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Metalheads Are People, Too

The author in the pit.
Markus Shaffer
The author in the pit.

For one long weekend at the end of May, nearly every hotel, hostel, B&B and flophouse in Baltimore is booked up. Traffic gets brutal, the sidewalks fill and locals are more than a little miffed by all the clueless tourists. Many of them are in town for Maryland's high school lacrosse state championships, but for plenty of others, a stay in Charm City promises the polar opposite of all the good clean fun going down at the stadium. These visitors are ready to sweat too, but they've come for something quite different: feedback, blood and distortion.

You can get Amebix lyrics tattooed on your neck and still know all the words to Loretta Lynn's "Coal Miner's Daughter."

Each year for the past decade, Memorial Day weekend has belonged to Maryland Deathfest, a now four-day music festival focused in and around the club that takes over a good chunk of real estate in the city's cracked heart. The juxtapositions the two events cause can be startling, and sometimes comical; hotel corridors are the site of many an awkward encounter (lacrosse moms sharing elevators with hungover crusties, camera-toting granddads shuffling past doors left ajar and blasting out Nasum) and the strip clubs and fried chicken joints around the corner from the venue see a significant spike in long-haired business.

This year's edition of the festival, which starts today, is the biggest and most sonically and internationally diverse yet, featuring bands from as far away as Chile, Finland, Japan and Australia alongside the homegrown talent. The event — perennially shortened to "MDF" — will summon forth thousands of the denim- and leather-clad from all over the world for a weekend of fun in the sun, beers in the parking lot and metal of death. The organizers' billing of MDF as "America's biggest metal party of the year" hits the nail on the head. It is more than our Woodstock, our Bonnaroo, our Lollapalooza. This is our Mecca.

Who are these blasphemous pilgrims? Ever since Tipper Gore's PMRC went after Twisted Sister and two boys shot themselves after listening to Stained Class, mainstream society has regarded our ilk with suspicion, confusion and derision. The stereotype of the Cro-Magnon underachiever with long greasy hair and pentagram tattoos is pervasive (thanks, Airheads and Brenden Fraser) but skewed. Throwing a thriving, global subculture under the bus because some jerk in a Megadeth shirt once called you a sissy isn't only unfair, it's a damn shame. We are legion, and we love our black band shirts, but we are definitely not all the same.

One of the MDF organizers has spent years traveling the world and teaching English to Eastern European children in between booking bands like Mortuary Drape and Autopsy for the fest. Mike Scheidt, of Oregon doom troupe YOB, works at an organic herb dispensary, spends time with his children and teaches self-defense classes when he's not crafting world-crushing riffs. One of the members of NYC-based black metallers Castevet studies at the New England Conservatory. Scott Hull, from grindcore iconoclasts Pig Destroyer, works for the government.

Pete Lyons, of UK crust legends Antisect, and Chris Grigg, of Philly black metallers Woe, run successful recording studios. Stavros Giannopolous, of The Atlas Moth, and Ghoul/Impaled's Ross Sewage work as artists and graphic designers. Marissa Martinez, vocalist/guitarist for Cretin and Repulsion, works for Lucasfilm. Both saxophonist Dr. Mikannibal, from Japanese black metal weirdos Sigh, and Runhild Gammelsæter, vocalist for legendary doom cult Thorr's Hammer, are scientists. Flaming Tusk's frontman Chris Krovatin is an author of young adult fiction novels. Members of German occult death metallers Necros Christos work in engineering. Both Heath Rave, from Chicago black metallers Wolvhammer, and Darcy Nutt, of Boise's most bewitching doom band Uzala, are accomplished tattoo artists.

One of the bands I tour with, Black Tusk, includes a carpenter, a landscaper and a bartender within its ranks — all of whom are heavily tattooed and terribly well-read. My friend Elizabeth Cline just published a book on sustainable fashion practices — and plays in Mortals, a brutal all-female sludge band based in Brooklyn. I'm writing this piece for NPR, and just got a massive tattoo of a goat's head on my right arm in tribute to Swedish black metal gods Bathory.

There are many shades of black, and at MDF, all these musicians have a place in the sunshine. It's a good thing, too, because there's no shortage of it in Baltimore's late spring. Without fail, MDF attendees end up baking and broiling en masse beneath layers of leather and black cotton (not to mention beards and ass-length hair). Yes, we know that combat boots and an Obituary longsleeve isn't the most practical attire for an 85-degree day, and yes, we're going to wear it anyway.

I went to MDF for the first time in 2007. It was during my freshman year in college, and my then-boyfriend and I made the trek down from Philadelphia. What I remember most — besides all-female Japanese grinders Flagitious Idiosyncrasy in the Dilapidation's frenetic performance, how terrible Nunwhore Commando 666 were, the oppressive heat and the even more oppressive, near-constant barrage of blastbeats (not that I minded) — was the feeling of excitement.

Here, punk and metal have intersected and interbred and gotten drunk around the back of the venue often enough that there's not really a separation between the two.

The air crackled with energy, and, for the first time in my life, I was surrounded by people that dug the same ugly, noisy, loud music that I love. Growing up in the middle of the woods (shout out the Pinelands National Reserve!) with nary another metaller for a fifty-mile radius hadn't prepared me for just how many of us there are out here. I've been back nearly every year since, and each time, the festival gets bigger and better.

It takes some understanding of the American metalhead to explain why this particular festival draws in such a wide range of people from so many places, and with such fervor. Metal is very much a global entity. While the U.S. has produced some of its most hallowed bands, from Metallica to Morbid Angel and all points (good and bad) in between, our community is so much more spread out than those in more traditionally metal-friendly Europe that we're forced to operate a bit differently. Germany has Wacken, with its 80,000 attendees, Belgium's Graspop regularly breaks the 100,000 mark and the U.K. brings massive crowds to Bloodstock. The United States only has one long-running, multi-day, large-scale metal meet-up: MDF.

Smaller and more sporadic festivals abound (personal favorites include Portland's Fall Into Darkness and San Antonio's Rites of Darkness) and older heshers retain fond memories of Milwaukee Metalfest, but on the European continent, metallers are used to traveling for gigs via train, bus or cheapo airline like Ryanair or Easyjet. On our side of the pond, travel costs are so high that even crossing state lines for a show can be a deal-breaker. The dedication and diehard spirit still exists, it's just tougher for us (and even moreso our brethren in South America, Africa, Australia and Asia) to pull off.

The attitudes are a bit different, as well. That very American focus on independence, self-reliance and perhaps a tinge of frontier spirit keeps the DIY ethos alive and kicking, spawning a nation of basement shows, hand-drawn fliers, screenprinted shirts and hard-won respect. Here, punk and metal have intersected and interbred and gotten drunk around the back of the venue often enough that there's not really a separation between the two, a living embodiment of 1980s crossover thrashers Stormtroopers of Death's rallying cry on "United Forces": "It doesn't matter how you wear your hair / It's what's inside your head!"

In the American underground, where the music matters more than anything and genre barriers are routinely kicked down in the name of the riff, orthodoxy and progression overlap surprisingly often. Overseas the lines are more clearly drawn, especially in places like Germany and Russia, where Antifa-repping crusties and militant black metallers clash over political differences and the idea of abandoning your leather jacket and chains, even in sweltering heat, is unheard of. Punks and metallers tend to keep to their own tribes; metalpunk and crossover are common at stateside events like MDF, where Anti Cimex patches mingle with Morbosidad shirts and the bearers of both rush the stage for Electric Wizard.

There's no uniformity here, and, I like to think that's part of our charm. You can be that kid in a Black Witchery shirt but still have a Black Flag tattoo, an Iron Maiden poster on your wall and a bunch of neofolk records in your collection. You can get Amebix lyrics tattooed on your neck and still know all the words to Loretta Lynn's "Coal Miner's Daughter." I'm proof of it.

The festival runs until the wee hours of Sunday, the 27th. As I write this, planes and trains and automobiles are firing up, and a hell of a lot of people are getting pumped. See you down the front.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Kim Kelly
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