My Psychedelic Journey at Choosing Death Fest
Okay, bear with me, because there’s a lot to process right now. Ready? Here goes. Choosing Death Fest is/was the event put on by Decibel to celebrate the new, expanded edition of that titular book, which is a documentary of death metal, and so on and so forth. I went to the festival armed with a dictaphone and capsules of psilocybin.
The day began as I hungoverly boarded an eastbound trolley to Philadelphia’s Eraserhood where us nerdy attendees gathered for a “Grimposium” of workshops and panel discussions. The first was a creative writing lecture by JR Hayes of Pig Destroyer. He unpacked his method of filling 180 notebook pages in a marathon session, leaving that notebook alone for a few months, then going back to fill the last twenty pages with the best lines, and constructing them into song lyrics. He, at one point, used the Hunter S. Thompson quote of “Buy the ticket. Take the ride.” This will become relevant later in the article.
There was then a death metal vocal workshop, which was very 101-level, by her (the vocalist of Vastum‘s) own admission, a panel discussion with Dan Seagrave and others about album art, and another panel discussion about the economics of the scene with Neil of Krieg, Megan of Couch Slut, two of the Misery Index guys, and a battle-jacketed business professor. There were interesting points made throughout, and Neil had an effortlessly entertaining personality.
At about 2pm, I went out for a cigarette before they began an advance screening of a documentary about Chuck Schuldiner. Outside, I began fanboying at JR. He and David, his buddy from his hometown, ask if there’s any decent food nearby. It gave me the opportunity to play the local guide role in finding us lunch at a Spanish place. Along the way I pointed out the apartment building in which David Lynch lived, serving as the inspiration for Eraserhead, as well as the mural of that character. Needless to say, JR was pretty thrilled about this.
With about an hour to kill before doors, we headed to a local bar where Vermin Supreme was sitting and coloring ponies with some gnarly-looking crust punks. “The trick,” he tells us, like the old prankster wizard he is, “is to color outside the lines.” When I asked him if his mandatory tooth-brushing policy would extend to the toothless, he said yes, but there will be flossing exemptions. As we left, he thanked us for coming to his “rally.” By this point I was debating whether or not to put that mushroom-dust into my system, knowing that I would have to write about all this, and maybe do some fucking networking. However, once the photo was taken of me, JR, and Vermin, I knew exactly what the universe expected of me.
Between this bar-stop and doors, we ran into Richard Johnson (Drugs of Faith, Agoraphobic Nosebleed) and the conversation turned to Napalm Death, which is good, because it prevented me from expressing all the omg-yr-my-favs vibes that had been in my stomach since beginning to chat with JR. I met up with some buddies, then put something else entirely into my stomach. I had already bought the ticket, and it was time to take the ride.
By that point, there was much fuss over headliners Dying Fetus having cancelled due to the flu. This fueled rabid speculation among some of us as to who would be called to fill in. “What’s Mortician up to these days?” we wondered, whispering a dream of perhaps Suffocation swooping in to save the day.
As Taphos Nomos begins to saturate the air with grim, earthy death-doom, my roommate arrived. He’s a non-metal dude, but he’s super active in strength training and martial arts, so I felt honor-bound to welcome him into his first pit. The pit, however, would not arrive for some bands still, though nor would the effects of those ‘shrooms. From my voice recorder: “Taphos Nomos – fucking solid doomy, riffy glory.” Sounds about right.
Derketa, the world’s first female death metal band, took the stage next and took the slow misery of Taphos Nomos several steps further. As I put it to Diane: “The cavern has opened deeper, and doomed we are still.” It was a clever move, putting more head-bobby, thoughtful bands first to bring us into the psychic purview of this world before unleashing the violence. Ever been to one of those bills with, like, 8 brutal bands? Even the most slammin’ among us need some variety, man.
The billing also showed some forethought in gradually raising the levels of intensity. After Derketa was Horrendous, Philly’s rising stars, whose last album was named the top album of the year by Decibel itself. I saw them open for Skinless late last year and, even between now and then, they’ve hit a new level of competence. I ran into some of them at the bar later on and they credited this newfound proficiency to their new bassist, who was using maybe a dozen different tones, few of which were typical to death metal. He kept his playing very complex and very hypnotic, drawing the listener deeper in to the nightmare realm of Horrendous, in which, yes, there is triumph, but it too comes tinged with a dark sadness. I made a voice-note that Old School Death Metal (OSDM) should really be called OG Death Metal (OGDM), but later decided we can use these two terms to differentiate between old-school-revival bands and actually-old-school bands.
From the notes: “Yes, it riseth within me, these psilocybin things and the violent animalistic urge to slam like a muthafucka.” The drugs began to kick in on their own, skyrocketed upwards by a large joint, which I smoked while interviewing the business professor from earlier in this article. He does not feel the Bern, nor wanted “a hit of this.” I went inside for Noisem instead.
It was my fourth time seeing them, and we hung out a bit after an unpublishable interview I did with them a few months back. Each time I see these cats, not only do they get better, but I get better at hearing what’s happening beneath that wall of noise. “I had at one point, like, the sensation that Noisem were throwing concentrated, like, vibrations of this-world, like, in noisey bursts.” Now that I’m in a better state to articulate that, it very much felt like being attacked by the vibrational density of this world, pummeled by reality. I experienced the light show, the rhythm section, and the noise (i.e. all of it) as a sort of relentless pressure pushing my mind inwards towards its center.
The mosh-pit of the evening was inaugurated by these wunderkinds of grind. Though it started out small, I found myself feeling like a puppet acting according to the whims of this four-foot-by-twelve-foot ribbon of energy and physics along which two dozen or so of us are strung. In spite of this puppet-sense, I was more in control of my body and its movements than I was able to realize; there was a two-second delay between my doing and my being aware of having done. The aforementioned roommate, also on mushrooms, took to this like a fish to water, and, after having experienced such high-caliber acts, became a quick convert to The Way of The Blast-beat.
After a between-bands beer, Deceased took the helm. They are enormous, long-haired motherfuckers who look scary and fucking sound it too. Unlike that one time I saw Suffocation on acid, there was no sense of incongruity here. During some of the more captivating riffs and leads (and there were plenty), I closed my eyes and entered a fractal realm of colors and shapes until my neck would be bent by a boot, reminding me that I am alive in this moment and must mosh. I took this command far, even to the extent of inciting pits where there were none. “I can’t believe Deceased. You know me, I’m not a riff/thrash guy, but goooooddamn do they play like they mean it.” After so many young bands who worship the old (Derketa notwithstanding), it was about time for the OGs to show us all how it’s done.
Outside, more weed was smoked, and I got to catch up with the Noisem dudes a bit. JR checked in on the progress of my trip. It was pretty much at its peak. When Misery Index began gettin’ us all riled up, I got the sense that, in spite of their grindliness, they draw more inspiration from otherworldy themes than, say, Devourment. Their tight as hell set gave me cascading waves of drum-gasms, and the power of The Pit compelled me. This is where both the drugs and I went the hardest. This movement and I were one and the same. Seizure-inducing lights attacked my brain as I was betrayed by the eyes who were supposed to protect it. It began to baffle me how we listen to these albums with headphones in order to cathartically induce negative emotions, yet seeing them performed live invokes such unbridled joy.
Burnt though my synapses were, by this point they were made undead by the ferocity of our now-headliners, NAILS. I remembered that, upon first hearing Abandon All Life, I mentally screamed “YES” within the first two seconds. Fun fact: did you know that live they’re more pissed off still? Tight and fast as hardcore, heavy and brutal as death-doom. Their frontman is an inspirational character who, between songs, said something along the lines of “When you say you wanna go for something, all your parents and teachers are gonna tell you ‘Yeah, well you’ve gotta do this, and you’ve gotta do that’, almost as if they’re discouraging you. What they don’t say is ‘You’re smart. You’re talented. Go for it.’”
During this set, I didn’t need to throw myself into the pit, because, wherever I was, it found me, in spite of my crowdsurfing around. A karate-boy crowdkiller was literally walking around punching people in the head. What the living fuck? I learned that they’re a Philly-band [Editor’s Note: California], and look forward to seeing them again and again and again, the way I do for Full of Hell. At one point, John Baizley of Baroness joined them on guitar. Well, um…alright!
So, what, in the end, came to replace Dying Fetus? A Sepultura cover band featuring the Jarvis brothers of Misery Index. Richard Johnson (again, AxNxBx) played guitar and vocals on “Territory” and some others. John Baizley (Baroness, I just told you that) shredded for a bit, and Tyler, the vocalist of Noisem, gave a few songs his all, as did Vincent Matthews of Criminal Element. For the three or four hundred people who hung around for that part, it served as a pretty sweet nightcap, in spite of the bitterness of being promised and denied Dying Fetus.
From the notes that were groggily dictated as I woke up on a buddy’s floor the next morning: “…Brain still scrambled eggs… Sepultura cover set was pretty satisfying, not only because it included the ANB guy, and… so on, but because Sepultura was largely, uh, a gateway for me into extreme metal, listening as a young’n to 102.7 WJSE at midnight, their, um, -oh, I forget what they called it Headbanger’s… something… ugh.”
Still sore, I have in front of me the task of writing a G-rated version of this show review for a normal-ass music magazine which features no drug use, and, instead, a brief interview with Albert Mudrian, whose book and magazine made this party happen. I humbly offer the Toilet these otherwise unpublishable antics.