The Best Shows at Maryland Deathfest XIII (2015)

This year I finally made my pilgrimage to Maryland Deathfest. I had no other obligations, so with grim determination I maintained a liminal state of wasted and saw 45 shows over the course of 4 days! This break-neck pace left me bruised, sunburned and deeply satisfied. I enjoyed every single band, but moreover I enjoyed the scene itself, a convergence of metalheads from all over the world! I chatted with fans from as far afield as Honduras and Japan and shared a funnel cake with members of a Mexican motorcycle club. It’s easy to feel like you’ve come home, surrounded by mobs of people who deeply love metal; the sight of 7000 heads partying together is a mighty thing to behold!

Of course, there were dozens of other acts I wish I could have seen, and my own choices are highly colored by my personal preferences, but here were my favorite shows at Maryland Deathfest XIII:



1. Agoraphobic Nosebleed

The whole weekend felt like it was leading up to ANb’s Saturday-night headlining set, and in their first proper live performance in 20 years as a band, they did not disappoint! Two massive speakers were placed onstage in the drummer’s position, with Pig Destroyer’s Blake Harrison controlling the computerized drums from offstage. Soundstage was full to bursting and the vibe was utter insanity. Richard and Kat performed the majority of the vocals, with figurehead Jay roaming the stage like a caged ape. Brutal, exhausting, intoxicating – I’ve seen hundreds of shows in my life and I imagine this will always remain as one of the greats. Set highlights included the one-two punch of “Kill Theme for American Apeshit” and “Built to Grind”, and an encore performance of “Agorapocalypse Now” that seemed poised to burn the venue to the ground! Perfection.



2. Amorphis

My love for Amorphis is deep and abiding, and their reluctance to tour the US had kept me from seeing them for more than a decade. To celebrate the 20th anniversary of the release of their seminal album, Tales From the Thousand Lakes, they played the record in its entirety as they closed the festival’s main stage. Thousand Lakes is untouchable, but paradoxically I enjoy the voice of current vocalist Tomi Joutsen more than guitarist Tomi Koivusaari, who sang on the original record – this synthesis of old and new made for one of the most amazing sets of the festival! Thousand Lakes is generally recognized as one of the primary texts of melodic death metal, and hearing it live was a dream. For an encore the band ripped through a few more of their early songs, including a savage cover of Abhorrence’s “Vulgar Necrolatry”!



3. Triptykon

Triptykon was forced to cancel their appearance at MDF last year, but past misfortune allowed me to finally see Tom G. Warrior and company live! I cannot get enough Hellhammer/Celtic Frost/Triptykon, and neither could the crowd – judging by the size and intensity of the audience, Triptykon could easily have headlined. It’s clear that Warrior has never had a better band of musicians working to realize his musical vision. One of the great moments of the festival was a crowd of thousands howling along to the opening lines of “Goetia” while bassist Vanja Slajh and guitarist V. Santura banged their heads in wild, windmill arcs. If I could have extended the set time of one act at the festival, this would be it.



4. Bloodbath

In almost 20 years as a band, Bloodbath have somehow never played a gig on US soil – to say the anticipation was immense would be a gross understatement. I suspect that the largest Edison Lot crowd of the weekend AND the biggest circle pit broke out for this show! This was only Nick Holmes’ third live show as Bloodbath’s vocalist, but his immense, commanding stage presence stirred the audience into an absolute frenzy while a shirtless Per Ericsson, drenched in gore, roamed the stage shredding. Highlights included punishing renditions of new cut “Unite in Pain” and fan-favorite “Mock the Cross” to close the main set, as well as an encore performance of “Eaten” that may have been the most rapturously-received single song of the festival – you don’t see a shit-ton of sing-alongs at death metal shows, but the crowd was eager to lend their voice!



5. Portal

Portal closed the final hour of the festival with a performance that might more aptly be called a conjuration. Robed and hooded, they filled Ram’s Head with the sound of ancient, immense evil. The sold-out crowd was exhausted, brains open and tuned-in to the complete chaos. Video art projection from Handshake Inc.’s David Hall summoned visions of decay and disorientation. Nothing else could have more aptly summarized the mood of the audience and the impending end to our metal immersion.



6. Cephalic Carnage

These Colorado stoners really know how to grind it out! They haven’t toured widely in the States in ages, so I jumped at the chance to finally see them live. Fast, nasty, technically proficient and funny, they tore through old classics they hadn’t played in years including “Analytical” and “Hyrbrid”! The crowd was extremely receptive, with a commendable amount of stage-diving for an afternoon gig. The highlight was the gleeful closing combo of “Kill for Weed” and an epic rendition of “Black Metal Sabbath” that saw the band variously donning corpse paint, a horse mask and a giant baby head. One of the most rewarding performances of the weekend!



7. Lock Up

The only grindcore act to play a main stage at the festival, Lock Up came armed with new vocalist Kevin Sharp (formerly of Brutal Truth), playing his second gig ever with the band! You certainly wouldn’t have guessed it from their manic energy and stellar performance. A little grind in the afternoon may have sent some attendees packing to check out Vendor Village, but the devout circled-up a pit and got down to business. Probably the only show of the festival that might convince heads to go out and buy a white cowboy hat. Highlights included punishing takes on “The Jesus Virus” and “High Tide in a Sea of Blood”!



8. Suffocation

Considering that they are one of the greatest, most consistent death metal bands of all time, Suffocation get a bit of a bad rap. Maybe it’s their relentless touring schedule or the (unfounded) assumption that their best albums are behind them, but you could tell that some folks were not particularly enthused for another Suffocation show. Leave it to the boys from Long Island, then, to completely decimate with one of the most rousing and physical shows of the festival! You wanted the classics and they gave you the classics, from “Thrones of Blood” to “Infecting the Crypts”. And lo, the crowd was pleased! Frank the Tank waved his hand during the blast beats, air-guitared when appropriate and, perhaps incongruously, smiled just about the whole time; if thousands of people were hurling themselves gleefully through the air to your music, I bet you’d be smiling, too. More than once he implored the crowd to “keep it brutal!” Will do, Frank. Will do.



9. Full of Hell

Full of Hell is one of the best young acts out there, period. Riding high on an unimpeachable string of releases and a collaboration with noise god Merzbow, they ripped Soundstage to shreds on Saturday afternoon – woe betide all who missed it! Taking a page from the John Zorn book of avant-garde grind, they have both a full-time trumpet player and a sound manipulator, ensuring a substrata of mayhem underlies every wonderful, torturous song. The crowd head-banged ferociously as they tore through tracks including “Raise Thee, Great Wall, Bloody and Terrible” and “Rudiments of Mutilation”. Although well-attended, it was clearly a lot to ask for people to skip Blood Red Throne and Vulcano to see this show – but for those who made the trek, there’s no question this was one of the festival’s breakout performances!



10. Primordial

More often than not, folk metal overlords Primordial are a love ’em or hate ’em band – and your opinion is likely to hinge on your appreciation of frontman A. A. Nemtheanga’s distinctive vocals. I fall squarely into the former camp, and Sunday afternoon’s Edison Lot performance won them a fair few converts, I’d wager! Under a blazing hot sun in a clear sky, their dark, soaring music seemed to split the day in two: before and after Primordial. Nemtheanga prowled the stage and ventured out onto the stacked gear cases to exhort the audience during highlight “The Coffin Ships”, and he punctuated almost every song with a howled question: “Are you with us?” Absolutely, dude!



11. Melt-Banana

Japanese noise-punk duo Melt-Banana may have seemed a left-field choice for MDF, until witnessing them on stage. Dizzying physicality, Ichirou Agata’s bowel-churning guitar contortions and Yasuko Onuki’s cartoon chipmunk terror-squeal stunned the Soundstage audience into immediate submission. The audience was hanging on every note, and screamed, “NO!” in a collective gasp when the band said goodnight – but they returned for an explosive 10-minute dirge that slowly transformed into “Candy Gun”. When the smoke cleared and the crew started to tear down the gear, the rush to the merch table to talk with Onuki was so unified and ferocious that it seemed to teeter on the edge of a riot – pretty metal!



12. Demilich

Demilich released a single album, 1993’s Nespithe, before quietly dissolving, but in the ensuing decades that record has risen to legendary status amongst metalheads. Antti Boman’s famously deep vocals reverberated across the Edison lot and sent the crowd into paroxysmal moshing. On more than one occasion, Boman seemed a little amazed as he surveyed the crowd; maybe he underestimated the power his music holds over the metal community, but for the legions of fans who had waited years to hear the band play “The Planet That Once Used to Absorb Flesh in Order to Achieve Divinity and Immortality (Suffocated to the Flesh That It Desired)”, Demilich was worth the price of admission alone!



13. D.R.I.

“Who am I?” Spike Cassidy asked.
“D! R! I!” roared the audience in response!
And then the whole place went apeshit.
The godfathers of crossover thrash came home to roost and the audience was all in – for many people, this was the final show of the festival (Portal’s set continued slightly beyond D.R.I.’s at a different venue), and for those dirty rotten imbeciles the festival ended with cheers, beers and flying bodies. Spike, Kurt and company shredded through an immense array of classics all the way to closing time, including “Slumlord” and “Argument Then War” – if MDF was one big party, D.R.I. was the party to end all parties!



14. Artificial Brain

This nascent act has largely been pegged as Demilich worshippers – and indeed, the fundamental elements of vocal fry, technical virtuosity and spacey lyrics are all in play

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. But Artificial Brain is very much their own band, with a significantly more aggressive approach, layers of atmosphere and dissonance and the killer stage presence of Will Smith, a beast of a man with a truly impressive croak! Their opening slot on Thursday at the Edison Lot meant that many people only heard them through the fence while they waited in line outside, but those that were lucky enough to make it in for set time witnessed a powerful young band with a charismatic leader tearing shit up regardless of audience size – and all hail for that! The band likely wouldn’t downplay its most famous influence, either – during Demilich’s set two days later, Smith was bouncing around in the pit like a pinball, screaming along to every song – and likely the only person in attendance capable of doing so in the correct register!



15. Winter

After three days of grinding and thrashing and moshing, doom legends Winter brought everything to a halt. Playing only their 9th live show since 1989, they churned and shambled their way through a half-dozen achingly heavy, glacially-paced tunes. Seas of attendees banged their heads in slow motion, eyes closed, baking in the heat and enduring the tonal onslaught. The audience reacted with dismay when the band announced they had two songs left, but frontman John Alman intoned, deadpan, “Don’t worry. It’ll feel like five.” No act playing on the main stage was as crushing and contemplative – and few were as heavy!


Photos courtesy of Aaron Peplis at Return to the Pit except the Demilich photo courtesy of Rodrigo Tercø Fredes at Phototerco and the Cephalic Carnage photo (by me).

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