Rite of Spring

For one weekend every year, the death metal world casts its eyes on Lorain.

Betrayal / The Late Henry Moss Betrayal
Cleveland Play House, 8500 Euclid Avenue. Through May 5. 216-795-7000

The Late Henry Moss
Dobama Theatre, 1846 Coventry Road, Cleveland Heights. Through May 11. 216-932-3396

Retch. Regurgitation. Severe Torture. Glancing at the flier for the Ohio Deathfest, it's hard to tell if it refers to a gore-basted metal show or dinner at White Castle. Either way, it's a good idea to keep the Pepto-Bismol handy. Particularly when it comes to the former, as death metal delights in all that's rank and reviling; the more off-putting, the better. Call it rot and roll.

Then call the stomach doctor, because the fifth installment of the Deathfest is upon us. Held at the Flying Machine in Lorain over two days every spring, the fest has become one of the most renowned extreme music events in the U.S. and was recently named one of the country's top six metal fests by Revolver magazine. This year's Deathfest, taking place on April 26 and 27, is the biggest yet.

"We've got 30 bands coming from all over the world," says festival organizer Brian Baxter. "We got people that come from Sweden, Germany, Japan, Switzerland, all sorts of countries. It's really a big thing."

Relatively speaking, of course. Unlike most styles of music, where at least one or two bands achieve breakout status, there is no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow when it comes to death metal. Hell, there isn't even a rainbow to begin with, because rainbows are for wusses.

Granted, larger death metal acts like Cannibal Corpse and Deicide can make a modest living by selling 35,000 to 50,000 records each time out and touring heavily, but bands who perform at the Deathfest pride themselves on being even more base and inaccessible than those groups. And that's really saying something, considering that one of Cannibal Corpse's more popular requests is "Fucked With a Knife."

"This is the quintessential opportunity to see the most brutal of all death metal bands," says Jawsh, bassist for Colorado avant-grind eccentrics Cephalic Carnage, which will play the Deathfest on Saturday. "The first time we played this was three years ago, and that was one of the fuckin' sickest shows I've ever seen to this day."

The Deathfest is attempting to hit its grossout apex in 2002 with international names such as Disavowed from Holland, Sanatorium from Slovakia, and Beheaded from Malta, in rare Stateside appearances alongside underground favorites like Mortician and Skinless. There will also be 16 vendors, including metal labels Relapse and Century Media, making this a top draw for gorehounds.

"I think it's one of the best death metal festivals around," says Regina Roy, a Hawaii-based death metal fan who traveled all the way from the Pacific to see last year's Deathfest. "With people who can only afford to travel once a year because of work considerations or money, this is the one that they save up for."

Adds Carl Schultz, head of publicity for Relapse: "It's one of my favorite fests to go to. Every year it's packed, and for what it is, I think it's done as well as it could possibly be done. It's really the only thing like it for this style of music."

Which is good news for intestinal tracts. Among the nauseating numbers likely to be barfed out at the Flying Machine this weekend: Gorgasm's "Clitoris Circumcision," Sepsism's "Sodomizing the Exhumed," and Malignancy's "Fried Afterbirth." In a word: Ewww.

"That's one thing that I look at in death metal and kind of go, 'Ahh, I wish they wouldn't do that so often,'" Jawsh says. "That kind of stuff does turn people away, and 9 times out of 10, the people in bands like Festering Fetus Puff don't really believe in that stuff. They're just kids like you and me."

So why the preoccupation with rotting orifices and dead babies?

"I think it just boils down to the fact that it's a rebellious-type thing," says Baxter, who owns the metal music store Extreme Musick in Lakewood, runs his own label, Ablated Records, and plays bass in Regurgitation. "You know your parents aren't going to like it, and it's sort of a way of rebelling against everything."

And in relatively harmless fashion. Death metal is little more than the musical equivalent of blood-splattered horror films: safe escapism that's exciting for the lurid thrills it provides. Despite the lyrical invective, it's hard to argue that the music makes kids more violent. In many ways, it has the opposite effect.

"It definitely makes you a lot more mellow," Baxter says. "The music's so aggressive, you don't have to be all violent and uptight. It takes that right out of you."

Along with your lunch.

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