Those dreams of the manifest destiny of a brave New World of festivals over the Atlantic have finally come true. As a regular indulger/explorer in various festivals throughout Europe over the last decade or so my eyes and ears were still being drawn to the land of the setting sun with the recent excellent line-ups that this mecca of legend has had. In fact it was only because I was getting to see a lot of similar stuff in Europe that I hadn’t already been but with now sacking off Hellfest for a couple of years the opportunity to satisfy the wanderlust was there.
Obviously with the biggest expense being getting over there I had added another 6 days on arrival of leisurely enjoyment/build up to the experience of the 4 day marathon of the festival itself.
Baltimore was burning when we got off the train but fortunately only with solar radiation, as it became evident that the city may well have turned itself around a fair bit since the “Murder City” days of The Wire, or at least down in the Inner Harbour where we headed to base ourselves. Not that it wasn’t without it’s homeless/social issues like all the other places I visited, but there was no aggression, no intimidation. Here by the sea it was all very pristine development and investment, pretty touristy and as we were heading up to Memorial Day Weekend there was a lot of folks just there for a break never mind the festival. Was still good to start spotting the metalheads, even in our hotel where I madly met up with my friend from Chicago (another friend who I’d never met before!). We had plenty of time to relax before heading the 20 minutes or so up to the two club venues that offered this first evening’s/night’s warm-up shows. These were clubs on a big scale, capacity in their hundreds, Rams’s Head Live being a crazy multilevel place where you could end up about four floors above the stage and still see. I saw Buzzov’en from up here, people pleased the legendary scummy sludge act had actually turned up among all the heroin relapses and they delivered a very satisfying filthy groove and swagger/stagger. Topped next though by the back to back performance with Weedeater, who were just mindblowing. Even though I’d seen them a couple of times before up close here was just madness. The drummer, set up sideways at the front of the stage, is an absolute possessed force of nature, constantly stick twirling and juggling whilst spit spraying water all over his skins and kicking the shit out of his high hat – all while still leathering lumbering beats out. Frontman Dave is also on great form, spinning his whiskey bottle and continuing the debate on lost pirate heads. My personal favourite “Monkey Junction” is aired and its refrain of “It ain’t over yet” sums up what we’ve let ourselves in for. A battering that continues at Baltimore Soundstage, a big open hall of a venue with an unbarriered stage, and with good raised side and back sections for a better view separate from the eye of chaos, where the highlights for me from an evening of grind and brutal death metal were the one man grind army of Putrid Pile and then Disgorge (the American one). Insanely fast and tight drumming underpinned a vicious assault of shuddering death, accompanied by a cyclone of glowsticks being thrown left right and centre. Smiling already, and lots more fun to come.
Friday came and we had to plan our fun with some efficiency, as were being somewhat fleeced by the venue prices of $6 for a can of Bud or $9 for anything better, hence us scouting out some off licence for more economical, super strength refreshments. We needed liquids for the longer walk in the baking sun for the early afternoon start today at the main arena venue, Edison Lot, basically a car park under a railway bridge with a stage at either end. Great as it was, and so reflective of the memory impression of grainy videos of what US scenes had been based upon back in the day, there was a gradual dawning impression of that this was still pretty small. What I’d thought of as the biggest underground festival in the US had stages smaller than Bloodstock in the UK and probably when you totted up the split venues attendees, 2-3-4000 folks? This came as a surprise but not a disappointment, especially having got fed up with the increasing size of Hellfest in France. People explained that they do get a lot more tours coming through in the US, there’s a relative expense to the festival (£150 or so for the all-in ticket), but lots had still travelled far and wide for it. It is ultimately still underground, so fair play for them to getting it to this scale. It was death metal afternoon in various subtle shades with the likes of Centinex and Wormed but then it was time for us to return to Soundstage and catch up our UK friends The Afternoon Gentlemen (after preparing for this tramp action with some Loco 12% loopy-juice at a booze shop in a slightly less salubrious “entertainment” area). A typically crazy show with their abrupt grind still retaining bouncy grooves and punk in-sensibilities, they get a great reaction. I swiftly return to Edison to see some Paradise Lost considering them returned to form recently and again this was decent, solid and atmospheric dark metal that suited the falling night. Back indoors for a killer finish to the evening at Soundstage with Yacopsae, Magrudergrind, Rotten Sound, and Repulsion tearing through their sets and us with abandon, my particular highlight probably the Finn’s with their glorious HM2 distortion tone and machine gunned drums. Vocalist Keijo complements the festival on stage, comparing it to only one other of similar legend, Obscene Extreme, and having sampled both he’s not far wrong!
severed head of state
Saturday we start up at Edison again, immured in Death, especially Gruesome giving an honest and effective impression of the early sound of the eponymous seminal genre act. Back to the grind with France’s Whoresnation at soundstage, warpspeed drumming and Pibe’s chatty delivery. Yorkshire invasion again with Gets Worse, whose stuttering power violence and levelling breakdowns sound immense through this sound system. Another yoyo trip back up to Edison for the Katon leading the Hirax thrash party, a master of crowd interaction and leading the celebration of great metal brother-and sisterhood. With beer. Then a solid afternoon in Soundstage with a first opportunity to see the legendary US crust punk band Severed Head of State blast through their biting hardcore. I’m especially impressed with the bassist throwing his guitar around while maintaining some really intricate runs, inspirational. L.A.’s Despise You turn out to be an absolute revelation and highlight next as the kind of un-assuming, multi-cultural mix hit us with some phenomenally intense short sharp shock of hardcore , a swirling maelstrom of explosive fury while still mixing in banging melody hooks. Superb. Last here is the ever reliable gore grind of General Surgery, and as I have said many a time, I’d rather see these guys doing an impression of old Carcass (and having a whole lot of bloody fun) than current Caracss doing an impression of something else. Back to Edison to ensure I grab one of the last chances to see Nuclear Assault, having never seen them before. Despite going since the late 80’s thrash peak they have somehow eluded me and with them now winding up (again, this is only a recent reformation) it turns out to be a real pleasure. A bit loose, left wondering if little front man John and monster bass Dan actually get on, but with Nick Barker drafted in to help on the drums (getting to request classic songs to play himself) they play a lot of their gems, including all the silly stuff like “Hang the Pope”. They leave a good legacy, and out of all the bands here I think “F#” was the lyric running through my head for days after. And how about this for a double header as we turn around to see Testament on the other stage. Now, when I was in New York a friend said he’d heard they might be playing all their first album “The Legacy” and this would have made the entire event for me. This proved not to be true and it did occur to me that this rumour might have started from my own mouth and spread over here some months ago. Oh well, old school opener “Over the Wall” proves a highpoint but with their latter material while being solid enough not really hitting the spot for me I don’t mind drifting off to catch Infest back at the soundstage. Another first for me, knowing of their seminal status in the US hardcore/power-violence scene, I was hoping for something special. Unfortunately by all accounts the singer had rather overindulged the old boozerooney (what a terrible example to set 😉 ) so the set was pretty shambolic, with the other musicians looking a bit perplexed with unfolding events. Still got some violent power out and good crowd reaction but didn’t mean much to me on face value. Far more on the ball were Negative Approach, another old-time US hardcore act. They were super tight and punchy in their delivery of their fast and furious short songs, and the singer looked like the angriest man ever as he spat the venom of their lyrics. But apparently he is cool, just getting it out of his system. A really satisfying set anyway. With the non-appearance of Discharge due to visa problems I was able instead to finish the evening with some sharp contrast and Scousers Dragged into Sunlight up at Ram’s Head. Playing in near darkness with just candelabra and strobes, their customary backs to the crowd focussed non-performance might throw some of the attendees but the blisteringly harsh epic black metal blasting and crushing postmetal break downs are a claustrophobic and encompassing twisted pleasure to me, I leave with the darkness in my soul thoroughly recharged
Final day, but no rest for the wicked. We are once again back up to Edison for early afternoon and a selection of Swedish death, but with the Australians of Nocturnal Graves being a highlight for me, their evil death/thrash having a somewhat retro tone but a relentless, rasping energy. It was good to catch last minute add-ins Incantation for only the second time, but the legendary NY Death metallers weren’t at full strength through the temporary loss of their guitarist to a family emergency. Still, their mix of rumbling riff and doomy breakdowns is still a treat, even if the heavens open in response to the blasphemy and things get a bit monsoon-y. Suits ok though, as my interests lie indoors as opposed to the likes of Venom and Satan finishing of the day and the dark, dark night here (apparently conditions were getting so bad they could have been cancelled and/or moved indoors but it didn’t come to that in the end). Back at Soundstage have some great young and vicious hardcore/grind bands with Sick Fix and Six Brew Bantha, the wandering Brazilians Test put in a captivating show as the two piece interact together with a fine mix of precision and randomness in their experimental grind. Ringworm have a fine pedigree in their 25 year history and association with a lot of US hardcore acts, but their attack is much more from the metal side of the fence. Really charging, heavy thrash rhythms, great vocals, mixed up with stomping breakdowns, good energy in their set. Heading to great finish, next we have Tragedy, a good few years since I last saw them in France. Still full of measured tempo and melody, they also deliver some raging, thundering crust punk. Occasionally there’ll be pleasurable echoes of their forebears His Hero is Gone but they have their own expansive sound too, and a passion to carry it across. Over from the West coast, Excel I didn’t know much about in advance, and in my pre-festival trawl wasn’t really struck by their seemingly quite thin cross-over punk that had originated in the late 80’s. Made me smile all the more then to be blown away by an amazing performance, where any age belied the electricity injected into their set, coming over like a mix of early Suicidal Tendencies and Rage against the Machine. Great musicianship, especially for me some mad bass skills, they were a joy. And after that surprise highlight we still had the tried and trusted to put the last nail in the coffin of the event, our old friends Doom. The UK crusties might often stick to much the same set where we have seen them over these recent years and they’ve become a force to be reckoned with again, but fair play it is supremely solid. And feverishly received too, as whether it’s the end-time abandon or not they seem to get the craziest crowd reaction of the weekend, I even dive in broken arm included. A worthy ending to a top weekend. I heartily enjoyed the whole thing and returned thinking yes, that’s my one trip done and ticked off. But then when next years line up come out…
We return via Washington on Memorial Day which gives us a whole different insight to what passes for a celebration over here, but my abiding memories of this event were of a great collection of people and bands, doing America proud in the unity of the underground, and well worth a future visit. Here’s to the death!