Originally written by Chris Redar
A great sense of shame and embarrassment washes over yours truly as this next statement is typed: I’ve never been to Maryland Deathfest. Every year, arguably the biggest and most important festival in North America comes and goes, and every year brings another excuse – bills are too tight, I haven’t had a job in six months, it sold out already, the dishes need doing. You name it, I’ve said it aloud. This puts personal experience right out the window in terms of an explanation as to how these particular four days in May have become the go-to destination for metalheads the world over to get legless and bang their collective heads right into the ground, not unlike a worm after a springtime rain. Is it the lineup? Could it be the atmosphere, the hive-mind converging on the filthy streets of Baltimore (affectionately referred to as ‘Bodymore’, and with good reason if you’ve ever visited) to tear the place apart via booze and blast beats?
Director David Hall answers these questions with a somewhat definite yes and yes. Hall has a knack for capturing a performer at just the right moment – which, having seen many concert movies featuring a bass player staring at his frets while hearing a massive drum fill in the background (I’m looking at you, Relapse Contamination Festival DVD), can make all the difference between compelling viewing and complete frustration. The visual style offered is also unique – most of the artists presented receive their own palette and filter, ensuring that the performances stand apart from one another. The sound, as expected, is top-notch, though that one speaker in the middle of your TV simply won’t do it justice. There’s a lot of low-end in the mix, which means there’s a lot to be missed without proper headphones or a surround system.
Let’s get on to the gravy – no one goes to MDF to hear about film editing (or maybe they do? Fuck! How would I know?). Absu opens the festivities with some of the worst stage banter ever, then proceeds to get their evil on with “Never Blow Out the Eastern Candle.” It’s not the tightest performance, but live music shouldn’t be flawless. There’s an energy being transferred from artist to listener – missing the last tom hit isn’t nearly as important as conveying an unbridled sense of passion. If only someone would pass the message to Anvil. Their enthusiasm is clear – it’s like watching three nine-year olds peer upon Disneyland as the station wagon pulls into the parking lot. It’s also like those three kids started a band and got booked at MDF.
There are definite standouts. Rorschach absolutely kills, with a volatile take on hardcore. Their rendition of “Hemlock” is worth the price of admission alone. It’s that good. The kings of vein-popping groove Eyehategod bring their brand of swinging sludge with such an unabashed love for what they do that it’s nearly impossible to look away, and completely impossible to resist the urge to crack a cold one and nod along. And in what is possibly the crown-taker of the film, Rwake take a journey into the highest highs and the lowest lows with “Was Only a Dream.” It’s like being slowly crushed by an industrial sheet metal press, only vocalist C.T. is standing by the switch, only letting it suffocate you for so long before reeling it back up. This is so intense, it’s doubtful that libations had anything to do with him vomiting (which is caught up close and personal, if that’s what you’re into).
There are also some quite solid jams from the likes of Napalm Death (possibly the most reliable live act in extreme music today), Ghoul (that thing I said earlier about Absu’s banter being awful? These dudes take the cake – it’s baaaaaaaaaad), the not Mieszko-fronted Nasum, a genuinely creepy number from Dragged Into Sunlight and the apparently-legit-now-that-they’ve-dropped-the-Mexican-drug-cartel-thing Brujeria. Which, by the way, Robert Rodriguez would be a damn fool to not have them score the next Machete film (even though Shane Embury is fooling exactly no one with that bandana. C’mon, man).
Of course, with a festival of this magnitude, there are bound to be some letdowns and/or snoozers. The much ballyhooed Godflesh turns in a competent version of “Streetcleaner,” but it’s not exactly a soul sucker in the live format. Forcing one to get lost in the emptiness on wax is what JK Broadrick does best, and while the performance is energetic and tight, it’s just not the same. On a tangentially related note, preceding Godflesh is Unsane, and knowing what’s coming next makes it very difficult to care. It’s like going to the gas station for a pack of smokes, and the guy ahead of you has an entire grocery store’s worth of shit – and he’s paying in change. Maybe that’s what makes the Marlboro that is Godflesh a little less satisfying: it’s not a pleasure to be inhaling fire anymore, it’s a relief to be out of that fucking store.
And unfortunately for the running order of a chronological film, Sunday offers the least diverse lineup of the festival. The Rwake performance aside, there is just too much sludge and doom on the back end to sustain interest (outside of Saint Vitus: consummate showmen and grizzled vets not to be missed). It’s not that the bands or the songs are bad – far from it. Well, Cough kind of sucks. They kind of really suck. Man, do they suck. But beyond that, these pieces are best viewed one at a time for attention span’s sake. Great for a viewing audience at home, though it stands to reason that being at MDF X on Sunday may or may not have been a chore depending on how many jazz cigarettes one had enjoyed during the lord’s day of rest.
Overall, there are far too many great-to-excellent performances here to sleep on this one. The only thing missing is the atmosphere, which is most likely intentional – fan interaction and crowd shots are kept to a minimum. If you weren’t there (and I wasn’t…), you just don’t ‘get’ what MDF is all about. All you’re left with is the artists, and their art. At least this will save you some money at the Laundromat, as you won’t leave the film smelling like you just caught a Cypress Hill set at the Pabst brewery.