Date: May 21, 2014
Venue: Ottobar, Baltimore, MD
The twelfth annual Maryland Deathfest (aka "MDF"), apparently the largest metal festival of its kind in North American, officially kicked off in Baltimore yesterday, but any black denim and leather clad longhair who wanted to get a jump on the four day festivities had their chance at the sold out "pre-fest party" at Ottobar this past Wednesday evening - featuring New York veterans Immolation, Baltimore's Misery Index and Noisem, and Seattle's Black Breath.*
|Black Breath (left to right - Jamie Byrum, Eric Wallace, Elijah Nelson, Neil McAdams, and Mark Palm)|
I've had a lot of fun navigating the metal scene at large with its plethora of sub-genres, over the last decade or so, but death metal (and its close cousin grindcore) has been a final frontier of sorts for me. Like black metal, with its sordid history of violence and controversial politics, death metal isn't entirely inviting to outsiders. Almost everything about this sub-genre, and I speak generally here, is designed to repulse - from its punishing instrumentals and guttural vocals to its gory lyrics and imagery.
I've never been a genre purist, so in my exploration of metal I've naturally gravitated to mixtures of styles - sludge prog, blackened thrash, black n' roll, and so forth. My recent gateway to death metal has been Seattle five-piece Black Breath who combine the rhythmic speed and brusque vocal delivery of hardcore punk with the colossal buzz-saw riffage of traditional Swedish death metal. The primary influence here is Entombed - a band that famously employed the Boss HM-2 guitar pedal, with all levels maxed out, to create a distinctive tone that became the hallmark of the early 90's Swedish death metal scene.
|Setlist and Eric Wallace's effects pedals, including the infamous Boss HM-2|
I'm a huge sucker for that classic Boss HM-2 sound and a lot of newer bands have been milking it shamelessly - Trap Them, Nails, All Pigs Must Die, and Black Breath - incidentally all produced by my favorite punk/metal studio man Kurt Ballou at GodCity Studio in Salem, MA. Black Breath is my favorite of the bunch, and when I heard they were playing the MDF pre-fest party I couldn't miss out. No disrespect to the other great bands on the bill, but I made the trip up I-95 specifically to see these "death n' roll" evangelists first hand.
Just as local death/trash phenoms Noisem wrapped up their manic opening set, Black Breath assembled onstage and bathed in the blood-red glow of Ottobar's stage lights launched into the accelerated bedlam of "Mother Abyss." From the word go the band kept the packed house in a frenzy with molten cuts off their 2010 debut Heavy Breathing and 2012 followup Sentenced to Life fueling a near constant circle pit. Vocalist Neil McAdams, sporting an epic beard, even encouraged some stage diving despite the posted warnings. "Absolutely no stage diving" McAdams mocked, "but I don't give a fuck" - immediately provoking eager fans to climb the elevated stage and dive headlong back into the roiling crowd.
Notwithstanding the long locks and synchronized head-banging, members of Black Breath came up in the Seattle hardcore punk scene and make no bones about riding a hyper-speed d-beat on rippers like "Sentenced to Life" and "Virus." Black Breath are also obvious Entombed acolytes so its no surprise that the gargantuan mid-tempo crunch of tracks like "Home of the Grave," "I Am Beyond," and "The Flame" - the latter featuring a killer solo by lanky guitarist Eric Wallace - had traditional death metal fans' fists up and hair flying. The band got even better mileage from tracks that seesaw between both styles like "Feast of the Damned" and blasphemous fan-favorite "Black Sin," which closed out the set.
Black Breath drummer Jamie Byrum suffered multiple fractures in his left leg after being hit by a car this past January. I feared the group would be sidelined and bow out of their spot at this year's MDF but the stout percussionist made a quick recovery and joined his bandmates onstage with nary a limp. Already a solid drummer, Byrum never missed a blast-beat and undoubtedly kept his partner in rhythm, gigantically ginger-haired bass player Elijah Nelson, on his toes. Even at a relatively concise forty minutes, Black Breath absolutely crushed it. They're still booked for another set at MDF tomorrow (Saturday 5/24) on the Baltimore Soundstage, so if you're in town and enjoy this sort of audiovisual pandemonium - I highly recommend catching them.
*I had to hit the road, reluctantly, after Black Breath's set but I'm positive Immolation and Misery Index killed it too.