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Maryland Deathfest 2015: Wednesday and Thursday

MasacreMDF

Above photo of Masacre by Joseph Schafer.
All remaining photos by Levan TK. Follow Levan on Instagram.

Often, frightening excess is the order of the day for heavy metal consumers. The micro-economy surrounding the genre exists and thrives only because underground metal fans see bacchanalian excess as mostly de-rigueur. The vest cannot have a single patch, it must be covered in them; the album cannot be released only on vinyl, it must be the 180-gram gatefold. Similarly the go-to extreme metal festival for connoisseurs of the genre, Maryland Deathfest, is not simply two days long, it is three, Friday through Sunday, with a smaller warm-up show on Thursday night and an official pre-party, itself a lengthy concert, the Wednesday before. Taken as a whole, the five-day Maryland Deathfest is the international heavy metal bacchannalian equivalent of a McDonald’s Big N’ Tasty. Naturally, Invisible Oranges opted for all five days.

Day One: Wednesday, May 20

After piling into a cab with an entourage including the esteemed Islander of No Clean Singing, we arrived at Baltimore’s Ottobar, a fairly de rigueur heavy metal venue consisting of a whole lot of exposed wood and concrete walls covered in band stickers. At that point in time Gath Šmânê had already finished, and Funerus were mid-set. I had been more excited to see the first group, which features members of Artificial Brain, Castevet, Geryon and Krallice, some of the more exciting bands in the NYC death metal scene. Attending festivals such as this where there is virtually no time between sets to do necessary things like eat, pack and check into hotels means accepting that some bands will simply get left out of one’s experience. And so it was, we missed an interesting take on death metal for a rote one. Either way, I reacquainted myself with the taste of Yuengling and settled in for hours of distortion.

Next, Seattle’s own Drawn and Quartered proved more interesting, with vocalist Herb Burke taking on bass duties. When I last saw the band at Portland’s Famine Fest in 2014, he sang only not to mention performed three feet in front of my face. This was the less interesting show.

The evening, however, belonged to Colombian death metal stalwarts Masacre. The band, a figurehead of the mysterious “Ultra Metal” movement, had never played in the US before and more importantly, I was unfamiliar with their music. Their take on death metal is stripped-down and burly, albeit with stirring guitar solos by Jorge Londoño . After one song the crowd burst into applause, prompting Jorge’s brother Mauricio, the drummer, to grin ear to ear. All present basked in the shared common knowledge that yes, the band had an audience willing to listen to them and enjoy it on this continent and yes, they still had the chops to pull it off after 27 years as a band. Vocalist Alex Oquendo growled and screamed with the best of them and knew his way around a mic stand to boot, totally making up for his ever-so-slightly sub-fluent English (“We are from Colombia. Fucked up violence country.” Awesome.) . He also grabbed his crotch more than any other frontman but hey, more power to him.

The best part of the mass live music consumption experience is the act of being instantly bowled over by something unexpected. At MDF that happened to me daily, and at the pre-party that honor went to Masacre.

Last was blackened death metal pioneers Incantation, who closed the festival last year. I’ve never been a fan of them or the murky style of death metal they pioneered. Still, I found much to like in their live show. John McEntee is a serviceable front man but a tight guitarist. Most impressive was his rhythm section, drummer Kyle Severn (who, maybe in deference to the AxCx song, still has a spectacular mustache) and Chuck Sherwood, who not only plays Incantation’s songs on a Rickenbacker, but does so with pure finger picking. I am unsure how he does so without the strings sagging off the short-scale neck of his instrument.

Day Two: Thursday, May 21

The first formal day of Maryland Deathfest took place in the evening, away from the massive fenced-in car park that is the Edison Lot, home to the lion’s share of big money, big-draw bands (by MDF standards, anyway). Instead the abbreviated formal first day showcases bands at the massive three-level Ram’s Head club, and at its smaller neighbor the Soundstage. Each venue is in one way or another a typical metal venue, it’s just that Opeth would fit at Ram’s Head while Goatwhore would fit at Soundstage. One is meant to sit back and take the music in, and the other to put you in close proximity to the performer, but either way you’re standing for hours on bare concrete.

This setup eased new attendees into the MDF experience while getting them used to the idea of migrating between stages. At the same time it sent a message to MDF veterans: the Edison Lot is not the be-all end-all of the festival, at least not anymore. The Soundstage is where the festival felt most energetic and vital this year.

First, however, I trekked to Rams Head and caught a sample of the longform psychedelic death-doom peddled by Portland’s Usnea, which struck me as good, but not particularly what I was looking for early in the evening, especially considering that I plan on seeing them on tour in Seattle with Ufomammut who were slated to play the Ram’s Head later that evening.

At the Soundstage, however, I walked into a lively set by recently-reunited New York brutal death outfit Skinless, whose invigorating (if predictable) blend of blasts and eighth-note chugs had an affect on me akin to a syringe full of adrenaline to the heart. Frontman Sherwood Webber proved one of the fest’s many funny and charming frontmen, calling all attendees in mascot costumes to the stage, and having the crowd film a song with their smartphones, promising to edit the footage into a video later. They have a new album, Only the Ruthless Remain, ready to be released on Relapse and I am officially looking forward to it.

After that, however, green German two-piece Mantar stole my heart at the Ram’s Head. The duo’s debut LP Death by Burning didn’t do much for me, but live the group came across as a mix of Big Business and High on Fire with a hint of blackened death metal edge. Singer/guitarist Hanno Klänhardt is a stick of a man, but he’s got the charisma of a seasoned vet, stomping around like a neanderthal beast while playing his guitar with either a pick or his fingers, depending on his fancy. He exuded a primal, sexual energy that could not be ignored. As far as two piece sets at Ram’s Head go, I liked Mantar more than last year’s Bolzer set. Expect big things from these boys.

jex

By some flaw of thinking which I’ll attribute to post-Mantar euphoria (aided by alcohol) I decided to watch an entire set by watershed slam death crew Devourment, rather than witness Jex Thoth. In retrospect I’ll call this an error, since I heard good things about the occult doom-rock crew’s set, and found Devourment a pale shadow of Skinless.

conan

Then at Ram’s Head came UK doom trio Conan, who I have never liked. Their records are flavorless mush. Live they’re more like flavorless grits, with all the chewy particulate coming from drummer Rich Lewis, who is so much better than the band he is in that I cannot wait till he moves on to something more interesting.

ufo

Again, remembering that Italian doom outfit Ufomammut would be coming to my neck of the woods, I beelined back to the Soundstage for the most contentious set of the festival, legendary hip-hop duo Mobb Deep. When the group was announced as part of the schedule, the Maryland Deathfest Facebook group erupted in racial epithets. I was personally contacted by metal enthusiasts claiming that Mobb Deep’s addition was a sign of white guilt. By “white guilt” I assume these people meant “Bevar Sea dropped off the bill and Soundstage double-booked for the evening.” Otherwise those people have no common sense or investigative skill, and either way I find their opinions on the matter unsavory. Metalheads mixed with hip hop fans with no MDF tickets in preparation for the show, either anticipating a good set or some sort of violent outburst in the wake of the Baltimore protests earlier this spring.

mob

As it turns out the two crowds freely mingled, drinking liberally and getting along amicably with not so much as a fistfight. It seems music fans tend to get along when removed from their keyboards and forced to interact like human beings. Who knew? Although certainly Mobb Deep’s security detail helped ensure peace.

I bet Mobb Deep had no idea they were even playing MDF—they made no mention of it onstage and simply referred to their audience as “Baltimore.” Either way, the duo rhymed tightly over pre-recorded beats and cranked bass, focusing on newer tracks in their discography (though no cuts from their album on 50 Cent’s label). They played “Shook Ones,” signed some merch and left after what amounted to one of the tamest sets of the festival.

yob

I caught a snippet of Yob, but having seen the group four times in the last year and anticipating a rough day ahead, I packed it in before the end of their set, anticipating three more days of extreme metal.

— Joseph Schafer

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