Look around at the major American music festivals this spring and summer, and you will notice a thread between the lineups — overlap. From Bonnaroo and Coachella to Governors Ball and Firefly, these popular convergences of musical talent may be impressive, but they can all seem a bit monotone, too.
While comparatively more niche, the annual Maryland Deathfest — which takes place Thursday through Sunday — still believes in surprising attendees, who travel here from all over the world to see bands recreate some of the most extreme underground music made today. What began as a heavy-metal showcase has blossomed into a four-day celebration of metal and its experimental subgenres, including grindcore, noise-rock, thrash, sludge, crust, D-beat, doom, hardcore, Viking metal and more.
As the festival, which organizers Evan Harting and Ryan Taylor founded in 2002, enters its 13th year, local record-label owner and longtime Deathfest attendee Domenic Romeo still looks at each year's lineup in awe.
"It's like a fantasy league. It's the stuff you would never imagine," Romeo said recently. "There's always something on that lineup every year where you're like, 'Ugh, I have to go.' I don't know how they do it."
More than 80 bands are scheduled to perform at Baltimore Soundstage, Rams Head Live and two stages in the Edison parking lot on High Street. Not enough headbanging? The Sidebar is hosting companion shows each night for $5, too.
Before this year's festival takes over downtown, we asked a few notable Deathfest regulars to recommend their must-see acts.
Domenic Romeo, owner of A389 Recordings
A Carney-based tastemaker whose influence extends internationally, Romeo runs A389 Recordings, an independent label specializing in heavy music. But during each Deathfest, Romeo is just another fan. He supports the bands from his roster playing the weekend (this year, it's Full of Hell, Homewrecker, Primitive Man and Triac), but refuses to view the event as a networking opportunity.
"I don't want to be there to hob-knob," Romeo said. "The highlight for me is when I'm like, 'Whoa, this is happening in my backyard.'"
"Napalm Death is one of my all-time favorite bands," he said. But after losing interest in the group years back, Romeo recently heard a newer Napalm Death record for the first time after his wife played it while making dinner. Romeo was pleasantly surprised to hear an old-favorite still going hard. "I have to make up for all of this lost time." (Friday, 11:40 p.m.-12:50 a.m. at Baltimore Soundstage)
Like a proud father, Romeo remembers watching the young quartet Full of Hell "as babies." Years later, the Pennsylvania/Ocean City-based hardcore act earned its slot, he said, by becoming "a terrifying live band." "It's so tight and precise," Romeo said of their performances. "It's like ... having your head shoved in water and held there until you're about to croak, and then they let you out, get one gasp and then they throw you back in. It's just incredible." (Saturday, 3:55 p.m.-4:25 p.m. at Baltimore Soundstage)
Bulldozer, an '80s metal act from Milan, Italy, are "super obscure," Romeo said, but he partially chose the group because of their background. "My entire family is from Italy, so it's just kind of cool that a band from Italy is playing," he said. "I never thought I'd get to see Bulldozer." (Saturday, 5:25 p.m.-6:20 p.m. at Edison Lot A)
Romeo circled the New York-based band Winter because they set the blueprint for acts like Coffins and ILSA, rising bands combining doom, death metal and crust. "All of these bands that are around now doing an amazing job with the style — Winter was one of the first bands to perfect it." (Sunday, 4:45 p.m.-5:40 p.m. at Edison Lot A)
Tyler Carnes, singer, Noisem
Tyler Carnes, the 19-year-old lead singer of the rising Baltimore thrash quintet Noisem, enjoys a wide range of music. His favorite band is The Cure, and one of the acts he is most excited to see at Deathfest is Mobb Deep, the outlying rap duo playing Baltimore Soundstage on Thursday night. His taste might be all over the place generally, but there is a commonality shared in the heavier music he enjoys.
"When it comes to metal, I do like it fast," he said with a laugh.
After playing Deathfest previously, members of Noisem — also the current cover stars of Decibel Magazine — will attend this weekend as fans. Instead of providing detailed reasons for his choices, Carnes offered a simple guiding principle so many other music lovers follow: "I just like what I like."
The Ohio-based quartet Homewrecker, Carnes said, is one of the better active bands combining death metal and hardcore today. "Their new album 'Circle of Death' is dope, so I'm going to give a shout-out to them." (Friday, 4:45 p.m.-5:10 p.m. at Baltimore Soundstage)
"I've never seen Wolfbrigade before, so I'm really excited for that," Carnes said of the Swedish D-beat band that formed in the mid-'90s. "That's going to be dope." (Saturday, 11:20 p.m.-12:10 a.m. at Baltimore Soundstage)
Although he would miss a portion of Wolfbrigade in trying to see both, the singer also chose Yautja on Saturday night at the Sidebar (218 E. Lexington St.). Carnes was blown away after seeing the Nashville metal trio for the first time recently. "They're one of the few bands that I've seen recently that I've watched where my jaw dropped," he said. (Saturday, 11:20 p.m.-11:50 p.m. at The Sidebar)
Carnes was at a loss for words to describe the bass-and-drums grindcore duo Water Torture from Buffalo, N.Y. "They're incredible." Did he care to elaborate? "It's going to be sick." (Sunday, 7:15 p.m.-7:45 p.m. at Baltimore Soundstage)
Tony Pence, owner of Celebrated Summer Records
Tony Pence's love of underground music dates back decades, and it is reflected in the inventory he keeps at his Hampden record store, Celebrated Summer Records. Whether it's reggae, soul, punk or metal, chances are Pence has a product you have been searching for or did not know existed.
While his love of music is obvious, Pence — who also plays in the Baltimore punk band Deep Sleep — is far less enthralled with live festivals, mainly because of social anxiety, he said. But at Deathfest, where he is a regular, Pence feels at home.
"Deathfest, for some reason, has the opposite effect on me. The way it's laid out and the friendliness of the people that are there — it doesn't bother me," Pence said.
The festival band with the most difficult name to pronounce, Flagitious Idiosyncrasy in the Dilapidation, makes Pence's list, even though he simply refers to the female grindcore trio from Tokyo as "F.I.D." No stranger to Japan, Pence said seeing the group is long overdue. "I've been six or seven times and I've somehow never seen them, even in Tokyo, so I'm excited." (Friday, 5:30 p.m.-6:05 p.m. at Baltimore Soundstage)
In the late '80s, Pence's father once drove him to a short-lived rock venue in Essex, but to Pence's dismay, the show was not meant to be. When they arrived, a sign on the door said Sodom, the German thrash-metal band, had not been allowed inside the country. While Sodom has played the U.S. since, the opportunity to see the group has eluded Pence — until this weekend. "I've never seen them, and it's kind of frustrating to me. I'm actually really looking forward to seeing them," he said. (Saturday, 9:40 p.m.-10:45 p.m. at Edison Lot A)
Pence has liked Portland, Ore.'s Spazztic Blurr since the '80s because of the band's combination of fast-and-technical playing, but even more so for its sense of humor. "Even though I do like more serious metal as well, that style of just being like, 'We're going to play a thousand miles-per-hour, and be really tongue-in-cheek' will always appeal to me," he said. (Sunday, 8:10 p.m.-8:45 p.m. at Baltimore Soundstage)
Pence's last choice is another Japanese group, but one he's seen multiple times. Melt Banana, the veteran experimental noise-rock duo, consistently surprises Pence, which is enough for him. He's seen them before with a drum machine and a live drummer, and both sets were "totally crazy." "No matter how many times I've seen them, I feel like I'm going to get surprised," Pence said. "There's always some kind of curveball happening." (Sunday, 10:40 p.m.-11:40 p.m. at Baltimore Soundstage)