[Find a summary of the festival’s first day here.]
After a few hours sleep, I braved the gray drizzle to grab lunch with Decibel compadre Nick Green. The walk back to Rams Head was going to make me late… or so I thought. Electronic soundtrackers Le Matos were originally scheduled for a midday slot on Sunday, but when they cancelled, everything shifted back about 30 minutes, and I actually got to see all of Asthma Castle’s set, which is fortunate because Asthma Castle rocks. Also, they have a recording called Jesus, Mary, and Broseph, so high marks for that alone. Adam Jarvis (drums) usually serves deathier/grindier masters, so it was fun watching him prop up a rowdy doom rock band. Not that he has to carry more than his own weight – guitarists Justin and Cam are awesome at their jobs, soloing and, uh, rhythming like they invented it; bassist Bill Mountain wields his ax with muscular acumen, and curly-locked, moustachioed vocalist Yuk is hilariously entertaining, like a version of Bobby Liebling who’s young and vital with a sense of humor, and who isn’t in prison. Their music was on point, well crafted and incredibly played. Latecomers missed a great set.
On average, I imagine that when a straight ahead rocker wants to hear metal, that rocker wants to hear Night Demon. Night Demon play metal in the lean, blustery style that probably draws the widest audience any loud rock could. The bass/drum/guitar trio (bassist Jarvis Leatherby on leathery-raw but clean vox) conjured all the chugging riffs and blinding solos you could want. They make this music fun, and with so many frowning musical mutants on the weekend’s playlist, Night Demon was an important reminder of the invigorating side of heaviness.
“Invigorating” is a similarly perfect descriptor for Ruby the Hatchet. Listening to the New Jersey psych-doom outfit is an inherently good time, with freely flowing fringe, tight pants and feathered bangs writhing across the stage… and that’s just the lead singer (Jillian, not Ruby). Organ player Sean Hur elevates the retro garage riffs to a more powerful place, and drummer Owen Stewart keeps the grooves heavy and swinging. Darkness has little to do with their stage presence. Ruby brings light.
Drawing down the mood was Chicago’s bloody-knuckled Bongripper, which I like to think was named for a French American who’s great at holding things, as in “bon gripper.” Or not. Whatever. They smile while they play, but little about their set is objectively fun. They slow-droned their way through a few lumbering juggernauts they probably consider songs. They don’t demand attention like so many more active bands; they don’t even include vocals, so the entire act encourages zoning out and spiraling inward. In this regard, the band is an absolute success. Rereading all of the above, I realize it’s not clear that I totally dig this band’s vibe. Enough happens in the music to keep it from being annoying, but not so much that you can’t get lost in the thunderous bliss. My first impression of Bongripper at MDF 2014 was positive, and Sunday night’s crush-n-grumble only intensified that feeling.
By the time Unearthly Trance hit the stage, I was tiring of loud-as-you-can-stand-it rock. Not that their music was interchangeable with anything that came before – UT are abrasive, even punk, in a way that few other bands this weekend could match – but there are only so many combinations of guitars, drums and squawks that a person can discern before it all starts feeling redundant. That’s all to say that we really could have used a Le Matos electronic interlude amidst all the gritty, doomy rage. The hard rock exhaustion was no fault of Ryan Lipynsky and his crew. The three longtime collaborators played tight and in full control of their ire, and Lipynsky sounded awesomely pissed behind the mike.
When the respite came, though, it came with all the complaints from the day before rushing back. The previous night’s frustration with Perturbator? All that holds for Gost as well. Hooded dude takes the stage carrying a skull to stand behind a keyboard and various electronic doohickeys and dances a lot while occasionally actually touching one of his “instruments.” Don’t get me wrong: I really need this kind of break in the middle of a long day of doom and trad metal. It spices up the day and helps me emotionally prepare for more guitar rock. And creating this music from scratch is certainly difficult and takes talent and inspiration. I’m just saying that, until someone proves to me otherwise, I kind of think that playing “My Curse” on Guitar Hero requires more skill than performing this stuff on stage.
With fog and strobing lights, black robes, translucent red drums and a fucking gong, Boris were awash in high drama and ritual drone. Of course, the music absolutely earned the theater. If other bands were about connecting with their Baltimore area audience, Boris was about shrouding themselves in mystery and awe. And loud fucking chords. During that noise part… wait, is she playing an accordion? Mesmerizing. Boris cast an unbroken spell over its rapt audience. I overheard some attendees wondering what they would do after Boris left the stage, since it was the most potent experience they would have that night. Having witnessed it firsthand, it’s hard to argue. Following the band’s recorded output can become a tedious pursuit, but getting drawn into their stage show was mandatory, and easily the most harrowing part of the weekend. As the drone abyss yawned wide, I began to wonder, does this even count as music? But no, no, no. This is beautiful. This is art.
Following Boris should have been impossible. Nothing could match such transcendent weight. Which is why Warning, with its disarming and unpretentious frontman Patrick Walker, was the perfect follow-up. On a personal note, Warning was my weekend’s headliner. Walker is one of the very few clean doom vocalists who matter to me. Beyond his talent, his relaxed and personable manner behind the merch table and on stage folded brilliantly with the open-hearted lyrics and vocal style his fans adore. I was primed to fall hard for the band’s full performance of Watching from a Distance, and they made it easy. From the moment the guitar blazed forward on the opening title track, they sounded perfect. Sound issues had become a mainstay of the festival, had bled some of the momentum and impact from several performances, but none of those problems touched Warning. Between songs, Walker talked about critics’ perceptions of their tour (citing one who derided the band for looking like a bunch of tired dads) and described the genesis of some of the songs from the album. Fans were rewarded with exactly the show they’d hoped for; a friend even made the spontaneous decision to leave immediately after the set, choosing to walk out on an unquestionable high rather than possibly sullying the experience with anything less that might come next.
Turns out, he made the right choice. After Warning came California’s power/doom peddlers Cirith Ungol, and nothing about that performance was worth putting off bedtime. Something went terribly wrong between the two bands’ sets, and the sound problems reared up again with a vengeance. I can imagine a world in which Cirith Ungol don’t sound like trash, but that world does not include following an emotionally (and sonically) perfect performance by Warning, and you would probably have to add a sound guy who had some concept of where the levels were on vocals and guitars. The treble was so aggressive on those channels specifically that they sliced through everything else and grated on the ears. Metal gains power from ugliness, but while aural pain can play an important role in a Gnaw Their Tongues show, it doesn’t paint this kind of galloping trad metal with any colors that work. Drunks and dedicated fans seemed pleased, anyway, to get back to righteously rocking, though others of us might have felt that raucous heavy metal had been pretty well put to bed by earlier acts. Standing outside in the cold rain talking to Baltimore’s most hard-up citizens was preferable to the torture inside the venue.
The final reason to hold out came in the form of Sleep-offshoot OM. Having seen Sleep perform in April at the Decibel Metal & Beer Fest in Philadelphia, I had already witnessed Al Cisneros’s face-melting tendencies; on this night, I had a chance to check out his quieter meditative project. It was a perfect way to end the weekend, with the bass and drums providing a trance-like throb that retroactively made every band who played earlier seem more important. Robert Lowe added extraordinary synthetic textures to each song. Leaving the weekend behind was tough, but OM provided exactly the closure that was necessary.
The next big party on the schedule looks like the second edition of the Decibel Metal & Beer Fest. See you there.