With the Maryland Death Fest becoming a worldwide event over the past couple of years, Richmond has been able to reap the benefits of being within a three-hour drive of Baltimore by getting a big spillover of bands who came to Baltimore for Death Fest weekend and stick around to play a few shows in the general area afterwards. In fact, there are usually so many out-of-town bands looking for a show right after Death Fest ends that Richmond ends up hosting a mini-Death Fest of its own. This year, that event happened at Strange Matter the Monday after Death Fest.
Ghoul, Occultist, Agents Of Abhorrence, Dragged Into Sunlight, Cough, Backslider, Koward, Nashgul, Marrow, Meth Lab
Monday, May 28 at Strange Matter
With the Maryland Death Fest becoming a worldwide event over the past couple of years, Richmond has been able to reap the benefits of being within a three-hour drive of Baltimore by getting a big spillover of bands who came to Baltimore for Death Fest weekend and stick around to play a few shows in the general area afterwards. In fact, there are usually so many out-of-town bands looking for a show right after Death Fest ends that Richmond ends up hosting a mini-Death Fest of its own. This year, that event happened at Strange Matter the Monday after Death Fest. And this year, it was a holiday, too, so the fact that this ten-band show was expected to last roughly eight and a half hours wasn’t nearly as much of a problem as it might otherwise have been. Well, at least on paper it wasn’t. In reality, over eight solid hours at a metal show is quite an endurance test, which I was reminded of all over again when I attempted to watch every band on this Memorial Day Mash bill.
Meth Lab started the whole thing off at 5 PM, and despite being the first of ten bands, I found them memorable… but kind of for the wrong reason. Meth Lab was one of only three local bands on the bill, and the only one of those three who could be considered a new band. They’re the grindcore version of a power trio (vocalist/guitarist/drummer, with no bass), and the guitarist goes through both a guitar and a bass amp, using multiple effects pedals. He should probably get some better ones, because his distortion sounded really bad, and not in a cool way either. But the thing that made Meth Lab both memorable and frustrating, at least for me, was that their singer did that obnoxious tough-guy thing where he attacked the crowd as soon as they started playing. I know, I know, it’s supposed to be a signal to “open this pit up” or whatever, but to me, a band should rely on their music to get people moving. The “shove people at the beginning of the set” move is just a more violent version of bands whining between songs about how the crowd isn’t dancing. Don’t whine, don’t shove, just be good–it’ll accomplish the same thing, without making the curmudgeonly journalist in the crowd write grumpy shit about you online two weeks later. Musically speaking, Meth Lab do have potential–their drummer is a particular bright spot, clearly the most talented and well-practiced member of the band, and the guitarist writes good riffs, though as I said earlier, he could use some better distortion pedals. They’ve clearly come to the whole grindcore/power-violence thing through the tough-guy scene. I could see the influence of tough-guy power-violence bands like Mind Eraser on their music–plus they had plenty of mosh parts. Really, I think that if these guys stay together for another year, they’ll be quite good. Just don’t shove me when I come to see your band, dudes. That’s obnoxious.
Next up were Baltimore’s Marrow, a bunch of crusty-punk looking dudes playing death metal. I didn’t find there to be too much about their sound that was particularly outstanding, but they definitely got my head nodding while I was watching them play. These guys also had a pretty great drummer, and their singer had a really good stage presence… but in truth, I don’t remember many details about their set at this point. It was while they were playing that I realized I hadn’t yet seen the photographer who was covering the show with me. Worried that he wouldn’t make it at all, I started snapping pictures of the bands with my camera phone. They came out pretty terrible, as you can see above, but they ended up being the only photographic evidence of the first few bands’ performance, so I’m afraid they’re gonna have to do.
Nashgul were next. This Spanish grind band ripped it up in tight style, reminding me more of the polished, metallic end of the grind spectrum (think Nasum) than any of the more punk/hardcore-influenced grindcore that has always been my main interest where that style is concerned. That said, I thoroughly enjoyed their set, and appreciated their high energy and thick sound. Sadly, this is another band I don’t remember too many details about, but they certainly weren’t bad.
Koward, a D-beat band from Boston, were up next. Now, I am a D-beat purist. The term was created to describe bands that sound exactly like Discharge, by which I mean midtempo UK-style hardcore that uses three chords or less per riff and incorporates no structural dynamics besides switching back and forth between verse and chorus. If a band writes a bridge, they’re not D-beat. So when I say Koward are D-beat, you can safely assume they sound EXACTLY like Discharge. In fact, they were so much like Discharge that their guitarist even looked like founding Discharge guitarist Tony “Bones” Roberts. I tried to take a picture to capture the resemblance, but since I was stuck with a camera phone, you probably can’t tell. But trust me. The other thing I should probably tell you is that I hate D-beat. As far as I’m concerned, the only band that should ever have sounded exactly like Discharge is Discharge. The fact that there’s an entire genre full of soundalikes, some of them still going over 30 years after Discharge released their first album, is emblematic of the unoriginality and lack of independent thought that sums up the worst aspects of punk rock and hardcore. Punk rock and hardcore can produce vital, creative, and enduring musical masterpieces–my record collection contains plenty of evidence. But bands copying other bands whose members are their parents’ ages will never create anything that will matter to anyone in five years’ time. Koward need to find their own sound.
Backslider came on next. This Philadelphia two-piece featured a singer/guitarist and a drummer, again with no bass. The guitar was thick and distorted enough to keep their sound from lacking a bottom end, but I did feel like a bass player would have been nice to fill in some of the space between the notes the guitarist was playing. Unlike the other bands who were using the bassless grindcore/power-violence model over the course of the evening, Backslider were primarily slow rather than fast, and avoided mosh tempos in favor of sludgy, pounding riffs that made me think of Neanderthal, or Crossed Out’s slow parts. I think the bassless sound works better when the guitarist in a band is filling the song with a fury of distorted strumming and chord changes–Backslider had their moments that sounded like this, but when the majority of their performance was slow riffs with lots of sustained chords, the hole in the sound created by lack of a bass was much more apparent. I did like Backslider quite a bit on a musical level–that early, sludgy power-violence sound that they evoked is a personal favorite, and Backslider fit into that tradition well by varying up their song structures and using lots of sudden, unpredictable tempo changes. Plus, they played the shortest set of the night, getting their point across and getting out in less than 15 minutes. At any show that runs this long, a concise performance is always appreciated. And it’s certainly never a bad idea to leave people wanting more.
Due to relatively sparse attendance during the early hours of this show, bands had plenty of room to set up on the floor at first. But by the time Backslider were done, the place had started filling up nicely (including, thankfully, our photographer, sparing everyone from further terrible camphone photos). In order to accomodate the growing crowd, the remaining bands played onstage. The first band to hit the stage were local doom-metalers Cough, who have definitely attained a more nationwide notoriety since releasing their album Ritual Abuse on Relapse last year. They’ve also gotten even slower and heavier, which they proved by playing a 25-minute set consisting of two songs. I couldn’t believe it at first, so I asked guitarist/vocalist David Cisco how many songs they’d played. Sure enough, only two. Apparently the second track was their sidelong opus from the split LP with Wounded Kings–a record I didn’t previously know about–so I guess that explains it. Still, it was definitely a polarizing set. I was way into it, because I love slow, crawling doom, but I think for a lot of people it just didn’t have enough of a groove to connect. I guess the more extreme a band gets, the tougher it’s going to be for them to reach everyone in the crowd. One thing I don’t think anyone can deny, though, is that Cough are really good at what they do.
Dragged Into Sunlight, a UK-based black metal band, were next. I was excited. This was the band I was there to see–I’d received a promo copy of their 2009 LP, Hatred For Mankind, when it was reissued in America last year by Prosthetic Records, and loved it. The album combines a classic raw and filthy black metal sound–distorted, overdriven production, untintelligible screams and growls for vocals, and fast, chaotic riffing–with heavy, powerful breakdowns clearly influenced by brutal death metal. I was really excited to see how this sound would translate live. They went whole hog on the atmosphere–from the elaborate candelabra, adorned with a horned skull, that they placed at the edge of the stage to the incense, machine-generated fog, and almost total lack of stage lights, the whole place was fitted out for an extremely dramatic performance before Dragged Into Sunlight ever hit the stage.
Once they did, they started things out with a slower tune, which sounded great but had me a little disappointed at the lack of blazing metal fury. I shouldn’t have worried, though–as the set went on, the songs became faster and heavier, steadily building up the atmospheric tension until, by halfway through their set, I was completely immersed within the sound and couldn’t stop headbanging and rocking out. In addition to the four-piece lineup onstage, Dragged Into Sunlight also had a technical assistant who was set up behind the PA stacks on the left side of the stage–throughout the set, he used a laptop computer to trigger samples, either between songs are at dramatic moments during the songs. The drummer had a strobelight on the floor near his kit, which either he or the assistant would set off at dramatic moments as well. Dragged Into Sunlight’s set was definitely the highlight of the evening for me, and their brutal, powerful sound would have been awesome even if they’d had a completely atmosphere-free stage setup. But the props and mood-setting techniques really added something to their performance that I’m glad they went to the trouble of achieving. If these guys hit town again anytime soon, they are not to be missed.
In fact, Dragged Into Sunlight were so goddamn good that I’m sure if I’d just come to the show for fun, I would have at least seriously considered going home after they were done. A seven-band show is long enough, and their set had been enough of a highlight, that it seemed like a natural stopping point to me. Instead, though, there were three bands left, and I had a job to do. So since I was starving and dangerously close to broke, I ducked into the 7-11 on the corner and grabbed some really cheap munchies, which I ate sitting in the driver’s seat of my car. Then I hustled back to the show to catch Australia’s Agents Of Abhorrence. This grindcore-style power trio shocked me as soon as I saw them onstage, because I immediately recognized their guitarist as the guitarist for Australian minimalist post-hardcore group My Disco, who I’d seen at Strange Matter a year ago. From the left-handed guitar with the aluminum neck to the curly hair and bushy beard to the bouncing, high-kicking stage presence, it was clearly the same guy, but the style of music Agents Of Abhorrence played couldn’t have been more different from that of My Disco. Their no-frills ripping thrash sound reminded me of Magrudergrind, with its hyperspeed flood of distorted chords and blastbeat drumming, and unlike Backslider, Agents Of Abhoorrence stuck with the blindingly fast tempos often enough that their lack of a bass player was barely noticeable. I can’t say that what they were doing was particularly standout in terms of their musical style–I’ve heard plenty of other fast, hectic grind bands in my day, and while Agents Of Abhorrence were fun to watch, they did nothing to place themselves on the level with the best of the genre. They weren’t bad either, but on the whole, not a band I’d go to a show with the specific purpose of seeing.
Occultist were the penultimate band on this ten-band bill, and by the time they hit the stage, it was after midnight and the show had been going on for over seven hours. The fact that, of the three local bands on the bill, it was Occultist who played closest to the end of the evening seemed odd at first, considering that Cough is substantially more established, while Occultist only has one EP out right now. It made a lot more sense once I saw them play, though. Occultist are a fast, energetic band who play a style that takes equally from 80s-era European thrash metal and metallic crust, and their songs are well-constructed, energetic, and furious enough to get any crowd excited. But the real story of what makese these guys a great live band is singer Kerry Zylstra, who is a fucking terrifying presence during performances. I wrote once before about seeing her spend a whole set looking like she wanted to murder someone, which I assumed had been due to technical difficulties. And yet, in spite of everything going off without a hitch during this performance, Kerry looked just as filled with demonic fury, if not moreso.
During the early parts of the set, she remained onstage, but had a very confrontational presence there, dropping to her knees and screaming into the faces of the front row–which mostly consisted of women who seemed very excited to see another woman onstage, rocking out just as hard as any of the dudes who’d played earlier that night. And no wonder: Kerry is living proof of that old feminist slogan, “Anything boys can do, girls can do better.” For my money she’s the best frontperson in the Richmond heavy music scene right now. Her midset trip into the crowd to sing a few songs resulted in intimidated audience members giving her plenty of room. Once she was safely back onstage, though, a huge mosh pit broke out–the most intense one of the night by a good bit. Between Kerry’s brutal vocals and larger than life stage presence, and the rest of Occultist’s incredible skill with fast, thrashy riffs, I predict that this band is about to blow the fuck up. If in a year or so they have an LP out on some bigtime metal label, I’ll be the least surprised person in RVA. So if you want to see them in an intimate setting like Strange Matter–and you really, really should do so–you better make sure to do it now. 150-capacity clubs won’t hold this band for long.
Occultist’s set was enjoyable enough for me to briefly forget how tired, sweaty, and miserable I was, but as soon as they were done, it hit me all over again with a vengeance. “Only one more band left,” I told myself, but I knew that it’d take a miracle for me to make it through Ghoul‘s entire set. Sure enough, I only saw two and a half songs. I’d heard some things about them throwing around fake blood and gore and such, so I stayed back from the stage to avoid getting messy, but there wasn’t any gore going on while I was there. Ghoul took the stage wearing beat up, blood-spattered versions of standard punk rock attire, and with brown hoods over their heads. The overall effect wasn’t too different from the way The Mentors or The Fuckers used to dress; in my mind, it immediately brought up associations with GG Allin-style politically incorrect shock punk. However, once they started playing, it seemed like Ghoul’s associations with that sort of thing were casual at best–musically, they more closely resembled Slayer. In fact, I’d been reading a book about Slayer’s Reign In Blood album all weekend, and I couldn’t help but think of a few different songs on that album when I heard Ghoul’s galloping thrashcore guitar style. They sounded really good, in fact, and I’m sure I would have enjoyed their whole set. But as so often happens when a person has already sat through nine other bands, I was too tired to get into it. Instead, I held out as long as I could, and when I couldn’t take it anymore, I went home and took a shower. I checked the time on my phone when I was walking away from Strange Matter, and it was 1:06 AM. So I officially spent over eight hours at this show.
Make no mistake, getting the overspill from the Maryland Death Fest every year is a great thing for Richmond. I’m not sure when else I’d get the chance to see great bands from other countries perform in my hometown, and being at a show that featured bands from California, Spain, the UK, and Australia all on the same bill is really cool, at least as a concept. But in practical terms, no matter how great the assembled talent that hits the stage on any given night is, seeing so many bands in a row is bound to wear a person out. I enjoyed the great majority of this show, but I think I would have enjoyed it even more if it had been two different normal-length shows on two different nights.
Words and crappy cellphone pics by Andrew Necci
Images by Grant Fanning