Shadow Woods V: Hell on a Hillside
My first—and quite possibly last—metal show of 2021 was pretty heckin’ fun. Whether or not it was my last show this year, Shadow Woods V was confirmed as the final-final Shadow Woods ever. The fifth edition of this festival featured two days of music as well as yoga and meditation workshops and a nature hike. Despite a deafening thunderstorm on day one that added more mugginess to the already-soupy air, my brother and I survived and were well-rested for day two, which featured the festival’s heavy hitters, Falls of Rauros and Panopticon.
Doubtlessly many readers of this ‘ere Toilet already know the two names above. We’ve praised both before, including in live settings, and you likely already have your own opinions. Either way, their sets were both awesome—despite some perplexing crowdkilling during a Panopticon bluegrass breakdown—and Falls of Rauros surprised everyone by playing the entirety of The Light That Dwells in Rotting Wood on that album’s 10th anniversary. Nifty!
But rather than tell you about these more obvious choices for a writeup, I figured I’d give a broad overview of the festival itself (RIP) and then discuss some of the lesser-known acts to grace its woodland stages who genuinely surprised me. You can then feel free to argue about whether or not Panopticon sounds “muddy” in the comments.
Shadow Woods V provided some unique delights. Taking place at Camp Hidden Valley in northeast Maryland, the festival’s two stages were a picnic shelter with an open hearth and lodge-type building respectively dubbed the Pavilion and the Hall. A vegan food truck and a barbecue caterer slinging beer and canned cocktails provided refreshments, and bands set up for merch at the back of the Hall. There were also craft vendors along the front of the site, several fire pits, and a very pretty creek. All in all, it was a fantastic surrounding aesthetically, with heshers of all walks of life sharing the campground and inspecting one another’s battle vests and tattoos. Significantly, Shadow Woods had the most diverse crowd I’ve ever seen at a metal event. To my eyes, about half of the folks present were womxn, queer folk, and BIPOC, with bands like IATT, Loris, and Mangog fronted by vocalists of color and many other bands having femme and LGBTQ+ representation.
The festival’s organizer Mary Spiro and her team also did a phenomenal job creating a safe atmosphere—all attendees either needed to be tested for COVID on site (I was negative, hooray!) or bring a negative test result from the prior 48 hours with them. Everyone was (in theory) vaccinated, and most attendees stayed masked during sets.
On the con side, it was clear that many festivalgoers had been to at least one prior Shadow Woods and we were catching the end of an era. There were lots of inside jokes. People stuck to their groups. Given this and the fact that campsites were strewn throughout the property at large distances, it was harder than I expected to hobnob and meet new people. I did meet some folks from my Rust Belt citadel, however, and the main reason I was there was quality time with family, so this wasn’t a major detractor.
But on to the music—I’ll start with my favorite from day one, which was otherwise a mixed bag.
I’m not normally much of a speed or thrash guy, but these dudes were a hell of a lot of fun. Featuring flying V’s and more than a dash of NWOBHM influence, Traitor shredded. Shadow Woods featured plenty of Philly acts, Traitor among them, and these dudes characterized the no-fucks-given attitude I expect from that city. There were lots of noodly solos, shouted vocals, and moments for headbanging. While other day one bands like IATT, Torvus, and Tel showed plenty of musicianship, Traitor brought the good old rock-‘n’-roll at neckbreaking speed. They made the Pavilion come alive as the rain finally slowed down.
Due to COVID, there were last-minute lineup changes both days. I saw a fun Philly hardcore act on day two I’d love to shout out, but I didn’t catch their name. Baltimore’s Loris was awesome, playing what I’d call hardcore soul. And anchoring the early half of the second day was Unendlich, who were the most enjoyable black metal act to play up to that point. They brought a nice mix of aggression and atmosphere, some solid riffing, and lots of energy to the Pavilion, setting a great tone for the longer day of music. I followed their set with a great vegan burger, Infinite Pizza, some frisbee, and a pit beef sandwich.
Bound by the Grave
Baltimore’s Bound by the Grave was one of the bands who slotted in last-minute, in this case due to Destroyer of Light‘s cancellation. Drummer Sonny Godsey absolutely annihilated the kit while Rez Law and Joey Pohutsky provided a dual vocal assault from their positions at guitar and bass. Their set had plenty of people windmilling their hair and stomping around a circle pit, with Law’s brvtal solos wheeling their way around Godsey’s blasts. Bound by the Grave also had some fun time signature changes and solid riffage; the only shame was their set went a bit long, and by the end most had left to see Falls of Rauros work their magic outside.
Last but certainly not least was Richmond’s Voarm. Their set was delayed fifteen minutes by a Ford Explorer from Ohio blocking a truck, but from jump they brought an ominous presence, with black hoods, soot smeared on their arms, chains around their chests, and decorations of animal bones on musicians and microphones alike. When the offending Ford had been dispatched, Voarm brought a Portal-like energy to their ritualistic black metal. You could feel the precision drummer’s marathon double-blasts in your guts, and the vocalist’s evocative clawing of his hood and robes, followed by his entrance into the crowd, kept the energy tense and enthralling. Though the crowd was much smaller than it had been for Panopticon—who filled the Pavilion and the surrounding picnic tables behind as fire crackled in the hearth—there was enough enthusiasm for a one-song encore, which Voarm played without their hoods, the vocalist making intense eye contact with spectators.
Along with Dragged into Sunlight, Voarm played one of the most mesmerizing metal shows I’ve ever seen. It didn’t hurt my impression that their merch table featured a vendor selling “FUCK NSBM” buttons. Their 2019 self-titled LP will give you a decent idea of their ritualistic sound, which features vocals ranging from shrieks to bellows to chants to throat singing.
All in all, it was a great weekend. My brother and I had fun, the Philly folks I met were quite something, and throughout was the peaceful ambience of crickets, cicadas, and birds echoing through the literally shadowy woods. It’s a shame this was the last go-around for this festival—hopefully something like it, a sort of East Coast Fire in the Mountains, emerges to take its place.