Photo by Skullgal
I am no fan of festivals, metal or otherwise. Large crowds annoy me. Expensive tickets annoy me. Dilettantism, which multiplicity encourages, annoys me. I prefer my experiences intense and intimate, not diluted and truncated. Yet Maryland Deathfest 2009 lured me with an eye-popping lineup, including Hail of Bullets, Mayhem, and Bolt Thrower, who last played the US 15 years ago. The festival was uplifting, if unintentionally through adversity. Being a metalhead requires work. MDF ‘09 certainly required work.
The addition of an outdoor stage this year introduced a new element: the sun. The only time “sunlight” belongs with metal is with “Studio” after it. Any band that played in the sun had no vibe, as well as poor sound. Big acts sounded like mud outside, while inside the adjacent club, smaller acts sounded killer. (Misery Index and Withered had particularly vicious sound.) With temperatures reaching 90 degrees Fahrenheit, even shade was no refuge. Everyone clustered inside, competing for air. Rotten Sound got off to a blistering start, but I soon became lightheaded and had to step outside.
Despite the heat, metalheads did not flag in wearing black. (See the above killer handmade shirt.) Merch was one of the festival’s most impressive aspects. Merch booths flanked the venue inside and outside; two rooms of merch tables lay inside, one thankfully fan-cooled. Festival-goers used these rooms for respite and socializing. Most people had selective schedules, often hand-scrawled on paper. See this band at this time, then that band afterwards. Take a break and leave the venue for food. Only the foolhardy would intake ten consecutive hours of grindcore and death metal.
Photo by Carmelo Española
Choosing one’s battles and pacing oneself yielded rewards. Headliners Bolt Thrower delivered in spectacular fashion. This, ironically, was due to the un-spectacular-ness of their music. Amid such large spaces and iffy sound, anything technical or speedy lost impact past fifty feet. Thus, Cattle Decapitation and Pig Destroyer came off harmlessly. Immolation’s blastbeats were inaudible. Bolt Thrower, however, played a ground game of mostly mid-paced eighth notes. Heads nodded and fists pumped to simple beats. The show felt like a down-tuned version of AC/DC. This rolled back over 20 years of technical advancements in death metal, but, hey, less is more.
The best example of such atavism was Asphyx. The Dutch death metallers somehow had brilliant sound outside. Guitars pumped out mammoth, if pedestrian, old-school death metal. The drummer was wobbly, a dangerous weakness for any metal band. Even so, Asphyx had the festival’s best set. The sole reason was Martin van Drunen (interviewed here), who after seemingly 10 million years — his countenance seemed pickled from years of drinking, and his grey-streaked hair made him sort of a metal version of Gloria Steinem — still has one of metal’s most lethal instruments: his voice. Low end is common in death growls, but van Drunen adds midrange bite on top. The result sounds like a large, wounded animal. Who cared if Asphyx’s songs all sounded the same? I could have listened to van Drunen howl for hours.
Victories like this were plentiful, as were losses. (Atheist was the most unintentionally hilarious band I’ve ever seen. I have not laughed so hard in a while.) Recounting them is probably best left for war stories among witnesses. As time passes, details will fade. What’s left is the overall feeling — being among metalheads, thousands of them, and eating, sleeping, and breathing metal for days. While in line for tickets, I saw some locals take pictures of metalheads, in a kind of reverse tourism. The metalhead in front of me said that in an alternate universe, metalheads would be normal, and squares would be freaks. For a few days, Maryland Deathfest was that universe.