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Maryland Deathfest 2016: Pre-Party (Bonus: Tengger Cavalry live)

Photos by Joseph Schafer

I’m typing this sitting on an Alaska Airlines flight home from my fourth Maryland Deathfest. I feel a sense of total exhaustion that only comes from the experience of pushing my attention and endurance to their maximum points in the interest of experiencing as much metal as I can. For people interested in such a maximal experience, MDF is one of the only such options available within the United States. That is why so many attend the fest so religiously.

I mean metal both as a genre of music and also as a cultural experience. The appeal of the festival experience lies in observing as many bands as I wish to and also enjoying the rare experience of being immersed by people who share my passion for the art and the culture it inspires.

Those two things don’t carry equal weight for everyone. I know many people who opted out of MDF for the first time in many years in 2016, on account of the festival’s lineup. MDF made its reputation on booking exotic bands and performances: bands coming out of retirement, bands playing loved albums in their entirety and especially bands from Europe playing the United States for the first time. While this year’s roster included many bands for whom that holds true (Craft’s first show, Samael performing Ceremony of Opposites, etc.) it also featured many returning bands, and headliners which one could call pedestrian by MDF standards.

I see MDF as a victim of its own success. The festival organizers recently expanded into California and the Netherlands for the first time. The logistic and monetary toll of that endeavor may have impeded that lineup.

With that in mind, I opted to attend the MDF pre-party on Wednesday the 25th, as well as a concert at the Highline in Seattle the evening before—a headlining set by Tengger Cavalry on their first US tour.

Seattle’s Hexengeist opened with an energetic set. The recent surprise release of the band’s first demo with new vocalist Lindsey Parker bolstered their confidence. Parker comes from a funk and soul background, and spreads those influences thick over the remainder of the band’s melodic death metal shredding. They’re still finding their way, but already sound unique.

Next came Eye of Nix, whose recent album Moros was favorably reviewed on this site. The Highline’s acoustics didn’t suit the more intricate parts of their composition. The most Neurosis-esque parts of their riffs dominated the sound, although Joy Von Spain’s vocal talent cut through the morass. They played the rare set that I feel would have fit better in a larger room.

The Devils of Loudun brought in enough fans of their own to pack the venue, which makes sense considering their keyboard-driven and high fidelity style of technical death metal is relatively popular right now. They would fit in quite well on the Unique Leader roster. Normally this sound leaves me cold, but they put on a tight and energetic show. I wouldn’t be surprised to see them on Summer Slaughter in a few years.

Mongolian folk metal outfit Tengger Cavalry, though, will probably be playing larger venues on their next go-rounds, judging by the amount of people who dogsled into the venue in order to see them. Band leader Nature Gangainbagial barely spoke to the audience but they moshed and danced for every second of their set anyway. Tengger Cavalry’s rhythmic intensity translates well to the live setting, and I found myself in front head banging and locking arms with strangers.

There’s still some kinks to work out—the horse head fiddle and other instruments drowned out Ganganbaigal’s guitar, and he opted to exclusively resort to throat singing during the set instead of using any of the growls in his records. It’s odd to say this about an already large band, but a second guitarist, preferably doubling as a supporting growler, would fill their live sound out nicely. Even if I expected a performance with a little more edge, the Tengger Cavalry I saw puts on a seamless performance of unique material and draws in a large, eclectic crowd.

Two hours of sleep later, I met the staff of No Clean Singing for a restless flight to Baltimore. By the time we arrived, there was no time to rest before beginning the Maryland Deathfest experience at the Ottobar, where Pissgrave were in the middle of their set. The band’s last album, Suicidal Euphoria, received rave reviews, but did nothing for me. Likewise, they bored me live. In particular their highly distorted and monotone vocals felt bland. Other bands later in the weekend would pull off this overpowering and processed sound better.

Cryfemal fared better. With two Dallas-area musicians filling in, the Spanish black metal outfit put on a more engaging set. Their take on the genre sounds a little boilerplate, but good riffs are good riffs and they came across as tight and professional

Profanatica went well over their allotted set-up time and played what felt like a protracted set. The band put harshness before clarity, which seemed to go over well with Pissgrave fans. Beyond the novelty of drummer-vocalist Paul Ledney, they didn’t hold my attention.

Zombified, and nearly collapsing of sleep deprivation, my party nearly left before Absu began almost 45 minutes late. And then Proscriptior McGovern started playing and defibrillated us. Every second of Absu was riveting. The biggest mistake Slayer ever made was not giving their drum throne to McGovern, he plays with a kind of fury and precision that’s rare even at MDF, where virtually any set could count as a drum clinic. that he screams while drumming is even more absurd.

And absurd really is the word. Some bands concoct eccentricity in the interest of differentiating themselves from the pack, or giving their performances some kind of hook. Absu, though? They’re organic, free range, non-GMO weird. They began playing black metal when the genre’s links to glam metal were not buried, and display that heritage proudly with tight clothing, BDSM-ish accoutrement and hair flips. It’s strange, but never off-putting. McGovern himself is the center of that eccentricity. His stage banter takes on an elliptical bent. He speaks as if for every grimoire he reads he forces himself to skim a thesaurus.

More impressive, all of that stage banter is rehearsed. I saw Absu perform this same set in April at Northwestern Black Circle fest in Portland, and his dialog was identical. Even though they tour infrequently and still haven’t completed their trilogy of self-titled albums, Absu are as tight and regimented as a military division, both during the hour of their set with McGovern drumming, and the ten minute finale where he takes to the front of a stage.

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