by Jay H. Gorania
“America’s biggest metal party of the year.”
Such a self-congratulatory, self-anointed slogan would surely merit feelings of nausea, if it weren’t fact that it’s valid. Beneath the surface of mainstream metal, MDF has become an annual tradition for many of underground heavy music’s greatest heroes to converge (oh yea, Converge the band played this year, too) and play before a mass of fanatical metalheads. In many ways, it amounts to a blasphemous and depraved family reunion/conference. But invariably, at least one great European act issues an 11th hour apology for not being able to make it due to “visa problems” (a broad catch phrase subject to manipulation by crafty metal PR types). This year’s visa casualty: Sodom.
Pre-fest show (Thursday, May 27)
Things didn’t start off, for me, in spectacular fashion, by any means. I was greeted inside the dark indoor stage of the Sonar by some random barking and pointless riffs. But the prefest improved exponentially with Houston, Texas’ grindbeast PLF (Pretty Little Flower), who have now stripped down even further to a potent two-piece. Their modus operandi seems to be thrashing with a mid-paced hardcore punch, and then injecting steroids for a relentless blast attack.
Another two piece, Iron Lung were slower comparatively, more rock-based, and quicker to recognize as power violence.
Then things got a little less hateful, and a whole lot more ridiculous. With asian headbands and hunting caps, Sweden’s Birdflesh followed with a fun-loving approach that was notably explosive. Costumes were also worn by their incestuous cousins in General Surgery (OK, that just means they share a band member), but their mindset was decidedly more negative and br00tal. The ghosts of Swedish powerhouses Grave, Dismember and Entombed lurked within General Surgery’s music, and in the case of Entombed, the ghost was lurking closely, as they were on deck to play Sunday.
Friday (May 28)
During Mayhem‘s set at last year’s fest on the Friday date, I unfortunately found myself getting briefly trampled and pinned under the barricade that was supposed to separate the crowd from the photo pit I had been crouched in (security wasn’t on the ball, but fellow Hellbound scribe Justin Norton was one of two people who helped me get out). Serious injury be damned! I wasn’t going to let that bitter taste deter me from chewing on a shitload of metal.
Inside the Sonar, there are two small bars nestled behind a winding corridor that also leads to what was a flea market of sorts, a haven of metal merch. The proper indoor venue portion, however, allowed for great viewing from anywhere and everywhere, unless you’re standing behind one of the many pillars.
This is where the aggressive and simultaneously evocative sludge/doom merchants Tombs played. Pigeonholing this band is a bitch. There’s a New Yawk hardcore underbelly, but they’re essentially a cross-pollination of doom, sludge and black metal. Their music is more moody than brutal, but with that said, it’s extremely heavy sonically.
Birds of Prey (featuring part drummer/part man/part octopus Dave Witte) later destroyed the stage with a nod and a wink toward old school death metal and thrash, and with a mouthful of southern filth (notable via their Eyehategod/Buzzoven-like riffs as well as with ZZ-Top bearded vocalist Ben Hogg‘s thick southern accent).
On the outside stage, it was odd to see the evil and corpse-painted folks in Nazxul perform their keyboard augmented black metal in the bright of day, though the quality of their simple and straightforward music overcame such a limitation.
On the second outdoor stage, Malignancy‘s guttural death metal was certainly straightforward musically, in that it was to the point in terms of songwriting; yet their music was interestingly complex. Though half their set was enjoyable, half of it was trite with token death metal elements.
But the outside stage was owned by Canada’s Gorguts, impressing with their tech inclined death metal that isn’t so much progressive as it is transcendental.
The great thing about fests like MDF is that the metal is simply overflowing. The bad thing about fests like MDF is that the metal is simply overflowing. If it’s sitting down to catch your breath, or grabbing a drink or a bite to eat, there are plenty of reasons causing one to miss one or too many killer bands. Trap Them destroyed the inside stage last year, but I missed out this time around.
But this set of Hellbound eyes and ears did catch Watain. With lit candles, militant red flag-like…things, and some corpse paint that I’m sure even Tom Savini would compliment, their visual aesthetic was certainly in tow (though the long-haired shredder with the Devin Townsend-like mullet/skullet looked like a Klingon gearing up to whoop Captain Kirk’s ass). Probably laughable to many who aren’t interested in black metal, the crowd enhanced the horror movie like mood as it tossed a Bible around, tearing it to shreds, sending the ripped pages into the air like confetti at a kid’s birthday party.
I didn’t make out who it might have been, but mid set, some members of Watain violently pushed some dude out of the way who ran up on stage from the backstage area.
The music: appropriately blasphemous. In terms of execution, while they weren’t exceptionally tight, they put on quite a performance, collectively playing a set that focused on and successfully created a “kvlt” and “true” black metal atmosphere.
After their set, a Watain fanatic obtained a water bottle full of what was supposedly animal blood that had been tossed around the crowd and stage area. And, according to some reports, this young lady had a few chugs from it. A couple of evenings later, the skantily clad chic told me the dudes in Watain were “dicks” and “douche bags.” We can only imagine what may have transpired in the interim between the blood chugging and the point at which her idols had fallen.
At any rate, the legendary thrash/hardcore crossover act D.R.I. rounded out the evening on the inside stage with a first rate performance that balanced quality playing with a loose punk edge and attitude. Vocalist Kurt Brecht was the coach, and the audience was the slave-like team that set in motion a raging pit unlike that which I’ve seen in years, if ever. His lyrical message clearly resonates because of their simple beauty, but predominantly because they’re so well-enunciated and easy to decipher.
The entire band impressed, and as bassist Harald O. noted, they truly were “a punk rock band caught in a death metal world” at MDF. But unlike 99.9 percent of death, black or grind bands, D.R.I. fueled massive sing-a-longs.
On a crappier note, midway through the set Spike Cassidy‘s guitar became awash with technical difficulties, but Harald O.’s effort was valiant as he told stories and strummed some classic metal tracks, many in tribute to recently deceased metal god Ronnie James Dio (It was slightly moving, but mainly annoying, when this prompted some audience members to pitifully engage in what amounted to a Dio karaoke session). It seemed like the delay was ten or fifteen minutes, so it was a miracle that Harald O. was able to keep the audience at bay.
They reconvened after what seemed like a century, and kicked ass to round out the first day proper of this year’s MDF.
Jay’s recap of both Saturday and Sunday’s performances will be published later this week.