4 Days of Death: The Maryland Deathfest Diaries

Anyone who’s seen The Wire knows Baltimore can be a rough place, but on Memorial Day weekend every year, things get especially brutal. Hundreds of rabid metal fans from all over the world descend on ‘Charm City’ to participate in Maryland Deathfest, and the result is four days of moshing, headbanging, and partying like it’s 1989. Begun in 2003, the festival brings together dozens of heavy bands from all over the world, with genres varying but tending toward the more extreme. It’s not just death metal – hell, Anvil played one year – but it’s always a hot and dirty good time.

Yet last year, there was some frustration among attendees about the removal of the outdoor Edison Lot stage, relegating the festival to only two indoor venues – that is, Rams Head Live! and Baltimore Soundstage. While that setup continued this year, the major complaint this time had more to do with the number of cancelations prior to the fest. Reasons ranged from visa issues (Bloodbath), personal issues (My Dying Bride), to just plain “issues” (Inquisition), but before joining the angry Facebook comments in calling it “Maryland Dropfest,” it’s important to note the organizers did an excellent job finding replacements, some of which (Mortem) I actually preferred to the originals.

Likewise, my excitement was at fever pitch, as this fest marked the first time I’d be seeing my college friends since 70,000 Tons last year (leaving Sentynel alone to deal with my drunken bullshit this past February). Despite growing up in Maryland, the only time I’ve been able to go to all four days of MDF was for the fest’s tenth anniversary back in 2012, and thus I was more than happy to make the pilgrimage to Baltimore and join my friends in what the organizers call “America’s Biggest Metal Party of the Year!”

Day 1 – Doomed to Death

After checking into the supposedly haunted Lord Baltimore hotel, my friends and I cram our pockets full of cheap earplugs and make our way to Rams Head Live!. The venue is located near the touristy Inner Harbor, in an area known as Power Plant Live!. In addition to a superfluous exclamation point, the area also features an assortment of bars and restaurants, often drawing young urban professionals looking to party.

Today, however, Power Plant is stuffed with vendors peddling metal merch. Lines of tents are set up selling rows of Sodom shirts, Sarcofago pins, boxes of vinyl, poster flags, and everything else an underground metalhead could desire. Through the haze of cigarette smoke and hordes of battle vest-clad metalheads already filtering in, the scene looks like the best garage sale of all time.

But there’s no time for merch, because the first band has already started. After standing in line and strapping on our wristbands, we step into Rams Head and enter the Gateway to Hell. The Baltimore locals sound something like a Southern-fried version of Danzig, with a loose performance of sleazy riffs and rocking beats. The frontman dominates the stage with his corpulent figure and bushy muttonchops, and though he turns heads with some gut-wrenching screams now and then, he isn’t exactly the next Jørn Lande. While not a bad opener, it seems I’m not the only one unimpressed by Gateway.

MDF operates both its venues simultaneously, with bands of roughly similar style grouped into the same one. Tonight, Rams Head is all about the doom and sludge, which my friends and I prefer to the obscure death metal going on over at Baltimore Soundstage right now. Rams Head also opts to pull out the big guns early, with Khemmis as the second band. The young Denver quartet deliver on their status as up-and-coming darlings with a terrific performance that’s a night-and-day difference from Gateway. Vocalist Phil Pendergast has a smooth, soulful wail that almost reminds me of a young Dio, and combined with the harsh roars and thick riffs delivered by guitarist Ben Hutcherson, songs like new single “Isolation” crackle with life and do a great job engaging the crowd.

California sludge metal band 16 (or -(16)- if you’re so inclined) are up next, and though their vocalist stumbles through some mic issues at the beginning, the group’s headbangable grooves ultimately make for a win. Fronted by a tall dude with double sleeve tats and sunglasses, 16 sound almost like a dirtier version of Crowbar. “I wrote this song when I was seven years old,” the vocalist announces, before breaking into a simple 50 second crusher that, while still inspiring heads to be banged, could very well have been written when he was seven years old.

16 finishes, the lights dim, and we push forward as Mantar takes the stage. The German duo have an interesting setup, with the two members facing one another rather than the audience. The angle only accentuates Hanno Klänhardt’s tall, stringy form, and as the music starts, his tortured screams sound far more anguished live than on record. Collapsing to his knees, he batters his guitar through sludge anthems like “Astral Kannibal” and “Era Borealis,” and the crowd is soon swept up in the monolithic grooves of drummer Erinc Sakarya’s simple, smashing beats. Though some songs seem a little faster than on record, the sheer heft of the performance makes it feel like Rams Head just got a dump truck full of lead dropped on it. My friends and I agree Mantar’s performance is the best yet.

Still, there’s been no actual ‘death’ for us at this Deathfest so far, and thus we head to Baltimore Soundstage to satiate our craving. Located just a few blocks away, the two venues are polar opposites. While Rams Head is essentially a large, multi-level nightclub with bars on every wall and indoor balconies offering views of the stage, Baltimore Soundstage is a no-frills, one-story establishment with a sticky floor and a bathroom that looks like a Silent Hill game with the lights turned on. As I enter to relieve myself, I see a man peeing into a urinal that’s actively overflowing, sending a mix of urine and toilet water all over the floor.

Fortunately this image is the perfect mood-setter for Defeated Sanity. As the German natives wallop the audience with their slammy death metal, a large and nasty moshpit opens up. Vocalist Josh Welshman strides around and looms over the crowd, gurgling like a sewer lord commanding the whirlpool of humanity before him. “Does this band even have lyrics?” asks my buddy, but I’m too busy enjoying the hellish onslaught of pinch harmonics, brutal slams, and even some techy bits.

Complete with stage divers scattering what are either playing cards or dollar bills, Sanity are the perfect warm up for Broken Hope. At this point El Z. has reverted to his typical ways, and the amount of alcohol coursing through my veins convinces me that whipping around the moshpit is a good idea. I don’t know much about Hope, but the band’s performance is heavy, ragged, and pummeling, with a nice mix of tremolos and crunchier riffs. After the rest of the bands today, Hope’s pure death metal is a surefire win for me and the rest of the crowd, and I’m having such a good time I don’t even realize my friends have left.

Sweaty and dazed, I regroup with them at Rams Head for the final performance of the night: Coven. You know those countless occult rock bands that have cropped in recent years? Coven are the authentic 1970s version of that. Cloaked figures enter from stage right, a Black Mass plays on the screen behind them, and as cries of “Hail Satan!” echo through the venue, frontwoman Jinx Dawson emerges from a coffin in the center of it all. At nearly 70 years old, Ms. Dawson appears three decades younger than that, belting out her smooth, soulful vocals over rocking riffs. It’s hard to believe this group formed the same year as Black Sabbath, and though Dawson seems to be the only original member left, the band do a great job combining tuneful hooks with a genuine sense of occult evil. “I’m going to hell motherfuckers – I’ll see you there!” yells Jinx, and the crowd cheers along. Coven are definitely an atypical band – even for Maryland Deathfest – but as we head back to the Lord Baltimore, I can think of no better way to end the night.

Day 2 – Death Unleashed

“I feel like I got in a car accident.” 

It’s the first words I hear upon waking up, spoken by my buddy Chris, who evidently partook in more moshing last night than I thought. I feel equally battered, but it’s only Day 2, and it’s time to strap in and face the metal.

We head to Rams Head, where Petrification are up first. The young Oregon upstarts prove the perfect wake up call, as their rumbly, chuggy death metal is the antithesis of the doomier bands that played here yesterday. Vocalist Jason Barnett is especially commanding, and the group’s fierce tremolo riffs cause headbanging all round.

Perdition Temple take the stage next, and as expected from a group formed by a former Angelcorpse member, the trio’s blackened death metal is downright relentless. Over a storm of blastbeats, guitarist Gene Palubicki tears through winding tremolo riffs and fast piercing solos that seem to overwhelm the crowd at this relatively early hour. I notice the vocalist looks familiar and do some research – lo and behold, it’s Alex Blume of Ares Kingdom, who evidently joined the band’s live lineup recently. Alex’s powerful roars prove a great fit, and though not everyone seems to enjoy Temple as much as myself, it’s hard to deny the tight musicianship and high energy.

With Abhomine cancelling last minute, Delaware’s Scorched are on next as replacements. To me the band sound a lot like Gatecreeper, which isn’t a bad thing, and nor is the band’s diverse selection of songs. The vocalist roars through the mess of hair obscuring his face (“That guy was Cousin It,” I overhear some dude saying later) while the guitarists deliver a potent assortment of chuggy, vaguely Swedish riffs. It’s a short set, but definitely not a bad one.

Morta Skuld are another group I’m not familiar with, but they’re also impressive. The Wisconsin death metal troupe thrive on meaty riffs, quick lurching rhythms, accessible songwriting, and surprisingly intelligible vocals. The result is a fanatical crowd response and a failed search for their newest album on vinyl.

As the crowd clears after Skuld’s set, Chris and I make our way to the front for Misery Index. As fans of Dying Fetus and other modern death metal, Index are one of the band’s we’ve been looking forward to most, and the Baltimore natives don’t disappoint. Ripping through tracks like “The Spectator” and “Conjuring the Cull,” the group sound a bit more raging and less precise than on record, but the dual vocal attack and urgent riffing is no less ferocious. Closing with “Traitors,” my friends and I make it our running joke to utter the chanted chorus at random throughout the rest of the fest (“What else you want on your sandwich?” “TRAITORS!” “What kind of beer you want? “TRAITORS!”).

At this point we make our way over to Soundstage for a few songs of Sublime Cadaveric Decomposition, a French deathgrind band who seem to be getting the crowd riled up. Nonetheless the place smells like a toilet, and while the drinks are cheaper over here and the venue definitely has more of a typical ‘metal’ vibe, we leave before long to go catch Sinister at Rams Head.

Having loved both their newest album and their performance on 70,000 Tons earlier this year, I’m excited for Sinister, and the longstanding Dutch death metal troupe definitely fulfill my expectations. Frontman Aad Kloosterwaard’s vocals are deep and commanding, the guitars are beefy and enveloping, and the surging blastbeats of songs like “Neurophobic” inspire me to take a dive into the pit. The moshing is wild – I witness a guy charging around shirtless and another dude get his shoes knocked off – but by the end everyone is cheering for more of the chunky death metal assault.

By now I’m sweaty, drunk, and eager to hear some God Dethroned. Unfortunately I spent a lot of money on merch earlier in the day, including a picture disc copy of Angelcorpse’s Exterminate that I’ve been caring for like a newborn baby. Not wanting to worry about my stuff anymore, I leave to go drop it off the hotel, but end up missing about half of Dethroned’s set. Still, I’m happy to at least get the chance to scream along to “Annihilation Crusade” upon my return, and afterwards we head to Soundstage for the final band of the night: Eyehategod.

Less than two years ago, the New Orleans sludge legends were facing their possible end as vocalist Mike Williams was hospitalized and required a liver transplant. Fortunately it seems Williams has made a full recovery, and along with the Southern-style Iommi riffs of guitarist Jimmy Bower, the band are one of the most energetic of the fest. A mess of arms claw out for Bower’s flannel-clad form as he lurches through songs like “Medicine Noose,” while Williams belts out his trademark wretched scream.

“Let’s hear it for the Chicken Man everyone,” says Williams between songs, acknowledging the local icon who’s been coming to shows dressed in a chicken suit since the early 2000s. Standing there in the pit, there’s a few claps for the famous Chicken Man, but little do we know his true 15 minutes of fame are yet to come.

As the band resumes their sludgy licks, even I’m surprised by the vigor of the moshpit, and by night’s end we’re all suitably exhausted yet satisfied with the great performances of the day.

Day 3 – The Depths of Death

“I feel like Mufasa from The Lion King if he survived the wildebeest stampede.”

Suffice to say we’re all feeling rough, and our diet of fast food, Dunkin Donuts, and Long Island Iced Teas probably hasn’t helped. It’s Saturday and the music start early, and sadly I’m unable to get Chris to join me for the opening bands at Soundstage. Thus I’m on my own for Horrible Earth, a Boston grindcore act whose frontman delights in calling out the audience in cheeky ways.

“What, are you texting your mom right now?” he asks a guy near the front on his phone. “‘Hey mom, these dudes from Boston are assholes!’”

“Check out that guy in the back with his arms crossed!” he says, as the dude in question awkwardly uncrosses his arms like he’s not sure what to do with his hands now.

Plowing through a particularly short song, he turns to someone in the front and says “It’s grindcore, man, you gotta be ready for it!”

The stage banter is funny, and though the music sounds fairly typical for the style, it’s a solid performance that serves as a rousing start to the day.

Ritual Necromancy are up next at Rams Head. Bassist and vocalist Justin Friday takes the stage shirtless with what looks to be a bit of ash smudged on his head, ostensibly in mockery of the Christian tradition of drawing a cross on one’s forehead on Ash Wednesday.1 The blasphemous feel carries through in the music, which sounds something like a blastier version of Incantation. The guitars engulf like a force of nature, the drums strike with assertive beats, and the winding songwriting is enough to keep me engaged. While distinct riffs aren’t exactly their specialty, I enjoy cuts from new album Disinterred Horror, and overall it’s an impressive set.

Even Necromancy, however, can’t match the sheer potency of Phrenelith. Kronos raved about the debut of these Denmark natives last year, and while I was a little slower to come around, their performance here is all the convincing I need. Simply put, Pherenelith bring the motherfuckin riffs – chuggy riffs, buzzy riffs, tremolo riffs that sounded like a bubbling primordial ooze rising up to consume all life on Earth. The huge line to buy Phrenelith merch afterwards is testament to how much the crowd loved them, and even I’m disappointed at being unable to find their Desolate Endscape debut on vinyl.

After browsing the merch stands outside, I head back in for Mortem. Anticipation for this thrashy death metal act was huge – being from Peru, they don’t come to the States often, and their back catalog is impressive. The crowd is already chanting their name during sound check, but once they come on I’m underwhelmed. The main guitar is so loud it drowns out almost every other instrument, ultimately making them sound more like a damaged Vomitor cassette than the Peruvian powerhouse I was hoping for. Nonetheless songs like “Horror of the Unliving” still prove the band are a solid bunch of musicians, but a more balanced mix would have gone a long way.

With little interest in Dodheimsgard, my friends and I regroup for some dinner before heading to Soundstage for Italian grindcore band Cripple Bastards. Originally I laughed when I saw Bastards were given 50 minutes for their set, figuring they’d play for a fraction of that and call it good. Instead they prove me wrong in the best way possible, spending almost their entire allotted time abusing the crowd with a mix of desperate screams, gruff shouts, bashed power chords, and thrashy chugs that whip the crowd into a goddamn frenzy. The circle pit is enormous, and frontman ‘Giulio the Bastard’ has a crazy gleam in his eye that makes him look legitimately insane.

It’s a great time, but soon proves to only be a warmup for Pig Destroyer. The Virginia grindcore act need no introduction – they’re downright legendary, and the crowd responds in kind by completely losing their minds. With bursts of staccato riffing and noisy electronic effects, the pit is the hugest I’ve seen yet, and frontman J.R. Hayes barely avoids being hit as someone chucks a full sized trash can on stage. Through songs like “Cheerleader Corpses,” there’s a nonstop barrage of plastic cups being tossed in the air, and overall the audience behaves like someone snuck around the previous night and injected them all with rabies.

Then, between songs, Hayes silences them. He asks the Chicken Man to join him on stage. It’s the first time I’ve heard Chicken Man speak, and he asks his girlfriend to please join him up there. The crowd is murmuring – what is about to happen? As she takes the stage, we see Chicken Man get down on one knee and propose. We all burst into applause as she accepts, and all I can think is how perfectly fitting it is that Chicken Man found lifelong happiness at a Pig Destroyer concert. As the next song starts, they stage dive together and the insanity resumes.

After guzzling a few beers, we drag ourselves back to Rams Head for Sadistic Intent. Upon entering the venue, it feels like I’ve been pulled into an alternate universe where Morbid Angel became the most popular band of all time and never stopped making music like Altars of Madness. Never mind that they’ve never released a full length, the California old school death metal group’s mix of staccato vocals, whiplash riffing, and red stage lights are downright intimidating, making me feel like I’m watching a band perform in Satan’s personal nightclub.

It’s getting late, and we head back to Soundstage for New York metal band Prong. Apparently the band were touring with Helmet and were thrown on the lineup ‘just because,’ but it seems most people are enjoying it regardless. My friend Chris isn’t one of them. “God, this sounds like a shittier version of Anthrax,” he quips. Having never listened to Prong before, I enjoy the group’s ‘thrash-with-clean-singing’ approach, even if I’m not going to be buying the T-shirt anytime soon.

Bizarrely, alternative groove metal legends Helmet were chosen as the Soundstage headliners tonight, and the crowd seems a little sparser than usual as a result. It’s certainly not death metal, but after the barbarity of the rest of the day, the group’s smooth vocals and unique riffs are a fun way to end the night. I love the little starts and pauses Helmet work into their guitar parts, and Betty cuts like “I Know” inspire me to drunkenly dance around the moshpit flaying my arms around like I’m listening to disco. The band are tight and professional, and though it seems they’re aware they’re not the typical MDF fodder, they take it all in stride and put on a great show.

After Helmet’s set concludes, we briefly consider stumbling over to Rams Head for Satyricon, but opt instead to gorge ourselves on premade sandwiches at 7-11 before heading back to the hotel.

Day 4 – Far Beyond Death

“I feel like I got fucked with a shovel.”

Chris’s sentiments are shared by us all. After three days of headbanging, moshing, and drinking, we’re all starting to feel beaten down. It’s fitting that after days of bright weather, gloomy stormclouds now loom over Baltimore, threatening to drench us with rain at any moment.

Somehow, I drag myself to Soundstage for one of the first bands of the day. My brief research on Destroyed in Seconds puts them as crossover thrash, but to my surprise the Los Angeles natives sound more like Wolfbrigade. This certainly isn’t a bad thing. Charging forward on hammering D-beats, Swedish crust riffs, and throaty screams, the band inspire an early pit and plenty of headbanging. I love their occasional ‘epic’ edge and snappy thrash riffs, and they certainly elicit a great crowd response.

I head over to Rams Head, where I meet up with Chris for Suffering Hour. The blackened death troupe look something like Mgla, with members wearing hoods and the frontman wearing a face mask. While their dissonant blackened death is quite thunderous and the occasional spoken word bits are an interesting touch, I’m ultimately unmoved.

Of course, it might also be sheer exhaustion setting in, as by the time Ascended Dead come on, Chris and I opt to take a seat in the bleachers near the back. Like Suffering Hour, Dead had a new album come out last year that I didn’t pay much attention to, and also like Hour, Dead’s performance doesn’t do much for me. Sounding something like a murkier version of Sadistic Intent, the vocalist delivers some bestial barking, while the guitarists occasionally throw in some militant, dramatic riffs to keep things interesting. It’s not a bad set, but it’s nothing incredible either.

We grab a few drinks and head back to the floor for Dusk, a band I’m not familiar with. Fortunately after the first song, their vocalist provides some of the most helpful stage banter I’ve ever heard, telling us they’re from Wisconsin, have been active since 1993, and have merch available at the Maryland Deathfest tent outside if we want to support them. Damn, I think to myself. I almost wish every band made this standard practice.

As the band break into their second song, I’m immediately overwhelmed by their monolithic, doomy chugs, but it turns out they’re kind of a one trick pony. Nonetheless I do appreciate the occasional clean vocals, thrashy breaks, and overall interesting take on doom-death.

By now we can combat the exhaustion no longer. I try to stay for a few minutes of Thantifaxath, but their spindly, crawling dissonance is the last thing I need right now. It’s pouring rain outside, and thus we Uber back to the hotel for a nap.

A few hours later, the rain has let up, and we start off for Soundstage to see Japanese goregrind act Viscera Infest. I’m dodging actual piles of human shit on the sidewalk as we walk over, and it strikes me as ironic that I’m doing this while heading to see what is likely one of the nastiest bands on the planet.

Soundstage is packed for Infest, possibly because of the popularity of their recent “cockroach mosh” video. People are screaming for the band even during soundcheck, and once their set starts, the crowd goes apeshit. Amidst a swarm of downtuned tremolos, guttural gurgles, and tin can blastbeats, stage divers fling themselves into the crowd, while the pit looks like a Royal Rumble. Between songs, frontman Eizo Asakura asks us if we want “High speed.”

“HIGH SPEED!” the crowd screams in response.

The band kick in gear. I see one guy cockroach moshing, and before you know it, I’m on the floor too, lying on my back and wriggling my arms and legs in the air like a dying bug. I briefly think back to high school, dreaming about where I would be in ten years. I never thought the answer to that would be “On the floor of a Baltimore nightclub, flailing around like a helpless insect along with 100 other strangers.”

The band are one of the most extreme of the festival, and it’s easily my favorite performance yet. Even after the set ends, the audience chants of “High speed! High speed! High speed!” inspire Infest to come back out for an encore.

Little do I know it’s only a taste of what Wormrot have in store. After their appearance being canceled last year, it seems crowd anticipation is extreme, and once the Singapore trio kick into their manic grindcore, the result is sheer mayhem.

The pit explodes in a flurry of limbs. I see inflatable sex dolls and a female wig getting whipped around, and often there are more stage divers onstage than actual musicians. The entire crowd moves like one giant superorganism, and as Wormrot continue their assault of frantic riffs, wrecking ball breakdowns, and maniacal screams, I can resist no longer. I fling myself into the pit, screaming along to “Public Display of Infection.”

Suddenly, I feel a cool sensation on my right foot. I look down. Someone is dumping over a full sized trash can, saturating my shoes with garbage fluid. Plastic cups and beer bottles scatter all over the floor. One individual attempts to flip the trash can over and wear it like a suit of armor. We continue pushing each other. A sex doll hits the floor and is whipped at me, soaking my face in trash juice. I’m beyond the point of caring and continuing pushing and screaming like a hooligan.

“Two more!” say the band, but they end up playing six more, and by the end I’m ready to burn my Insect Warfare shirt and every other piece of clothing I’m wearing. Needless to say Wormrot had the most insane set of the festival, and for someone who’s been going to shows regularly for over a decade, it’s earned its place as one of the wildest performances I’ve ever witnessed.

Enemy Soil is up next, an old local grindcore act that J.R. Hayes was involved with before Pig Destroyer. The band are apparently one of Virginia’s first grindcore bands, and this marks their first show in over twenty years. The pit is pretty wild, and while Hayes encourages stage divers to “come on up,” ultimately I think the crowd pretty much blew their load with Wormrot. Nonetheless the band’s performance is great, and at the end I scurry over to the merch stand to get one of their CDs.

By now Godflesh is the only band left. After the insanity of the previous sets, it’s fitting that the industrial metal duo stick to a more hypnotic sound, preferring songs with clean singing versus their more extreme material. A notable exception is closer “Like Rats,” whose pounding beats and infamous chorus inspire me to shout along. At the end they bid the audience farewell, and while it certainly didn’t upstage Wormrot, their performance felt like a fitting end regardless. Drunk, sore, and tired, I stumble back to the Lord Baltimore for the last time.

Conclusion – Death Never Dies

There are no words. We are too exhausted, too hungover, and too sore to do anything other than silently shuffle around and pack up our things. Yet oddly enough, I don’t feel tired of metal. It was the same way when I attended six years ago – Maryland Deathfest doesn’t make me want to listen to Shania Twain for a week, it inspires me to explore more deeply into the dimly lit corners of the metal underground. Maryland Deathfest is proof the metal scene is alive and well, showing there are so many great acts out there – new and old alike – that are begging to be discovered. While not every band was a winner, most of them were, and in all there’s really no other festival like MDF in the country. It’s certainly got more of an underground feel than 70,000 Tons, and the chance to see obscure bands that haven’t played in years (Enemy Soil), foreign bands that rarely come to the U.S. (Wormrot, Phrenelith), and more popular hard-hitters (Misery Index, Eyehategod) makes it worth every penny. And, of course, any excuse to get back together with old friends is always a good one.

We bid our farewells, and as I wait for my Uber to take me to the airport, all I can think about is a dirty wooden floor, a writhing mass of limbs, and a phrase that Viscera Infest has forever burned in my mind…


Show 1 footnote

  1. Either that, or no one told him he got some grease on his forehead.
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