Thursday, May 31, 2012

Maryland Deathfest X

 I. Communion

This past Monday afternoon, I returned from Maryland Deathfest X, a four-day metal showcase in downtown Baltimore. I feel completely daunted trying to translate this experience into words. I did contribute text to a slideshow of images by the excellent photographer Josh Sisk (who also took the Morbid Angel pic above and all the photos you'll find below), which you'll find at the Spin site, but there's more I need to say. The fest got to me in a personal way. I'm tempted to allude to that cliché of an experience "awakening feelings one hadn't remembered one had."

I'm not sure that's entirely accurate. Prior to this past weekend, the fact that I loved metal and had for roughly two decades was no secret either to myself or to anyone who might've read my writing. What Deathfest did stir up for me, though, was this deep, primal connection I feel toward the genre, something that goes way beyond "fandom" or "preference" or any of that. I can only describe it as a call that I feel, like I'm being overtaken and compelled by the music, like I'm regressing into a primitive state in which thought is thrown out and volume and impact and gravity and darkness are the only stimulae that matter. I guess it's not that different from what a club-music enthusiast seeks when they hit the dance floor. You want to be overwhelmed.

And I was overwhelmed many times this weekend, in the presence of many, many bands. (I'm not sure exactly how many sets I saw, in full or in part, but it had to have been something like 40.) I don't think I'll ever forget Morbid Angel's headlining set on Saturday. I've blabbed incessantly about this band on DFSBP, so I'll forgo the long version of the story and simply say that Morbid Angel is (a) one of my favorite bands, full stop, and (b) my favorite band in the subgenre of death metal, and that (c) their 1993 album, Covenant, is my favorite metal album of any kind. I've loved them since I was about 15.

Anyway, so I wanted to experience their show from up close—in the pit, as it were. Along with my wife, La'al—my constant companion throughout this metal odyssey and an insanely good sport re: the four straight ten-hour days of standing up, eating shitty food, inhaling way too much second-hand smoke, etc.—I spent much of the weekend avoiding the pit, i.e., standing either to the side or behind or, in some cases, in front of the typically very clearly demarcated area where people deliberately and gleefully kick the shit out of each other as they listen to a band play.  In the case of the Morbid Angel show, though, I wanted to be right up there in the mix, not necessarily to "mosh," but more to just feel that electricity and turbulence that you only get at an extreme-metal (or maybe hardcore) show. I was up there with some new friends that La'al and I made over the weekend, an extremely cool and metal-obsessed couple from Madision, WI, and we were all ready for the insanity, and the insanity did come, as soon as the band kicked into its customary opener, "Immortal Rites" (first track on their first LP, of course). What happens is that you're being completely jostled and squashed from all sides, but these "ground" concerns pale in comparison to the aerial ones, namely the ever-present threat of being kicked in the back, head or neck by a crowd-surfer. Anyone who's ever stood up front at a metal show knows that feeling of being suddenly, unceremoniously landed on. So what you do is, you look back every few moments to make sure a boot isn't headed your way. Sometimes you get lost in the music and you forget to check, and you're punished with another sudden smash. I received one of these on Saturday, which hurt a little more than average because the dude who landed on me just happened to be wearing an enormous spiked armband that dug into my shoulder.

I remember that I got out of the pit soon after that last incident and went to stand with La'al on the sidelines (though not at this particular moment, she was up there with me plenty, especially during Eyehategod's ultra-chaotic Thursday set, which simply could not have been more fun). I thought I was done, that I'd had enough, that I was content to watch and listen and not necessarily to feel the show physically. But then frontman David Vincent announced "Sworn to the Black," one of my favorite songs off Covenant, a badass midtempo steamroller of a song, and I was straight up magnetized right back into the pit. Not being up there wasn't an option. It was like being pulled in by a tractor beam, regressing to a Neanderthal state, that primal mind, the one that wants only loudness, physicality. I remember headbanging in concert with another dude I didn't know. I was where I needed to be at that moment.

Metal can be as high-minded as any other style, but that caveman-izing phenomenon shouldn't be discounted. It's like the music mutates your genetic makeup temporarily, regresses you to a place where merely hearing isn't enough. You want the sonic impact to have a counterpart in the physical world. You want it to kick your ass—"it" being not only the music but the combined force of the others around you who have been likewise caveman-ized. You want to know the music bodily. You want communion.

II. The music

 Confessor live at MDF X
Photos graciously provided by Josh Sisk

Maryland Deathfest is special for one principal reason: the booking. Bands that may have released an album 20 years ago that's become a cult favorite show up at Deathfest and receive a hero's welcome. (I think of a group like Finland's Demigod, covered in the Spin slideshow, who devoted their show to a beloved 1992 full-length, Slumber of Sullen Eyes.) And bands that exist in fans' minds only as a grainy vintage photo on a demo tape (or blog) suddenly materialize in the flesh. (This year, Pentagram, a Chilean death-thrash band—i.e., not the Virginia doom institution—also discussed in the Spin feature, was one of these.) When I think about all the past Deathfests that I've missed, all these once-in-a-lifetime materializations (e.g., a 2006 set by the fantastically out-there Finnish death-metal band Demilich), I get a little sad. For the enthusiast of the metal underground, this event is pretty much unmissable.

Whatever I might have missed at past unattended Deathfests, at least I got to see Confessor this year. DFSBP readers might recall some raving on the subject of Loincloth. Confessor shares a drummer, Steve Shelton, with Loincloth; or, more accurately, Loincloth shares a drummer with Confessor. As anyone who's heard the recent Loincloth LP could tell you, Shelton is as true an original as has ever played the kit. I was fortunate enough to be able to interview him recently for a magazine profile that might not be out for a while; rest assured, I will keep you posted.

Confessor's MDF set, as far as I know, their first in roughly six years (not counting a warm-up gig they played in their hometown of Raleigh, NC, the week before the fest) was the draw that made 2012's Deathfest unmissable for me. I'd had serious designs on MDF in the past, but when I heard that Confessor was playing, I knew I simply had to be there. I first heard the band's debut album, 1991's Condemned, maybe five or six years ago and quickly flipped for it. It enthralls me even more now: unrelentingly knotty doom metal with high, clean, piercing vocals. I know that bands as prominent as Lamb of God have claimed Confessor as an influence, but there's nothing else even remotely like them in the fossil record, as far as I know. They belong to no scene.

As mentioned above, I was on assignment at MDF. So the entire weekend, I did my best to strike a sometimes tricky balance between experiencing the music—bodily, emotionally and even, I'd say, spiritually, as was the case with the aforementioned Morbid Angel set—and processing it journalistically, either via Twitter or my trusty notepads. I didn't worry about the latter during Confessor's Saturday set; I knew that there was a good chance this would be the only time I'd ever see this band perform—even in their early-’90s heyday, they never really toured in the U.S. outside the Southeast—so I wanted to be fully present.

The set was, simply, outstanding. It was such a blessing to be able to hear these songs—every single one, minus a lone track ("Defining Happiness"), from Condemned, plus two from the 2005 follow-up, Unraveled, and an intro riff that according to Steve Shelton dates from the earliest days of the band—up close at a deafening volume. Condemned boasts one of the strangest mixing/production jobs you'll ever hear; it's bone dry, insanely drum-heavy and ultimately kind of thin-sounding. I've grown to love the album's obtuse sonics, but live, the songs just bloomed. I marveled anew at how, despite their obsessive complexity, the band always finds a way to lay back and cruise in their grooves. One of the two guitarists, Brian Shoaf, was wearing a Skynyrd shirt during the set, and while Shelton informed me during our interview that he hates Southern rock, I couldn't help viewing that as a new key to the Confessor aesthetic. They certainly don't flaunt their Southern-ness the way, say, Eyehategod (who floored me with their Thursday set, documented in the Spin slide show) do, but there is a kind of laid-back swagger to their riffing, even at its most mad-scientist techy, that squares with their native region. And while Shelton punishes his kit (especially the toms) he also exudes relaxation while he plays—strange given the tense, OCD nature of his beats.

Another thing that struck me is Confessor's astonishing multivalence. During our conversation, Shelton also mentioned to me the idea that his parts often ran so counter to what the guitarists were playing—completely by design, mind you—that they quickly learned to ignore his drumming entirely when executing the songs. You could really see that live. Bassist Cary Rowells (who also played on all the Loincloth material release to date, but as I understand it, is no longer involved with the project; he currently keeps busy with Parasite Drag, which features Dave Dorsey of the short-lived Confessor spin-off band Fly Machine, whose slim discography was recently reissued by Divebomb Records, who also put out a cool Confessor demo compilation—check out the package deal if you want to buy both) is in a way the heart and soul of Confessor, the relay man who conveys info between Shelton and the guitarists. Shoaf and the other six-stringer (a new face to me but apparently an old friend of the band—unfortunately I didn't jot down his name) seemed to take their cues from him onstage, studiously blocking out Shelton's treacherous syncopation and beat-flipping.

And, as on the records, frontman Scott Jeffreys is in his own world. He knows exactly where to come in—God knows how—and it has to be an act of pure will, the vocal equivalent of muscle memory, because there's nothing intuitive about the way his parts mesh with the music. I know Jeffreys is a sticking point for some, an obstacle to their enjoyment of Confessor, but I've come to truly love what he does. As far as Saturday's show, I was blown away by how undiminished his voice is; he still sounds as pained and expressive as he ever did, not to mention as high. His voice is truly ear-bending. It first hits the ear like a dog whistle would a canine's, but ultimately I find an eerie beauty in it. Like the band as a whole, it sounds like nothing else in metal.

Bonus tracks:

[I prepared the first three blurbs below for the Spin slide show, but they didn't make the final cut. The latter two are new. Again, Josh Sisk has graciously provided his images.]

Negură Bunget

 One of the biggest surprises of Friday's lineup, Negură Bunget made a private ritual chamber out of Sonar's indoor stage. The Romanian black metal band offset its frillier elements (symphonic synths, a pan-flute-assisted invocation, actual singing) with ferocious impact, juggling dynamics as well as any other band at the fest. Frontman Chakravartin was a gracious host—you could tell he was thrilled to be on one of extreme metal's most prestigious stages—and a couldn't-take-your-eyes-off-him lightning rod, projecting a charisma that put some of the more-traditional corpsepainted types of the weekend to shame.

Morbid Saint

 Hailing from the distinctly un-metal-ish burg of Sheboygan, Wisconsin, Morbid Saint delivered one of the fest's most satisfying leather-and-denim blasts, a complete rundown of their fan-favorite 1988 LP, Spectrum of Death. "It has no political message, but it's pretty fuckin' fast," frontman Pat Lind admitted before one track, perfectly summing up the band's M.O.: steroidal, air-tight thrash with snarled vox that sound surprisingly close to black metal's trademark register. In between songs, Lind played the ham ("Are we stalling ’cause we're hot? You betcha!") and tossed Morbid Saint beer koozies and other merch goodies to the adoring crowd. This set was a front-to-back, only-at-MDF blast.


 Many seemed a little bewildered by the Yankee-capped New Yawk vibe of this veteran noise-rock trio, but by the time Chris Spencer & Co. kicked into their head-bobbing recent classic "Against the Grain," the crowd was fully on board. Unsane usually seems like the meanest act on any bill, but here, their cathartic tales of urban rot came off as surprisingly tender. The failed-relationship waltz "Decay," from this year's fine Wreck, was a balm to bleeding ears, the closest thing to a ballad we'd hear all weekend.


I owned this band's 1993 album, Odium, for a short while during adolescence, but I'll be damned if I can remember much about what it sounds like. So I was pretty much coming to this MDF set fresh.  It turned out to be one of the more enjoyable gigs of the weekend. These Germans played a death-metal-leaning brand of extreme thrash—a style I associate with At the Gates, though Morgoth's Marc Grewe has a much gruffer vocal style than ATG's Tomas Lindberg—with massive riffs and an infectious rock & roll attitude, the closest thing to an old-school biker vibe that I witnessed at the fest. (For the record, I'm pretty sure much of the material was drawn from ’91's Cursed.) Nothing really out of the ordinary going on here musically, but the energy was great and perfect for an outdoor daytime set.


 There's been a huge buzz building re: this Auckland band recently. While their records haven't entirely clicked with me yet, their MDF set was badass. They strike me as sort of a more atmospheric update on From Wisdom to Hate–era Gorguts, combining that band's choppy, gritted-teeth technicality—with micro blast-beat passages that leap out briefly rather than just droning along—and spacious atmospherics. They were one of the tightest bands I heard all weekend; there wasn't a lot of variety to what they were throwing down, but I definitely enjoyed it.

It was interesting to note that the room was only about half full during Ulcerate's set; the day they played, Sunday, was dominated by doom, and much of the crowd was outside checking out Church of Misery when Ulcerate was onstage. (I watched a bit of each set, which made for a fascinating juxtaposition.) On the whole, I felt like the more technical acts at this year's MDF—specifically Ulcerate and Confessor—kind of threw the audience for a loop. The more stripped-down, old-school, mosh- and headbangable stuff (e.g., the aforementioned Pentagram) seemed to be what most of the attendees were really hungry for.

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