Metal for Early Risers, Goth Dancing, and Polar Opposites: Maryland Deathfest 2014 Part Two
My Dying Bride, Bolzer, Nocturnus A.D., and others destroyed us at metal's premier festival.
As rowdy as Deathfest was the first two days, it was only the beginning. The nightmare continued through the weekend. Some said “never again!” Others said “Why?” Most of us were having too much fun to quote Discharge.
Who wakes up early enough for war metal? Diocletian and the maniacs who came to support them at 1:55, that's who. While falses were brunching, the New Zealand quartet hurled out savage hymns in the vein of Conqueror and Revenge. Unlike some of their more unfurled contemporaries, they have a bit of structure and restraint, making their attack more precise. It was such an unadulterated beatdown that not knowing the band's songs by heart might have been an advantage, as one could take it in as one huge block. (Diocletian were forced to cancel their remaining US dates following a family emergency, including one in Milwaukee with Midwest noise legends Bloodyminded. How turnt up would that have been?) Nocturnus A.D., Mike Browning's new version of his old band Nocturnus, were another highlight of the Edison Stage on Saturday. The Key, which Nocturnus released in 1990, is one of death metal's oddest and greatest albums, with its use of keyboards and sci-fi themes. Is there anything more metal than singing about going back in time to kill Jesus? Nocturnus A.D.'s set stayed true to The Key's weird vibe, with songs like “Lake of Fire” and “Before Christ/After Death” remaining as polarizing as they were in 1990. Headset mics and prominent keyboards may be garish for most groups, but for Nocturnus it's the only way to operate. They had to restart a cover of Morbid Angel's “Chapel of Ghouls” (Browning was Morbid Angel's original drummer) because Browning messed up, but it lent to the group's oddball charm. If they make more music in the vein of The Key, take notice.
Saturday's marquee acts on the Edison stages were a bit lackluster compared to the other nights—not even the American debut of Nocturno Culto was enticing enough to make me slog through Sarke's set. Let's be honest: Dark Angel and Unleashed were not as hyped as My Dying Bride or At The Gates. At the Baltimore Soundstage, some blocks down from Edison, the more hardcore and punk oriented bands played. A lack of stage barriers equaled a freer vibe, with folks granted the liberty to eat the floor stagediving if that's where their heart took them.
The pairing of Birdflesh and Dropdead on Saturday couldn't have been more oil and water if either of them tried. Dropdead are a very polticial and stern band, preaching about animal rights and ending oppression in every song. Did the activism take hold? Maybe not—this was a crowd of converts and the apathetic—but even if the band couldn't convince people to go vegan, they had no problem whipping up a mosh. They ended their set with a Siege cover, paying tribute to a key grindcore influence. Birdflesh, on the other hand, did not take themselves seriously at all, performing wacky grind songs about morbid sex and comical gore. Members of the band also played in Entrails earlier in the day, and they were definitely ready to cut loose from that group's no-frills death metal. Glowsticks were thrown around with abandon, and a blow-up doll was also brandished, lending to a slasher flick dance party vibe. The two were polar but effective opposites.
Bolzer were one of the most talked about bands at MDF the whole weekend. Most of Saturday's conversations went something like this:
“Did you see Bolzer last night?”
“Yeah. They fucking ruled.”
“That's what everyone's fucking saying.”
For those who didn't get to see them on Friday because they conflicted with At the Gates, Bolzer nearly leveled the crowd at Rams Head Live. When there are more amps than members on stage, you know a band isn't fucking around. Hype is a force deadlier than the most street of opiates, but Bolzer obliterated all expectations. Their music is a combination of thrash, black, and death, but it is also none of those things. It is metal of might, one that isn't easily classified. Vocalist and guitarist KZR was throwing lightning bolts with every riff like Zeus become flesh. His yell was that of a mountain man ready to rain hell on his ground level subjects, and it carried a feral ferocity lost in the clinical nature of a lot of bands on the festival's bill. They were louder than Satan and had a better reach too—that pit was not calm. The only proper follow up, frankly, was Asphyx. Having last appeared at the fest in 2009, they were still in top form five years later. Their punishing grooves gave the final push for those who hadn't succumbed to sore feet and sorer throats. Martin Van Drunen is always a welcome presence at the festival, and the crowd reaction really confirmed so. “Last One on Earth” was an apt end to Saturday; for some of us, it felt like that apocalypse was coming close.
My Dying Bride
If any day was a testament to MDF's diversity, it was Sunday. The scheduling was dynamic or boggling, depending on how you looked at it. It started off with doom, swerved into a brief segue of Misery Index (who I missed—sorry!), then went into bestial lands, followed this segment the disparate mix of Gorguts and Uncle Acid, and finally ended with two doom legends—Candlemass and My Dying Bride. Graves at Sea and Windhand were two of the bands that kicked off the day, but of the early-rising doom bands, Chicago instrumental quartet Bongripper proved supreme. The paradox of a lot of metal festivals is that they tend to book the more doom-oriented acts on the last days because people have been partying all weekend, but slow music doesn't encourage people to arise from sloth. Bongripper transcended that and awakened the crowd with their noise-laden jams. Every stomp felt like a jolt—one that said “today's the last day! Don't flake out! You get to see My Dying Bride tonight!” It worked better than any coffee, and since there wasn't any iced coffee (that I saw, anyway) around, Bongripper got the day started right.
Russia's Pseudogod spearheaded the bestial portion of the day, and there's nothing pseudo about them. The performance was total war metal blitzkrieg that nearly managed to usurp Diocletian. Impurath of Black Witchery was playing bass for them, and he was able to put his normally confrontational live attitude on the back burner for the greater evil. Wrathprayer came all the way from Chile to raise hell and cast spells, and they did not disappoint either. They were supposed to play Chaos in Tejas last year but were unable to make it, which made their performance even more gratifying to witness. Coming right after Pseudogod, they arrived with the attitude that if the Russians didn't kill you, they would.
Since signing with Season of Mist and after landing big tours with Marduk and Behemoth, Inquisition has been the subject of recent controversy as some of the band's shady past has come to light, including associations with Antichrist Kramer and his former label Satanic Skinhead Propaganda. Vocalist Dagon attempted to clear the band's name in an interview with Decibel, and whether you think the band are Nazis or not, it's undeniable he came off like a wordy dumbass. Judging by their set at Maryland Death Fest, though, most of the attendees either don't scour the internet for news or find outrage trendy because the issue wasn't brought up at all, and Inquisition played a set that suggested they are beyond it all. Like Taake, Inquisition put showmanship in black metal, with Dagon alternating between mics with every verse. Inquisition also had maximum power with minimum personnel, and their sound translated well to an outdoor stage—even Dagon's trademark droney croaks. He's clearly better at commanding a crowd than giving interviews, and most bands are lucky to have the former on their side.
Gorguts and Uncle Acid and the Deadbeats were another tale of opposites, but the difference between them was even starker than with the Birdflesh/Dropdead bill from the day before. Gorguts is a reunited death metal band who recruited two members from Dysrythmia and managed to kill Carcass on tour recently. They continued their dominating streak playing material from Colored Sands, Obscura, and even some The Erosion of Sanity material. If you haven't seen “Obscura” performed live, those slashing riffs really jump out. Gorguts were also one of the few who openly thanked the organizers of MDF, the vaunted Evan and Ryan. Such class on all accounts. Uncle Acid, on the other hand, are firm 70s rock worshippers. They're not interested in breaking boundaries like Gorguts, and, while revivalism isn't always a bad thing, it doesn't mean shit if you're boring live. Once “Cut You Down” was finished, there was no reason to watch them. Uncle Acid stood out from the rest of the fest, and not in a good way. Brutal and fast does wear on you, but with how lifeless they were, it would have been nice if instead Bongripper had pulled the same move Speedwolf did last year and played two sets in one day.
Candlemass revived the fest after Uncle Acid, and their hits-laden set was, for all purposes, solid. The band sounded fresh and rehearsed, especially vocalist Mats Leven, who was briefly in the band in 2006 and came back to replace Robert Lowe, also of Solitude Aeturnus (a.k.a. the American Candlemass). Nonetheless, Leven suffered somewhat from Ripper Owens Syndrome: While he hits all the right notes, he didn't have the presence of his more well-known predecessors. In addition to following Lowe, he also had to fill the big shoes of Messiah Marcolin, whose larger-than-life presence could never truly be emulated. Sure, a fat dude with a 'fro in a monk's cape may have been outlandish, but he made Candlemass into Candlemass. It was still a treat to see “Bewitched” and “Ancient Dreams” performed live, though.
My Dying Bride were far and away the best headliner of the Edison Lot bands and maybe the festival itself. They hadn't been to the States since the late 90s, and they looked just as stoked—even behind their dour pose—to be in Baltimore as the crowd was. Aaron Stainthorpe, thankfully, looked like an actual goth and ditched his nu metal paratrooper outfits. People stood still for the new stuff, but once “She is the Dark” and “Turn Loose the Swans” came on, all bets were off. It wasn't anything the soundstage would get shook by, but there was certainly more movement than almost every goth metal show ever. That loneliness-stricken tapping riff of “The Cry of Mankind” rang even louder live. Without getting too sentimental, My Dying Bride made Deathfest worth it.
And by the way, I wasn't kidding about those shirt bootleggers:
Andy O'Connor is somewhere sleeping on a pile of bootleg metal shirts. He's on Twitter - @andy_oconnor
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