Now in its 11th year, Baltimore's annual gathering of metalheads has earned a reputation for being the premier heavy metal and hardcore music fest in North America. The fest's line-up always include appearances from bands who perform rarely or who have only recently reunited after long periods of inactivity, and has become famous for hosting many groups' inaugural North American performances. Each year the fest has grown rapidly, and this year, the building at the former Sonar Compound that once served as an indoor stage was now filled solely with merch and vendor tables, with two massive outdoor stages and a third semi-enclosed stage covered by a tent. A fourth, off-site stage, the Baltimore Soundstage, also operated on Friday, Saturday and Sunday of the festival, hosting primarily hardcore and punk bands.
Thursday night kicked of Maryland Deathfest's four-day heavy metal party atmosphere with a killer line-up that made getting to the fest for the moment that doors open a must for most attendees. With only the single "indoor" tent stage operating and most of the outdoor space yet to be set up, the grounds were quickly filled to capacity. Festival openers Noisem (Baltimore-based thrashy death metal) and Deiphago (blackened death metal from the Phillipines) played to an already vast and ravenous crowd, and by the time dirge-doom masters Pallbearer launched into their lugubrious set the tent was crammed past capacity.
Sound issues made the vocals sound thin and drowned, but the weighty misery of the instrumentation shone through. High-octane blackened thrash metal warriors Abigail from Japan ratcheted up the energy again with a blistering set, and were quickly followed by a musical melee courtesy of avant-garde extreme metal group Cobalt. Frontman (and military man) Phil McSorley was soon bleeding freely as the the band wailed and writhed through their manic set. By the time legendary British death metal band Bolt Thrower took the stage for the headlining set of the night, dedicated metalheads were standing in the pouring rain outside the past-capacity tent to catch whatever they could hear. The occasional flashes of distant lightning provided a perfect counterpoint to the head-splitting riffs of "Warmaster," "Powder Burns" and "Cenotaph."
By Friday, the venue's multiple stages and much larger grounds were fully operational, filled with vendors and allowing the still-larger crowd more comfort and freedom of movement. Four stages operating at once meant that festival goers now had to make some tough decisions about programming, with Finnish death metallers Convulse and grinding hardcore punk prodigies Full of Hell sharing set times, as well as grindcore psychos Pig Destroyer and funereal doom heralds Evoken playing very different and equally compelling sets simultaneously.
Grindcore pioneers Repulsion began to draw the scattered audience back together with an unrelenting set, before a massive crowd gathered to watch a triumphant performance from reunited extreme metal legends Carcass. Newcomers Ben Ash (Pig Iron) on second guitar and Daniel Wilding (Trigger the Bloodshed) on drums bring both precision and enthusiasm to their roles, while veterans lead guitarist Bill Steer and bassist/frontman Jeff Walker embodied the passion and power of Carcass's history. They played a wonderful set that stretched across their entire catalog, from "Carnal Forge" off their melodic death metal masterwork Heartwork to new material from their forthcoming new release (their first since 1996) Surgical Steel. Closing the night, the more progressively inclined attendees were treated to a swooping, immersive set from post-metal instrumentalists Pelican (including a new, as-yet-untitled song from an album they're about to record), while over at the Soundstage, Finnish grindcore band Rotten Sound and crust punks Tragedy kept the cacophonous noise blazing late into the night.