F*ck You, COVID-19: Here Are Our Favorite Maryland Deathfest Memories

Photo by Josh Sisk

For the first time since 2002, I’ll be putting in a weekend shift at my on-again/off-again day job. That’s because due to the global shutdown caused by COVID-19, the metal scene’s Memorial Day Weekend mainstay, the Maryland Deathfest has been nixed and I might as well head into the coal mines and make a few extra bucks.

Today was supposed to be the first day of this year’s edition which had scheduled performances featuring Dismember, Onslaught, Vio-lence, At War, Skitsystem, Cloud Rat, Coffins and plenty more. While we come to terms with the gaping void left by the festival’s cancellation (and live music and tours in general) and hoist a giant middle finger in the direction of the Coronavirus, know that “America’s biggest metal party of the year” is never far from our blackened hearts and twisted minds. And because yours truly has been a face in the crowd at all airings of MDF, Albert asked if I might list a few of the more memorable sets I’ve witnessed over the years. So, I decided to ignore the more obvious stuff – like the year Bolt Thrower played twice, the time Watain clonked Harald from D.R.I., when Nasum played as part of their grind finale/20th anniversary tour, the umpteen times Pig Destroyer has performed, when Mobb Deep inexplicably headlined a night at the Soundstage and my rummaging through snacks behind the Decibel table when everyone else is on a mission to quaff craft beer and see classic albums performed live – to give a nod to a handful of the less-than-obvious moments from 17 years of attending what is easily my favorite festival of ‘em all.

Please note that recollections of any of the general or specific details that follow may be shoddy and/or inaccurate as they are subject to years upon years of show going blurring into one another and the fact that my memory is a sieve on the best of days.

Repulsion’s appearance at MDF — or any fest these days — is always an event because it’s Repulsion and Repulsion is awesome. But way back in 2004, the return of one of grindcore’s original progenitors to the stage was a lot more unexpected and unheard of than recent history might indicate. We should be giving it up for MDF 2004 as the band’s appearance that year appears to have lit the spark that has kept them still going strong to this day. I recall Matt Harvey of second day headliners, Exhumed mentioning to me how he specifically requested their booking agent not book them any shows in the area and in the days leading up to MDF 2004 because of how significant and rare this occasion was. “Plus,” he went on to say with a laugh, “anybody within a four-hour radius of Baltimore who cares about Exhumed is probably going to be at MDF anyway!” I’ll always remember Harv half scaling the stage barrier absolutely losing his shit as he hollered along with every word of Repulsion’s set. It’s a set that hasn’t changed much, if at all, and been repeated many times since but we still look forward to it. That’s because it’s Repulsion and Repulsion is awesome.

(Repulsion doing “Eaten Alive at MDF 2016. Not the first time they’ve played this at MDF.)

It’s a long story, but in 2005 I ended up making the nine-hour drive down to Baltimore with a car full of dudes I literally first met as we were piled into a rental car outside my house. Very quickly into our journey, I realized the fellas I was to spend the next couple of days with had a serious affection for the most subterranean members of the extreme music community. They were listing off and discussing bargain basement brutal death, slam and pornogrind with the same reverence Lars Ulrich exudes when he’s talking about Saxon and Diamond Head. One band that came recommended was Gronibard, an irreverent cabal of sex and toilet humor-obsessed, spazzy death grinders from Lille, France. Upon witnessing them, I quickly deduced that musically, they weren’t half bad, but it was how the territories covered by their snot-nosed sense of whimsy subverted much of the tougher-than-thou death metal crowd. Watching a bunch of snarky French dudes prance around in dresses, spandex and tighty-whiteys, using their broken English to chime in about man-on-man love while constantly crotch-gripping to the tune of blasts of grinding noise was definitely not the majority’s cup of tea, but I still chuckle about it 15 years later.

GADGET (2008)
Remember that time a Swedish grind band played MDF and their vocalist had the entire crowd at Sonar doing the “America…Fuck Yeah!” call-and-response chant from the Team America: World Police movie when he wasn’t leading a hundreds-strong circle pit? I do, and so did the folks from their label (Relapse) who even expressed surprise at how commanding Emil Englund’s performance and presence as a frontman was. Too bad I couldn’t find any video of those particular shenanigans. The memories will forever last in my daydreams.

It’s generally a good indicator that a band has delivered a smashing performance when even casual observers and part-time fans find themselves drawn into and captivated by the fray and frenzy. Whilst I do enjoy Manilla Road’s Crystal Logic and Open the Gates albums, I’m hardly what anyone would call a serious fan of the band. 2013’s rotating outdoor stage times and the weather gods providing enough cloud cover and brief respite from the searing sunshine had me wandering over to check out the band out with the hopes I’d recognize at least a portion of their set. What I witnessed was an inviting bear hug ignited by traditional metal power and the definition of energy exchange flow between band and crowd. The late Mark Shelton had a spring in his step and the instrumental and vocal prowess of dudes half his age while vocalist Bryan Patrick exchanged his “Hell Roadie” nickname for “Hell Cheerleader” as he endlessly exhorted the crowd in sing-a-longs, fist pumping and chanting while bona fide and burgeoning classics were pulled from their sheath.

INFEST (2013)
I’m not entirely sure about the backroom details of Infest’s showing at MDF 2013, but as legend has it, the band had then-recently reunited after a shit-ton of behind-the-scenes drama and their appearance at the fest was set to be just their second show outside of their home state of California in their history. Sensing the mood in the air and that things were about to go haywire, vocalist Joe Denunzio slowly loped up to the mic, by-passed the usual ‘We’re Infest from Valencia, California’ introduction, only saying, “They know you’re coming,” referring to the security staff who may have thought they were prepared but weren’t prepared for the hurricane of bodies, garbage bins, garbage from those bins and more bodies that took over the stage and the airspace in front of the stage. It was pure chaos to the point I continue to remain surprised that the Soundstage keeps inviting MDF back. Trust me, the video below appears tame in comparison to the way things actually looked from the side of the stage.

This is one is memorable for as many wrong reasons as right ones. I’ve been a fan of Bulldozer’s first three albums since I was a pimply-faced ankle biter and was marinating with sweaty excitement at the MDF sauna at the prospect of finally getting to the see them live at one of the Edison Lot stages in 2015. And there they were, on stage in all their old school glory; Father A.C. Wild commanding his lectern and Andy Panigada wrangling out the many riffs and tearing through the songs that took hold of me in my stupid youth and continued to have their hooks in me as a stupider adult. And there I was, looking like a normal dude on the outside but my insides were doing clumsy back flips and inelegant somersaults as fanboy butterflies invaded my stomach. At some point during the band’s set the other members of the Canadian Division of the MDF-or-Bust Traveling Contingent tracked me down, wanting to access to our vehicle for some reason — probably to unload more bags of vinyl and tuck into the chilled beverages we had on-ice in a cooler in the trunk. I don’t exactly recall the chain of events, but for some reason patience wasn’t anyone’s virtue and I ended up having to accompany them to an adjacent parking lot to unlock the car. Of course, as Murphy’s Law predicted, as soon as we arrived at our chariot, I could hear the opening strains of my favorite Bulldozer song of all time, “Whiskey Time” bouncing off the concrete pillars of the various parking lots under the I-83 off-ramp. I got to hear an echo-y version of the song from one parking lot as it was being played in another parking lot. Great. Luckily, I’m not quick to anger and don’t hold grudges otherwise the city of Baltimore could have found itself with a couple of new residents.

SATAN (2016)
NWOBHM original wavers, Satan were hot on the heels of what this particular fan of the band believes is their finest hour, 2105’s Atom By Atom. And as they had demonstrated on a short North American run a year or two previous, could still deliver the goods in a live setting as well as they were able to on record. Their showing at this particular edition of MDF was a highlight chiefly because there were no frills involved, just solid songs performed solidly by a bunch of dudes who appeared to have not lost a step to the clock’s ticking or in relation to those bands that are heavier, faster, eviler and more dramatic. There’s something to be said for strapping one’s instrument on, going out there and playing top notch metal with an English gentlemen’s touch and love for the craft and Satan said it. Speaking of which, mad props go out to vocalist Brian Ross who pulled the most grandfatherly metallic move in the history of MDF (or any live metal event for that matter) by consulting his pocket watch mid-song to check how much time was left in the band’s set.

In all honesty, I had never heard of Japan’s Viscera Infest before MDF 2018 and I wasn’t planning on checking them out until a conversation with an increasingly tipsy Faithxtractor and Shed the Skin vocalist/guitarist Ash Thomas about the warp-speed drumming of Yuya Yakushiji convinced me to stick around the Soundstage and give ‘em a shot. Glad I did because not only was Ash spot on about how hard and fast this kid could blast, but the Oita-based trio charmed the crowd with an ongoing chants of “Hi-speed” that made their death grind a lot more entertaining that it should have been. When they somehow managed to get a few hundred people to lie on their backs, kick their feet in the air and “cockroach mosh” to one of their songs, it’s a moment that will forever live in my mind as one of the most ridiculously awesome things I’ve ever seen.

One thing you need to know about me is that I don’t like to unnecessarily spend time in any place I don’t need to be spending time in. To wit, once MDF is over on Sunday night, you can be assured I’m in my car and heading back to the Great White North faster than a sarcasm tumbles off Jeff Walker’s lips. Friends and colleagues who are also MDF annual attendees have come to understand and accept this, but that understandably hasn’t stopped the repeated “You’re driving home tonight? You’re crazy!” comments every year. Why is this relevant? Well, manys a time I’ve bolted before — sometimes long before — the final band of the fest played their final note because the idea of being nine hours away from my own bed after spending four days on my feet won out after spending four days on my feet. 2019 posed a dilemma, however, with Unleashed being the Sunday evening headliner at Ram’s Head. I’m a long-time lover of the burly Swedes, but how would their crowning slot force my hand? I’m glad to say that they delivered with a dazzling set that even pulled me back into the venue after I took a few steps outside and considered heading back to my car to begin the trek home. That would have been a ridiculous error in judgement, especially since sticking around meant I got to pay witness to a crushing rendition of “Behold the Creation of Time” that made me say to myself out loud while finally strolling back to my car, “That certainly would have sucked if I had missed that!”

The good news is that MDF has been rescheduled for May 27-30, 2021 with pretty much the exact same lineup of bands that were supposed to play this year. Eat a dick, COVID-19.