Described as the American Death Metal Mecca I was of course curious to check out what Maryland Deathfest was all about – even if I only could go to the first and last days of the festival. Still – MDF provided an experience that is never to be forgotten and speaks to the enduring power that heavy metal will have – that people will travel from different countries and sleep in their cars just so that they can afford to see these bands. What more could you want from the transcendent annihilation that Maryland Deathfest provides?
Day One A Night of Doom
I ended up getting to the festival later than expected – which is fine – that’s just the way life goes. I would still see the four acts who I had hoped would define the night. Arriving to the legendary Rams Head venue is a treat in and of itself. Sure – Baltimore is a shitty spot and you see a lot of rats but getting to witness so many metal heads in one place – all gathered around in the name of doom, well, there’s few things that get better than that. Everyone who was anyone seemed to be there – and yet surprisingly enough MDF fosters a kind of anonymous democracy. Dudes who put out all of your favorite records are able to just blend in and dig the music just as much as anyone else.
Within minutes I had bumped into my old friend, Jon from Conan and we navigated the venue searching for a better spot to view the live rituals Jex Thoth are known to unleash. I had known about these guys for a while but never had a chance to see them perform. As the band lit candles and came on stage with a sense of pomp I knew I was in for something special. There was a sense of majesty and magic to what Jex Thoth bring in a live setting. It’s impossible to deny that this band have crafted something truly unique. The way that Jex herself seemed to become one with the flame she held at the end of the set showed the otherworldly power of this band. Jex Thoth are indomitable – they dig to the heart of rock and roll and find the pagan roots of the music God hates. They have invoked something death defying and endlessly fascinating – the type of music that has dark vibes that leave the listener gasping for air.
Up next was Conan – this was my second time seeing them in a week and my fourth time ever. Suffice to say – I was beyond excited. When that first riff hit and Jon fell into his crushing head banging we got a sense of triumph from the band, as if they have found their way in this strange new land and now have learned how to reign supreme in the f*cked up American reality they have found themselves in. One of the most hotly anticipated acts of Maryland Deathfest they were able to quickly establish themselves and Now, I’d listened to Ufomammut before and I knew I was in for a good time – but I had fairly forgotten how good they are. Live they manage to invoke strange images, their video backdrop providing a refreshing glimpse into the overwhelming power that this band can bring live. Crushingly heavy and wonderfully unique Ufomammut seem dedicated to bringing a unique live experience to the table when they perform. Their stage presence and their comprehension of what it means to be truly and awfully heavy is impressive. You find yourself getting lost in the sound world they have crafted and it’s hard to deny the bands raw dominance. Every moment seems precisely calculated and yet somehow simultaneously strangely organic – as if you are navigating a totally distinct sound world, one that permits freedom and remains strangely violent. Ufomammut simply seek to guide you home, their music is the map to peace in a world of despair.
Suddenly the hour I had been waiting for had arrived – the almighty Yob took the stage to unleash doom metal destruction and show the path to greatness. Mike Scheidt seems better than ever, his vocals roaring out, even as he narrates the
Day Four – A Day of Death
It seemed to me that Sunday was going to be a lot closer to the all-day experience I have come to cherish at festivals. Though I only had Edison Lot tickets I was able to find a lot of my friends and figure out some hacks (Shh!) for getting in free next year. Edison Lot seems to be just the right size it’s big enough that there’s plenty of space for food trucks and to sit and eat (Hailz to the vegan options!) but small enough that you can’t help but bump into friends. I joined the ragged company just as Goatsnake wrapped up – passing a herd of smelly crust punks selling beer and telling crass jokes – a fitting addition to a demented scene.
The first band I did get to see was Primordial, the Irish maniacs delivered their unique brand of folk metal with a flourish and felt a bit too European for their rather urban surroundings. That’s part of what made them so charming though, that we could watch music like that from our spot on a parking lot and contemplate our place in a society that seems to have cast us aside. Their folksy hymns and epic riffs guided the crowd into head banging fury. These guys have a sense of bombast and shake the audience with a sonic assault that is impossible to deny. The epic choruses in particular seem to embrace the listener with a sense of atavistic triumph that is hard to deny.
Within moments of Primordial closing their set with another explosive set of riffs I rushed over to the second stage to witness Winter. There is something distinctly fascinating about these guys. There brand of death-doom was spurned back in the day, but now here they are more than twenty years after their initial break up playing one of the biggest stages for a band of their ilk. They performed with grace though and they thundered through nearly an hour of music – bombarding the listener with each and every song, proving the eternal power that doom can have. Sure they had a fill in drummer, and sure they don’t really tour that much, but that’s all asides the point, because at Maryland Deathfest, Winter became masters of their own reality.
Perhaps the band of the day (Asides – of course – from Neurosis) was Anaal Nathrakh. These guys have rapidly become legendary – a fact they seem very aware of. Every song title was greeted with a roar from the crowd and many of the fans seemed to know every word. These guys are distinctly evil – preaching paeans of a f*cked up reality and interspersing songs with strange moments of intellectual preponderance. The ferocity of the band though is impossible to deny. The vocal delivery is ferocious, and the bands bassist, who occasionally provides backups only serves to make the entire thing even more f*cked up. What’s not to love about a band who reek of putridity like Anaal Nathrakh do? Nihilistic and gleefully demented, they represent all extreme metal has the potential to be, and yet are insane enough that it will be hard to find any imitators.
I had thought that I was simply going to spend Skepticism’s set going over to get food – yet somehow their unique brand of symphonic death-doom managed to lure me over to the stage to observe their live ritual. The wonderfully epic power of this band sweeps the listener off of their feet and makes them beholden to greater beings than we can ever acknowledge. Skepticism’s music is the sound of mountains moving, and as we try to navigate the shallow and morbid realities of our lives they are strangely comforting. Their utterly transcendent sound carries the listener, and their set follows a logical path lifting you up in arms of steel and then gently laying you back down, after waves of melodic guitar lines and crushing riffs you find yourself cleansed, ready to go on with your day and see some more death metal unfold.
During Demilich’s I bumped into a whole mess of friends including my PR buddy Liz who I had seen on the opposite side of the continent the prior weekend at Psycho CA, I will reinforce my previous sentiment – her hugs are legendary. Anyway – Demilich – who have been known for years for their brand of hard hitting buzzing death metal immediately captured my imagination. Their gurgling assault was gloriously violent and seemed to revel in the decay that it invoked. There are few bands these days who still have that old school flame burning in their hearts. The way that they reached out and assaulted the listener – forcing them to bend the knee to death metal gods who seem to be from a wholly different dimension… That is the kind of majesty that makes this music so endlessly fascinating to me. They understand their role in underground history and their sonic devastation will leave me considering my place in the scene for a long time to come.
Suddenly the hour had come for the moment I had been waiting for all weekend. Neurosis took the stage and played perhaps the best set list I’ve ever seen from them. They play with a sense of grim humanity and Scott Kelly seemed to transform into William Blake. I’m probably getting too poetic here, but when Kelly unleashes his endlessly repeated cry of “In a shadow world” it seems impossible to deny the overarching glory of this band. They speak to the nature of the human condition and life on earth. It’s impossible to deny the way that they seem to rise from the guitar and use their punk rock roots to rise up and create some of the great music of our day and age. Perhaps more than any other heavy act out there right now these guys are the ones who will make it and be listened to in five hundred years.
Just before Amorphis started I met a super cool punk chick who I started talking too about death metal, My Little Pony and all that it entails. It provided a fitting backdrop for seeing Amorphis, one of the bands who set me down this path but who I have not revisited in many a year. Their melodic lines were delicious and every song seemed to be almost Iron Maiden-esque. With fans going crazy like hell in the pit and the folk nerds screaming along there was a sense of transcendent might to what happened on the stage that night. It showed me that melodic death metal will never die, merely because it can hit so many demographics and is so much fun to watch that to deny it is to deny yourself as a fan of loud guitars and passionate – exciting music. These guys have touches of rock stardom, but that doesn’t keep them from keeping it true and reveling in the glorious power of the underground. They have risen up and become masters of that particular reality but led me to bend the knee at the power within.
I knew my chances were slim but I took the time then to run over to the Baltimore Soundstage to see if I could sneak into DRI. By some strange miracle I was let in unquestioned (The secret is to walk confidently guys!) and immediately got in the pit for the thrashing of a lifetime. Sure I had seen DRI only two days prior, but that’s not the point. Or maybe it is… What I’m trying to say is that DRI are creating something timeless and fun. That almighty cry of “Fuck You” at the end of I Don’t Need Society speaks to the bands enduring power. There words remain vital and important even in the twenty first century. The crowd went nuts to the point that even the security guards led the fans in chanting the band’s name in hope for a well deserved encore. The weekend was nicely summarized when Kurt Brecht called out “I can’t believe you guys have so much energy for the last band on a festival!” to which one tired fan screamed back “I can’t believe I’m still alive!”DRI are still killing it every night and it is impossible to deny that these hardcore and thrash legends will live on forever.
What followed as I left was a sequence of events that is almost too bizarre for words.
My buddy Sean, his stoned friend and I were going to ride up to Philly together after MDF. We would be taking the rental car Calvin had taken and slept in. He and his friend had just spent 4 days partying at Maryland Deathfest, for me this was my second consecutive festival weekend – suffice to say we were exhausted. My phone the only smart phone was low on battery so we couldn’t use GPS but we thought we had a pretty good idea of how to get back to Philly. We had a hard time finding the car and at first couldn’t get the headlights to work (Poor Sean almost had to hold the high beams the entire ride) but eventually we worked it out and got onto the I 95
Now this is normally like an hour and a half drive from Baltimore and we were feeling young and confident – we had Judas Priest’s Breaking the Law blaring with the windows rolled down.
Then we noticed the PSI of one of our tires was going down alarmingly quickly. So we pulled into a rest area where we found we had a puncture. We tried to contact Alamo but they weren’t being helpful – remember this is at about 2:30 in the morning. While Sean was on hold with the company I got in line to buy him some coffee. In line I met a really nice guy named Dmitri who told me about his family and how he was concerned he didn’t have enough cash to pay his tolls on his way to Atlantic City.
Sean had no luck with the rental company in getting help so we realized we would have to change the tire with a bare minimum of knowledge. I said “Wait! I have a friend!” and I went inside and offered Dmitri five bucks to help us out. He would stay with us for two hours as we tried to figure out the situation. You see the issue was we got the jack and the spare tire, but somehow the wrench was attached to the jack and we couldn’t figure out how to get it off.
So I went inside to charge my phone and try to figure out what we could do – I was considering getting a non emergency cop but our stoned friend was a liability. In walks a biker gang- I remember reading in Hunter S Thompsons Hells Angels about how biker gangs often would help motorists who were struggling. I figured I would go out – see what the situation was with my friends and then get the bikers to help.
Turns out the bikers had already jacked up our car and given us advice as to how to best change the tire.
We finally got back on the road – going slow after the spare started to smell funny and worrying about what the rental company would say.
Of course we missed our exit.
This created a 45 minute detour where we had to talk to more cops whilst our stoned friend slept in the back.
I broke down and cried in a convenience store. It was bleak.
We arrived at my house at around 6 in the morning where my INCREDIBLE mother who helped us navigate the whole night gave me and Sean chili while stoned friend slept in the car.
Sean took a three hour power nap and hit the road again and somehow the rental car company had no problem with what had happened.
Perhaps it’s just the magic of festivals, but somehow we all made it out okay. That’s what this year’s edition of Maryland Deathfest taught me – how to get through when times are bleak and how to look at an uncaring world and realize that maybe we can transcend using the power of heavy music as our compass. Sure some things were meant to stay in the dark, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have to embrace death and the power it holds.
For More Information on Maryland Deathfest and to get the lineup for 2016 visit: