The A389 Bash has long been a veritable bastion of the Central Atlantic scene. The guy behind it, Dom, is a veritable genius whose heart is on fire with love for the scene. This weekend, my birthday weekend, was a blast and allowed me to get a better understanding of American metal culture. He gave us all a sense of freedom, a look forward into a world we are all coming down to, a world that we must embrace for the scene to continue, for such is the nature of underground music as an eternal liberating force.
Man, when I was a kid, I never saw myself cutting class and traveling a couple of hours by train to go to a festival and party with soon-to-be rock stars for my birthday. But here I am, trying to recover from a weekend that will go down in infamy. Filled with heavy bands, strange interviews, and crazed parties, I spent three days at the bosom of Noisem, one of my favorite death metal bands today, while I tried to get a deeper understanding of what the A389 bash was really all about.
Getting there was in itself an adventure, with train tickets bought at the last minute due to a miscommunication with my ride, I was just happy that the trip got off the ground okay. But in the end the nature of the universe had its way and I was on the train, watching America flash before my eyes and wondering what the next few days would hold for me. I was nervous I was sure of that much, but nothing a few drinks wouldn’t be able to fix, or so I thought. By the time I rolled in to Baltimore it was the middle of a sunny if cold afternoon and I walked through the vibrant downtown to get to the legendary Sidebar where the first part of the festivities would be taking place.
The Sidebar itself if a pretty cool spot. I got in right as it opened and an extremely friendly bartender named Julianna hooked me up with a free beer tasting. Always a good way to start the weekend! The Sidebar is interesting because before 7 PM it functions as a lawyer bar, and you get to meet all sorts of interesting types. Then as the sun sets, a darker, dreadlocked, more obscene crowd comes in. The death metal faithful of Baltimore crowd the venue to enjoy some of the heaviest bands their scene has to offer. As I waited, soaking up the scenery I couldn’t help but smile at the strange dichotomy. Though it was my first time at the venue I already knew it would be a good one.
Around 7 Sebastian and Harley of Noisem fame showed up and we started to load in. As the bands arrived you could feel the tension building up in the air. It was clear to me that a lot of people had been waiting a good long while for this festival and the good people of the Central Atlanic region would be ready to go nuts for these bands when the time came. The first band was poised to start at 8 and I had never heard of them before. Yet the sheer intimacy of the event and the beautiful sound of the Sidebar led me to believe that the festivals mastermind, Dom, had prepared something truly special that people will be talking about for years. Already though I felt touches of anxiety reaching in on me, on the eve of my birthday, I had no clue how things would pan out.
Condemn the Infected kicked off the first day of the Bash with some wonderfully technical death metal. This four piece have some very chunky highly technical riffs and pounding rhythms that remind me of the Philly band Fisthammer. They are not only ruthlessly good at what they do, they helped to provoke a certain primeval sense of darkness. The vocals were wonderfully brutal and helped to create an all out sonic attack. The way that they just go for it, guns blazing and throats ripping is impressive. They are a group who have an artistic vision that is very much in line with the old school tech death greats (although elements of newer sounds find their way in there) and they deliver tracks like Gravity Well with unending devastation. They were not only good at what they did, they captured the entire crowds imagination and set our hearts on fire for a weekend of metal mayhem to come.
Up next was the almighty Castle Freak. Now, I’d seen these maniacs before, back in August opening for some touring band whose name I can’t remember anymore. Then they delivered a tight Repulsion-esque set, and little changed, except perhaps they were even better. Dylan, the bands bassist provided backup vocals and kept things a bit more grim than usual. It seems really unfortunate now that the weekend wouldn’t even be over before the band broke up, but more on that later. As for now, all I will say is, infernal hailz to the men of Castle Freak, not only were they a tight band, but they are one who have a now almost legendary status in the scene. Their new stuff, debuted only that night was tight, and proved that the band had a bright future ahead of them. I strongly recommend you dig in and find their cassettes before they are all lost to the sands of time.
Third was Pharaoh, now I had gotten the opportunity to interview them earlier in the evening and I was excited to here that this sludge band are primarily jam oriented, or at least, most of their ideas come from jamming. Their live set had a wonderfully organic feel, it flowed forward with a healthy sense of direction, never leaving the listener bored. My good friend Igor, who had also been in attendance turned to me and his girlfriend and said something like “Damn, I was blown away” Though I was at this point in the middle of a freak out, I couldn’t help but acknowledge the depth of the Pharaoh sound. As the world spiralled around me, one thing remained constant, the almighty power of the groove, blowing away everything else that could leave me in horror. Pharaoh are a veritable heavy metal force who seem destined to reign eternal.
I didn’t know what to think when Ilsa took to the stage, all I could think was that I liked their singers massive beard. He guided the crowd through an epic journey as we explored our minds in a set that left many a fan on bended knee. A sort of modern, punkier version of Black Sabbath, the crusty vibes of Ilsa were only accentuated by the doomy tones. The contrast of fast and slow seems to be the pivot point that makes Ilsa function as a band. By this time it was getting late and I felt my self calming down. It seemed like the stage was no longer moving, and I could fully appreciate the majesty of this band. From what I understand they don’t play live a whole bunch and it was an honor to get to see this band at all. They captured the essence of a time and place and in a way, it was beautifully liberating.
The final band to play on this fine and grim evening were the almighty Starkweather, who might very well be the first band I have ever seen to have two bassists. There sound is impressive and towering, contrasting moments of brutal destiny with more spaced out tones. They are a lot of fun to watch and they are the sort of band who I feel could only really exist in America. This group is wonderfully unique and as you fall into their sound, it’s hard not to fall in love with the magical world that they have created for themselves. The fact that they’re from my native Philly is sick too, it gives me the hope that I’ll be seeing a lot more from them in the near future! The thing is, these guys have been around for more than twenty five years, and with bands like this, there is an aura of power that can not be denied. Sure most people left before their set started (It was about one in the morning on a Thursday after all) but it seemed like destiny. This was an intimate and heart healing set that left me feeling strong and free.
Yet, the night had barely begun. With folks from Noisem and half of Castle Freak in tow we went to a Denny’s (My first time, after all I only just moved to America!) and I found out you’re not supposed to order tea at 3 am. The conversation was raunchy and worn, here we were, young friends in the midst of one of the best weekends of our collective young lives. It’s hybrid moments like these that give us the sense of freedom and power that defines our scene. The collective memory of mocking me for my choice of beverage creates a sort of deeper bond, speaking to the links that will hopefully keep us together, doing this crazy bullshit for years to come.
We piled back in the van, and I was subject to one of the coolest parts about hanging out with Noisem (or really any bunch of long haired dudes with tattoos) . People always assume you’re in a touring band, which is a strange, if nice feeling, one I certainly don’t feel often enough. At this point I felt I was starting to get a deeper understanding of the entire American underground ethos one I had been desperately trying to understand since I got here. Noisem drive around the streets of Baltimore and there suburb of Dundalk blaring 100.7 a rock station that serves the region. At 3:41 AM Def Leppards “Photograph” starts blaring out of the speakers. It’s time for a group sing along! We near Sebastian and Harleys abode and I can’t help but smile. What better way to usher in your birthday than with hard rock and death metal bands?
Suffice to say, we partied long into the night. All I really recall is that we watched the same Kid Rock video featuring Hank Williams Jr. performing an extremely strange dance at least ten times, and it was glorious. It was the kind of evening that had it all, ushering in what was to be one of my best birthdays to date. The night spiralled on, and as I faded into sleep in a cloud of secondhand smoke I wondered what this day might mean in the greater context of our lives, which by now seem somewhat intertwined. This may be our only way forward through the fire and the flames that seem to scald our everyday existence.