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Has Maryland Deathfest Jumped the Shark?

MDF2017

I first attended Maryland Deathfest in 2012, back in the days when it still revolved around the now-defunct Sonar venue. I’d never been to such a big festival, and for someone who had considered himself the top metal authority in his peer group, seeing so many diverse people at my level of fandom was a true eye-opener. Not only did I get to see many huge bands I never would have had the chance to otherwise (Electric Wizard headlined the fest that year, a mind-boggling performance), but I was able to socially interact with other metal nerds like myself, a rare gift indeed. I hazily remember one night in particular alongside several Invisible Oranges writers involving sweet-tea infused vodka and a lengthy discussion on the etymology of the phrase “get swole.”

I went again in 2014, expecting a comparable experience to 2012. The headliners that year were stellar (Dark Angel, My Dying Bride, Candlemass, etc.) and many of the friends I’d made in 2012 were there that year as well, but this time something important was missing. Perhaps it was just a little too big for my tastes: the close grounds of the Sonar had been replaced by a three-tier setup consisting of the outdoor Edison Lot and two indoor stages, Baltimore Soundstage and Ram’s Head Live. All three are decent venues, but I remember a lot of running at that MDF.

The performances, too, seemed a little off: in 2012, when I caught Agalloch, they played in the Sonar in front of a huge, tight crowd, and when they did “I am the Wooden Doors” the reaction from the crowd was palpable. In 2014, Agalloch played outside at the Edison Lot, and to my horror I found myself getting bored. Their performance seemed lifeless in comparison to 2012, and though the rest of the fest was excellent, it still felt lacking for reasons I couldn’t quite articulate at the time

Maryland Deathfest 2017 begins tomorrow. Given that the festival is now 15 years old and not only still vital but also father to an entire Deathfest franchise*, where does Maryland Deathfest stand now? If I’m being honest, I didn’t even contemplate buying a ticket this year. Part of this was due to life changes that made such an undertaking a poor choice, but part was simply a lack of interest. I’m not sure why: the lineup was good this year (in particular, I would have liked to have seen Akercocke, Acid King and Kerasphorous). But I have a strong suspicion I’m not the only one to with a sense of almost burnout at the prospect of another MDF.

mdf1

mdf2

Look at this screenshot from the MDF forums: pages upon pages of regularly updated posts of ticket sellers with little to no response in all of them. “I’ll take a loss.” “No reasonable offer refused.” Does this mean anything? Is MDF declining in popularity? If so, why? How is the biggest metal fest in the country and a flagship annual outdoor American fest starting to decline after 15 years?

If Maryland Deathfest has stagnated, there are perhaps some explanations. As I have noted before, the venue change from Sonar to multiple venues may be a big factor. At Sonar, the indoor and outdoor portions of the fest meshed seamlessly and there was only one “festival ground” that allowed festgoers to engage in various different activities while always keeping track of bands and friends. MDF 2014 exhausted me from all the running from venue to venue, and I missed quite a few bands that I really wanted to see simply because they were in venues that were too far and to leave would have meant missing other bands later on. What was once a way for a huge mass of metalheads to get together and bond over a wide variety of bands has, in essence, turned into separate fests. Granted, 2017 lacks the Edison Lot location, leaving just Soundstage and Ram’s Head Live; the jury is still out on how exactly this will impact the festival, but at least it might reduce the running.

But perhaps festgoers don’t mind a little walking. What of the bands? You would think that consistently roping in foreign acts who rarely perform on American soil and A-List reunions would be enough incentive to ensure a consistent level of enthusiasm with every passing MDF. Yet, there’s the possibility that Maryland Deathfest has been victim of its own success. Perhaps the constant level of big-name acts has created a sort of burnout: if you missed Mayhem last year, for instance, you can always see Root this year (or see Mayhem perform the exact same set on tour nine months later). Furthermore, the expansion of the Deathfest brand has likely reduced MDF’s popularity to more of an East-Coast/Midwest crowd than in, say, 2012. While many still travel long distances to MDF, California Deathfest likely gives many West Coasters an opportunity to forgo MDF in favor of a more local festival, and Netherlands Deathfest may do likewise with the European crowd. Furthermore, bands cancelling last-minute due to Visa issues has become a yearly occurrence, to the point that some patrons may be hesitant to buy tickets to see a band that may or may not even be able to enter the country.

The author's first MDF
The author’s first MDF

Finally, it must be noted that, since Deathfest began in 2002, there’s been a noticeable uptick in quality metal fests in the United States: Full Terror Assault, GWAR-BQ, Hells Headbash, 70,000 Tons of Metal, Shadow Woods, Blood of the Wolf, Cathedral of the Black Goat, Psycho Las Vegas, Red River Family, Frost and Fire [And I must mention the Invisible Oranges-sponsored Northwest Terror Fest here -Ed.], and others have all provided large festivals appealing to niche audiences that may have made a polyglot subgenre fest like MDF less desirable to spend one’s money on. For instance, a black metal enthusiast might forgo sitting through half of MDF to see the black metal bands he likes in favor of an all-black metal festival. There’s more of a sense of curation at these smaller, “boutique” fests, which in many ways appeals more to the average extreme music listener, for whom curation is an essential part of their fanhood.

Maybe I’m making a mountain out of a molehill: those ticket sales on the MDF forum might all have been bought through direct messages, and “I went to one fest that I enjoyed slightly less than the only other one I attended, two years previously” is not a compelling argument for an objective decrease in MDF hype. And yet, speaking with my fellow Invisible Oranges writers about the fest, I detected a malaise about it in many ways akin to mine, a consistent “meh” about MDF 2017. This comes from people who, like me, were excited fest-goers not five years ago.

What do you think? Has MDF jumped the shark or does it remain the premier American metal fest? Was it better pre- or post-Sonar? If you’re a regular attendee of MDF, have you noticed decreases in attendance or enthusiasm for the fest over the past few years? What would you conjecture to be the reasons behind this shift?

Rhys Williams

*California Deathfest has been active since 2015, and Netherlands Deathfest since 2016.

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