While everything previous at the tenth Maryland Deathfest was a bacchanal of glorious heavy metal hedonism, in my mind it had all led up to this day. One of my friends had described this year’s MDF as “A shitload of great bands opening for Electric Wizard,” which definitely sounded right to me. While I was excited beyond belief to see Japanese doom masters Church of Misery on their first visit to American shores and to be rocked by the Wino-led lineup of Saint Vitus, one of the greatest doom metal bands of all time, it was the return of Electric Wizard after ten long and arduous years of absence from America that had me most excited for today. The Witchcult would be out in force, and it was my duty as a THC-addled doomster to take my place among their ranks to herald the Wizard’s return.
The first band of the day that I saw was Cough from Richmond, Virginia, who are quite likely one of the slowest sludge-doom groups operating today. Their music, best demonstrated on their phenomenal 2010 LP Ritual Abuse, sounds like what would happen if you put Electric Wizard in a room and took away their weed. Their fuzzed-out and monolithic major-depressive jams sound akin to being dragged face-first through a waist-deep blood swamp, and I’m eternally glad they performed indoors. If their performance wasn’t air-conditioned and hidden from the sun, I’m sure the combination of muggy Baltimore heat and colossal nihilistic doom would have doubtlessly driven every member of the audience to suicide on the spot – and for a doom metal band, that’s praise of the highest order.
The next band I had the pleasure of seeing was Church of Misery, a Japanese doom quartet who looked and sounded like they could have time-warped straight out of the late 1960s. While most of Maryland Deathfest was dominated by denim-clad thrashers, corpse-painted legions of the black, and death metal heshers in black band shirts and baggy camo pants, Church of Misery turned a lot of heads when they mounted the stage in flowing, baggy shirts and bell-bottoms. But once they started churning out those pentatonic bluesy riffs, all doubts were put to rest as the crowd was moved into a riotous celebration by their stoned-out grooves. While lots of stoner-doom bands have the Kyuss-like grooves down, and every stoner-doom group worth their salt has decent Sabbath-derived riffs, Church of Misery is one of the only groups in the scene that’s able to fuckin’ boogie. Their lead singer switched between a demonic roar and Moog wizardry while the rest of the band unleashed some of the most foot-stompable riffs in the very history of doom metal. I was so moved that I crowdsurfed for the second time in my life, and as luck may have it, I got dropped by someone too stoned to realize they had to hold me up. On my head, no less. It was pretty brutal. And even when I was getting treated by the EMTs at the festival gates, who were kind enough to clean the wound and wash the blood off my face, I still couldn’t stop headbanging. Sorry for making your job harder, guys! Good thing they didn’t need to give me stitches; I can’t imagine how hard it would be to accomplish that. Also a good thing that I didn’t, like, get a concussion or die or something.
And if you thought a minor head injury would stop me from seeing YOB, you would have thought wrong. Very, very wrong. After witnessing the band’s performance last year on their headlining tour to support their latest LP, 2011’s Atma, I completely fell in love with the band. I was already a fan, having been converted back in 2007 by The Great Cessation’s alternating moods of hypnotic and skull-crushing, but seeing the band pull off their alternately oppressive and engrossing doom-psychedelia in a live setting is always quite a sight to behold. While the opening “Prepare The Ground” (Atma’s first cut) was as heavy and crushing as ever, the band’s long explorations into slow builds and quasi-Floydian figures entranced me so much that by the time the heaviness kicked in, I had completely forgotten that I had been standing on my feet pretty much continuously for the past four days. And that my head hurt a lot, that too. In complete opposition to the earth-shattering wizardry he unleashed when playing, frontman Mike Scheidt was humble as always in between sets, dearly thanking fans for choosing to come see them play. But really, how could we not?
Due to having to clean my head off back at the hotel and needing nutrition to fuel my escapades, I didn’t catch all of Saint Vitus’ performance, only the last half or so. What I did see, however, was absolutely marvelous. One of the longest-running veterans of the doom metal scene, pioneering it way back in the 80s with landmarks like Born Too Late and Hallow’s Victim, it was easy to see why the band commanded respect from doom’s bearded denizens the world over. It was them who took the plodding heaviness of Black Sabbath to a new level, making clinical depression catchy. And to see them rejoined by Wino, one of the closest things doom has to an icon like Ozzy or Dio, was pretty much a dream come true for everyone who bore witness. Baltimore was fittingly hit by a flash thunderstorm during their set, soaking everyone to the bone and upping the doom quotient that much more – but this was hardly the capstone of the night. Oh no, not at all.
While the last vestiges of the storm dissipated and wayward bolts of lightning illuminated the sky, the crowd prepared to receive the Wizard’s communion. By the time they mounted the stage, paying host to what was reported to be the largest crowd in attendance for any Maryland Deathfest performance in history, there was no air to breathe anymore. It had all become dopesmoke, and the crowd breathed deep. We had been waiting ten years for Electric Wizard to return to our shores, and with a long, varied, and satisfying set, they fulfilled every wish we had. With early cuts from seminal stoner cornerstones like Come My Fanatics and Dopethrone displayed in equal measure to selections from latter-day classics Witchcult Today and Black Masses, there was something here to satisfy every fan of Electric Wizard’s repertoire. One thing that doesn’t come across as much in the studio that you get a lot of live (aside from the suffocating clouds of THC, natch) is the heavy levels of improvisation the band indulges in, like double-length solos and gratuitous rhythm fills punctuated by the occasional pealing squeal of feedback. I’m usually not one for jazzy stuff, unless if you can tell that the musicians playing it are actually having fun – and boy, oh boy, were they ever having fun. One look at Jus’ face while he launched into the monstrous coda of “Funeralopolis” would have told you all you need to know on that count; they were easily as happy to be back in America as we were to host them again. And when that cruorsome foursome made their way off the stage, it took about ten minutes of “WIZARD” chants and cheering before the crowd dispersed. It was really hard to accept that it was finally over. I could have gone to see black metal represented by Sargeist, Bethlehem, and the cryptic and ritualistic Mortuary Drape, but to be honest it would have been really anticlimactic at that point. I had seen Electric Wizard live. I could die happy now.
So to wrap it all up, this was easily the best weekend ever in the history of anything. I saw many bands I was dying to see and a few I thought I’d never get the chance to see, I made a ton of new friends and got even closer to some old ones, I picked up a lot of sweet swag, I received the requisite battle wound, and I returned home on Monday sick, exhausted, bloodied, sleep-deprived, hung over, and absolutely elated. My eternal thanks go out to Ryan and Evan for first organizing this mad Maryland Mecca for metalheads so many years ago, and for keeping it going so long that it’s been able to snowball into the monster it’s now become. I and so many more of the black legions around the world owe those guys a debt we can never repay.
Happy 10th birthday, MDF. Here’s to a hundred more.
I Got My Face Ripped Off By: Electric Wizard, Saint Vitus, YOB, Church of Misery, Cough.
I Was Pleasantly Surprised By: Nobody. Everyone I saw was fucking exemplary.
I’m Sad I Missed: Rwake, Nausea, Ulcerate, Pentagram (Chile), Suffocation, Sargeist, Bethlehem, Mortuary Drape
I Made Dismissive Masturbatory Hand Gestures During: Nobody. See #2