delay" getting onto the plane. OK, I can live with that. Got on the plane. Sat on the plane. Then we got the message from the mannequin-like flight attendant: "There is a mechanical difficulty with the plane. We feel you would be more comfortable in the waiting area."
Off the plane, back to the waiting area. An hour goes by. Two. I start getting antsy, with a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. Leave to get a bite. When I come back, my flight has been erased from existence and nobody is at the podium to tell me jack shit about it. That starts the screws really coming loose. I run across almost the entire distance of O'Hare airport to where another flight is headed to Baltimore. They won't take me aboard. So then I frantically spend the next couple of hours figuring out what to do. I finally manage to secure a flight on Friday May 24,,,which leaves the airport at F@#$ING SIX O'CLOCK IN THE MORNING.
So I grab the bus back to Rockford and set my alarm clock for two in the morning. Wake up in a daze. Get to the bus depot and present the travel voucher I was given by United Airlines. They won't take it. They misprinted the date on the ticket so the asshole bus driver won't take it. Forty more dollars spent on bus tickets now and the first night I pay for in the hotel in Baltimore is down the tubes.
I get to O'hare about five o'clock as the sun's coming up. Flight delayed again. And again. The plane is now leaving about 11 O'Clock in the moning. First band at Deathfest starts around 3:30 in Baltimore. So instead of having a day to poke around and find out where everything is at with plenty of time to spare, BAM, I have to immediately find my hotel in a town I've never been in before in my life and then make it downtown to Saratoga Street.
OK, I finally get to Baltimore after a restless flight where I'm seething the whole time and get to Motel 6 after securing a rental car. Then begins the final leg of my journey to Deathfest. Except I'm so jacked up now, I get hopelessly lost in some of the worst slums I've ever seen in my life (and that includes Chicago). Finally...FINALLY...after some very kind people help me out, I make it to the secure parking lot about a quarter mile from the old SONAR compound in downtown Baltimore. This has been one of the worst days of my life so far.
But as I turn the corner and enter the line for Maryland Deathfest, I see a long line of scruffy looking headbangers such as myself. Now I begin to relax. I am among friends. I'm with people who understand me and share my passion. I made it, I'm going to the biggest metal festival in North America.
Let me explain the layout of Deathfest to you neophytes. There are three main stages for the bands and an auxillary stage located a few blocks away. The fest literally takes over large parts of Saratoga Street, so the stages and most everything else is located literally on the street. There are two "main" stages outdoors and one located inside a very large and spacious tent. The more well-known bands generally play the outdoor stages while up and comers do inside the tent, although there are quite a few exceptions and the earlier hours will find many "smaller" bands warming up the outdoor stages. The auxillary stage I was speaking of is located at an indoor venue called the Baltimore Soundstage and this year it played host to a wide variety of punk, hardcore and grindcore bands. My ticket allowed me to only attend the Saratoga area, so unfortunately I missed bands like Rotten Sound, Kromosom, Full of Hell and more crusty freaks. My good buddy Johnny Vomit did make it over to the Soundstage and he said it was insane, with garbage cans being tossed into the moshpit and a 400 pound black dude doing a stage dive into the crowd. Well, I had my hands full just navigating the other three stages...I don't know how I could have done the Soundstage, too.
There are lots of food booths on the Deathfest grounds, too, and I sampled many of them and found them better than what you'd get at the average festival. They even had a place selling Thai food and vegetarian stuff! It was better than anything you'd get at Milwaukee Metalfest or an Ozzfest, that's for sure. Lucky for just about everybody, there was an actual diner located in the midst of the festival grounds called the Hollywood Diner. This place was a godsend to many of us who needed to take a load off our feet and have an actual sit down meal. I had a ton of buffalo wings, pizza and fries there. It was a soul food joint at other times and though us crazy headbangers kept the folks there run ragged, we sure gave them a lot of business.
There were also TONS of booths selling merchandise, both inside and outside. I haven't seen such an awesome display of oldschool metal T-shirts since the very first Milwaukee Metalfests I went to in the 90's and maybe not even then. How many places in the world can you get T-shirts from Holy Terror, Obliveon and Gorilla Biscuits? I saw shirts at the fest I've never seen anywhere else and was tempted to buy a million of them. I wound up getting a Dying Fetus shirt with a diabolic infant clawing out of my guts...pretty slick! Also many, many CD's and vinyl for sale...a treasure trove of obscure metal all laid out for inspection. It brought a fuckin' tear to my eye, I'll tell you that...
I missed Thursday night so alas, I failed to see the mighty Bolt Thrower, but no use crying over spilt blood. My Deathfest experience opened with a Czech grindcore band by the rather odd Spanish name of Ahumado Granujo in Stage 3 (the "tent" stage). This is the kind of band you're not gonna see in the States too often, if at all. Already a big crowd of enthusiastic fans was pitting away and booting beach balls into the air. This band played a mixture of bone-rattling grindcore like Rotten Sound and Nasum and happy sounding techno. Believe it or not, it worked real well and brought an immediate smile to my face, which a couple of hours prior had been contorted in anger and fear.
Made my way to Stage 2, where Finland's cult death heroes Convulse held forth. Again, this is a super rare band to see in the States and probably the only one over here where the crowd numbers in the hundreds, if not more. These guys played real riffy, gnarly and macabre death metal in the true old Finnish style, complete with decomposed vocals. It seems these guys are heading more to their roots, instead of playing the more eclectic and rock-influenced grind of their excellent "Reflections" album. I'm not sure if that's the best choice but the fans here ate it up and gave Convulse a rousing reception.
Next things really started to cook and I got to the meat of what brought me through hell to Baltimore...Birmingham's classic death metal pioneers Benediction! I have always loved this band and they didn't disappoint live! Sure, these dudes are now all pushing 50 if not beyond, but they delivered a brutal set of their grimy Celtic Frost-influenced mayhem, led by the rough and gruff Dave Hunt also of Anaal Nathrakh and Mistress fame. He roars like a beast and his between song patter was full of British working class bluntness. "We haven't played here since 1994 and that's been too fuckin' long!" he growled. The band did a pretty good job of touching on all phases of their long career in a set lasting less than an hour, ranging from the title track to their very first album "Subconscious Terror" all the way up to "They Must Die Screaming" from latest album "Killing Music". I was especially "chuffed" to hear them play "Jumping At Shadows", from their great album "The Grand Leveller". Seeing a veteran band like Benediction lay down the law did a lot to ease all the crap I went through on my way to Deathfest.
A quick trip to Stage 2 brought me into contact with contemporary grind darlings Pig Destroyer. These guys were good, but speaking of veteran bands, Repulsion, who arguably ignited the entire horror grind genre, pretty much torched them with their later set on Stage 1. A good deal of Pig Destroyer's set seemed to revolve around samples and sound bites, while Repulsion just dug into the gory guts of their fiendish grindcore and sprayed it all over the crowd. Front man Scott Carlson of Repulsion was funny as hell. "Here's a song from our latest album, released in 1986, " he quipped. "It's also our only album, so you know just what you're gonna get tonight." These dudes are still fuckin' intense after close to 30 years and they whipped up an insane pit playing grind classics like "Maggots In Your Coffin", "Decomposed" and the killer of all killers, "Black Breath". When the mid-song "skank" riff explodes in that song, even Pope Francis will vomit black bile and start to circle pit! Repulsion was one of the highlights of the whole weekend as far as I'm concerned and I was later super pleased to talk briefly with Carlson.
I must now mention one of the most enjoyable parts of any metalfest and that's running into friends you met before or, in many cases, friends you've known only over the Internet. I was lucky to run into a ton of folks I've communicated with. I blundered into the one and only Johnny Vomit and his guitarist Eric Ondo, but fortunately that didn't ruin the weekend! All kidding aside, it's always a blast trading quips with the unique Mr. Vomit. Among those I also encountered: gore artists supreme Jeff Zornow and Putrid Matt (whom you might be reading more about in these pages soon), bearded growler Mike Perun of Chicago's indestructible Cianide, Mr. Roberto Lopez, Bob Lugowe of Relapse Records who dumped three Relapse CDs on me free of charge, and many more whom I cannot recall off the top of my empty head. It's always such a pleasure to hang out with fellow misfits in an atmosphere where we can relax and be ourselves. I honestly look forward to it as much as I do checking out the bands.
The climax of Day One was a mighty one indeed: a set by the reformed death gods CARCASS! This band alone brought thousands to Deathfest and it's safe to say they didn't disappoint, unless you were hoping for a set culled strictly from their first two totally grindcore releases. They touched lightly on that era, but the set focused massively on "Necroticism: Descanting The Insalubrious" (which I stil consider the best death metal album ever) and "Heartwork". By now, night had fallen and the brilliant light show on Stage One took full effect. The sound was absolutely amazing for these guys and they played with such clinical precision...no pun intended!...that it was like watching fine machinery meshing together. You want classics, you got 'em! Stuff like "Incarnated Solvent Abuse", "Carnal Forge", "Inpropogation" and "Corporeal Jigsore Quandary" were displayed before the ravenous fans and if new guys Ben Ash and Daniel Wilding had any problems playing the highly technical Carcass material, I sure couldn't detect it. Jeff Walker looks pretty different from what he did back in the day, but Bill Steer looks like he just walked out of a time machine from 1993. If anything, Carcass were almost TOO perfect...their technical mastery is virtually inhuman...and this whole set whetted my appetite for their new album "Surgical Steel" coming later in 2013.
After the massive Carcass set, I staggered back to the parking lot as the slow and mesmerizing tones of Pelican emerged from the Stage 3 tent. I managed to get back to Motel 6 after a relatively easy journey. I had been awake and in a supercharged state of awareness from 2:00 A.M. Central time until after midnight Eastern time. Two days of this to go and then the trip home, but I had made it to Deathfest!
It was a hell of a lot smoother time getting to the venue on Saturday. A few hours of sleep and a couple of Krispy Kreme donuts do wonders for the constitution. It also helped that the day was absolutely drop dead gorgeous and completely ideal for a mostly outdoor event. Bright sunshine, low humidity, a light breeze...impossible to beat.
One thing I noticed in Baltimore is that the town has more panhandlers and homeless people than anywhere else I've been in my life...that includes Chicago, Denver, St. Louis, Portland, and of course my hometown of Rockford. I couldn't make it from my hotel across the street to the convenience store without running a gauntlet of down and outers and most major intersections seemed to be under occupation by people with cardboard signs. Standing in line waiting to get into the SONAR Compound, we were accosted by several panhandlers, some using the old "I am deaf" scam. Things seem pretty rough on the East Coast.
My second day started in uninspiring fashion in the Stage 3 tent with a band called Asthma Castle. Absolutely generic southern-tinged sludge metal was these guys stock in trade, sounding no different from dozens or maybe even hundreds of similar bands. I wonder what lottery they won to get this plum gig.
The next band on Stage 3 was a 180 degree switch and one of the most visually unique bands I have seen perform anywhere. This was the mysterious black metal collective from Chicago known as KOMMANDANT. You talk about a wall of black, menacing noise, these guys epitomized it. There were at least three lead guitar players, a bassist, a drummer on a regular kit and another drummer standing up playing a free-standing snare drum set up. All of these dudes were wearing gas masks and clad in form fitting black leather uniforms. At the front of the stage, we had an ominous looking "pulpit" reminiscent of a coffin, with a grotesque "preacher" acting as lead singer. The demonic character looked like he had emerged from a freshly dug grave, clad in black priestly raimants coated with grey dust that "puffed" as he moved. The face was a nightmare combination of a twisted "wrestling" mask with corpse-painted features.
Most of the band stood perfectly still throughout the show, although one of the guitarists engaged in some minor headbanging. A fellow concertgoer made a very astute comment about Kommandant's performance: "It takes a lot of discipline to play this kind of music live and hold a still pose for the whole show." What the other members lacked in mobility, the "preacher" more than made up for. This guy has creepy theatrics down to a science, not to mention a voice that comes from the bowels of hell. He was a mesmerizing presence that would have Marilyn Manson shitting bricks. As for Kommandant's music, it was an incredible wall of black metal extremity, deeply rooted in the Norwegian classics. If it sounds over the top, it was! Kommandant was one of the biggest surprises of Deathfest. By the way, I later saw the "preacher" laughing and joking with fans minus his headgear...a more "normal" or happier looking guy I couldn't imagine. Make of that what you will.
Spent the next hour just shopping the merch booths and even catching a couple of winks on the swath of grass over by Stage 2. That was where Denmark's grossly underrated Iniquity made their American debut...and also likely their swansong. From what I could make out, there's been a lot of internal trouble in the band and their future is much in doubt. That's a real shame, because these guys played a very cool form of death metal that blended a lot of different feels...there was a technical feeling to their music, yet also a ton of catchy riffing and some vaguely industrial atmosphere, mixed with excellent melodic leads and very guttural vocals. I really enjoyed their brief set even though I wasn't too familiar with their music and I saw the members of the band frequently hanging out the rest of the weekend.
From there, the rest of Saturday was a mad dash running between Stages 1 and 2 and trying to grab a bite inbetween. Doom, stoner and sludge seemed to rule the roost today. That included the insanely baked hillbillies of Weedeater, who slapped the crowd silly with their super fuzzy riff-mongering. Their drummer was unique in that he had a smaller kit in the front of the stage and positioned sideways...it was kind of cool! And of course, there was legendary frontman Dixie Dave, sipping liberally from a bottle of Jacks (I hope it wasn't iced tea, because that trick is old), smoking cigarettes and looning around like he escaped from the casting call from "Deliverance". These Virginia rednecks have been dishing out punishing sludge long before it became as fashionable as it is today and they drove the crowd nuts.
Then raced to Stage 2 to see Chicago's ultra-brutal Broken Hope in action. Fellow Worm-scribe Thor had a lot of good things to say about these guys when he saw them in action last year. I personally was not a big fan of their recorded output, which I considered sloppy and poorly produced, but boy, they sure delivered live. The songs come across more professional and ferocious and the riffing is more discrete. Of course, Cannibal Corpse is a natural comparison and Broken Hope may always been in the shadow of the Cannibals, but they made a believer out of me with their set today. New vocalist Damien Leski in particular seems to be a fine replacement for the sadly deceased Joe Ptacek. I am actually looking forward to their new one "Omens of Disease", which will be out later this year.
Next up was a truly legendary band in the American doom scene, The Obsessed, featuring Wino Weinrich on vocals and guitar. You know, I have to admit, their set just did not light a spark in me. The band plays an almost laid back, easy-riffing style of doom that is super enjoyable on records like the classic "Church Within" and "Lunar Womb", but there was an energy lacking in their live presence. Some of Wino's lead work even sounded off to me and although The Obsessed played undeniable classics like "Streetside" , "Skybone" and "Neatz Brigade", I kind of lost interest. I would have to say their set was one of the weekend's big disappointments for me.
Grabbed a quick bite at the Hollywood Diner and stayed in the vicinity of Stage 1 to see The Melvins in action. I am not any kind of expert on this band at all, but how could any metal fan not know of The Melvins and their gooey, sludgy weirdness? I was ready for anything when I saw them...and got a great fuckin' show that kicked me hard in the ass and made me immediately regret that I wasn't more familiar with their material. Believe me, they are an experience live, driven by the amazing twin drumming display of veteran Dale Crover and newer Melvin Coady Willis. What a clinic these guys put on. Two drumkits side by side, with Crover and Willis delivering thunderous synchronized drumming throughout the set. It was an incredile thing to watch. You've also got frizz-mopped wizard of bizarre King Buzzo dressed in robes and dishing out super-dramatic vocals and sticky riffs. Normal songcraft is not their stock in trade and there were many digressions into doomy noise, odd guitar phrasings and frequent double drum lashings. This was a real revelation!
A trip back to Stage 2 brought an encounter with another entity not known for conventional songwriting...ex-Emperor mastermind Ihsahn and his band from Norway. This was really different than anything else at Deathfest this year, at least as far as I could tell. When looking at the relaxed and black clad Ihsahn, seeming for all the world like a hip and cosmopolitan college professor stepping out for a latte, it is hard to remember the axe-wielding face-painted ghoul of the Emperor days who was up to his armpits in church burnings and accusations of violence. Truth is, Ihsahn is not the same either emotionally or musically. He plays a peculiar brand of progressive metal with strong black metal leanings but very little "darkness". His accompanying band looked like they just escaped from a library but boy, could they play. I believe they are mostly members of Norwegian proggers Leprous. The bearded keyboardist/vocalist delivered an extremely emotional performance that at times overshadowed his boss. Ihsahn was definitely not trying to take any spotlight away from his compatriots.
In what I can only call personal taste, I'm just not a huge fan of Ihsahn's solo material. The early parts of the show were fascinating in their precision and unpredictability, but as the set wore on, my attention started to waver. I don't want to lump myself in with low attention span fans, but when Ihsahn started to play an extremely long and somewhat slow number to close out his set, I bowed out. He got a very enthusiastic response from a large crowd, but its fair to say a lot of folks were more interested in the raging thrashing of Revenge and Aosoth at Stage 3...both of which I unfortunately had to miss.
That brings us to the headliners of Day 2, Down. This is a band that I've only mildly been interested in, but having just completed a great interview with frontman Phil Anselmo (which you can read HERE), my curiousity was aroused. It was not disappointed, because these guys tore the hell out of the place and delivered an intense ass-whipping the likes of which is rarely seen. The whole band was on fire. Phil I expected to be his usual bad-ass self, but new bassist Pat Bruders was a shaggy haired lunatic who ran across the stage like he was possessed by Pazuzu himself. Pepper Keenan played like it was his last night on stage and even burly Kirk Windstein was fired up. You just couldn't stay still during this set...my favorite Down song "Lifer" was a highlight, but "Hail The Leaf", "Losing All" and "New Orleans Is A Dying Whore" also made appearances. And of course, the colossal riff-fest of "Bury Me In Smoke" ended the set. The pit was nuts and I didn't have a prayer of getting close to the stage. I'm sure some super underground metalheads considered these guys too "commercial" to attend. Well, that was their loss, because this was a real highlight.
I was getting the hang of this Deathfest thing now. I was as tired as I've ever been in my life, but pretty happy. All bad memories of my rotten trip in melted away after checking out Down's set. One more day left!!!
I got down to the Fest grounds way too early on Sunday. Most of the parking lot was taken up by a farmer's market full of people hawking all sorts of wares. Almost expected to see my friend Melinda selling her porcupine quill earrings there. I'm sure the "normal" people got a big kick out of my bloody lab coat and freshly purchased Dying Fetus T-shirt. Slowly but surely, the metalheads began to trickle in and the farmers packed up and gradually left, leaving not a little confusion in their wake.
The day began with hard-ass rockers Speedwolf from Denver thrashing up a storm in the Stage 3 tent. These dudes injected a good gritty shot of Motorhead-influenced mayhem and got a hell of a circle pit going even inside the tent. They were genuinely awed by where they were and the Marine-looking lead singer belted out "Goddamn, we're at fuckin' Maryland Deathfest!". This band comes highly recommended.
Up next was a much heavier, more morbid slice of hell named Cruciamentum from England. The temperature seemed to drop 20 degrees as they played their bleak and brutal brand of gloomy death metal, much in the vein of bands such as Krypts, Coffins, Maveth and of course, Incantation. This was true death metal for the coneisseur of such gruesome delights, well played with fantastic sound.
Next came two highlights of my weekend. I saw a long line snaking in and out of the old SONAR club and I asked a headbanger, "Is this the line for the bathroom?" "No," he replied. "We're here for the meet and greet with VENOM!" OK, troops, that's all I need to hear...I dropped into line right away. While waiting, I caught sight of a familiar figure...none other than Mark "The Shark" Shelton from Manilla Road! I've had the pleasure of interviewing Mark twice for Wormwood as well as Music Street Journal, but it was a double pleasure to meet him in person! The accompanying pic is right here. Later that day, Manilla Road would play a blowaway set on Stage 2!
Gradually I made my way into SONAR, where Cronos, Rage and Dante awaited. Unfortunately no photos were allowed. I wondered what I could get the terrible trio to sign, when it suddenly dawned on me...why not the lab coat? You guessed it...my bloody, filthy coat now bears the signatures of the pre-eminent black metal band. Cronos looked pretty continental in a black leather jacket, with hair pulled back in a neat ponytail. This guy is the father of extreme metal, as far as I'm concerned...
I got to Stage 2 in time to see the last few minutes of French black metal weirdos Glorior Belli...a band that certainly has some influence from Venom. There was a very cool moment when the lead singer jumped down from the stage to shake the hands of the fans. He gave his guitar to a security guy, who hit a pose with the axe. That was pretty cool! At this point, good fellowship was in the air all around. Wish I could say it would last all day.
Back to Stage 1 to see masked maniacs Midnight in action. These guys play metal much in the style of the earlier Speedwolf, but with a more evil, thrashier edge. The black masked Athenar must pretty quick with a quip, saying drolly at one point "That's the last fuckin' time I tune my guitar before a gig." I enjoyed Midnight's set but to tell the truth, I probably enjoyed Speedwolf more. These raw and rocky bands are much better off in a more intimate setting...Midnight seemed engulfed by the very large Stage 1.
Stage 2 next had one of the most magical sets of the weekend, from the long-lived British cult band Pagan Altar. I think this may have been the first American gig these guys have played here in their 35 year existence. These dudes have been doing their thing since the very dawn of the NWOBHM and only in the last 10 years have they really been getting recognition for their doomy epics. This was pure classy, timeless heavy metal...definitely owing to Sabbath and Priest, but with its own character. They didn't look much like a metal band at all, but that means nothing. Stocky grey-haired singer Terry Jones arrived on stage as a Victorian gentleman complete with top hat and heavy black coat. This guy has the class of the great British rock singer...the way he connects with the crowd, his movements, his banter between songs. This is something we won't be seeing for much longer, so enjoy it while it lasts. The strong rays of an early evening sun seemed to enhance the performance as well. The band played a good selection of their mesmerizing doomy epics such as "Dance of the Vampires" and "Judgement of the Dead" to a worshipful response from the crowd. This is something else I love about true metal events like Deathfest...the respect the crowd shows towards legends of the past. I think most of the hardcore Pagan Altar fans in the entire U.S. must have been in attendance at this gig.
The band Exodus was originally slated to play Deathfest this year but pulled out, leaving their place to be filled by Arizona thrash heroes Sacred Reich. Is the Reich back or are they just playing for nostalgia value at the big festivals? Based on the tightness they displayed here, they still have it in them to produce some good material. It's no secret the band looks a lot different than they did years ago...I wouldn't have recognized Phil Rind at all if he hadn't been on the stage...but they didn't have a lot of rust. This band was never a total thrash-out like Slayer or Exodus, but rather specialize in a groovy, more mid-tempo thrash. First two tracks the boys played, "The American Way" and "Independent", demonstrated their catchiness. Phil is a friendly and jovial frontman who kind of mocked himself, but his voice sounded just as strong as it did in the 80's. Reich played some real favorites like "Death Squad", "Surf Nicaragua" and their strong cover of Sabbath's "War Pigs". An enjoyable set from these guys, if not a total blowaway.
I was happy to see Sacred Reich, but one of the real reasons for being at Deathfest was up next back at Stage 2: Manilla Road! I made sure I got up close to the stage for this one, as it would likely be the only time I would see this band that I have followed for 25 years live. It lived up to my expectations, as a huge crowd of rabid Manilla Road fans had gathered to see Mark Shelton and his boys play. Perhaps aware that they were at an "extreme" fest, they came blasting right out of the gate with some of their fastest material..."Masque of the Red Death", "Death by the Hammer", "Haunted Palace". Yes, Shark can shred just as radically on stage as he can on record...one of the most underrated players in American metal history! I'd like to say a good word for singer Bryan Patrick, who has taken over most (but not all!) of the lead vocal duties from Shelton. He actually sounds better live than on record and cut loose with some piercing screams. Very impressed with the performance of "Hellroadie" tonight.
The set had some minor sound problems and sometimes the drumming seemed out of whack, but it was an incredible experience to see classics like "Necropolis" and "Road of Kings" played live. Best track, though, had to be "Riddle Master"...such a titanic tune, doubly so with the crowd all singing "No, no , no, no!" on the chorus. Mark Shelton has struggled for 35 years to bring Manilla Road to the public and it had to do his heart good playing to a big crowd like this in the States after all this time. This was the best part of the fest for me.
After the great MR set, it was time to go to SLEEP! No, no...tired though I was, I'm not talking about shuteye, I'm talking about the legendary stoner/doom band SLEEP, who somehow have grown to be an immense cult phenomena despite having only two real albums released. This band is the Excalibur of Sabbath-influenced riff worship. Visually, Sleep's show is nothing to get excited about. Not a hell of lot of motion on the stage and the sight of a shirtless, pot-bellied Matt Pike is not something that rock and roll dreams are made of. But riff-wise and soundwise, well, that is a different story. These guys play music so warm, fat and droning, you feel like you are drowning lazily in liquid honey. The repetitiveness of it all, the simplicity of the riffs..the effect was entrancing. As "Dragonaut" and "From Beyond" were sent out into the multiverse, I felt overcome by a feeling of peace and contentment. No, not one jolt of weed did I need for this, but simply Sleep's music. This is stuff that puts you in the "now", where you don't think about past or future. Remarkable stuff.
Bobby Liebling of Pentagram. I'm tempted to just stop writing right here and move on to the next paragraph. This guy is indescribable. I have never seen Pentagram before so this was my introduction to "the American Sabbath", who have been in existence since before the days of disco. Bobby has been in the hard music business since the late 60's and I'm guessing most of you reading are at least somewhat familiar with his incredible story of extreme drug abuse, band fuck-ups and bizarre behavior. Until you see him live, you won't understand the full impact. Honestly, I don't know whether to laugh or cry upon seeing this withered husk of a man stagger on stage in a sparkly disco jacket, white hair flying about Einstein-like, making crazy faces while his guitarist solos wildly. He is an indescribable sight, looking like someone in his 80's that just escaped from the dementia ward. Yet when he opens his mouth and sings....magic. Nothing wrong with this man's voice at all and despite his skeletal frailty, he stayed on stage the whole set, shuffling around and making those goofy faces. It was fascinating and morbid to watch and almost distracted from the fact that Pentagram sounded real good. Guitarist Matt Goldborough is a good replacement for Victor Griffin, which is not a minor thing to accomplish.
The Pentagram set rambled a little too much for me, but most of their major tunes were covered. If your head doesn't bang during "Relentless", there's no hope for you. I split before the plug was pulled on these guys because I had to make my way to the next show...the one band I was here to see more than anyone else...VENOM!
Last time I saw these guys, it was the very first Milwaukee Metalfest I ever attended and it was absolutely unforgettable. Back then, it was still the original three members, Cronos, Mantas and Abaddon. This time around, Cronos was the sole survivor of that lineup, accompanied by new cohorts Rage and Dante. Well, this show would really be just as unforgettable as the MM one...but not for the same reasons.
The crowd was berserk to the point of being out of control as the band opened with "Black Metal" after a slight technical delay. I got smashed into the right side security fence several times by the heaving mass of raging headbangers. The security on the other side responded by pushing back with all of their might and trying to regain control of the situation. I just kind of went limp and didn't resist, but that was a bit of a scary experience. I put my focus by on the stage, where Cronos stalked like a crazed beast. This guy is an archetype of extreme metal, he looks like the Devil incarnate up there. Someone on a messageboard said "time has not been kind to Conrad". Well, when the fuck has this guy ever tried to be a pinup idol? If that's the kind of frontman you're looking for in black metal, grab a picture of Justin Bieber and masturbate to it to your heart's content.
In a cool surprise, the second track was "Leave Me In Hell", which really let the hounds loose. The pit in front of the central stage was crazier than anything I've ever seen and the security tried in vain to keep up with the constant flow of crowd surfers. I saw Chicken Man, Banana Man, Jesus Christ and a guy in a luchadore mask all in there somewhere. Somebody had blown up an inflatable sex doll and brought it to the party. I had to laugh hysterically as that doll was passed along and generally abused.
The band was real tight as they lit into classics old and new. They used the medley method to try and get through as many as they could. "Possessed" segued into "Resurrection" and "Evil One" before returning to the origin track. We got an extra groovy "Welcome To Hell" and a scorching "Schizo" from the selfsame album. The new Venom classic "Fallen Angels" was not ignored, as new crowd anthem "Hammerhead" and growling "Hail Satanas" got played. One thing I have to say, Rage is a lot better than I thought he'd be. For many of us old-time fans, Mantas will always be the Venom guitarist, but this guy really played raw and heavy, just the way it should be!
Newer tunes such as "Antichrist" and "Straight To Hell" got a good response, but the crowd really lit up for the old chestnuts. This was proven beyond the shadow of a doubt when Cronos asked the crowd if they'd rather hear old tunes or new ones. The crowd response left no room for doubt and I kind of sense the old boy was a little disappointed. Suddenly we hear that telltale drum beat from Dante (who used absolutely TOWERING high-hat cymbals that seemed 7 feet tall) and the whole place went nuts for "WARRRRHEAAAAD"! This was the meat of what I had went through hell to see. And then...the sound died. The hour of 11:00 PM had struck. The P.A. was killed on Venom in mid-song.
Let me tell you, that led to an ugly crowd and I was one of them. Sure, towns have noise ordinances and curfews, but can't you hold a hand up on stage and say "five minutes left" so the band has got some idea they're gonna get the plug pulled? It seemed classless and unprofessional to me. Cronos and the boys were visibly upset, but what could they do? It also didn't help that some smart-ass got on the PA and said in a snide voice "That is all...GOOD NIGHT EVERYBODY!"
So now we had a huge clog of departing festgoers waiting to get to their cars. Now the fun really started, because the security felt it best to keep up us milling around for a half hour while they got their act together. I also found out that the very last band of the fest, Carpathian Forest, never made it to Baltimore and that put their fans from Stage 3 in a foul mood, along with the Venom fans. There was a chant of either "rush the tent" or "crush the tent" and things got hairy. Finally the logjam began to ease and we, the patrons who supported the event, were allowed to leave while being made to feel more like cattle than human beings. Some nasty words were exchanged and I'm pretty sure somebody took a swing at somebody else. There was a whole mess of security guys suddenly running past me and headed towards a knot in the parking lot. Then, we get a lot of flashing red lights and loud sirens. BULLS ON PARADE! This thing was breaking down real fast.
As I got the hell out of dodge, it looked like at least 10 of Baltimore's Finest were coming in cop cars to respond in overwhelming force. This was a sorry way to end what had been a highly enjoyable event. Jack Koshick's Milwaukee Metalfests did a lot of things wrong, but their security was more professional than what I saw tonight.
Well, that concluded Maryland Deathfest XI for yours truly. It had truly been a memorable event which seemed to compress a lifetime of experiences both good and bad into its length. I staggered back to my cheap hotel, fell asleep and got up the next morning to head back to Baltimore Airport.
Guess what, sports fans? Found out my flight back to Chicago was going to be delayed several hours. Hurry up and wait!
Next time I come to this thing, I drive...
CONCERT REVIEWS >