notes from the road: Genji’s Maryland Death Files

The Maryland Deathfest. It’s the biggest extreme metal festival we have here in the US so for many bands around the world looking to make a splash in the states this is usually their first and best starting point. And on the tenth anniversary of the Deathfest, the organizers really put out a top notch lineup that was too good for me to pass up, so it was off to Baltimore, Maryland for me.

I wasn’t able to attend the first night of the festival which started Thursday so unfortunately for me there were a bunch of great bands I missed out on including Agalloch, Absu, Eyehategod, Dying Fetus and the recently reformed Autopsy. But seeing as I had a whole slew of metal ahead of me this weekend I decided to count my blessings and not get too upset about it.

One of the great things about the festival is how organized it is. Though it may not be located in the most desirable of areas, one certainly can appreciate the fact that the band schedules are set up pretty intricately with minimal band conflicts and that they run a pretty tight ship. I don’t think any of the bands started excessively late, all got a good amount of time to perform and most importantly I got to see pretty much every band I wanted to this weekend. The first band I got to see on Friday was one I had looked forward to seeing when I first saw the lineup, Transylvanian Black Metallers, Negura Bunget.

For those unfamiliar with Negura Bunget, they remind me of a folkier version of Enslaved or Emperor with less orchestral bombast and more Drudkh-like atmosphere. Their music is definitely progressive but a smattering of woodwind instruments here and there give it a more organic feel than technical. I will freely admit to not knowing the song names as I don’t speak Romanian, but the set they played was excellent pulling the most songs from the brilliant OM. The band played with passion and were able to recreate live the same atmosphere they do so well on record. Honestly I wasn’t sure they’d be able to pull it off since their music is very intricate and complex but the musicianship was exceptional and the execution was top notch. I believe this was their first appearance in the US ever and they certainly looked very happy to be playing here, it was a fantastic performance and a perfect start to the weekend.

After that it was outside and on to Death Metal/Grindcore legends Napalm Death. If you’ve never experienced the intensity of ND live, you really don’t know what intense is. The boys from Birmingham are amazing live, the power and sheer rage of the music just beats you right over the head, kicks you down to the ground, and just rolls right over your battered body without mercy. Barney Greenway is just a live wire onstage, spitting his lyrics furiously with a venomous rage, it’s almost impossible not to get riled up and throw yourself headfirst into the pit. The band started things off with new rager “Circumspect” then proceeded to crank out a ton of songs from their latest slab of magnificent brutality, Utilitarian. Mitch Harris’ maniacal screams next to Barney’s angry guttural howls just got the whole place going berserk while Shane Embury’s bulldozer bass and Danny Herrera’s monstrous drumming laid down some serious whip-cracking thunder. After a good dose of the new, they went straight for the jugular and started pummeling the audience with songs from their brilliant and vast back catalog. Second band of the weekend for me and i already knew this scorcher would be one of the best performances of the Deathfest, an absolute must see if you ever get the chance!

Immediately after Napalm’s set, everyone swarmed the other outside area as the mighty Godflesh took to the stage. The familiar chant of “Breed! Like Rats!” pumped through the air as Justin Broadrick’s cold, crushing riffs got everyone banging their heads and pounding their fists in the air in unison. On the other side of the stage GC Green laid down the thunder over the industrial programmed beats as the duo launched into more songs from the classic lp Streetcleaner. The duo sounded like they’d never left, ripping off riff after gargantuan riff that had necks snapping everywhere. When they launched into my personal fave, “Avalanche Master Song” the crowd went ballistic. They continued on with other skullcrushers like “Pure” “Mothra” and “Spite” keeping everyone ecstatic with the selections until they ended their set with “Slateman”. Seeing this seminal band perform live was definitely one of the highlights of the weekend for me, a moment I didn’t think i’d ever see, and even though I love Broadrick and his other bands like Jesu and JK Flesh, bringing back Godflesh would certainly be an epic turn of events for the future.

The last band of the night for me would be Sweden’s legendary grindcore act Nasum. If you aren’t familiar with their history, this band were an incredible grindcore act, just hitting the peak of their career when tragedy struck with the death of their lead singer Mieszko Talarczyk in the 2004 Philippine tsunami. This year would’ve been their 20th anniversary, so since the band never really got to say goodbye properly to their fans, they decided to do a one-off tour to say thank you. In order to do this the band recruited Rotten Sound singer Keijo Niinimaa to fill in on vocals so this was a rare treat to see them perform one last time. I felt this was a great fit as Rotten Sound is one of my favorite grind bands, and they happen to remind me a lot of Nasum so it was a seemingly perfect fit. The band played a ton of songs from great albums like Human 2.0 and Inhale/Exhale, sounding as tight and energetic as ever. It’s a shame such a talented band had to call it quits like they did, but it was really cool for them to end their band on their terms and go out thanking the fans like they did. A classy performance, going out in a blaze of furious, grinding metal and an excellent end to my first night.

Looking back, Saturday’s lineup didn’t have as many heavy hitters as the other nights, but in my opinion, had the best lineup of unknown bands. Starting with the UK’s mysterious Dragged Into Sunlight. This is a band I’ve been very high on and was one of three bands I was dying to see Saturday. They are a Death Metal band with samples and a lot of Black Metal imagery and atmosphere mixed in to make one sludgy, cacophonous mixture. A giant candelabra with a big goat skull was placed in the center of the stage and lit before the lights went down, a mixture of noise and evil howling filled the room. The mysterious figures made their way onto the stage and kept their backs to the audience (for most of the set mind you) and launched into “Boiled Angel, Buried With Leeches” obliterating the audience with their blackened death noise. A strobe light exploded from behind the drum kit periodically, as if to expose these damned creatures to the light. Since their songs are pretty long they only played a couple more, but it wasn’t til the very end of “I, Aurora” that the singer finally turned around exposing his face to the audience in one final death shriek before leaving the stage. Their set was awesome, one of my favorite bands and performances of the weekend so if you aren’t familiar with them, you need to get familiar right now because they rule!!

Up next came my first conflict of the weekend. On the main stage were The Devil’s Blood and on the outside stage were old school UK crust punks Deviated Instinct. Now I really like The Devil’s Blood and had I not just seen them 3 weeks prior I would’ve been watching them quite honestly. But since I did see them, I went with Instinct (pun intended). Honestly I just recently discovered Deviated Instinct’s early works, and I really like their sound so I was excited to see them perform. Though they were a little sloppy at times, it only added to their punk credibility and despite a smaller audience, they had a good little pit going for most of the performance. They can still certainly teach a lot of Crust Punk bands of today a thing or two, and their new EP Liberty Crawls to the Sanctuary of Slaves will prove it, so check it out.

Since the release of the Anvil documentary a few years ago, the Canadian rockers have experienced a renewed interest in their band by metal fans, whether due to the popularity of the documentary, or genuine interest, it doesn’t really matter. The band were one of the very first “extreme” metal bands I started listening to when I was really young and this was the very first time I was getting to see them live so I was pretty excited when they came on. Although they’ve certainly lost a few steps, the passion was definitely still there and it’s always great to hear classics like “666” and “Metal on Metal” being cranked loudly to an excited audience. Lead guitarist/vocalist Lipps was in top form, even busting out the old school vibrator prop for his solo during “Mothra” and bantering with the crowd like he was chattin us up at the bar. It was a spirited performance and i certainly was glad I finally got to see one of my “oldies” perform. It’s great to see the Anvil guys see some success finally, it’s well deserved and good to see.

One of my favorite Black Metal bands ever were up next, the almighty Horna. The Finns just know the kind of raw, nasty sound I crave and Horna bring it in spades. This was one performance I was looking forward to the most this weekend and the band didn’t disappoint. The crowd didn’t need any igniting as Shatraug’s buzzsaw riffs kept the crowd banging in dark delight. Lead singer Spellgoth constantly peered out from his hooded robe, spitting out his evil sermons with venom, the highlight of the set being my personal fave “Piina”. Even slight technical issues at the very beginning of their set didn’t discourage but rather added to the rawness of their delivery, one of the reasons I love them. They play Black Metal the way it should be delivered, dark, nasty and raw and they were definitely one of the highlights of the fest for me.

I stayed in the main stage for the next band, Noothgrush. I wasn’t familiar with this Bay Area sludge band when they started out oh so long ago and since they broke up anyways and didn’t have much in the way of output I never really had reason to pay attention to them. However the reformed band were one of the big surprises of the weekend for me. Playing a slightly more upbeat Eyehategod-style of sludge, the band mesmerized me from the beginning of their set with dirty sludge riffs oozing out, and by the end had me banging my head in sheer delight. Chiyo Nukaga is one of the few girl drummers in an extreme band I’ve ever seen, and it didn’t matter one bit. She pounded away at the kit like an angry beast while lead singer Dino Sommese poured his guts out in disgust. I will definitely be digging out my copy of Failing Early, Failing Often and keeping an eye out for new releases from this band, great stuff.

Despite putting out one of the true all time clunkers in Illud Divinum Insanus last year, the mighty Morbid Angel are still one of the premier Death Metal bands to ever walk the earth and live, they simply rule. Once they started launching into classics like “Maze of Torment”, “Rapture” and “Blasphemy of the Holy Ghost” all the bad blood from listening to that last album just vanished and this band just killed it. Trey Azagthoth assumed his god-like status wailing away like a demon possessed, while Dave Vincent slayed the audience with his commanding vocals. Their performance was tight and brutal, leaving no doubt that their legacy in the Death Metal world is indeed intact and can’t ever be tarnished. One of the best performances of the weekend hands down.

After the slaying of Morbid Angel, you would think seeing anyone else afterwards would feel like a letdown. But that was hardly the case with newly reformed Norwegian demons, Tsjuder, set to take the main stage. After putting out one of the all time classics with Desert Northern Hell in 2004, a vicious slab of Blackened thrash, I instantly became a converted fan. They broke up after that, but now are back and set to continue their punishing legacy with the newly released Legion Helvete. The band instantly took control of the audience by ripping their faces off with sheer intensity playing songs from the new album as well as brutal classics off Desert…. The band were tight and had the audience in a rabid frenzy in the pit. The finale really brought the house down as they dedicated the final song to fallen Norwegian guitarist Trondr Nefas of Urgehal fame by playing the classic Mayhem anthem “Death Crush”. Bodies were flying, fists pumping, and heads were banging everywhere for the brutal finale, a fitting end to a long second night for me.

The last day of Deathfest was definitely saving the best for last. First band of the day for me was the reformed German Death squad, Morgoth. Morgoth are one of the few old school Death Metal bands I still really enjoy. Perhaps it’s their thrash roots, as they are kind of a missing link band, falling somewhere between the end of the thrash era and early beginnings of the Death Metal era. Whatever it is, I really like them and was eager to see them perform. What I wasn’t prepared for was just how fresh and vibrant they sounded, bashing the Deathfest crowd over the head and pummeling the audience with some ripping death. Launching into old school tunes like “Unreal Imagination”, “Resistance” and “Burnt Identity” had the pit churning at a very high rate. These guys were one of the bigger surprises of the weekend for me and i can’t wait to hear some new material.

Immediately after their set I made my way to the other outside stage to wait for one of my favorite Stoner/Doom bands, the mighty Church of Misery. This was to be their first ever performance in the US and definitely one of the reasons I wanted to make the pilgrimage to Baltimore for the Deathfest. Everyone was fired up for these Japanese serial killer doomsters to blow up, and when they came out they floored the entire audience with a killer (no pun intended) set. Opening with “El Padrino” the band laid waste to everything before them with their sonic might. Bassist Tatsu Mikami, with his bass seriously laying about 1 foot off the ground, laid down some serious rumbling, Geezer Butler style grooves while drummer Junji Narita brought the serious Dojo thunder. Newer American guitarist Tom Sutton, just kept laying down tasty riff after riff, while main man Hideki Fukasawa did a fantastic job on the mic, a great showman in any language. Like the serial killers they write about, the band lured the audience in with tantalizing grooves like “Candyman” and “Taste the Pain” then as everyone was getting all riled up, slowly tortured them with the slow, irresistable “Killifornia”, and just when all were committed, they lowered the serious doom hammer down, slaying all in sight as they dropped “I, Motherfucker” on the spent crowd. What an excellent fucking performance, of all the killer bands and performances this weekend, this just might have been my favorite.

After a quick venture to the harbor for dinner, it was time to take my place for the mighty St Vitus. If you haven’t heard their latest album Lillie F-65, you need to hear one of the finest doom albums of 2012. The band are all the way back and sounding better than ever. Leading off with new up-tempo rocker “Blessed Night” the band instantly had the crowd eating out of the palm of their hands. Wino sounded fantastic, while Dave Chandler was busy cranking out the massive riffs. the mesmerizing “I Bleed Black” got the old schoolers in a tizzy and the band were off and running, playing half of their new album along with a great mix of classics. New drummer Henry Vasquez is simply a beast behind the kit and gives them an added heft that makes their doom even more crushing. A great performance by a great band, I’m glad they are back because if their new album is any indication, they have so much left to give….

Finally the performance everyone had been waiting for was here. And it was very fitting that just as Doom lords Electric Wizard were preparing to take the stage it started to rain. Perhaps the doom gods simply wanted to re-create a dreary, English atmosphere to make the band feel at home? No matter the reason, no one was moving an inch. Original Wizard Jus Osborne came out to a loud ovation and started strumming along to the hypnotic intro to surprise opener “Supercoven”. Then as the excitement built, the volume shot up to 11 as the monster riffage kicked in, to the side fellow Witch hammer Liz Buckingham laying on the extra fuzz. Osborne’s dying wail soared mightily over each mind crushing tune while newcomers Glenn Charman and Simon Poole brought the serious thunder to each and every song. While there were way too many classics to possibly play in one night, they did a brilliant job with the selections, playing some of my favorite tunes from “Witchcult Today” and “Black Mass”. But the real treats for me were of course the old classics like “Dopethrone”, my all time favorite doom song “Return Trip” and closer “Funeralopolis”. The band’s first US performance in 10 years was certainly a spectacle to behold as they are one of my all-time favorite Doom bands. Electric Wizard brought the Deathfest to it’s knees in worship and praise and even now I still can’t believe I got to witness the awesome power of the mighty Wizard, absolutely amazing. Together with Church of Misery, Sunday was definitely the best day of the whole festival, what a way to close out.

Aside from the first day, some of the bands I missed either due to conflicts or times that I would’ve liked to check out were Ghoul, Castevet, Artillery, Today is the Day, The Devil’s Blood, Winter, Cough, Rwake, Ulcerate and Disma. There were also plenty of other bands I could’ve seen (Brujeria, Suffocation, Macabre, Mortuary Drape), and I will admit I could’ve stuck around for some, but the ones I wrote about were the ones I really wanted to see and did, and the others were sacrificed either from exhaustion or preference.

Some of the disappointments this weekend: Black Witchery, Nausea and Sargeist.

Surprises: Negura Bunget, Noothgrush and Morgoth.

Best Performances: Negura Bunget, Napalm Death, Godflesh, Dragged Into Sunlight, Horna, Morbid Angel, Tsjuder, Morgoth, Church of Misery and Electric Wizard.

My absolute favorites: Godflesh, Napalm Death, Dragged Into Sunlight, Horna, Church of Misery and Electric Wizard.

Like I said before the organizers of the Maryland Deathfest did a fantastic job. Downtown Baltimore is a cool place to hang out in, great bands, great set up and lots of fun to be had. People from all over make the pilgrimage. Yes it’s not nearly like the festivals they have in Europe which is a shame, but if all the metalheads here in the states were as passionate as our brethren across the seas then maybe we’d be able to support more festivals here closer to home. As it stands, you should make it out to the Deathfest if you can, it’s a great time and i certainly look forward to see what they have in store for next year.