Review and photos by Adam Wills
With the passing of the once-great Milwaukee Metalfest, and the continuing irrelevance of the New England Metal & Hardcore Festival, the Maryland Death Fest has become the premiere heavy metal festival in North America. Spanning 3 days, 2 stages and over 50 bands, there is no shortage of metal to more than fill the needs of any metal heads looking for a weekend of blast beats and head-banging. While the festival revolves around death and grind, the promoters rounded out the lineup with such acts as Athiest, Mayhem, Absu and Sigh – enough to satisfy anyone in the underground scene.
Heading from Toronto at a bright and early 5am on Friday, we made it down in plenty of time to catch some of the opening bands, check out the rooms full of merch, and learn than Marduk weren’t going to be performing because of visa issues. With some quick switches to the timeslots, we were going to enjoy an early night. Cattle Decapitation opened up the outdoor stage with sheer brutality, and Cephalic Carnage followed with their ever entertaining show featuring dancing marijuana and adorning their black metal masks for their signature “Black Metal Sabbath”. Mayhem, devoid of the stage decoration that they are accustomed to, filled the podium with the presence of vocalist Attila, adorning a priest outfit complete with an inverted cross dangling from his neck. With a set list spanning old to new, Mayhem excited the crowd to barrier-breaking proportions. However, the night belonged to Asphyx, who hasn’t seemed to miss a beat, with a crushing hour+ set. Martin van Drunen led the charge of the return of old-school death metal into the night. With a relatively early end of Day 1, we retired to our hotel to rest up for a monster of a second day.
After catching up on some much needed rest, we ventured down just in time to catch some quality bands on the indoor stage – Sweden’s Crowpath, Louisiana’s Flesh Parade and Finland’s Rotten Sound. Hail of Bullets kicked off the outdoor stage with servings off their recent album, the war themed …Of Frost And War. Van Drunen picked up right where he left off the previous night with another crushing performance. Brutal Truth managed to pound out 30 tracks, pelting out the entire new album before venturing off into their impressive back catalogue. Misery Index have taken their live show to a whole new level since the last time I saw them years ago (even though they seem to play Toronto every other month) and tore up the indoor stage, followed by Birdflesh, and their very serious performance of their very serious music. Florida legends Atheist were spot on with their execution, but their live performance seemed a little lacking, especially after the intense performances of some of the previous bands. Pig Destroyer turned up the volume, with Scott Hull’s devastating guitar tones taking over the festival grounds. Once Napalm Death took the outdoor stage, the place erupted into the biggest pit the weekend had seen yet, and longtime vocalist Barney Greenway took no prisoners. Crushing grind at it’s absolute finest, Napalm Death had the audience wrapped around their fingers, and warmed them up for the onslaught that would be the return of the mighty Bolt Thrower.
To say that the return of the kings of death metal was highly anticipated would be a drastic understatement. Merchandise was sold out the first day, and at the promise of a second shipment arriving, a 3 hour lineup formed (again, merch sold out well before the metal shirt thirsty crowd could be satisfied). People flew in from as far as Australia for the chance to see them perform live, and the talk all day, was on their performance. Sure enough, the band lived up to the hype, and put on a performance for the ages. Clocking in just shy of 1.5 hours, Karl and company plowed through 16 songs spanning their entire discography (the highlight for myself, was the epic “When Cannons Fade”). Not a person was disappointed.
General Surgery had the difficult task off following up the legendary Brits, and put on a great, blood-soaked performance that saw the indoor stage the most packed it had been all weekend. Wolves in the Throne Room finished off the night with their brand of candle-lit atmospheric black metal. The night was late, and a return to the hotel with America’s favourite, McDonalds.
An early arrival to catch the lone Canadian act, The Endless Blockade (we couldn’t NOT see them, could we?). A solid performance of noise infused grind turned the few heads that were there early enough. A quick exit to check out the Baltimore harbor followed, with a return just in time to see Mirai Kawashima play a haunting keyboard intro to The Red Chord’s set (definitely unexpected), followed by a mesmerizing performance by Chicago Avant-Gardes, Yakuza. Bruce Lamont’s original vocal style, thrown in with his mesmerizing saxophone performances, really came out well live and made me regret missing them the last couple times they’ve played in Ontario. Absu’s blackened thrash possessed the crowd into an utter frenzy, with Proscriptor’s powerful presence behind the kit engaging the crowd like no other singer/drummer can. Back inside to witness the mighty Krallice who put on a masterful performance of progressive black metal. Colin Marston and Mick Barr combine for an unbelievably clear and evil guitar sound, while Nick McMaster provides a huge presence up front on vocals/bass. Did I mention their drummer looks an awful lot like Ron Jeremy?
Unfortunately I had to take the next few bands off to rest up for the main event – another set of Bolt Thrower (as Pestilence weren’t able to play), and Japan’s Sigh. I heard nothing but great things about Aura Noir and Destroyer 666 from those who still had the energy.
Bolt Thrower moved indoors for their encore performance, and I’m surprised the place was still standing. By far, the biggest and most active crowd the indoor stage had received all weekend, Bolt Thrower continued with another crushing hour-long set to the audience’s delight. Although the setlist was pretty much identical to the previous night, I don’t think anyone minded that the Brits pelted out another 11 death metal anthems.
Just before midnight, Sigh hit the stage with force, opening with “Introitus/Kyrie”. The duo of Mirai and Mikannibal are an ungodly vocal presence, not to mention that both of them doing double duty with their respective instruments. The energy surged through the audience as the band pounded through a wide range of songs (ranging from “A Victory of Dakini” off of Scorn Defeat, to “Countess Bathory” from their Tribute to Venom – with Dan Lilker on bass, nonetheless) with a second-to-none stage presence. By far, the highlight of the festival for myself, Sigh closed a wonderful festival with a mind-blowing set.
My first venture to the Maryland festival was a success, running as smoothly as a festival can, and I can happily say that I’ll be back again next year. A special thanks to the security crew for being the coolest dudes working shows that I’ve ever seen. The Maryland Death Fest has quickly become one of the top festivals in the US, combining some huge lineups with much needed organization ensuring that everyone can concentrate on the most important thing – the music.