Maryland Deathfest X, Day 1 – 5/24/12

As the largest and longest-running American metal festival, Maryland Deathfest is guaranteed to be a wonderful time for all who attend. I went to MDF IX last year thanks to a big fat tax refund from the IRS, and it was an experience I’ll not soon forget. There’s nothing like a huge gathering of friendly metalheads, a panoply of merch of all kinds as far as the eye can see, and a gauntlet of phenomenal groups all in the same place. While I had some of the most fun I’ve ever had and met several friends for the first time that I’d now count among my besties, I was doubtful that I’d ever go again as it’s quite the expense. All my friends tried to persuade me to go next year, but I wrung my hands in doubt. “I don’t know if I can,” I told them. “Only if it’s really worth it. Only if they get Electric Wizard on the bill, and Godflesh, and YOB, and Saint Vitus, and Eyehategod, and Church of Misery, and…”

I think Ryan and Evan must have overheard me, because take a look at that lineup. Seriously, look at that shit. It’s tailor-made for me, man. There was no way I could pass this up. This was going to be the best MDF ever.

The enormous volume of bands at festivals like these are a blessing and a curse – there’s guaranteed to be a good number of acts you’ll want to see, but try to see all of them and you’ll wear yourself out fast. If you see all the bands in one day, you’ll be completely exhausted for the rest of the three. A wise fest-goer needs to plan ahead and know who’s worth seeing and who they wouldn’t mind skipping, and I had planned my schedule as soon as the running order was announced. On Thursday, there wasn’t anyone I was really dying to see until Absu, so I took some time to bond with my hotel-mates and meet some friends of mine, both new and old. I’d be spending a lot of time with these crazy idiots over the next four days, so it was imperative that we learn not to hate each other.

That being said, one of the best things about festivals like these are the bands whose material you’re not familiar with at all, who you go to see on a whim, and who end up completely blowing you away. It happened last year with me and Italian grind-fiends Cripple Bastards, and it happened again this year with the seminal hardcore group Rorschach. I had seen them namedropped in countless interviews and knew that they shared members with paragons of post-hardcore like Shai Hulud and Deadguy, but it wasn’t until their performance that I was able to experience their music properly. They moved the audience with a sludgy, Melvins-like gait, a set of angular and dissonant riffs that Converge seem to have been ripping off since Jane Doe, and the tortured screams of throatripper Charles Maggio. While their main material was certainly killer enough, it was their absolutely demented closing cover of King Crimson’s “21st Century Schizoid Man” that won me over. This was one of the best kind of covers, not just a note-for-note carbon copy of the original, but one where you think it’s just another song of the band’s at first until a few minutes in, when realization dawns and your eyes widen in surprise as you think “Are they really?…They are…and they’re actually pulling it off!” Rorschach’s set was a real treat to witness.

Dying Fetus was a band with deep roots to Maryland death metal, who had appeared at almost every previous incarnation of MDF, and whom I had caught already at least twice. I was more into grabbing dinner than catching another one of their sets, but I made sure to return in time to see Texan occultist black-thrash titans Absu. Their consistently excellent output and relentless full-speed-ahead brand of thrashy black metal is one of my favorite products of the normally atmospheric-minded USBM scene, and I was sure that it would hold up more than well in a live setting. They fulfilled and exceeded all of my expectations, but there was nothing I could do that would prepare me for their performance. Between Vis Crom’s pitiless six-string wizardry, Ezezu’s locked-down bass grooves and growls, and band leader Proscriptor McGovern’s unmerciful drum blasts and pterodactyl screams (and that circlet, damn! he be stylin’), there wasn’t a single member of the crowd in attendance who wasn’t active in some way. Absu is one of those bands that’s perfectly good on record, but even better to experience in a live setting where their faceripping potential can be fully realized.

The highlight of the night came next, with Eyehategod’s ascension to the stage. Ever since the late 1980s, the quintet has been unleashing their sludgy brand of Southern misanthropy on the world whether we want to hear it or not, drowning us all in the musical equivalent of Tony Iommi passed out in a bathtub full of heroin needles. They’ve weathered jail time, drug addiction, and even Hurricane Katrina with no sign of slowing down, and this year’s performance at MDF shows them to be still trucking along with no sign of stopping. They even debuted a new song for us, “New Orleans Is The New Vietnam,” complete with all the trademarks of an EHG jam – pentatonic Sabbathian riffs, lurching drumwork, and bile-filled vocals spit from the tortured throat of their lead singer, Mike Williams. With a set full of the old classics like “Dixie Whiskey” and “Sister Fucker,” broken up by Mike slinging vodka* into the crowd and lifting our spirits with such cheery phrases as “I wanna die!”, this set showed one of the longest-running and widest-respected institutions of sludge metal at their absolute best. After being up front in the pit for the entirety of their set, I was soaked to the bone with sweat and completely exhausted. It was all I could do to keep standing, but I figured that one more band couldn’t hurt – especially if they were the lukewarm serenades of Agalloch.

My feelings on Agalloch aren’t as positive as a lot of other peoples’. While a lot of my friends need a change of pants every time you so much as mention their name in passing, I’ve always been of the “eh, they’re ok I guess” school of thought. The problem I have is that I’ll put on one of their records and be entertained enough by their dark blend of folk melody and black metal influences, but their long-winded songs will not hold my attention at all. I’ll throw on something like Ashes Against the Grain, enjoy it well enough while it’s playing, but have no memory or lasting impression of any part of the album by the time it’s finished. They don’t bore me, they just…don’t really do anything. This set of theirs, however, was pulled entirely from their celebrated early catalog, with tracks featuring from Cascadian metal classics Pale Folklore and The Mantle. I would be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy their set, but there’s no way in Hell I’d be able to identify any of their songs for you – for mine own part, it was all Greek to me. And Agalloch did a great job of putting me in a sleepy mood – there was no way I’d be able to stay standing for Autopsy’s set, unfortunately. As much as I enjoy them, I’d need to conserve my strength for the next day. I’d need to conserve my strength for Godflesh. But what I did catch on the first day of Maryland Deathfest X was a fantastic kickoff to what was sure to be a fantastic metal festival not soon to be forgotten by anyone in attendance.

I Got My Face Ripped Off By: Eyehategod, Absu.
I Was Pleasantly Surprised By: Rorschach, Agalloch.
I’m Sad I Missed: Autopsy.
I Made Dismissive Masturbatory Hand Gestures During: Nobody. Thursday was awesome.

*I know for a fact it was vodka, because it got in my eyes. Thanks, Mike!