As I hit the “Publish” button on this post, it’s a little less than three weeks since Maryland Deathfest wrapped up its 15th edition down in Baltimore. I’d like to tell you that the delay’s been down to me “just processing it all” or “trying to find the right words” or some shit, but let’s be real, I’ve just been busy with other things. However, the timing of my posts should not be construed as a lack of enthusiasm for this year’s fest. In fact, I’ve been quite jazzed about my experience in the time since it all wrapped up. But more on that later; for now, let’s jump into the final recap and see how Sunday closed things out…
Day 4: Sunday, May 28, 2017
I think this was the first day of the fest weekend that I don’t have anything particularly memorable to discuss from before I headed down to the Power Plant area. A trip to Sam’s Club, a stop for some (admittedly, pretty amazing) pit beef sandwiches for lunch…that’s about it, honestly. Which…is fine! You guys are here for the metal stuff anyway, so the more of that, the better.
And that side of things kicked off in terrific fashion. Before I even hopped into my Lyft, I caught an update from the festival organizers saying that, due to a variety of logistical issues (read: Heathrow Airport software glitches / hacks) Nightbringer would not be able to make their scheduled set at Rams Head, and would instead be replaced by Angelcorpse. This was welcome news on a number of different fronts:
- I didn’t particularly care for Nightbringer’s new album, and had little to no interest in seeing them in the first place.
- I’d been planning on being at Soundstage during their set to catch Die Choking — not because I liked them, per se, but because Reason #1. Thus, absent a Nightbringer performance, my day could be spent entirely at Rams Head and got quite a bit easier
- I was still kicking myself for missing Angelcorpse’s Friday night, Rams-Head-closing set at last year’s MDF, and this gave me a chance to redeem myself for that error.
Off to a great start, universe! So, armed with that pleasant update, I caught a ride down to the fest and made it to Rams Head just in time for…
I’ll admit, I wasn’t super into October Tide‘s Winged Waltz when it came out. (Last year? A couple of years ago? I don’t really remember. See what I mean?) I think at the time I’d just had a bit too much death-doom in my diet and never really gave it anything more than a cursory listen-through. And I don’t remember any of the songs from it, so I’m not sure if they played any of them during their set at MDF. (Though logic would dictate that, that being their most recent album, they probably did so. Setlist.fm says they did, anyway.)
But you know what? Whatever they played, they sounded great on Sunday afternoon. In years’ past, a band like this would easily have had their sound muddied by an outside stage with waaaaay too much peripheral noise (thanks, highway!) surrounding it. But here, the band’s 40-odd minutes sounded perfectly devastating throughout. Guitarists North and Kryptan (please, better stage names, guys…) laid down crisp, emotional devastation in tandem, while vocalist Alexander Högbom ran the stylistic gamut. It was the kind of set you couldn’t help but get sucked into for the entirety. Hat’s off to the Swedes for a solid MDF debut.
Next up was Angelcorpse, who I was quite excited about for reasons you’ve already read about. Now I’ll be straight with you: it wasn’t great.
It was good, and respectable as all hell given the circumstances — less than 24 hours’ notice to prepare, hardly any time to soundcheck, etc. — but I still kinda wish I’d caught the band last year, in less of a last-minute situation. Overall, the sound was muddy, with the drums way too low in the mix, and too much of a mid-range sound emanating from the guitars. It got better as things went along, but still…it was a bit of a rough go from a listener’s perspective. (A friend of mine said the sound was better on the floor than on the balcony, where I took things in, but I can only judge on my own experience.)
Still, frontman Pete Helmkamp sounded great, and the band played a nice mix of tunes: “Sons of Vengeance,” “Phallelujah,” “Wolflust,” etc. I don’t have an ounce of regret about watching Angelcorpse’s set, and all the credit in the world to Pete & co. for making it happen on such short notice. I just wish the circumstances had been different. I blame Nightbringer.
Next up was Acheron, who…guys, I don’t think they like religion too much, do they? I’ll admit to being unfamiliar going into Sunday’s set, but the band’s aggressive black / death hybrid (a bit more emphasis on the death) ended up fitting in rather nicely. Singer Vincent Crowley — apparently, a former reverend in the Church of Satan — cut an imposing figure, tall and seemingly raring for battle throughout.
With banners bearing crossed-out Stars of David, crescents and, yes, crosses, adorning their amps, the band raged through cuts like “Satan Holds Dominion” and “Rapture to Divine Perversion,” sending the audience into a frenzy. (And, later, inviting them in for a singalong during “Total War.”) Not a Top 10 set of the weekend by any means, but a fun time nonetheless.
Next up came a highly anticipated set from Finland’s Behexen, featuring the aforementioned ex-Sargeist-er Hoath Torog on vocals. Now, I say this as someone who wasn’t really into last year’s The Poisonous Path (and who didn’t really know much of their stuff from before that) — they fucking killed.
The band was tight as all hell, and their aggressively blasphemous brand of black metal went over so much better in the intimate setting of Rams Head than it ever would have in an outdoor setting. (Or than it had in my headphones the previous summer.) Guitarist Wraath sent riff after riff slicing through our innards, while Hoath Torog’s vocals felt, at times, as though they could have summoned demons from worlds beyond our own.
While perhaps not the best set to be front and center for — that crowd got, as the kids might say, rowdy af — it was an entirely satisfying one. It earned a second chance for a band I’d previously dismissed as “not my thing.” So kudos to the Finns on this one for sure.
So, I’ll be honest with you on this: I’m a little bit at a loss for what to say here. How do you really put into words not just a shoo-in for Best Set of the Festival, but also one of the best sets you’ve ever seen from anyone?
If you know me, you know I was high on Oranssi Pazuzu last year. Their album Värätelijä topped my year-end list. Their addition to the bill at this year’s MDF pretty much singlehandedly clinched my ticket purchase. I couldn’t possibly have hyped this set up any more in my own head. And yet, the band still managed to exceed all expectations. How?
Well, first, they played what I’d been hoping to hear. Four songs from Värähtelijä — “Saturaatio,” “Lahja,” “Havuluu” and “Vasemman käden hierarkia” — plus a nice treat from Valonielu in “Vino Verso,” and you’ve got pretty much everything I needed. (I say “pretty much” because the title track from Värähtelijä would have been pretty dope, too, but hey, I’m not complaining.)
But it wasn’t just what they played; the Finns deserve credit for how they played it. They did so with strobe lights, frequent fades to black, and absolute abuse of their equipment. At times, it felt like each band member was locked in a mortal battle with his or her instrument. The energy throughout the set was like few performances I’ve ever seen in my life — intense, sure, but also kind of haunting. Photos don’t do it justice. Hell, videos barely get the job done.
With just their second concert on U.S. soil — the first was at Saint Vitus two nights prior, with our own Zyklonius in attendance (I’m still debating never speaking to him again out of jealousy) — Oranssi Pazuzu delivered what sure as hell felt like an all-timer for this fest, and certainly for my concertgoing life. If this set gave the band enough of an impetus to return to the U.S. — and given the response they received from the MDF crowd, how could it not? — you owe it to yourselves to check them out. That’s all I’ve got. Except for the goosebumps I still have, more than two weeks later.
In the Woods…
In an ideal world, that would have been the end of the fest. But as it actually played out, there were three more bands…and luckily they were all pretty tight. That started with In the Woods…
Surprise! Another band whose 2016 output — Pure, their first full-length in some 17 years — I, perhaps, hadn’t given a fair shake. (Read: didn’t initially like.) But hey! Put ’em in a live setting, and all of a sudden, it started to click for me. (Wow, guys, it’s almost like these MDF dudes know what they’re doing!)
I’m not familiar enough with the band’s back catalogue to comment on the songs in any depth, but I can say this: all of the instrumentalists — five in all, plus vocalist Mr. Fog — sounded crisp throughout their MDF debut, whether in cleaner, moodier parts or more aggressive, overdriven fare. And Mr. Fog himself? As versatile a performer as they come. The dude rattled off some of the most vicious screams I’ve ever heard — live or on record — yet also showed off a Jonas Renkse-esque clean croon that held up just as well, if not better.
In short: I see you, In the Woods. I see you.
Hey, another MDF first-timer! And hey, another MDF first-timer that completely killed it!
I didn’t know a ton about Akercocke going into the festival, but friend and fellow festival-goer Max Rotvel (of the always-wonderful Metal Bandcamp) had hyped their performance up immensely in the lead-up, so I knew it wouldn’t be one to miss. And sure enough, Max was right.
With a reunion last year and a new album in conjunction with the band’s 20th anniversary later this year, the Londoners came with a natural energy rush that you couldn’t have possibly duplicated if you tried. And while the band’s ever-shifting vocal stylings (death growls, to searing black metal hisses, to clean vocals and everywhere in between) may have thrown off an uninitiated audience member like myself at first, by the end of the gig, it was hard to resist vocalist Jason Mendonça’s energy and versatility.
All in all, it was a set that got me very excited for a deep-dive into the Akercocke back catalog — and for the latest addition to that catalogue, set to drop in August.
By now, you’ve seen the pattern in the previous images — that giant Epicus Doomicus Metallicus banner adorning the stage — and likely put two and two together: Sunday night, and indeed the festival as a whole, would be wrapping up with a set from Candlemass. (Who weren’t actually going to be playing Epicus Doomicus Metallicus, but in fact its immediate successor, Nightfall, in full. Hooray for sense.)
Anyway, I knew more than one person who greeted the Swedes’ addition to the lineup back in the fall with a “What the fuck? They just played two years ago!” and a “See, that kind of repetitiveness is why I’m not going.” Which…okay, fine. Let’s talk about those in reverse order.
MDF does have a bit of a repetitiveness problem. It was less visible this year given the inclusion of so many killer sets from so many first-timers — Oranssi Pazuzu, In the Woods…, Akercocke, Vader, Tiamat, you name it… — but that doesn’t change the fact that, for example, Bongripper played twice in three years. Or that Ghoul played five times in a ten-year period. Or [insert gripe here; there are lots]. This can be frustrating given how well the fest’s occasional attempts to expand beyond the totally extreme — GosT, Claudio Simonetti’s Goblin, Earth — have gone down; why not try more of that instead of retreading?
There’s a whole discussion to be had on this topic, and this review is sadly not the appropriate outlet, so I’ll cut it off here. But suffice it to say, repetitiveness is a fair complaint. And yes, Candlemass themselves did just play a few years ago, in 2014. But that was more of a general “festival hits” set and not a full album set. And, in particular, not a Nightfall set.
That alone set this performance apart for me. All I needed to hear was the opening few lines of “The Well of Souls” and, well…freak-out commenced. Our dude Drew and I basically shat ourselves once it started. For both of us, Nightfall‘s just one of those albums. The prospect of hearing it in full was both exciting and somewhat nerve-wracking; would they be able to deliver the goods for an album that had delivered so many of its own to both of us during our formative metal-listening years?
Well, yes. They did. Mats Leven killed it. Mappe and Lasse killed it. Leif killed it. The sound guy at Rams Head killed it. (This wouldn’t have sounded anywhere near as good if they’d attempted it outside. Guaranteed.) My Oranssi Pazuzu biases aside, Candlemass was a pretty damn good note to close things out on. And that’s all I have to say about Maryland Deathfest XV.
- Eternal hails to the following excellent humans with whom I met and/or caught up this weekend: Drew, Joseph, Matty, Islander, Alexis, Max, Aaron, Lindsey, George, John, Nathan, Enrique, Sean, Albert, and of course, Kevin and Lauren. (And Toki.) Eternal apologies to anyone I forgot to include here.
- I finally introduced myself to Ross Dolan after Candlemass let out. I was a giant blob of awkward and basically burped out “GAHHHH ATONEMENT IS SO AWESOME” and the dude couldn’t have been nicer about it. Cool human, that Ross. Cool human indeed.
- Okay, Top 10 sets of the festival. Don’t @ me. (HA! You couldn’t even if you wanted to, fuckers!)
- Oranssi Pazuzu
- Insect Warfare
- Organ Dealer
- Okay, Top 10 sets of the festival. Don’t @ me. (HA! You couldn’t even if you wanted to, fuckers!)
- Final impressions of the newly-stripped-down Maryland Deathfest? Honestly, of the five I’ve been to, this was easily the second-best. (I’d say only 2015 tops it, and I’m not sure anything will ever beat that one, because good GAWD that lineup.) But seriously, this year had a lot going for it: a great lineup in its own right, an exponentially easier commute between venues, unbelievably pleasant weather, you name it. After this experience, I’m really excited for what the future holds for MDF — and this after wondering whether I’d even be attending this year’s edition. (And not making up my mind until Oranssi Pazuzu confirmed.) It was a great time all around. That’s all I can say.
Keep it heavy,