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Mama Told Me Not To Come: My First Deathfest Wrap-Up

And so my first Deathfest came to an end Monday morning around 1:35ish AM. Four hours later I was boarding a plane back to Charlotte. There I spent a three-hour layover watching all manner of humanity engaging in a brief moment of solidarity before we headed on our way to our respective homes. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t ready to call it a weekend when Immolation took the stage at Ram’s Head on Sunday night. That would have been great wrap up to a wonderful first MDF experience for me, and it would have capped off a weekend of truly amazing performances by metal mainstays and newcomers alike. That’s something I learned within the first few minutes of walking onto the Edison Lot Friday: Maryland Deathfest isn’t just some showcase for heavy metal’s “old guard” or a four-day crash course on how to practice restraint at merch tables because you know, eventually, you’ll probably need to eat something that isn’t beer. MDF is about how we got here and where we’re going.

It’s a shameless exercise in nostalgia, sure. Perhaps more accurately it’s a recognition of the musicians and bands who made the decision to dedicate their lives to heavy metal long before it became a fashion commodity and long before those same musicians would receive proper due for clearing a path for those who followed. Just as integral to the festival are the opportunities it provides for up and coming bands who, despite having what’s likely the smallest font on the poster, end up offering the most visceral and compelling performances. Though there were plenty of other sets that were outstanding, the following eight bands especially highlighted the weekend and gave everyone in attendance all the more reason to get our asses back to Baltimore in 2015.

— Jonathan Dick

Necros Christos

Germany’s Necros Christos brought their death/doom occultism to the Edison Lot on Friday, turning an otherwise gorgeous spring day into something far more sinister. Fronted by Mors Dalos Ra (vocals/guitars/keyboards), the band’s capacious doom sound and distinctive vocals were every bit as remarkable as their recordings. Too often the clout suggested by a band’s tone on an album is immediately and irreversibly deflated by the live experience. Add in the scarcity of Necros Christos shows available to those of us in the States, and anticipation, plus the potential for failure, the buildup is that much greater. Mere seconds confirmed all hopeful speculation, though, as the band turned the crowd into a wave of banging heads and at least one satisfied grin.

Bölzer

Friday night saw one of the festival’s buzziest bands making quick work of any doubts that the two-piece genre benders were simply riding the critical wave. There’s nothing new regarding the novelty of a heavy metal duo managing to make a lot of noise, so attributing Bölzer’s songwriting success to that alone is little more than lazy listening. Members KzR (vocals/guitars) and HzR (drums) weren’t interested in putting on a performance for the crowd at Ram’s Head. After a day filled with amazing live performances from the likes of the legendary Taake, the ghoulish Mgla, or the conjurings of Necros Christos, Bölzer kept it visually simple, letting the music work the room without possible distractions. KzR’s heavily modified guitar and clever pedal stepping would be a garish exercise in virtuosic masturbation were it not for the fact that these songs worked like auditory spot welding. If Friday’s bands had already reduced those of us in the crowd to ashes, Bölzer dug a hole to bury what was left of us. Twice.

Diocletian

Having already been a band for nearly 10 years, it’d be a mistake to call New Zealand’s Diocletian “new.” Suffice it to say, their performance at MDF paired with this month’s release of full-length Gesundrian will likely see their fan base increase exponentially. Led by vocalist/guitarist Atrociter, the group’s interpretation of death metal is one firmly rooted in the noise of war. I caught the outfit’s second set, a bittersweet one that found them replacing the equally outstanding Mitochondrion, who’d been denied entry into the US. Wearing Mitochondrion shirts as a nod to their brothers in heavy, Diocletian unleashed the most relentlessly commanding performance I saw at MDF. The band’s deadly precision translates so well live it’s damn near unsettling.

Black Breath

After being told Baltimore Soundstage was where the real shit was happening on Saturday, I made a quick run down around 4:30 that afternoon. I knew I’d miss Nocturnus AD, but I was well aware that Southern Lord riff sluts Black Breath would be wreaking havoc by the time I arrived. After reaching second base with the security guy outside, I was greeted to “Feast of the Damned” and all manner of metalheads raging in unison to the California crew’s thrashed up death crust. I’d heard rumors of Black Breath’s live show but was well unprepared for the 30 minute onslaught. Especially noteworthy was the fact that drummer Jamie Byrum laid waste to any suspicions that his playing might suffer due to the serious injuries he sustained in a car accident last year. Along with his four bandmates, Byrum made sure to sear Black Breath into the memory of anyone left standing at the end of the set.

Asphyx

At 1 AM, Sunday morning, the mighty Asphyx took the Ram’s Head stage with the renowned Martin Van Drunen’s vocals sounding as gnarled and hollowed out as ever. It was telling to see a band as influential and legendary as Asphyx possess the room with the same kind of raw connectivity and unadorned performance that highlighted so many of the younger, less established acts. Not every headliner or big name managed to capture the level of energy and showmanship as Asphyx, but then again not every band is fronted by the guy who sang for Pestilence and played with Bolt Thrower. Even with a few hiccups, the group never gave off any sense of being asleep at the wheel, proving time has done little in the way of affecting Asphyx’s well-renowned ability to throttle a crowd into submission.

Pseudogod

Sunday got ugly early with Russia’s blood-covered Pseudogod making worm’s meat of a tiring but no less excited crowd. After getting a text from an always-reliable friend stating, “You better go see Pseudogod today,” I made my way to the B Stage of Edison Lot and was made an immediate fan two minutes into the band’s blistering set of blackened death. Sure, they’re on Finland’s Kvlt Records, and yeah, they were covered in what I can only assume was real blood, but none of that shit matters. Pseudogod matched the brutality of their aesthetic with a 40-minute set of searing and explosive metal offering little reprieve in the way of pulling punches. I looked around during their performance just to make sure mine wasn’t the only dropped jaw and was glad to see a crowd in awestruck harmony at the sight of true bestial sonic death.

Inquisition

Social media’s non-story of the week was nowhere to be found Sunday at the Edison Lot as Inquisition took the stage. Vocalist/guitarist Dagon quietly stepped to the mic moments before tearing into the band’s set which immediately worked the crowd into an impressive fervor given the fact that we’d all been thoroughly cooked under the sun all day. Even those with an aversion for Dagon’s distinctive vocals were taken in by the sheer amount of power coming out of the two-man band, one that continues to establish an indelible place in the history of and influence on black metal. The astronomically-divined lyrics paired with the gnashing tumult of black metal at its most pared down, yet utterly explosive, state made Inquisition’s performance a memorable one with little left to talk about afterwards except for the music itself.

Gorguts

Luc Lemay. That is all. Seriously, though. This was my first Gorguts experience, and while I’m usually the one to let cynicism reign when anything is built up to be awesome by everyone else, I couldn’t help but let anticipation rule the day as the death metal mathematicians tuned up. The ambiance fell away just in time for Gorguts to kick into what was likely the most exciting set at MDF. Lemay’s ridiculous likeability aside, the band were not in “festival mode” and blockaded their exposure to those of us in the crowd who were, for all accounts and purposes, going absolutely apeshit. Lemay loves what he does and, goddamn, is he ever incredible at it, so it was the least surprising thing to witness a band who made one of last year’s best metal albums completely dominate Maryland Deathfest, converting the crowd to a sea of raised fists, horns, and cellphones, all fully aware of why we’d come and what would inevitably bring us back next year.

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