Live Review: Days of Darkness, Part 1 (Saturday, October 28 @ Rams Head Live in Baltimore)

As soon as the Days of Darkness festival was announced, I started drooling.  Longtime favorites like Neurosis, Warning and Dälek were listed.  Recent infatuations like Crypt Sermon, Ruby the Hatchet and Perturbator made the cut.  Legacy acts like Manilla Road, Captain Beyond and Cirith Ungol would turn out for the party.  And curiosities like Om, Boris and Elder – all bands whose live shows were on my (admittedly inclusive) bucket list – would show up to grace the fest with their own idiosyncratic take on heavy music.  This Deathfest-produced Halloween treat was chock full of perfect seasonal offerings, a rare lineup that sparked immediate and sustained interest.  Would it live up to its potential?  In almost every way that mattered, the answer was a hype-worthy “Hell, yes!”

I was a little late rolling in on Saturday, so I heard some of Alms’ set while waiting in line outside the door.  The Baltimore locals were precisely the right band to kick off a weekend up to its shoulders in doom.  Their slinky, groovy heaviness was smoothly augmented with Jess Kamen’s clear vocals and Nord Electro 3 accompaniment.  The band had the right idea:  Rock, roll, repeat.

Philadelphia heavy metallers Crypt Sermon roared to life five minutes early (a rare moment in a weekend plagued by delays) to preach their retro doom guitar heroics to an adoring afternoon crowd.  Their chug-a-lug gallop is an undeniable delight, but those boys slow down real good, too.  I first heard them at this year’s Decibel Metal and Beer Fest back in April, and they sounded just as epic as ever, albeit to Rams Head’s much smaller room.  Matt Knox from Horrendous held down bass duties, while vocalist Brooks Wilson made his lungs do things most metal dudes aren’t trying much these days:  actually sing.

One of the most exciting/maddening parts of this fest was its deliberate weaving together of different musical styles.  While the weekend leaned heavily on doomy rock that could have been recorded forty years ago (and some that actually was), there were also groups like Computer Magic, who…  Okay, that’s misleading.  There are no groups like Computer Magic, at least not in the scenes I frequent.  The project appears to consist of Danz Johnson, an self-taught electronic musician and vocalist, and a live drummer she enlisted to add a little punch to the performance.  Her set was… intriguing.  The music’s layered synth pulse was fun and well crafted, and I doubly enjoyed beards in battle vests and Celtic Frost tees as they tried to show their mild appreciation.  Most of the music appeared to be preprogrammed, freeing Danz to wander with the microphone and croon her indie pop intentions at the audience.  Two fuckers up front knew all the words.  She insisted that her costume was meant to be Ripley from Alien, and not Ripley from any of the sequels.  For a dude who travels in mostly metal circles, the whole experience was pretty fucking weird, but I like palate cleansers to cut my metal, and Danz followed Crypt Sermon admirably.

Standing right in front of the stage for Dälek’s set seemed mandatory.  I haven’t seen the MC and his (now different) trio since he traipsed around the country on an Ipecac showcase promoting his album From Filthy Tongue of Gods and Griots.  After a slow start due to the sound checking snafus that plagued the weekend, Dälek’s set was thrilling throughout.   He occasionally reached backward for a song or two from his past (though neither of my personal favorites from Filthy Tongue (“Spiritual Healing” or “Forever Close My Eyes”) made the cut.  Mostly, he leaned on this year’s equally strong Endangered Philosophies, opening with “Echoes of…” and including the call-and-response “Sacrifice” before closing with the call-to-action anthem “Numb.”  Dälek did a fine job of tying the weekend’s strange personalities together into a whole that made sense.

After Dälek’s set, I ducked out to find dinner, which turned out to be a spicy falafel dish from a food cart down the block.  That meant that I missed part of Dance with the Dead’s performance, but I returned in time to catch at least half of the madness.  The Cali duo produced more of the synth/programmed stuff that had begun taking over the evening, but they inched closer to the metal vibe with a live guitarist.  They electro-shredded through some seriously in-yer-face tracks that set heads bouncing and bodies moving.  Ripley made her second appearance of the night when a song made space for her badass admonition from Aliens:  “Get away from her, you bitch!”  Dance with the Dead turn bubbly, bouncy music into confrontational ecstasy, and they were one of the highlights of the night.

Florida’s Cavity exploded in a gout of nerd punk fury, interestingly not wildly different in tempo and intensity from how Dance with the Dead had left us.  It wasn’t long, though, before they put on their concrete doom shoes and laid out some of authoritative feedback soaked sludge.  Later, they took everything down to sleepy contemplation of a repetitive channel-shifting riff; kinda cool but a little dull for the middle of the show.  A tall drunk dude wandered my way, asking, “Does this band blow duck cocks or what?” He repeated that a couple times before extolling Captain Beyond and Manilla Road and moving on to other tall drunk dudes. He wasn’t all wrong. After all the great sounds leading up to it, Cavity’s show might have been less exciting than avian fellatio.

A friend recently recommended Elder to me, but I had never gotten around to listening to their records, so I was excited to check out their live set.  High expectations sometimes lead to minor (or major) disappointments, but such was not the case with this Boston trio.  At times, they recalled the Pentagram-style doom rock of the weekend’s other sloth hounds, but then they turned way the hell up and filled all the space in the venue with crushing, rocking noise.  Their musicianship and ear for layering massive songs together that remain cohesively song like is pretty fucking exceptional.  Seven bands in, I was losing steam, but Elder refilled the tank.

I was equally excited to see Perturbator, and the music sounded incredible, but…  Look, there’s live music, and there’s studio music, and there’s whatever was going on here.  I say “whatever” because I have precisely zero idea what that dude is actually doing from moment to moment on the stage.  Which sounds are occurring in the moment?  Which sounds were sequenced ahead of time?  Even watching carefully, I find it impossible to know.  (Please excuse the coming tangent.)  I felt that way when I saw END play a show with Fantomas and Melt Banana.  I understand the playing of keyboards, but when all the action is on a laptop or other inscrutable button board, what the hell am I really watching?  If much of what’s happening is prerecorded, how big of a leap is there to pushing play on an iPod and letting it run for 40 minutes?  I’m not saying that’s what’s happening, I’m just communicating my frustration that I can’t feel wowed, because I can’t tell what is performance and what is programmed.  Even a good noise show comes from the manipulation of actual doodads in an appreciable way.  Not so this.  Lights on towers made the experience flashy, glitzy.  But substance?  As a dude in a Nails shirt shoved his way around the middle of the inexplicable mosh pit, I wondered if I’d ever be one of him.  But, again, the head-warping pulse and berating sonics were mesmerizing, and I found myself less excited for bands like Captain Beyond and Manilla Road, wishing instead for some Anaal Nathrakh obfuscation or Dillinger Escape Plan obliteration in the wake all this manic thumping.

And maybe that colored my experience with Captain Beyond, who absolutely get Saturday’s Shittiest Sounding Band Award.  After starting 25 minutes late due to difficulty getting set up (how long can you sound check fucking conga drums?), they launched into a cacophony that could only have been matched if you aged the members of Dysrhythmia forty years and gave them some bad pot brownies laced with something that made them forget how to play instruments in time with each other.  I found the whole set truly moronic, but there were enough people totally feeling it to keep the front row appreciatively cheering and arm waving.  I’d say more about it but I don’t care.  I stopped listening.

The evening’s best surprise was Manilla Road’s current lineup, another long-running collection of oldsters who could have had a tough time on a 2017 stage, but instead worked magic into their set.  They manifested a kind of brilliant symmetry to the day, showing that they could keep pace with the Crypt Sermon kids.  Nine hours had passed since we had been treated to heavy metal’s roots, and the return was welcome.  In short, they killed on every level:  sound, songs, crowd love, and Mark Shelton…  That man is truly is a phenomenon.  Current vocalist Bryan Patrick by highlighting the guitarist’s talent both on his stringed instrument and with his voice.  Shelton still brings extraordinary power to his parts.  Honestly, I was already planning to slide toward the front for the Neurosis show, but Manilla Road captured me and pulled me toward the stage for their own reasons.

Neurosis are a main event wherever they go.  For a few entirely personal reasons, Saturday’s performance didn’t quite push all the pleasure buttons, but the 85% they did reach got slammed down hard.  Somehow I planted myself in front of a speaker that was only outputting Steve Von Till’s guitar and Noah  Landis’s… whatever Noah plays.  I couldn’t hear Scott Kelly’s vocals, a pretty key part of the roaring Neurosis attack, or Dave Edwardson’s bass most of the time.  When I got a clue and moved backward, deeper into the room, I was able to take in the full impact of the show, but I made that decision far too late.  While the band opened with “Lost” and included favorites “Locust Star” and “The Doorway,” the middle of the set made a meal out of their most recent record, Fires Within Fires, somehow without playing “Reach,” my favorite of the bunch.  Anyone wowed by the band’s latest creation would have appreciated the set, but I had a tough time getting excited about some of those songs.

By night’s end, fatigue had set in, but I knew I had to rally for the second day of the festival.  To be continued…