Grades have been turned in, the school year is over, and now I turn to more important responsibilities — road trip! In eight days I’ll be attending Maryland Deathfest to experience the state of the art in extreme heavy metal. As the event’s website states, “With an emphasis on diversity, the festival brings together the very best death metal, grindcore, thrash, hardcore, black metal, and experimental bands from all around the world.”

Why am I, a 42-year-old family man and sociologist, going to Maryland Deathfest? Well, first: BECAUSE I CAN, thanks to my sainted wife who’s tolerating my absence for four days while she stays behind with the kids.  So this counts as my Father’s Day present, my birthday present, my Christmas present this year… and maybe even next year…  But I’m also going to satisfy my curiosity about three issues:

1. The return of 80s-style thrash metal.  My years of metal obsession were most intense between 1987 and 1993—in a nutshell, from Slayer’s South of Heaven to Sepultura’s Chaos A.D.  As I remember it, those were the period when the heyday of thrash metal (or speed metal, as we called it; I never used the term thrash metal or, worse, power metal) originating out of California gave way to Florida-based death metal, British-driven grindcore, all manners of occult weirdness from Continental Europe (often involving facepaint), and the mookification of alternative rock.  As Francesco, my former student and guide to all things contemporary in metal, has shown me, the sounds of thrash metal have influenced a number of young bands who have pulled back from the speed of death metal or the commitment of black metal (for two excellent examples, listen to Skeletonwitch and Toxic Holocaust).

Yet as with most revivals, this isn’t your father’s thrash metal, but a selective revision of the 80s genre.  Most notably, much of the really extreme metal today disposes of the guitar solos that could be heard in the middle of almost every 80s thrash metal song. What does this signify?  A postmodern decentering of the foundation in blues-based hard rock that their 80s predecessors felt obliged (by their guitar teachers, perhaps) to acknowledge?  How else has thrash metal been selectively revived today?  How will the presence of 80s legends like Voivod, Nuclear Assault, Corrosion of Conformity and Coroner on this bill be received?

2. What’s the metal action like these days?  I’ve been led to believe that Maryland Deathfest isn’t another Ozzfest-type event where “extreme metal” is simply a corn-fed American music to send young men into the armed forces.  The music here will be niche, particularly centered in the black metal domain, and surprisingly global in origin.  Who’s the audience for this stuff?  The most discriminating and alienated of the male lumpenproletariat, for whom Slipknot and Avenged Sevenfold might as well be the Black Eyed Peas and Katy Perry?  An educated musical intelligenstia looking for a little more kick than the All Tomorrow’s Parties festival can provide?  Will the general admission floor erupt into a bruising wall of death, or will the audience merely stand in silence the better to shoot video from their iPhones?  Will attendees wear monastic robes and cowls, adorn themselves in leather and chrome, or paint their faces in black-metal kabuki style?  (GOD I HOPE SO.)

3. Brand THIS, Baltimore!  As this blog illustrates, I try to critically engage the latest paradigms in the fields of city branding and economic development, which are very enthusiastic these days about attracting musically sophisticated creative-types seeking an authentic, interactive relationship to places.  The models here are South by Southwest or more likely your more garden-variety city street festivals, which (the thinking goes) heighten to a not-too-abrupt crescendo a city’s year-round portfolio of local performance, creativity, and supporting “amenity infrastructure,” the better to provide a musical calling card for residents and tourists who always have choices about where they could live or visit.

Baltimore could be doing worse in terms of attracting the demographic profile that’s usually connoted by these paradigms: the college-educated 20-somethings who form and follow indie rock bands.  It’s a demographic quite distinct from the city’s general population (almost two-thirds black, lower educational attainment compared to Maryland) and long-term trends (constant population decline since 1950).  Not as bad as Detroit is maybe one way to think about it: Baltimore has the cheap housing and distressed brick aesthetic that draws a stream of bohemians comfortable with a distanced, ironic relationship to the hotspots of the urban crisis.

How does metal, with its historic stance of alienation, fit into this dynamic of place consumption?  Never mind the city’s professional marketers, who we can expect want nothing to do with a festival like Maryland Deathfest—do Baltimore’s kreators [sic] and consumers of music hold a place in their iPods and their hearts for extreme metal?  Maybe the city is the wrong scale, to talk about since even in its 80s heyday, thrash metal was a quintessentially suburban/metropolitan music (e.g., Northern California’s East Bay, NYC’s boroughs/Long Island).  Indeed, if we expand the radar, then iconoclastic metal groups like Maryland’s Iron Man begin to pop up.  Given the global origins of MDF’s bill, just how far away are the attendees for this festival coming from, and do they relate to the city as more than just an event destination? Obviously, these are questions that point away from the festival venue and into the parking lots, hotels, and other settings for tourist concert-goers.  Will we see black metal fans in the Baltimore Aquarium?