Maryland Death Fest IX Report
by Gary Spencer

Hello all! Hope everyone had a great Memorial Day weekend. I know I did because I got to go to the ninth edition of Maryland Death Fest, a multi-day music festival appropriately billed as “America’s Biggest Metal Party of the Year.” Unfortunately, I’m a poor man so I could only afford to see the final two days of MDF IX, but what bit I did get to see was a hella good time.

Upon arrival in Baltimore, I got my wrist bracelet that served as my ticket into the festival site at Sonar. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen so many metalheads in one place at one time. I would guess that there were at least 3,000 people there, but that’s probably a lowball estimate. Numerous vendors were set up both inside and outside the venue, selling an array of records, CDs and of course tons of punk and metal T-shirts. In addition to the stage inside the Sonar club, there were two fairly large outdoor stages, set up opposite from each other. This configuration allowed for nonstop music; when a band on one stage was finished, one of the other stages was set for the next band to play. All in all, it was a very smooth and efficient operation. I got to see approximately 20 bands over the course of the final two days of the festival. Since I don’t get paid by the hour, I’ll give you the lowdown on some of the highlights of MDF IX.

Beginning Saturday, the first band I got to really sit down (well, stand up) and watch was Nunslaughter, representing my home state of Ohio onstage outside. Nunslaughter are an anti-Christian, Satanic death metal band with some thrashy influences. Lyrically, the band runs to the blasphemous side, with song titles like “Raid the Convent,” “Waiting to Kill Christ” and so on. What sets Nunslaughter apart from most of the bands I saw this weekend is that the band has a sense of humor and clearly doesn’t take itself too seriously—a rare thing in the metal underground. The band was making jokes in between songs; my favorite gag was when vocalist “Don of the Dead” (ha!) brought out a huge upside down crucifix and declared, “Don’t cross me, man!” Still, the music is ultimately what matters, and Nunslaughter rocked the crowd with catchy, slashing riffs, good songs and solid musicianship.

Next up in the main room was grindcore veterans Dropdead. This Rhode Island–based quartet has been specializing in 60-second-or-less grinding hardcore for roughly 20 years, and musically, not much has changed over all that time. Dropdead is still tight as hell, relying on 90% blast beating and churning, 1000 downstrokes per minute guitar work that’s completed by Bob Otis’ indiscernible, shrill shrieks. Lyrically, Dropdead is well known for being uber PC and uber political. That’s all fine and dandy, until Otis’ between-song banter started alternating between rah-rah, “you can change the world” sorta stuff, and worse, condescendingly shoving their politics down the audience’s collective throat. During the latter, Bob pretty much surmised that if you didn’t agree with them then you’re a total asshole. I don’t know about you, but I don’t appreciate paying to see a band and then having them insult you for not being a mindless drone and agreeing with everything they say.

The opposite was true of UK crust punk legends Doom, who performed next on the main stage. For the most part, Doom left any political posturing to the music and allowed the jam-packed audience to simply enjoy their set. And what a performance it was! Doom totally exceeded my expectations and brought a high-energy 50-minute performance that certainly defied the band’s age. Also exceptionally tight, they seemed to instigate arguably the most violent moshpit of the entire festival. Mini-pits seemed to erupt all over the room, and it was damn near impossible to get away unless you wanted to stand in the back. This was especially the case when the group played their signature anti-cop anthem “Police Bastard,” and the crowd went apeshit. Despite the mayhem, Doom was super enjoyable and definitely one of the best of the Fest.

As soon as Doom finished, I made a beeline for the outdoor stage #1 to see Finnish black metal thrashers Impaled Nazarene. The band’s setlist concentrated on numbers from 2010’s Road to the Octagon, but they made time for some older classics as well. During the band’s set, some people toward the front of the stage were tossing around a beach ball, but halfway through singer Sluti666 demanded that the audience toss “that fucking ball,” quipping, “This isn’t no fucking hippie Woodstock, right? This is Maryland Death Fest!” Funny shit. It was soon back to business , though, with Impaled Nazarene delivering eardrum clubbing drums, crunchy thrash riffing, and of course, Sluti’s signature high-end shriek. With this show being their only U.S. appearance of the year, Impaled Nazarene definitely made their presence felt.

Voivod was the last band on Saturday to play outside, and the codgers from Canada showed that even in the year 2011 they can still rock a crowd. If you need me to describe to you what Voivod sounds like, you shouldn’t be reading this column and instead should be listening to Arcade Fire or some other pussy indie band. The veteran group frontloaded their 60-minute set with recent material, and to be honest, I wasn’t really feeling it all that much. But about midway through their set, the band started hitting a groove and I slowly but surely started to really dig what I was hearing. They closed with their eponymously titled classic from 1984, leaving old-schoolers and new listeners alike pleased.

But the night wasn’t over yet. Shortly thereafter another band representing the Finnish world of metal was up in Sonar’s main room, a band named Hooded Menace. I’d never heard Hooded Menace prior to this performance, but I’m glad I finally made their acquaintance as they definitely laid down some of the heaviest music of the entire festival. Cloaked completely in monks robes, This Menace specializes in crushingly slow, unfathomably heavy death-y doom metal with guttural, throaty, bottom heavy vokills. The majority of their hour-long set was spent mired in the slowest of slow doom pacing, not even sped up even for a guitar solo or breakdown. Some people in the audience thought they were boring, but not me. If it tells you anything, I bought a Hooded Menace CD as soon I got back home and I’ve been rockin’ it ever since.

There was definitely a buzz in the room for the final band of the night, Inquistion. Originally formed in Colombia in the mid-90s, Inquistion would probably be considered a “trve kvlt” black metal duo. Consisting of Dagon on guitars and vocals plus Incubus on drums, the two piece set-up didn’t hurt Inquistion sonically, and the band sounded just as full as any quartet or quintet who played that day. The lack of bass actually enhanced the cold, stark necro feel of Inquistion’s compositions. Immortal is a good reference point for the particular style and feel of the band, but by no means are these guys a rip off. Most people stuck around till the bitter end, and I do believe they sent the crowd home happy for the night.

I woke up on Sunday and made sure I got to Sonar in time to see Nightbringer, who were set to play inside at 2:45pm. And holy shit am I glad I did! Nightbringer hail from Colorado, but dressed up in facepaint and goth regalia you woulda thunk for certain that they were from somewhere in Scandinavia. But if that didn’t throw you off, once Nightbringer started to play you would have definitely thought that they were from Norway, as the quartet spent their 40 minutes building a wall of noisy, high-pitched tremolo picking, jarring blast beats, and general gnashing of the vocal chords. Yep, Nightbringer kept things old school for the most part, choosing not to introduce themselves to the audience, talk between songs or even stop inbetween so the audience could clap if they liked. It was 90 degrees outside, but inside the club Nightbringer kept things as cold and frosty as possible, and I was definitely in black metal heaven.

The grimness of Nightbringer was definitely offset by the next band on the Sonar stage, Bad Acid Trip. I remember seeing this band back in the ’90s, and on this particular day, Bad Acid Trip’s speedy grinding death metal songs were short and to the point and way better than I remembered ’em. Vocalist Dirk Rogers’ comical facial expressions interjected some humor into the afternoon’s heavy proceedings, and the band was also aided by a group of dancers dressed up in wrestling masks and beads, adding a little lighthearted cheer into the band’s set. Bad Acid Trip was fast, furious and fun, and thereā€”s nothing wrong with that in my book.

Another surprise hit was Dead Congregation. Hailing from Athens, Greece, Dead Congregation specialize in heavy as lead death metal with o frills and nothing fancy about it, just head-crushingly heavy grooves, eardrum-splitting percussion, precision guitar solos and death growls from the lowest pit of hell. Generally speaking, I’m not big on most contemporary death metal, but Dead Congregation won me over with the sheer volume and general nastiness of their 45-minute set, and I’m making it a point to keep an eye on these guys.

Finally, a band worth standing the heat and humidity for, Orange Goblin, from the United Kingdom, set up on outdoor stage #2 around 6:30pm, and there was quite a crowd there to check them out. Their set of bluesy, old school heavy boogie metal paid tribute to bands such as Black Sabbath, Blue Cheer, Saint Vitus and Pentagram and rocked the crowd. I could see their retro-metal being played in a hip biker bar full of leather, denim and long bushy beards. My only complaint is that the volume wasn’t nearly loud enough to rock the crowd proper, but Orange Goblin still managed to deliver classic-styled heavy metal goods. Thrash legends Nuclear Assault played on the same outside stage as Orange Goblin a little while later, and by the time they went on, there was a huge audience of young and old metalheads ready to rock the fuck out. And those in the audience weren’t the only ones, as Nuclear Assault kicked ass for roughly an hour, steamrolling through a high energy set of ’80s-styled thrash metal and whipping up one of the biggest circle pits of the weekend. It was neat to see both young whipper snappers as well as aged metal veterans running around the pit, slamming to the music and having a good time. Nuclear Assault was without a doubt one of the highlights of the weekend.

And finally, the last band of the festival: Ghost. There’s been a lot of buzz about this mysterious Swedish sextet since the release of their debut LP, Opus Eponymous, and there were a lot of audience members who were there specifically to see this band make their first live appearance on American soil. For those of you still living under a rock, Ghost has billed themselves as an anonymous Satanic cult that has formed a rock band in order to bring more souls to the devil. It must be working, as chants of “Satan! Satan!” resounded through the venue as we waited. There’s still a lot of guessing as to who’s actually in the band (rumors have included members of Repugnant and In Solitude, both of whom also performed at this year’s MDF), but as the lights went out and the creepy chanting prelude came over the loudspeakers, none of that mattered—the attendees were ready to rock to whoever was under those hooded robes and masks.

Moments later, the Satanic priest showed up in skeleton facepaint and pope’s robe embroidered with inverted crosses. The bass guitar kicked into the opening riff of “Con Clavi Con Dio”, and the band let it rip, much to the delight of the audience who crowded the front of the stage for a closer look at the mystery men in action. Compared to the majority of the bands who played at MDF this year, Ghost sounded downright poppy, with rockin’ but catchy guitar riffs and soaring and clearly sung choruses that had many in attendance singing along to sinister lyrics about Satanic witches, human sacrifices and general praises of their master. Unlike the dour seriousness of most acts at the Fest, Ghost was good unclean fun, and had much of the audience dancing and jumping up and down as if they were at a Kelly Clarkson concert. Regardless, Ghost closed the festivities on a high note and was the perfect finale for a very enjoyable metal getaway.