Local Underground Festival Brings Gore, Guts, Hair, And 32 Extreme Metal Bands To Baltimore
“I’m surprised [by the success] in a way, but I kind of assumed it would [become successful],” Evan Harting says. “Just . . . I dunno. The first year went pretty well, so we just assumed [the next one] would do well. The extreme-metal scene has definitely been growing. I dunno. There’s a lot of up and coming bands these days, and doing the festival helps with that a little bit, I think.”
Harting, looking inconspicuous in a blue button-up and with a baseball cap shading his eyes, is sitting in a Charles Village restaurant talking about his baby, the Maryland Deathfest. Now 4 years old, Deathfest has grown from a one-day gathering of a handful of death-metal bands into two days of 32 extreme-metal acts—three days and 37 acts if you count the pre-fest show at the Ottobar the night before. Displaced from its former home at the now defunct Thunder Dome, Deathfest takes over Sonar with not just bands and fans but also 18 vendors hawking metal wares (including the stunningly named Grimoire of Exalted Deeds). Doors open at the ungodly (no pun intended) hour of 11:50 a.m. and the show goes well into the wee hours of the next morning.
If it sounds like a recipe for brutality, or at least hearing loss, you’re not wrong. But while there will undoubtedly be some truly necro individuals who won’t see the light of day for 48 hours, you can always take a break. The Deathfest web site notes that it’s “within walking distance of the Baltimore Inner Harbor,” just in case attendees feel like sunning themselves by the water. And the fest attracts not just bands from around the world, but also fans from places as far flung as frozen Norway and sunny Southeast Asia. People get on airplanes, book hotels, scrimp and save. People take death metal very seriously.
Harting, 21, is self-effacing about all of this, to the point where you’ve gotta crank the volume on the tape recorder to make out his answers. Questions are responded to with a “yeah” or a “no” or an “I dunno,” silence, and then maybe fleshed out a bit if prodded. He met his Deathfest partner Ryan Taylor, 24, while the two were in high school in the Maryland suburbs. Harting currently lives near Towson, but Taylor moved to the Czech Republic shortly after the last Deathfest. Why? “He just likes it there,” Harting says.
Harting sings for local grindcore band Quills—made up of members of other locals such as Misery Index, Ruiner, and Swarm of the Lotus—whose motto is “keep it short, keep it fast.” And if it’s kind of hard imagining this quiet guy screeching and growling at 200 beats per minute, well, extreme metal has never really given a shit about expectations. People get onstage and bark about manifestations of varicose urethras. And then they go drink Miller Lite and play Defender for the rest of the night.
Ever since metal lost its heavy and most of its blues heritage it’s been a music of extremes. Speed beget thrash beget death, all in a matter of a few years in the early-to-mid-’80s. Death metal’s big innovation was the blast beat, a rapid-fire alternation of snare and bass drum that turned drummer’s arms and legs into sinewy pistons. Death metal’s guitars, baroque and speedy, are the product of obsessive hours of basement practice.
Vocals are generally, though not always, distinguished by low, guttural grunts and growls. For quick reference: If the vocals sound like a constipated grizzly, it’s death metal; if they sound like a Tolkien fan with his genitals in a vice, it’s black metal. These are not fixed coordinates, and despite the feelings of certain Norwegian arsonists, it can be hard for the layperson to tell death metal from black metal.
And let’s not even bring in grindcore, which is death metal played shorter, faster, and noisier. Or metalcore, which adds death metal’s theatrics to the chug of hardcore and replaces lyrics from Victorian medical dictionaries with whining about ex-girlfriends. And then there are bands that add melody, keyboards, Egyptian mythology—just about anything. And then, of course, there’s Satan.
Harting’s right: The audience for extreme metal is growing; Slayer is as much a part of the rock canon as Nirvana. But as anyone who’s heard 30 seconds of death metal knows, it’s never going to be for everyone. Harting got into “the more mainstream extreme stuff” as a teenager, and latched onto the stuff designed to appeal to teenage boys. “Just . . . the speed,” he says. “the heaviness of it, how extreme it is.” There’s a certain goofy puerility to the music, the lyrics, the logos, and the band names that’s very teenage boy, even when made by grown men.
And that puerility is part of the charm. Harting admits that some metal bands take what they do too seriously, but most are having fun with the music and iconography. He recognizes a ceiling for Deathfest’s growth, unless they start booking “really mainstream bands.” And he also knows that extreme metal is an underground phenomenon, and the underground is where it thrives. There’s an extended pause as Harting considers the question of why the average person should come to Deathfest.
“It started off being strict death-metal fans,” he says. “Now it’s more . . . punk kids, hardcore kids . . . some kids you wouldn’t even expect to be at a death-metal show. It’s pretty varied, I think. In a way, I guess it could be considered a cult thing. But also . . . it’s an experience, too. I think many people that aren’t into the music, or aren’t that familiar with it, they’ll still be able to appreciate it, because there are people there from all over the world. You meet so many people through this music.”
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